Research into family history may uncover telling surprises

I used to think that those who turned up horse thieves in their genealogical research at least managed to enliven what must have been an otherwise boring exercise. Who cares about all those old geezers anyway?

Listen: I think I've discovered a truth right up there with, oh, Darwin's theories. Here it is: The older you get, the more you want to know about the past. It's genetically programmed.

Well, OK, maybe that's true of me and I'm just hoping I've discovered a wider truth.

What really gets to me now is that I managed to stumble through life, usually with blinders on, not asking questions. I sort of figured that if there were something I should know about my family history, one or the other of my parents would fill me in when the right time came. I guess I felt it was sort of like reading readiness, or having reached the right age to learn about the birds and the bees.

But whether or not that was always true, there were certainly instances that supported that viewpoint. My mother, for example, told me something that, as a 12-year-old in 1936, I thought was extremely embarrassing. It was about her, and she didn't hesitate for a moment to share it with me.

I was moping because my elementary school principal was retiring and I was-can you believe?-fearful about what the future would bring. I may as well acknowledge now and get it out of the way that I was a bit of a-what's the modern term, dweeb?-and dazzled by Jessie Lockwood, the retiring principal. She had held that post at John Muir School since time began. You want to quibble? OK, it was since just 1910.

My mother offered what she mistook for solace: She had read in the paper that a man named Kenneth Selby had been appointed to take Miss Lockwood's place.

Yeah? Yeah? Yeah?

The "yeah" of it was-hold on now for my mother's bombshell-in college she had dated this very same Kenneth Selby.

This snippet of information and a smile I would later come to describe as enigmatic were all she offered. My mother dating someone other than my father! It was flat-out inconceivable to me, but perhaps I was at just the right age to face such a reality.

Maybe, I would reason in time, Kenneth Selby came into my life when I was ready to understand that parents had lives apart from the ones that made them crucial to us, their children.

But such a reasoned attitude would be a long time in coming. Back in 1936, I was filled with pre-pubescent angst. Had they parted on less-than-cordial terms? Would my school's next PTA meeting be rent asunder by hostility? Oh, grow up.

Grow up I eventually did, of course, or grow older, at any rate. And I came to realize that much of what I knew about my family was really just surface. If I wanted to know more I was going to have to ask the questions I failed to ask when the people who could answer then best were still around.

My mother certainly learned the importance of asking in time. Her genetic urge to research kicked in soon enough. A dozen years before her death, she started a search for her birth records so she could get squared away with Social Security.

Ruth Blanchard she had been until she became Ruth Blanchard Johnson. But back in her hometown, Fitchburg, Mass., they had no record of a Ruth Blanchard born on the day she reported. They did, however, have a Bridget Blanchard born on that 1897 day.

Fortunately, her older sister Mary came up with the answer: "Oh, didn't anybody tell you? I guess it just never came up. You were so young and you have no idea how ugly people were to the Irish in those days. So I told Mama if she wanted to honor her Irish background by naming you Bridget I'd tell them at school to call you something else. I came up with Ruth. I simply never thought to tell you, I guess."

I'm not sure how my mother straightened all that out with Social Security. I suppose her sister swore that Ruth was and always had been Bridget.

So now, every St. Patrick's Day, to avenge the Irish bashing of the past, I get to say, "Kiss me, I'm Irish." I probably should amend that to, "Just a wee kiss, I'm only part Irish."

Would I be out of line if I pointed out that I'm part French as well?

Seniors correspondent Tod Johnson grew up in Rainier Valley. He graduated from Franklin High School in 1942, served in the U.S. Army during World War II and earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Washington. He now resides in Jacksonville, Fla.

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