This week I'd like to share a personal experience I had with searching for the family of my stepfather, John Garvin.
I had been working closely with Ila in Everett, Wash., on learning how to conduct genealogy research by researching my stepfather's line. We talked about John Garvin and who he was. The project was learning how to search on the Internet. We logged on to Ancestry.com and began searching the 1930 Census.
During the search we found the Samuel Garvin family in which John was 5½ years old. Right after we found the listing of the family, we looked in the Social Security Index and found a Samuel J. Garvin who died in 1997 and lived in Whiting, N.J. That few minutes began what would be a very rewarding month.
The first experience came as I was working through how to find out more information about this family. As I was researching on the Internet, the idea came to mind to send a letter to all the Garvins in New Jersey. The total number of Garvins was 126. The letter I sent outlined what I knew of John, who I was and how I was related, what research I had done and what I was looking for and that any help would be most appreciated.
Next, I thought I would take a chance and call an M. Garvin who lived in Whiting, N.J., just to see if they were related. During the conversation with who ended up being the wife of Samuel Garvin, I was able to get a little information, but she was very skeptical of who I was and what I was doing. When I asked if she would give me the name of her son, she said no. While I made contact with a family member, I was still not any closer.
After about 10 days of the letter being out, I received my first letter back saying that they were not related. One evening while I was driving home, I received a call from Richard Garvin, the son of Samuel Garvin, oldest brother to John Garvin. He indicated that he had received my letter and had talked to his mother and wanted to talk to me personally. I made an appointment to call him back the next night.
The next night, I spent an hour with Richard on the phone, and he shared some clues that would now allow me to find the Garvin family. We found out about three brothers and sisters that John had that were not on the 1930 Census. Right after the interview, I transcribed the tape and ended up with six pages of notes about the family. It was a great evening. Before the interview ended, I recommended that we get together on a Saturday, 10 days from then, for an hour or so. He said that he would talk to family and see if he could arrange to have other family members involved.
Not 10 minutes after I was off the phone with Richard, I received a call from JoAnn, Richard's sister. This was my first contact with her. When I asked her if she had talked to Richard in the last few minutes, she said no. She said she had called on behalf of her mother “to see if I was legit.” We talked for a half hour. At a critical point in the conversation, she asked me to explain how John dressed. I pondered my answer, and then said he wore black alligator shoes and was always dressed very nicely. Then she responded, "He was a dapper dresser, wasn't he," followed by the comment, "Yep, you're legit." After the discussion, she said she would also talk with her mom and brother and get back to me.
What allowed me the opportunity to go to Jersey City, N.J., then was I was scheduled to go to Lexington, Mass., for weeklong meetings and then down to Austin, Texas, for more meetings. It left the Saturday open.
I had spent several weeks preparing for the one-day trip. I had planned to go to the library and search for obituaries in the microfilm of the Jersey Journal, meet with the Samuel Garvin family, if it workds out, and talk with those at St. Michael's parish about how to work with them in requesting records.
On Wednesday of the last week, my wife, Colette, called me with information about a letter that was sent to me by Elenor, wife of LeRoy Garvin, the youngest brother of John. She had sent a partially filled out family tree with birth and death dates that her husband and son had done for a school project 30 years earlier. In addition, it also had information of where the family had been buried, Holy Name Cemetery. That evening I called Elenor and asked if I could meet with her on Saturday. She agreed to a meeting at 8:30 a.m. In addition. she provided other information about Beatrice, who was the wife of James Garvin. I called her and made an appointment to speak with her on Wednesday of the next week.
With the new information, it was time for a change of plans. I changed the schedule to meet with Elenor, go to the cemetery and library and then meet with the Samuel Garvin family.
After work Friday at 6 p.m., I left Boston for Jersey City. At 9 p.m., I received a phone call from Richard that his family wanted to meet with me. However there was a small hitch. His mother was still a little concerned about meeting me and wanted to know if I would be willing to come to his home two more hours beyond Jersey City to meet with them. My reply was of course. I was going to do whatever it took to meet with the family. I told him I would meet him at 4 p.m. the next day.
I stayed the night in Stamford, Conn., and rose the next morning at 5:30 a.m. to start what would become a great day. I was only about an hour out of Jersey City, but I would need every minute, as I would find out. As I crossed into New York, I missed a turnoff and went from Brooklyn into Queens. It was an adventure. I stopped three different times to get directions and didn’t find anyone who could speak English. I drove by LaGuardia Airport, Shea Stadium and other landmarks I had just heard about.
Time was ticking down. I was really concerned that my day was going to start out on the wrong foot. I was at least 20 miles off course with no direction of how to get back on course. Several wrong turns later, I found myself going back past Shea Stadium and LaGuardia Airport. From there, I was able to backtrack to where I had lost my way. It cost $20 in tolls over bridges and roads. Given the chance to start over, I found my way to Jersey City and Elenor’s house at 8:35 a.m. Whew, made it.
I spent an hour with Elenor and had a good interview, which added some important information about my stepfather John. I learned that Elenor's husband had been a ranking officer in the Jersey City police force. One Sunday morning John had come to the door, desperately seeking help from his brother. John had been a bookie for the Jersey mob and had been caught skimming off the proceeds. The mob had put out a contract on his life. John's brother left the house for a couple of hours and came back with a deal. John was to pay back part of the proceeds and leave town and never come back. He moved to Las Vegas, where he became a taxi driver, met my mother and married. He didn't return to Jersey City for more than 25 years.
After our meeting, I went to the Holy Name Cemetery, a beautiful monument to those that lived. I stopped and had the sexton pull as many of the family as I named along with where they were buried.
I went to the find the first name, Raymond Garvin, a child who had died after a few months of life as well as six others. I couldn’t find any of the graves. So I went back to the sexton to double-check the name. I found some new information. Unlike out West, where most persons are buried one to a grave, this cemetery allowed up to four persons to be buried per grave. In with Raymond were other persons that I believe are related to the family. I reworked with the sexton all the names and found 20-plus persons beyond those I came to find.
When I went back out to the cemetery, I met Neil, the foreman, who took time to go with me and find each gravesite, thinking I would be able take pictures of the gravestones. Every gravestone was missing.
I was amazed that these people were essentially lost in time. No marker, no one to care, no one to remember. I felt closeness to the people and desire to link them to the family tree. I left several hours later feeling as though I had left no one behind.
My next stop was the local library. I took the burial dates I found at the cemetery and began looking for family members' obituaries. In the library, I was able to find family members, but the obituaries were very limited. I was hoping they would provide a list of relatives, but not as much information as I would have liked. I did find the listing of John's sister, who had died from a streetcar accident in her teenage years.
Before going to Jersey City, I was told by many that it was a very rough city. Jersey City was everything I expected it to be. It was a very different world. It seemed like a very rough place to grow up.
Next it was off to Richard’s home. I arrived about 4:15 and left at 9:15. I shared with the family stories about my search, pictures of John, and was able to interview Richard's mom, Emma. I came as a stranger and left as a friend. The family had some very nice photos of John as a youth and young man. Copies of these photos were later sent to me.
After about 30 minutes of the discussion, Emma, who was 86, said, “Wait a minute. This is funny. We have a man who is a total stranger telling us more about our family than we even know.”
I learned that John had been in World War II as part of the Battle of the Bulge and had been wounded by a bomb splitting a tree and shards of the tree entering his forearm, which explained the nasty scar John would never talk about. Before I left, Richard asked for the phone numbers of other family members with whom they had not spoken for more than 30 years. I hope they make contact.
During this trip, I was able to find clues to finding family for four generations — not bad for a day's work.
The Garvin story is a sad story about a sad life that tore the family apart for many years. Perhaps, this was the beginning for a family to learn about each other.
Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips and Tricks for Discovering your Family History" and founder of MyGenShare.com, an online educational website for genealogy and family history.