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Clara: A Mystery Solved

Thanksgiving weekend gave another reason to be thankful: I found Clara.

Clara, my grandfather's half-sister, was a missing branch on my family tree. She was the product of my great-grandfather's second marriage (my grandfather and I descend from his third). Born in 1890, she was listed in the 1900 U.S. Census for Massachusetts as living with my great-grandparents, her older brother, and my 1-year-old future grandpa.

Then she disappeared.

I could not find her anywhere in the 1910 census, and my only clue was a Massachusetts city directory I found later from that time; it said she had moved to Philadelphia. By then, she would have been about 20 years old, and could moved anywhere, married -- or died. I looked in Philadelphia marriage indexes, but did not see her.

Without more information, I was not able to track her down in the 1920 or 1930 censuses. This is what family-history buffs call a "brick wall." The brick wall stayed firmly in place for years.

Within the last couple of years, I eked out one more clue -- her name, approximate age, and correct birthplace cropped up in a 1916 passenger list for a ship coming from Bermuda. The ship list gave her current address, in a suburb of Philadelphia. She seemed to be traveling with a friend, but a second check of the censuses for her and for the friend yielded nothing.

Flash forward to Thanksgiving weekend. I was noodling around online late at night, and I found an intriguing historical-newspaper database. I put it through its paces by entering in various family names, including hers.


The story I pieced together from the newspaper articles was this: Clara had come to the Philly suburbs, gone to nursing school, and become a registered nurse. At some point, she had met a man who was a local undertaker, and she married him in 1920.

Sadly, in 1930, she became ill and died at age 40. Her husband remarried several years later. With that information, I found Clara and her husband in the 1930 census, but they were not listed with any children.

I decided to pay my respects at Clara's grave site, and went there the day after Thanksgiving. After leaving some flowers at her tombstone, on my grandfather's behalf and my own, I made one more stop.

I went to Clara's late husband's funeral home, which I had found out was still being run by his descendants, although at a different location in the same municipality. I explained who I was and why I was there -- and I was promptly introduced to the 70-year-old son of Clara's widower!

He couldn't have been nicer, and he filled me in on a missing piece of the story; the 'illness' Clara died of was actually childbirth, and she was buried with the baby -- something not mentioned in the burial records I had obtained from the cemetery. The man also mentioned that some of Clara's family members visited his father many years later.

We had an amazing chat for about half an hour. I arranged to send him some of the clippings I've found about his family, and he said he will rummage around in his attic this winter and see what he can find about Clara.

After all these years, it is amazing to be able to reconstruct Clara's past -- and thereby, a portion of my grandfather's -- and bring more of my family's story to life.

Rest in peace, Clara. You, and your baby, are remembered.

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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 5th, 2008 02:42 pm (UTC)
What an amazing story!! And quite terrific detective work.... I'm impressed! Happy Holidays! Elise
Dec. 11th, 2008 05:21 pm (UTC)
This got me really excited and it's not even my family.

I LOVE when you find out stories like these that help push through the brick wall.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )