It could be said in genealogy that the end of the story is actually the beginning. Whether you’re the most recent living generation just starting on a journey or you’re an experienced genealogist filling in holes in your tree, each “the end” becomes a new wealth of information and discovery.
Everyone Has a Grandfather
My genealogy journey started in third grade with a staple family tree assignment – take it home and fill it out starting with yourself, then your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.
I knew myself and my parents. I knew my mom’s mom was named “Penny,” because I wrote letters to her from time to time, and I knew my dad’s mom was named “Elizabeth,” because I was named after her. (Her name and my maiden name read the same sans middle name, which made for an unsettling experience when I visited her grave as a young person.) Outside of that information, I didn’t really know anything about my ancestors; my mom vaguely recalled some names that “sounded about right” on my dad’s side, and the names of her mom’s parents. When I asked about her dad, whom I’d never met or heard about, my mom simply said, “You don’t have a grandfather on my side.”
I was all of seven or eight years old at the time, and with only a vague notion of what grandparents even were (my only living grandparent lived several states away), I just accepted that I didn’t have a grandfather. I knew that my mom had stepdads as she was growing up, and that my grandma wasn’t currently married, so it didn’t really bother me – until I got back to school with my assignment.
The big red circles around my maternal grandfather’s side told me my answers were “wrong,” but I knew they were supposed to be blank. I brought my assignment back up to my teacher and explained that I didn’t have a grandfather on that side.
“Everyone has a grandfather. You just didn’t try hard enough,” she snapped back at me.
When I got home that night and told my mom what had happened, she was livid. I didn’t hear the contents of the phone conversation with my teacher, but I didn’t hear anymore about it at school after that, and my teacher accepted my blank spaces when she previously said she wouldn’t. I knew instinctively I shouldn’t push too much about it, but I did ask my mom if my grandfather was even alive. It was at that point my mom told me, curtly, that she didn’t know and didn’t care. He’d walked out on her family when she was four days old.
Echoes of the Past
Over the years after that, I found myself continually coming back to my family tree and that missing branch. Even once I was old enough to start learning more details about my maternal grandfather’s affect on my mom and her family, the words from my third-grade teacher (who would rank right near the top with the teachers I ended up despising the most overall) continued to echo in my head. Everyone has a grandfather. I knew it wasn’t true. I knew from the look on my mom’s face every time she started to talk about him it wasn’t true. I knew from the uncertain information her older sister shared with me it wasn’t true. But it lingered there, in the back of every draft of my family tree I made. Adding in step-grandfathers or filling out my dad’s side didn’t quiet the echo. I went for a number of years with the false name he’d married my grandmother under penciled in just to complete the tree, but it never felt legitimate. Even if other people didn’t know at a glance, I did – the blank was still there.
As I reached the end of high school, however, the world – and my search – radically changed. Home computers were affordable enough that nearly every middle-class and higher home had one, and Internet service was winding its way across the country, linking people who previously didn’t even know each other existed. Usenet and mailing list groups for genealogy took off like wildfire, Rootsweb was born, and these networks of family researchers spawned enough interest in genealogy technology to create the giant that’s today Ancestry.com.
Genealogy in the Digital Age
I was an early adopter of these new developments in genealogy, and like many overly-enthusiastic newbies, I quickly filled up my family tree for dozens of generations with a hodgepodge of truth, mythology, and straight-up fiction that could be found online. Even though I ended up since redoing my family tree several times, I don’t consider it a loss – it was a valuable learning experience that would aid me as digital genealogy moved into the next phase: DNA.
DNA testing for genetic heritage and inherited diseases is still in its infancy, and as a result, it’s not affordable for all people. This inherently limits the information pool comparisons are drawn from, but in the case of close cousins and direct family relationships, the science is relatively sound. Having had little luck with my brick wall through traditional methods – my maternal grandfather seemed to be a pro at skirting or falsifying documentation – I hoped this new innovation in genealogy would help me shed light on his origins, if not on who he was directly.
It took a while; not everyone who does DNA testing has a family tree online, and even those who do are sometimes reluctant to share the information with strangers or reply back to queries. After a while, though, results started filtering in, including a branch of related cousins who had one surname in common: Rogers/Rodgers. I had remembered my mom and my aunt telling me at one point my biological grandfather went by the name “Kenneth Rogers/Rodgers” (they couldn’t recall which spelling, or if he used both), so I started sending out queries to these distant cousins. Did anyone in my family tree look familiar to them?
Initially, the answer was “No.” Some of my DNA cousins were even confused, because there seemed to be no overlap whatsoever with our family trees. Then, closer matches started appearing. I have living cousins who are not only closely related to me but who have Rogers/Rodgers parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents. I started digging deeper.
Months of work eventually panned out, and I now have a reasonable picture of who my maternal grandfather was and what his family tree looked like. Kenneth Byron was born 24 July 1920 in Bridgeport, IL. He probably had his mother’s maiden name originally as a surname (I am still searching for his birth certificate to verify this) – he appears as “Baby Worley” on one census record as an infant, living with his mother and maternal grandparents. He would later be adopted by the man his mother married shortly after he was born, Robert Howard Combs, and would thereafter appear in census records as either “Kenneth Combs” or “Byron Combs.”
Once he left home, however, his records get murky. His WWII draft card has him registered 16 Feb 1942 as “Kenneth Rogers,” so at some point between his childhood and then he learned the name of his biological father, if not details or meeting him in person. It’s unclear when he started going by the name “Ricky Darnell” or where that name came from, but when he and my grandmother obtained their marriage license in 1955, he was listed as “Ricky Darnell” from San Antonio, TX. By January 1959, the marriage was dissolved in Hennepin County, MN, as it had come to light that he had another family in another state, in addition to the two children and one on the way (my mother) he had with my grandmother. Aside from a couple isolated phone calls to my aunt, he virtually disappeared after that. It’s not clear if he ever arrived at his mother’s funeral in 1972, as living relatives recall waiting for him to arrive, but they can’t recall if he actually did. He died under his pseudonym, Ricky Darnell, in Reno, NV, 25 February 1986.
It seems like a sad and deeply unsatisfying end to the story, but as I poured for hours over copies of records and family interviews, I realized this was just the beginning of a story. I broke through the biggest brick wall in my family tree, only to find a story of “ordinary America” that puts all of our cultural mythology to shame. Now, as I focus on gathering documentation and additional evidence, I am shifting gears to start that story.