Max Article November, 1995
Family Reunion: Searching for Roots
By: Mary Stack
A quick flick through any issue of Yankee magazine reveals the national obsession with tracing one’s roots. There are endless lists of inquiries requesting details about this person or that. But you don’t have to claim ancestry on the Mayflower to be intrigued about where you came from and who you look like. It’s a very human need which we all have, according to Al Phinney, a Marshfield genealogist, who is only too familiar with the lengths to which people will go to investigate their origins.
“Everybody has the right to know their past, to fill in that missing space – as I did,” he says, as he relates the story of his own life, which began as a search too.
Back in 1953, Al Phinney’s family split up – he didn’t know it then, but it would be forever. His parents had divorced in ’52 and, the following spring, Al went to live with his grandfather in Waltham while his four-year-old sister, Dorothy, was adopted. Al was almost six years old, and though he would not realize it at the time, he would not see or hear of Dorothy’s whereabouts for the next 36 years.
In 1960, Al’s father returned, moving to Marshfield with his new wife. Al went to live with them, but remained close friends with his grandfather until he died in 1971. During these years, Al constantly sought information about his missing sister to no avail “I asked everyone and no one knew anything. That was the system in the 50s,” he explains.
After his grandfather’s death, Al was shocked to discover amongst his possessions a photograph of his sister, Dorothy, dated 1959. “I thought, that son-of-a-gun knew where she was all these years! Right there and then, I resolved to come back with the answer even though I had no idea of how to go about it and even less knowledge of how to hunt.”
Years passed and throughout his “hell-raising youth,” Al made frequent trips to his more remote relatives in Nova Scotia. He liked Cape Breton and Jessie, his aunt, who always made a big deal about family connections and where one stood in the genealogical hierarchy. Roots and family links were important contacts to maintain, according to Aunt Jessie. It was not till years later that Al would appreciate the deep impact of these messages on his teenage psyche.
During this time, Al had developed a keen interest in history, particularly the Civil War period, which he liked to research. In 1989, during one of his trips to the archives in Boston with his friend Gail, a genealogist, he suddenly thought about looking up his sister’s records.
“I figured if I could do research on the Civil War, I should be able to do the 50s,” he concluded. Knowing only his sister’s name, date and place of birth, Gail showed him how to trace preliminary adoption records at Cambridge Court, in Middlesex County. Since true adoption papers are sealed by law, this was the first clue as to what his sister’s new name was and where she might be.
On April 20, 1989, Al found himself aboard a train bound for Churchville, Maryland, in search of the “A” family. Upon his arrival, he searched through high school yearbooks and two cemeteries to confirm that Dorothy was still alive, before trying to contact the family.
A chance meeting with a Mrs. Molloy in Smith Chapel, Churchville, gave him the final pieces to his puzzle. As the two discussed the Akehurst family, the fact that Dorothy played the organ, that she was married and had three children, Mrs. Molloy told Al, “Dorothy had a brother in Massachusetts and nobody knew whatever happened to him.” Al said, “I am the brother.” Subsequently, Mrs. Molloy showed him photographs of his sister from the church records, and the two became instant friends.
Within 24 hours, a family reunion was organized. There was much to talk about and a certain amount of disbelief to get over before they could really grasp the facts. It appeared that Dorothy had actually gone to Massachusetts looking for her brother some 15 years earlier, and had met with no success. Everyone told her it couldn’t be done – just as they had told Al.
Al’s success with conducting his own genealogical search spawned his interest in doing the same work for others. Initially he helped friends, and then their friends, until he decided to set up his own business, Marshfield Resources, which specializes in “People Search.” Of the 70 or so cases he has taken so far, about half have been adoption traces. “Adoption searches often occur after the adoptive parents are dead. Many people wait till [then] so as not to hurt their feelings. But it’s a piece of you that you have to resolve, and it just depends on when that particular item surfaces in your life.”
Al emphasizes that tracing people is a very delicate business, and that the person initiating the search must be prepared for rejection or other unhappy discoveries in the process. For this reason, he recommends that all his clients read “Birthright” by Jean A.S. Strauss before they embark on any adoption search. “The book breaks it to them gently – sometimes they can set themselves up for disappointment, and all the things you haven’t thought about are in there. You can trace history, but you cannot change history I tell them.”
Al’s work brings him an unusual level of personal satisfaction, he says, since he has the rare opportunity to affect lives. He admits that not all his stories have happy endings but “there are more pluses than minuses. I get just as much satisfaction as the person I am working for when I accomplish something. And I’m not just interested in the dollar and cents aspect of my work. People’s lives are a touchy subject and you have to tread softly.” Despite the subtle approach, he has had a high success rate with cases. “People are out there …they’re not hiding, dead or missing,” he says, “they’ve just lost contact”.
In 1955, at the inquisitive age of 10, Nan discovered she had been adopted. Unlike her half-brother who had been adopted from the Home for Little Wanderers, Nan had been adopted through the black market. A deal had been arranged between physician and family, money changed hands, records were altered and Nan’s true history was to remain a dark secret for almost 50 years.
Nan’s shock at this discovery was understandable, but the pain of not knowing who she was haunted her for years. “I underwent a series of identity crises; by the time I had reached the age of 27 I had collected five different stories about my background. One such rumor was that I was bright owing to the fact that my father had been a graduate student at M.I.T. On the basis of this, my aunt paid for my mortgage and tuition while I went to graduate school. It was all hokum of course!”
In April 1995, Nan’s adoptive mother died and in her papers Nan found a letter from the doctor who had organized the “swap,” inquiring about the welfare of the new baby. For Nan, it resurrected the idea of doing a search. She had tried several times in the past, to find out more about her roots but never met with any success. Her adoptive mother appeared to know little more than Nan’s birth date, time and place. So those were the details that she had given to her friend, Al Phinney, at the end of 1994.
On January 18, 1995, Al presented Nan with the perfect gift for her 50th birthday – the information that had eluded her for decades. Al was sure he had found the name and address of her birth mother – in Maine. Nan was stunned and decided to sit on the issue for a while. The letter she eventually penned to “Bunny,” her birth mother, took four months to write. At the end of June, Nan gave Al the completed letter and a collection of photos herself, from infancy to the present, to hand-deliver to “Bunny’s” home in Maine.
By July 4th, Nan was on the highway heading north, to meet her mother for the first time. Bunny’s first words were, “I have prayed every day of my life for this, that some day I’d find you.” The reunion was tearful and painful. By the close of the day, Nan found out that Bunny had been forced to give up her illegitimate child. The stranger irony was that Bunny had gone on to marry Nan’s father, and that they had three more children together – two daughters and one son. Nan was astounded and delighted to learn that she had inherited an entire family!
Thankfully, for Nan, the story has a beautiful ending. She has already made plans to meet her two sisters from Washington.
“I grew up all my life in a family where nobody was like me – I felt like an odd shoe. My main purpose in doing all this was to meet my mother and relieve her anxieties and guilt from the past. Without knowing the details, I just knew she must feel as I did – so I took the chance.” The outcome has far outweighed her expectations, it seems “It’s like being born again.”
Karen had absolutely no memory of her real father. Her parents had separated in 1948 when she was four years old; two years later, they were divorced. Afterwards, any time Karen raised the question of who or where her father was, her interest was met with fierce hostility by her older half-brother and total disinterest by her mother. Her sibling’s description of her father as a “cruel and miserable man” frightened her and succeeded in dampening her desire to seek him out, for many years. “I was afraid of rejection, but he always remained in the back of my mind,” she explains.
Curiosity got the better of her fear, however, and when she was 18, Karen made an attempt to trace her father once more. Her mother gave her the contact name of a man who would act as emissary and take a message to her father. Two days later the bad news came back, “He doesn’t want to see you.”
Karen was completely devastated. She had lived through her mother’s bitter, abusive, interim marriage and this was an additional dose of battering to an already fragile ego. The pain of rejection branded Karen for many years, she says, “I had a hard time dealing with it all my life and it damaged every relationship.”
Karen has known Al Phinney for many years, and it was during a friendly chat in January 1995, that Al asked for Karen’s father’s full name. On St. Patrick’s Day, he told Karen that he had traced the details to a town in New York, and looked up her father in the phone book. But after obtaining the number, Karen lost her nerve, the old fear of rejection returned and she made her way back home to Massachusetts.
Shortly thereafter, she was told that a man named Albert had called her niece in Connecticut, looking for Karen. No information was given, but he had left his phone number. Karen was “terrified to pick up the phone,” she recalls, but Al assured her that this time the ball was in her court. For the first time, Karen’s father was looking for her. Armed with this information, Karen found the courage to call. When Albert answered, father and daughter talked for two hours or more. “It was,” she says, “the easiest conversation I ever had.”
Incredible information about their lives poured out. It appeared that Albert had never received the fateful message that Karen had conveyed to him some 32 years earlier. He had issued no such rejection. The dreadful pain that Karen had suffered as a consequence, for so many years, had stemmed from a rebuff that had never occurred. When Karen and Albert finally met in New York a little while later, they spent “a beautiful day together. There was an immediate chemistry between us.”
Still more amazing details followed when Albert came to visit Karen in Marshfield, and asked if he could see her mother, Bertha. Dumbfounded though Bertha was, she agreed to meet with him. Supposedly bad communication had fueled the divorce proceedings, and Albert, who had received his “surprise” divorce papers along with his belongings, at the Y.M.C.A. in Brooklyn where he resided during the week, said he had never understood the rejection.
So Karen made the arrangements and her parents reconnected. They have been dating ever since. Karen says that she has witnesses a total transformation in her mother, who is now 75 and legally blind. “She has gone from being a lonely miserable old woman to being a person of great joy. Albert really dotes on her and seeing them so happy together is unbelievable,” she says.
Despite the magic of the metamorphosis, Karen remains cautious about the future. “I am taking it one day at a time, and still feel aware of the need to protect myself. I have a tremendous fear of Albert leaving and of my mother getting hurt – I resent the fact that he wasn’t around all the years that I was growing up, so in some ways I feel he has to earn my love.”
The flip side to that equation however is very positive. “It’s so weird – I look just like him,” she says. “I always had this sense of not belonging, but now that I’ve met my father it all makes sense. I think I’ll keep him.”