Mt. Rainier and Lenticular Clouds - Dec. 2008 copyright: JMM

March 14, 2014

So Many Questions

My cousin, Marty, has been working on our family genealogy for quite some time, and was down at the National Archives in NYC.  He emailed me and asked me if there was anything I wanted him to look up while he was down there.  I jumped at the chance to see if there were any documents that concerned my father's parents.  

I have made references to him and his siblings being left at an orphanage in Georgetown, British Guiana (now Guyana).  They really weren't technically 'orphaned', so much as abandoned by their birth parents, John Albert and Balbina Esther (Correia) Mendonca.  There has only been some fragmented info about my paternal grandparents.  When I was young and would ask, my dad didn't want to discuss it.  I knew some students at Emerson who were from Trinidad that had friends there named 'Mendonca' who were from Guyana, but dad didn't want me to pursue it so I didn't.  But now I want to know and now we live in an age where it's a lot easier to research from the comfort of your home than write letters and visit far off archives.

Oh, a quick word about the spelling of the last name.  Being Portuguese, the 'c' is actually a cedilla, and has that little squiggle under it.  Or should.  That character makes the 'c' sound like a 'z', and not a hard 'k'.  My dad was concerned that when he got here, the last name would be pronounced 'Mendonka'...and then his future children might end up being teased, 'My donkey' like he was.  So he changed the 'c' to a 'z'.  That last name is still misspelled and mispronounced, except that everyone leaves out that second N.  

Here's a pic of my Aunt Stella (born 1920), Uncle Frank (born 1924) and dad (born 1922) in the sailor suit.  It's one of only 2 pictures I've ever seen of my dad as a child.  Don't they look sad?  I know people didn't smile for photos in those days but I think my dad looks really sad. My mom doesn't know who paid to have this picture done but I'm going to guess it was in approximately 1926.  She also can't remember how we came into possession of this picture, but I think Stella may have brought it with her to give to my dad when she visited in the late 60s.


Mom told me that she thinks that my dad was left with a neighbour named Mrs. Johnson and not at the orphanage, but there's no real way of knowing.   I don't know my aunt's or uncle's stories at all.  Aunt Stella died in 1976 when I was 11, and I'd only met her twice.  Dad went to school up to 8th grade and then went to work as a cook on ships that sailed between Georgetown and NYC.  He became a citizen of the US at 19 and went right into the US Army to fight in WW2.  Stella moved from BG to London, England because BG was still under British rule.  She then moved to Windsor, Canada in the late 60s.  Dad and Frank tried to get her into the US but for whatever reason, she was always turned down.  She died of colon cancer when she was in her 50s.  Frank became a successful businessman and lived out in Milwaukee, WI.  I met him twice too....he was a kick, but not as down to earth as my dad.

I have already located my paternal grandfather's immigration record at Ellis Island.  I found it a few years ago.  But the trail went absolutely cold after that and I could never find Balbina's manifest info on Ellis Island, so I assumed she arrived into a port city other than New York.  All I know about him is that he was a shop keeper, and came to the USA in May of 1922, 3 months before my dad was born.

Marty emailed me a couple days later that he found a couple of documents on them.  They are Declarations of Intention, stating who they are, where they came from, promising that they aren't anarchists or polygamists, and renounce their allegiance to King George.  

I was more interested in my grandmother's information than grandfather's because I knew zero about her, except that her maiden name was Correia and her mother's name was Virginia.  I saw a photo of her and my dad looked just like her.  It was like looking at my dad in drag.  lol

 

After finding out what ship she came in on, I went to the Ellis Island website and finally found her passenger record. The reason I was coming up empty handed before is that her last name was misspelled as Mendonoa.  

I find it really sad that she arrived in the USA just a few days before my dad turned 1.



This is my grandfather's Declaration of Intention, dated 1940.  As you can see, he and Balbina were still married and he acknowledged their 3 children who were still in BG.  It's so curious to me that Frank was born in New York, yet they made the trip back to BG to drop him off wherever it was they left him.  Frank was a citizen of the US, and he ended up moving to the USA right before his 21st birthday so as to not lose his citizenship.  He was also christened with the Americanized last name of 'Morton', which is what my grandparents were now known as, although as yet I can find no official paperwork or information about it being legally changed, if they became legal citizens and issued Social Security numbers.  That is why I can't locate any information on their dates of death.
 

This is a web image of 1512 Amsterdam Avenue, where John & Balbina used to live, as stated on that 1940 document.

I asked my mom about the info I found and she told me that, when dad was 21, he'd gone to NYC to visit an uncle.  When he arrived, there was another man in the apartment and dad was finally introduced to his father.  Mom said that John Albert kept apologizing for having left them in BG and my dad was pretty angry and said something like, 'you could have written or sent a postcard'. She also told me that later on in life, Stella & Frank were asking dad to help them research their mother and her whereabouts and he abjectly refused, stating, 'I'm not going to look for, or support, some old woman.'  

After receiving those two documents, I started researching like a crazy woman.  Every time Russell looked over at my computer screen, I was switching between tabs containing documents, maps and Google.  Next thing I know, as Chandler Bing once said, 'can open, worms everywhere'.  

All this time, I have had some really incorrect assumptions about the circumstances of the abandonment and about my paternal grandparents.  I used to wonder if my reluctance to have and raise kids might have been hereditary.  I really wasn't angry at my paternal grandparents for abandoning the kids.  But then I stumbled upon some 1940 census information that enabled me to track the names backwards to British Guiana and I made some troubling discoveries.  

For one, it appears that John Albert had a brother named Anthony.  This may be the uncle that my dad went to see in NY.  Anthony came to the USA with his wife Philomine, in 1923, and his wife's mother, Virginia Correia. They arrived just a month after Balbina did. The manifests for John Albert and Virginia Correia  (or Carreia) indicate their home addresses in BG, and according to google maps, they were pretty close by each other in Georgetown.  From what I've found out, it looks like John Albert & Anthony married sisters Balbina & Philomine Correia.  This is the 1940 census for I believe to be my paternal great grandmother.  The kicker for me is that the address is identical to John Albert's on the above Declaration of Intention,1512 Amsterdam Avenue.  I mean seriously, what are the odds that 2 families with the same last names are gonna end up in the same building as each other? Also, Anthony named one of his sons Albert.  


Finding this census info has really made me rethink the circumstances of my dad's & his siblings' abandonment.  All this time I figured my grandparents were too poor to bring their kids to America.  That they really weren't able to carve out the American dream and lived and died alone in New York.  It was always curious that they'd spent the time and money to return Frank to BG after he was born, but again, I thought it was because they couldn't provide and wanted him to be with his siblings.  I figured this uncle my dad went to meet was also single, either widowed or divorced, and all he had for family in America was his brother/my grandfather.  That is clearly not the case at all.

My grandfather's brother Anthony was not only married, but he had 3 children.  My grandmother's mother was there too. These are my grandparents' immediate family.  You mean to tell me that NO ONE could help take care of my dad, Stella & Frank?  NO ONE wanted them?  NO ONE talked Balbina out of abandoning them in BG?  NO ONE stopped them from returning Frank after he was born?  If Balbina disliked children so much then why was she living in the same building as her 3 young nephews? You know she must have babysat and been in their company on a daily basis. She couldn't do it for her own kids? This is so highly unusual for those times.  They were all living together in the same building in NYC.  How did my grandparents live with themselves?  How did the family feel about it?  Why didn't anyone write to the kids left behind in BG?  Not even their own grandmother wrote?????  Mom said that Stella had a few letters from her mother when she was a child, but nothing else.  I sure wish I could have read them before she died.  Mom also told me that Balbina & John Albert eventually split up and there was a rumour that Balbina became a 'street walker'.  Oh how I hope that's not true.  No idea where they are buried and I can't find any death records on them, either under their ethnic names or their Americanized names.  There are a lot of Esther and John Mortons out there.  Mom thinks John Albert is buried somewhere on Long Island.

In some ways I regret finding this out.  I don't know how much my dad really knew about his circumstances because he never wanted to talk about or pursue it and out of respect for him, I didn't either.  But if he knew the pieces of this puzzle at all, no wonder it was too painful to confront.  Bad enough to know your parents abandoned you as an infant, but to know a good bit of your immediate family was living together in NYC and not one person cared to drop a note?  It's shattering to me and I'm just an unknown grandchild of theirs.
This information has made me somewhat bitter too.  You see those Ancestry.com commercials with the amusing and sweet stories of discovering their family tree, and most of the stories are that way.  My Italian maternal family genealogy contains nothing untoward.  Some settled in Yonkers, some in Connecticut but they all kept in touch and helped with all the children.  Distant relatives are easily traced throughout New York and New England, and right back to our ancestral hometown in Italy.  

But dad's family?  Well, I am not sure I even want to print this stuff off for my genealogy files anymore.  All this time I had some empathy for my paternal grandparents....I figured they just didn't like or couldn't care for their children, and since I am ambivalent towards children myself, I got that.  I also assumed that they were completely on their own without immediate family and had no childcare so that they could work.  But now I see that there were several people that could have pitched in and helped, all living under the same roof, and it makes me mad.  And sad that literally no one cared about dad, Stella & Frank. It was a real cold bucket of water down the back.  

But despite their circumstances, they all grew into awesome adults.  I couldn't have asked for a better father.  He worked hard and did very well for himself.  Same with my uncle....he not only married into money but he was a very successful businessman in Milwaukee.  I have 3 older first cousins, but we hardly know each other and only met once in 1980.  With Frank in Wisconsin and us in Massachusetts, dad had very little contact with him beyond the occasional phone call, although my mom and Aunt Joan wrote letters and cards back and forth.  Stella lived in England and Canada, married late in life, and unfortunately died very young.  

I guess the moral of the story is, be careful what you wish for.   I never in a million years expected to find out so much information this easily once I knew what to look for.  If you have a genealogical question in your past, be prepared to pull at that thread.  I thought I was, but now I wish I hadn't.

22 comments:

  1. My heart just breaks for your dad. I can see why he was hesitant to talk about it. What a rough road. I'm kind of like your dad. I'm adopted and have often wondered what it would be like to meet my parents but in the end, I know its for the best not to. Why interrupt their lives now? Hugs to you!!

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    1. And yet despite having no parents, he was a wonderful father and a good man. Part of me is still curious as to what my grandparents' deal was, but I don't think there is anyone still alive that can tell me.

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    2. Who were the children living with in BG? Did you say they were in an orphanage?That is strange... Gail

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  2. Oh I am so sorry JoJo. But you cannot change the past... very few of us lead a perfect life - but perhaps their circumstances ended up being what molded them into successful adults. That, at least, is a silver lining. I am sure you're not the only one to uncover a few skeletons in old closets; something Ancestry.com would definitely not be promoting!

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    1. It's funny because I used to think my family had no skeletons in the closet. When I grew up I realized they were using off site storage units to house all of them! lol

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  3. Oh Jo, I'm so sorry that you've found out such unpleasant truths. I hope you find some mitigating factor for their actions somewhere in the past. Something that makes this pill less bitter. *hugs* Maybe I'm too much of a Pollyanna but I want to believe that they must have had some outside influences that made them do it.

    Elsie, I'm a birth mom and I know I speak for many of us when I say, we'd welcome the interruption in our lives. No matter what the circumstances of giving a child up, you NEVER forget them and always wonder how they are.

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    1. I'm not sure I want to continue the research. The curious part of me wants answers now. The pissed off part, not so much. I just don't know where else to turn at this point. I don't think anyone is still alive.

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  4. Fascinating- it truly is amazing what can be found online now. I imagine I would be a lot like your dad and not want to delve deeper so its nice you can do it on your own now.

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    1. I definitely understand his reluctance to have me pursue it when he was still alive.

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  5. This is amazing that you have all this information at hand to know about your family backed up by documentation. Very cool stuff!

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    1. I've stopped short of joining Ancestry.com for their free 14 day trial....I'm kind of afraid to dig any deeper!

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    2. Try FamilySearch.org. Same access to databases (censuses, etc) but free all the time for everyone. This story has made me sad, but I caution judging without actually talking to your grandparents and discovering their motivations and reasonings. Genealogy and family history is somewhat of an obsession with me, and I admit, sometimes life isn't pretty when we open those ancestral doors, but again, until you can walk in their shoes, it's better not to make assumptions. Gail at Making Life An Art

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  6. Every family has skeletons in their closet, and some are very good at keeping them hidden. Learning the truth can be a painful process!

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    1. Yep....this sure was.

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  7. Nice photograph. There is nothing like looking through a box of really old family images. I love going through the images of my parents growing up.

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    1. My mom has thrown out a lot of old pics much to my chagrin, but there are still about 5 boxes' worth that I'm hoping she will leave alone!

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  8. Tracing the family tree is so much easier if you have an unusual surname, but the tragedies are hard to take, even if you never met the people concerned.

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    1. It's just all such a mystery for sure.

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  9. JoJo -- While researching my family history, I came across this article. I believe we have common ancestors and that I might be able to answer some of your questions. If you would like to talk, please email me.

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    1. I would LOVE to talk to you!!!! I've been looking for relatives forever!

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    2. Please send me your email address!

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    3. Mendonca.elizabeth@gmail.com

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