May 4, 2010

After 75 years, I found my father's father

Of course, he's been dead for 34 of those years, but better late than never. I guess.

The question of Dad's dad has always held an allure for my mother, my sister and me, though not to Dad--James Sawyer deserted his wife and child when Dad was just a toddler and my father has always professed complete indifference to the mystery of his missing father.

We kids never knew our paternal grandmother either. AndI was curious about her, too. But as a child I hated to ask too many questions of my father. I remember having a bizarre notion that asking my father questions about his dead mother would remind him that his mother was dead. And occasionally my father would say something like "Rachel has hands just like my mother" or "Mama used to love" something or other and he sounded so sad.

But Dad's mother, née Mary Agnes Kilduff, also known as May, will have her own post. This one's about the elusive James Sawyer. Over the years, tantalizing details about this mystery man would emerge. We knew, or thought we knew, that he came from Gloucester, Massachusetts. That his family had been living there since before the Revolution. That he was a musician and that (perhaps) May had once hurled a hammer at his head when he made her straighten a picture for the umpteenth time.

Legend has it that my when my Dad and his best friend drove my mother's little brother from his home in Columbus, Ohio to college in Cambridge they made a detour in Gloucester. And I seem to recall, probably erroneously, that my Dad's friend told my mother that the place was lousy with Sawyers and that my Dad looked like a lot of people there. Or that a lot of people greeted my father as though they recognized him. Or that a lot of people looked at him funny.

Ah the glamor of mystery! Over the years, I'd google James Sawyer but to no avail. Then, a couple of weeks ago I responded to one of those 14-day free trials at At some point in my earlier googling I'd come across this:

A copy of the 1920 census that accounts for one 16-year-old May Kilduff, who lived with her mother Nellie (aka Grandma) in Brooklyn. I've gotta say it kind of thrilled me.

I've never been particularly interested in tracing my roots. I've heard tales of people who claim to have traced their roots back to Charlemagne to which I say, "What have you done for me lately?" My maternal grandfather claims his roots go back to Maimonides and my mother claims her grandmother on her mother's side was related to Admiral Nimitz. If indeed that proves to be case I'll let you know.

I've always thought that that sort of ancestor worship was kind of, well, un-American. But I am curious about the kind of life my father lived as a child. And what his mother was like. We only have a few pictures. And of course there's the mystery of the missing man.

Within a couple of hours I'd found May in the 1930s census. Now she's 26, goes by the name of Finley (husband #1), has two children, and still lives with her mother. May's life is, well, complicated. I'll get into that later. But she isn't living with James Sawyer in 1930, a year before my father's birth.

A search for a James Sawyer in Brooklyn turns up two candidates: A 33-year-old lodger who's listed as a laborer and hails from Massachusetts and a 27-year-old Massachusetts native, also a lodger, who works as a taxi driver.

(One of the coolest things about looking at these old documents is the little insights one gets into life in a not-so-bygone era. Who takes in lodgers these days? If you look closely at the 1920 census you'll see that my great grandmother, Nellie, had a lodger back then, too.)

I tell Mom, who tells me that James Sawyer worked as a taxi driver.

Then I find a 17-year-old Gloucester native named James Sawyer "living at sea" in the 1920 census. Could this be him?

To be continued ...


Holmes said...

Really cool/interesting story, Rachel.

Rachel said...

Thanks, H.

miriam said...

Admiral Nimitz was not related to my grandmother. My grandmother was Jewish, the admiral was not. But her maiden name was Nimitz.