On finding missing uncles and caring about their lives

I wrote a few weeks ago I posted a photo of my great grandmother, Annie Elder (nee Nicholson). Actually it’s the only photo of her I have and I love it because she looks like such a strong capable woman.

My great grandmother, Annie

I know that she was a teacher in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, but haven’t been able to find out at which school she taught. She married in 1898 and would almost certainly have had to resign on her marriage, so I have clues about the timing of her employment, but not the location. A second cousin recently told me that she remembers a teacher in her youth who’d worked with my great grandmother, but so far the name in the school minute or record book has eluded me.

What my cousin also told me is that Annie Nicholson had a son before her marriage to my great grandfather. His name was Andrew, and he was born in 1894. As was the practice at the time, his birth certificate labels him “illegitimate” – and has only a blank where “father’s name” would appear.

My family history is full of marriages that took place just weeks before births were recorded, but illegitimacies are so far rare, and so much more interesting because of it. Why did those particular men not “do the right thing” and marry my pregnant fore-mothers? Were they already married? Did they die? Get cold feet? I would love to know.

My cousin says that she remembers Uncle Andrew and his wife in the 1950s, visiting from the US, where he had emigrated to. She had always assumed that Andrew lived with his mother and my great grandfather, as her mother had spoken of her older brother frequently and fondly. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to have been the case. In the 1901 census, Andrew was recorded as living with his grandmother and uncle, a few streets away from where his mother lived with her husband and their child – my one year old grandmother. By the 1911 census, Andrew would have been 16 so it’s  not entirely surprising that I can’t find a record of him. I have a suspicion that he may have joined the merchant navy, and this is my next project.

I don’t know if he was in the merchant navy during World War I, or if he served in the military. I know he married in 1918 and emigrated to the US in 1923. He appears in the 1930 and 1940 censuses in Dearborn, Michigan, so was probably an auto-worker. I know he had no children and died in 1973, when I was 12 years old.

Two weeks ago I had never heard of Andrew Scott Nicholson, son of Annie Kinnell Nicholson and big brother to my grandmother (and namesake) Susan Forbes Nicholson Elder. I still don’t know him – only fragments of his life from official records and (thankfully) my cousin’s recollections. But I care about him. I want him to have had a good life, fulfilling work, a strong marriage, fun and friendship. I desperately want him to have overcome the fact that his father wouldn’t or couldn’t acknowledge his birth (at least legally) and that his mother’s husband didn’t seem to want him.

I want him to have been happy.

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On the pleasures of sharing stories with living relatives

In the beginning …

I became interested in family history because I wanted to share the stories with my son so that he will have a past and a heritage to share with his children. I was looking forward.

What I’m learning as I search and dig and join the dots, is that I can also look sideways – not to future generations – but to those already here. It began when I started to talk to my mum, sharing my finds and asking her questions. It turns out, that although she’s been a prolific family story-teller over the years, she knew much more than she’d told. Not because she was necessarily keeping secrets, just because it hadn’t occurred to her I’d be interested in some of the more obscure relatives.

It was my mum who got in touch with one of my dad’s cousins to let her know what I’m doing. A couple of lovely, long, chatty emails later and I not only have a new story (and an extra great uncle) that I may never have found, but I’m enjoying my email connection with a relative I last saw in the 1960’s when she was getting married and I was a bratty five year old misbehaving at her wedding.

I’ve read the advice in genealogy books and websites to begin a family history search by asking living relatives for information, but I grew up in New Zealand, half a world away from all but my immediate family. Although I did spend the 1990s back in the UK, I wasn’t interested in “old stuff” in those days, and now I’m back in NZ. The internet makes the world seem smaller, but the path to my relatives in-boxes is proving to be a slow one for me.

Hopefully my mum and cousin Anne have helped me clear that path a bit.