Perseverance Pays Off: Cousin Found after 30 Year Search…and Other Stuff.

May 29, 2018 by  

Preface: I’m going to minimize or omit altogether many names in this story to protect the privacy of the living and most of the dead. Much of the information about my cousin Bob’s early years came from talks with my late mother, who was very fond of Bob, and was very concerned about his well-being, which, as things turned out, her concerns were justified. It’s also important to note that my mother had a great sense of the dramatic, and was not always willing to let the truth get in the way of a great story, so some of the musings about Cousin Bob may be very, very off-base, and I will apologize now for any offense taken.

Background – Meet the Family

My father, Norman Franklin Grinnell (1906-1958), died when I was four years old, following a valiant battle with lung cancer. My father was close to his siblings and his mother, but was geographically separated, so he didn’t see them as often as he would have liked, with us living in Indianapolis, and his mother, sister, and brother-in-law living in a big, beautiful old house in Providence, Rhode Island. His brother, an Osteopathic surgeon, lived in Michigan, and later Oklahoma, where he helped open the first Osteopathic hospital in Oklahoma City.

Aunt Helen Gives Birth to Bob

My aunt Helen had a son, Robert (Bob), born in 1943, by her first husband. Unfortunately, she spent most of her adult life wrestling with the two-headed demon of excruciatingly painful rheumatoid arthritis and alcoholism. You see, in the 1940s and up until the 1990s and beyond, there were no miracle drugs like the modern NSAIDs to help RA sufferers with the intense and constant pain and swelling joints. Helen’s treatment was limited to buffered aspirin (minimized damage to the stomach and intestinal lining) to reduce the swelling to some extent, and chose alcohol to numb the pain as much as was possible. I have a sneaking suspicion that she drank during her pregnancy, which could have caused Bob to suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FES). She worked as a typist at an insurance agency until a few months before her death, in an effort to keep her deteriorating finger joints as flexible as was possible. As often was the case with RA sufferers, she also suffered in later years from osteoporosis (a very common trait in this particular branch of the Grinnell family).

Bob grew up seeing his mother suffering from her serious arthritis, and also saw how she changed, to a fun person, after knocking down a few highballs over an evening’s time—at least until she had that one additional drink that took her over the top, and then became a completely different and decidedly unpleasant person. She died in 1970, at the age of 58, after a tragic fall down the stairs. Helen’s second husband, Charlie, a ruddy, large man with a huge smile and a sense of pure joy, passed in 1985.

Bob Grows Up in Age But Not Necessarily Behavior

I think Bob was a keen observer of things, and I’m sure he romanticized the “good times” that accompanied the daily cocktail hour with his mother and step-dad, and the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (again, FES is assumed, but without documentation) may have predisposed him to alcoholism. I don’t know when Bob had his first drink, but it was the first of far too many to come. His grandmother was a staunch temperance observer (a card-carrying member of the W.C.T.U. for a long time), and strenuously objected to the consumption of alcohol (and tobacco) in her home. My grandfather, who died in 1931, was similarly disposed. Unfortunately, her objections were not enough. Invisible boundaries were drawn, restricting most drinking to Uncle Charlie’s den, and certainly NOT in my grandmother’s formal parlor. They had that kind of house.

When Bob turned 18, he joined the US Air Force, but probably because of his own battle with alcohol, he did not stay for the whole three or four year term (or so my mother told me). His obituary noted that he had looked back upon his time in the Air Force with great fondness. After leaving the Air Force, he married and had two children, a boy and a girl. His personal demons, always present, though in the background, took hold of him and there were many bad times, culminating in a divorce and a complete separation from Bob and his young family. In essence, he just walked away. He drifted around New England for a number of years, and even paid a visit to my parents in Florida in the 1970s as he tried unsuccessfully to overcome his illness.

Bob Turns Himself Around, But His Past Catches Up With Him

Miraculously, by the early-1990s, he found the strength to control his addiction to alcohol through a local church. He received training to become an information technology professional. A new lady came into his life, whom he married.

Meanwhile, the damage he inflicted on his original family was pretty well complete. Bob’s son has not made contact with his sister or mother in many years, and the daughter, too, had wanted little to do with her father until a tearful reunion was made in 2009, while Bob was literally on his deathbed with lung cancer at age 65. The damage from too much booze and too many cigarettes finally caught up with him, and then he died.

The daughter continued with her life, but still yearned to know more about her father’s family. She joined Ancestry.com and attempted on several occasions to backfill her family tree, but never got very far. As I was to find out, she has struggled with her own demons, but seems to have put her life on the right track. She has finally found some happiness of her own, which she shares with her children.

Enter Cousin Larry, Amateur Genealogist

In an effort to learn more about my father’s family, I took an interest in genealogy, and got involved with the Grinnell Family Association of America. As my interest in genealogy grew, and as I became a better and better family detective, my mother asked me on several occasions to find out whatever happened to Cousin Bob. I tried several things over the years. In 1990, I attended the Grinnell Family Association reunion near Providence, RI, and looked up Helen’s first husband in the phone book (Helen’s second husband, Charlie, had passed away a few years previously). Turns out he had also passed away several years before, but his widow granted me a few minutes over the phone to talk about Bob. Apparently, Bob had no permanent address for some time. Bob’s dad had left him something in his will, and ultimately a private investigator had to be hired to find Bob in order that he could be given his inheritance. I had a city name, Meriden, Connecticut, but he was not in any of the area phone directories. I also purchased a compact disc data collection of names and addresses and isolated the addresses of every person in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Connecticut with his name. I wrote a form letter, and promised that if I did not receive a reply, I would not attempt to contact him any further. And I didn’t. And they didn’t. Another dead end.

The Search Went On, and Finally Success — After a Fashion

I tried other things over the years, did Google searches and the rest, and went about my life. Then, about two years ago, I did another Google search and uncovered Bob’s obituary. So, I was too late to contact him, and had no residential information on either of his two children. I did, however, type a small note in the obituary’s message section, including contact information. Then, a few months ago (this blog was originally written in 2015, with new content added in 2018), while doing some research on Ancestry.com, I uncovered a lot of fragmentary family research work by the daughter, or at least, who I presumed might have been Bob’s daughter. I sent her a message, offering to provide a number of photos I had of her dad, her grandparents, great-aunts, great-uncles, cousins, and more, as well as an extract of the research I had been doing on the Grinnell family. Nothing happened for about six months. Then suddenly, there was a letter in the mail. As things turned out, my 30 year search was finally at an end!

I Meet Bob’s Daughter by Phone – History Recounted

I called her that very evening, and we spoke for nearly two hours. I told her everything I knew about her grandmother Helen, her great-grandparents Archie and Agnes Grinnell, her cousins once removed (my siblings and me), and recounted many of the stories that I had heard about her dad, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on. When I got off the phone, I scanned a ton of old photos, found some family history writings I had done quite a while ago, and wrote a long, disjointed anecdotal history of her Grinnell and Peckham forebears going back to the 1850s.

I probably scared the heck out of her and certainly overloaded her with photos and stories, but goodness gracious, I had bottled up a need to connect with my long-lost first cousin’s family and I just couldn’t stop myself. I think it stopped with four emails full of photos and PDF files, and my long narrative about the family I have known and loved for my whole life, and that I wanted to share with my newly-found first cousin, once removed. Hopefully I didn’t come across as being too creepy!

Case Closed

We are now Facebook friends, but for the moment, I’m going to be a little more aloof while she digests all the information I inundated her with. If she has additional questions about her newly-uncovered family, I hope she knows that all she has to do is ask.

My family and co-workers can tell you that when given a task, I seldom give up. Some call me downright tenacious. I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. It’s not like it’s an obsessive need (or is it?). I just love the challenge. Most of the time when I am tracking down information of some kind or another, I can usually say that the journey is the reward, as I really enjoy playing detective. In this case, however, to my mind, there was no question that this destination was indeed the reward.

The Next Challenge

Now, with this mission accomplished, can anyone help me find pictures or biographical data on my father, Norman Franklin Grinnell (1906-1958), from the time of his 1906 birth up until the time he met my mother in 1943? The earliest photo I have of him dates to about 1943, the year he married my mother. My dad’s brother Leonard didn’t have any photos of my dad, and only one or two of his sister, Helen, and of his mother, which he shared with me.

I did yearbook searches of Cranston (RI) High School, the school where he most likely attended, knowing what I did about where his family lived at the time (the Auburn section of Cranston) and found high school era photos of my uncle Leonard and of Aunt Helen, but none of my father. I even made contact with the school, and a really nice man did a more detailed look through the Cranston High yearbooks, without anything more found about my dad (though he did find pictures of my aunt Helen and uncle Leonard).

I am only guessing here, but I suspect my dad went to some kind of trade school, rather than taking the usual educational route. When he hired on with Grinnell Company of Providence, Rhode Island, he began as a pipefitter, and worked on a number of Grinnell installations in commercial and industrial buildings, including a few New York City skyscrapers. By the mid-1930s, according to US and Rhode Island Census records, his job title had changed to sales, sales engineer, or simply engineer. He lived for varying periods of time in Dallas and Houston, TX, but always returned to the Providence/Fall River area, where he either lived in rooming houses, or in his Mother’s home, as recorded by Federal and State censuses.

By the early 1940s, it looks like his career advanced and he was assigned a territory, in this case, working out of Chicago, where he sold fire protection systems, and did preliminary drawings for those sites in Illinois, Indiana, and other Midwest states. He was not drafted during WWII, as my mother explained, because he was doing war-essential work (he even got increased gasoline rations, but didn’t get extra tire rations). At age 37, when he married my mother, he may have also been too old for the draft, and I suspect that with the amount he smoked, he may have had respiratory issues, too. It was while he was working out of the Chicago office that he met and married my mother.

After a few years in Chicago, the young couple, now with a baby boy, was transferred to Albany, NY, and then after a few years, to Indianapolis, IN. Indianapolis, sadly, is where my dad’s four pack-a-day cigarette habit took him away from us. He was buried with his parents in Pawtucket, RI, thus ending his story but not without a complete hole regarding his life prior to 1943, other than a few tantalizing bits found in Census records.

While I’m at it, More Conjecture

My father was a smoker. Actually he was a very heavy smoker, consuming 3-4 packs a day throughout most of his adult life, which was cut short at age 52. Through much of his early career with Grinnell Company, he worked as a pipefitter, and considering Grinnell Company was a major manufacturer and user of asbestos products, where it was used as a construction material for fire prevention, and when used as an insulator, protecting plumbing from freezing. One could argue that the asbestos exposure could have been a major contributor to his early death, but when you think about it, a negligence charge against either Grinnell Company or Philip Morris Inc. would have been difficult to make stick, as the defense attorneys from either side would have focused on pointing their fingers at the other company, considering both products were proven (though not in his lifetime) contributors to lung cancer and any number of other related diseases.

Postscript

In 2016, on my annual vacation, I visited my brother in Maryland, and then drove up to Rhode Island for a quick 3-day visit. I had previously contacted my newly-found cousin, as well as another 2nd cousin, Diane, who lives in Massachusetts and asked her to accompany me, with newly-found cousin on a trip down memory lane, visiting cemeteries with significant family history in the area. This was my way to introduce her to her ancestors.

We visited Riverside Cemetery in Pawtucket where my grandparents (her great-grandparents) and my father (her great-uncle) are buried. From there, we drove about a half-mile to Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, to visit the graves of her grandmother (my aunt) Helen, and Helen’s second husband, Charles (my Uncle Charlie). Finally, after a fine New England lunch, we pressed on to the Middletown Cemetery, where we paid our respects to our Grinnell great-grandparents (her great-great-grandparents), scores of great-uncles, and a whole peck of Peckhams (her great-great grandmother’s family), before going back to my hotel where I shared a whole bunch of pictures I have collected over the years. After taking newly-found cousin home, I finished off the day with a fine meal of fried clam strips at Iggy’s on Warwick Beach.