As 2016 draws to a close, I look back on what is one of the more momentous years in my by now pretty long life, one that was capped in the summer when I flew to Toronto and met a ton of “new” relatives on my Dad’s side, including (rather incredibly) a first cousin. It was a stunning and emotionally revelatory moment that will probably forever remain as one of those almost metaphysically “peak experiences” we’re sometimes graced to have manifest (maybe if we wait long enough).
As I mentioned in the previous post, we grew up not knowing a bunch about my Dad’s history. When we were able to hobnob with our Uncles, we got a little more info, like the fact that his Dad’s real name was Jacob (who, like his children, adopted a nickname, Jack), and that he had more or less disappeared after dropping the kids off in foster care after his wife, Kate, died giving birth to a child. I have a dim memory of my Uncle Charlie telling me my Dad’s birth name was Meyer and that there had been an older brother who disappeared along with Jacob, but my sister Kathie, who did much of the initial records investigation when she lived in London (as I’ll discuss below), thinks she discovered this information for the first time when she unearthed birth certificates not just for my Dad, but for two older brothers (one of whom died in infancy).
The other little “tidbit” that my Dad shared with us about his history is that he had taken his middle name of Bernard after the surname of his foster family (something that turned out to be another fabrication, at least in part, as I’ll discuss at some point). Michael Bernard Kauffman was, therefore, a two-thirds self-created name. However, when Kathie went into St. Catherine’s (that name again) Hall in London back in 1990s, she got the first real paper documentation we had ever seen on our father’s family. (Speaking of Agatha Christie mysteries, as I did in the last post, lovers of Poirot and Miss Marple will remember that those intrepid investigators often ended up at St. Catherine’s Hall to unearth revelatory snippets about various suspects, since it’s where public records are, or at least were, stored in London.)
We suddenly had a number of interesting new facts, including the fact that our grandmother’s maiden name had been Tetenbaum. Up until this discovery, the few times either my Dad or my uncles discussed it, we were told her maiden name had been Keith, and that had been why my Uncle Charlie had ultimately adopted that as the new surname he took sometime in the 1930s. We also had the discovery (and/or confirmation) that my Dad’s birth name had been Meyer (spelled Myer on the birth certificate) and that there was an older brother named Hyman who, like my father, had been born in Newcastle. Kathie was also able to find other documentation, including our grandparents’ marriage certificate, one which gave us even more information on our grandmother Kate’s family, since it listed her parents, including her father who was described as a “Rabi” (the spelling on the document). Ultimately we were also able to track down birth certificates for my Uncles Charlie and Pat, and my Aunt Kay, all of whom had been born in Rutland, Vermont.
This was all long before the common use of the internet and seemed to be intriguing but ultimately unable to really provide any meaningful answers. Even more questions would arise over the next few years, ones that would actually become answerable once the world wide web became a reality and more and more records were uploaded, not to mention the increased accessibility to people across the globe.