Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Unexpected Gifts of Family Detective Work

My dad and I learned some sad news earlier this week: his second cousin, Nancy, died Feb. 17 after a long battle with ovarian cancer.  Dad and I only met her once, in June 2007, but we hadn't forgotten her bubbly, warm embrace of two almost-strangers from Minnesota.  If it weren't for the G. Oliver Riggs research project, we would have missed out on getting to know a wonderful human being.

We located Nancy and her sisters Grace and Lorenda thanks to some letters my grandmother had kept, and some internet sleuthing.  Their grandmother Daisy was the only sibling of my dad's grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs.  The families had not kept in touch since my grandmother's death in 1980.

My dad and I had already been planning a research trip to Aledo, Illinois, so when we found out that Nancy and Lorenda lived in the area, we arranged to meet at Lorenda's home to exchange family information.

As we poured over photos at the farmhouse kitchen table, we discovered we had some of the same ones, including one of Jasper Riggs, father of G. Oliver and Daisy.  Lorenda had a copy of Jasper's obituary, which we didn't have.  Lorenda also had a band photo we'd never seen, but which we were able to identify; the St. Cloud Municipal Boys' Band, standing outside the Stearns County Courthouse.

One of the last photos my dad produced was one of G. Oliver and his wife, Islea.  That's what we thought, anyway.  Our cousins had the same photo, but unlike ours, theirs had writing on the back: G. Oliver and Daisy.

My dad's brain accommodated this surprising information much more quickly than mine.

“Here we were thinking this was Islea, and it’s really Daisy,” he said, shaking his head.

Nancy laughed and said,  “He married someone who looked like his sister!”


        G. Oliver with his sister, Daisy               Islea with her daughter, Rosalie

Unsure what to make of that psychological revelation, we put the photos away and sat down to lunch.  I was still feeling stunned that we had jumped to the wrong conclusion about the photo, and grateful that we'd learned the truth.  It reinforced for me one of the first lessons I'd learned in journalism school: never assume – which goes hand-in-hand with another lesson, Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy!

It's hard to imagine how much photo technology will have changed by the time my own great-grandchildren are adults.  Will they need to write on photos, or will all the necessary information be embedded into them?  Will people still take photos? 

Whatever the technology, I hope my descendants will feel a connection to their roots, and experience the pleasures of meeting others who belong to the same family tree.

Meeting you was a gift, Nancy.  Peace.

In Memory of Nancy Slavish

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