Wednesday, February 19, 2014

How I Started Yanking Skeletons Out of Closets

The author with his grandparents, Raymond and Rita (Dobyns) DePrato, 1980

You might say I was not like most teenagers. People ask me when I started my genealogical research. I usually tell them 1980, primarily because that is when I found out there was a name for what I was already doing. I have always been a genealogist. My mother was adopted because the mother that raised her could have no children, and they adopted no more. So I was not raised with aunts and uncles and cousins to play with. I was raised with a bunch of great-aunts and great-great-aunts from Kentucky with wonderful names like Aunt (pronounced "Ain't") Zelma, Aunt Willie, Aunt Eunice and Aunt Clara Belle. The oldest of the bunch, Aunt Zelma, was born in 1895, and her sister, Willie, in 1897. I was fascinated by stories of growing up in Kentucky, and even more so by the fact that since they were born Hanks girls I was a relative of Abraham Lincoln.

I have never been happy with just accepting information at face value. I knew they were my aunts, but I wanted to know HOW. When I learned that Zelma and Willie were the sisters of my great-grandmother, Gracie May (Hanks) Dobyns, who died in 1923 from injuries sustained after an outhouse blew over on her in a storm, I was even more fascinated with the people and stories of long ago. So I started making charts and family trees to understand the connections between all these Kentucky kin long before I knew what genealogy was. That revelation came after a visit to the Mishawaka (Indiana) Public Library. It was there that I stumbled upon Gilbert H. Doane's Searching For Your Ancestors. I now had a name for my hobby, and I eagerly gobbled up the information within the book. This was 1980. My hobby officially became an obsession, and I was the only thirteen-year-old begging his mother to drive him to the courthouse after school ("Please Mom, I just need ONE death certificate!!!") or sitting in the library reading the United States census on microfilm. I remember feeling waves of humiliation and embarrassment if I was approached by a classmate who happened to be in the library (usually by force, not by desire). They would look at the century-old script of the census and then look at me quizzically: "What are you doing???" You see, I was not like most teenagers.

Some of my early finds were on my dad's family. I remembered being so tickled to find out that the women I knew as my paternal grandfather's sisters - Aunts Kate, Cookie, Dolly and Fran - were actually Katherine, Josephine, Anna Marie and Frances. On my mother's side, I delved into the Hanks family to find that elusive connection to Abraham Lincoln, but as much as I loved my grandparents and those wacky Kentucky aunts, there was that nagging thought that the blood in my veins and the traits I might have inherited were not from them. They were from my mother's birthparents. And so I set out to use my newly acquired genealogical skills to find them.

I cannot speak for adoptees - not for my mother nor for anyone else who has been adopted. I do not know if all of them have a deeper desire to know where they come from, of if they crave the knowledge of why they were given away. I know many adoptees do. I also know adoptees that do not care. They were raised in a loving, nurturing home, and the story that came before their birth is not of interest to them. Perhaps I am just too inquisitive. Even one generation removed, I wanted to know the story. And I knew my mother did. I will not try to read her mind or speak for her, but I know that even though her parents never hid the fact she was adopted, she still wondered why. She had attempted a search unsuccessfully many years before. She knew she was adopted as a result of an advertisement in the classified ads of the local newspaper, and in a way, that gave her the sense of feeling more objectified like a used car, a piece of furniture or an unwanted puppy that needed a home. And at this time, my parents were going through a divorce, so perhaps my mother's need for a deeper sense of self was more acute at this time. I do not recall a discussion about beginning the search for her birthparents or a designated "Go" moment, but I was ready to undertake the huge genealogical challenge of finding them. And so the search began.

It was 1982 - long before the Internet age, and a search of this nature took ingenuity, perseverance, travel and costs. And I was looking for a Miller in Goshen, Indiana. Good God.

8 comments:

  1. Howdy Michael and welcome to genea-blogging! Do you think you can find a way to put the email subscription button onto the blog? I like to subscribe to things by email, and since the demise of Google Reader, I think many others do too.

    Good luck to you! You're an excellent writer.

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  2. OneRhodeIslandFamily, done! I am more than open to suggestions of any kind since this is a new venture for me. And thanks for the compliment!

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  3. I am so hooked. Wish I had time to stay up and read more...

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  4. Yep. Hooked too. Please start on my family stories next!

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  5. Doane's book -- still worthwhile beginner's reading, nearly 35 years later!

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  6. I'm late to your blog, but luckily for me (and others!) another blog I follow made a plug for yours! I'm enjoying the story thus far and especially appreciate your genealogy beginnings, as I became aware of "what I was" at 12 years of age...tho I'd been compiling things for sometime.

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  7. Michael, you have touched on a sensitive subject for many of us - adoption and the reasons behind it. What a gentle and loving way to approach it. You now have my attention and, like others, I can't wait to read more

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  8. I'm hooked too after a cousin told me about your blog. I cannot imagine how hard it must be to trace adopted family so looking forward to your stories.

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