Today is Cousins Day – A Perfect Time to Tackle Your Genealogy

I grew up with ten cousins and four grandparents close by. In fact, two of my cousins shared our duplex in Detroit, so they were more like extra siblings than cousins. Until we were all dispersed to suburbia, my cousins and grandparents were part of my everyday life. I naively thought everyone lived this way.

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My husband, on the other hand, grew up with no grandparents and three cousins he saw occasionally. Imagine his surprise when his adventure in genealogy turned up cousins by the dozens.

I shared part of the story of his grandmother, Pauline, and his search to uncover the secrets of his father’s branch of the family in earlier posts. Recently, his sisters met two of their newfound cousins (sadly, we were on vacation) and my husband met a third one when we visited my family in Michigan. Another one is coming to Chicago in a couple of weeks. And my husband has talked to and emailed several others he hopes to meet someday.

So in honor of Cousins Day, let me share a bit more of his Grandma Pauline’s story, as her grandchildren are only now discovering one another. When Pauline was permanently hospitalized for a “nervous breakdown” and her husband, Ira, took off, there were four kids who were suddenly parentless. This was back in 1920 when custody of children seemed to be an informal affair.

At that time, Pauline had eight living siblings. Her mother was a widow still caring for two teenaged daughters. Money was scarce and several family members had already moved away from Indianapolis/Chicago area.  There was no thought to keeping the siblings together, so they not only lost their parents but also one another.

We don’t know much about what happened to the oldest sibling, Alice (Billie), who would have been 12 at the time of her mother’s hospitalization. Supposedly, she went to live with an aunt and uncle in Indianapolis. A few years later, she moved out, changed her name to Billie Devereaux, and was an exotic dancer with Sally Rand. She eventually married and changed her name to Angelita Rosita. She had no children, so no cousins there.

The second sister, Marie, was 10 when an aunt and uncle took her into their Indianapolis home. She moved out when she was 18, lived in D.C. and Los Angeles, and eventually returned to Chicago where she married and had three children. These three first cousins were growing up not far from where my husband and his sisters lived, but the broken family ties kept them apart.

The third sister, Bertha (Bertie) was only 7 when she was left without a family. She went to live with another aunt and uncle and ended up moving from the Midwest to Texas. Bertie married and had four children and a stepson, so that’s five more unknown cousins.

My husband’s father, Albert, was sent off to live with his bachelor uncle Max in Iowa City. After two years, he was sent back to Chicago to live with his Grandmother and his youngest aunt. When his grandmother became ill, he was sent to Marks Nathan Orphanage in Chicago, where he lived from ages 10 to 18.

The genealogy quest led us to a recent reunion with the only person left from Pauline Rose’s family who had direct contact with her siblings. At age 81, David is Pauline’s great-nephew, grandson of her older sister Rosalind. Ironically, he lives not far from my family in Michigan. It will take several visits to untangle the boxes of documents and photos he has, but at least there is some hope of putting this fractured family back together.

The more we delve into genealogy, the more we see that family history can be a complicated web of secrets. Because Pauline was mentally ill, it was as though she had vanished. No one spoke of her. Her two youngest children also vanished from the family tree. Descendants of Pauline’s older daughter, Marie, were only vaguely aware they existed. Descendants of the two youngest children knew almost nothing about any of their cousins

Cousins Day falls in July, which is also Family Reunion Month. Hopefully, as these long lost cousins find one another, they will be able to reunite a family destroyed over ninety years ago. And as they assemble the pieces of Paulina’s puzzle, they will honor a woman shut away and forgotten by her family.

Maybe they can even have a cousins’ reunion in July of 2015.

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