Climbing Family Trees: Out Of The Void: Real Lives And Real People by Judith Liddell

Climbing Family Trees

More great stories, poems, and helpful hints about genealogy and searching for your family's roots from the twin authors of "Climbing Family Trees: Whispers In The Leaves"

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Out Of The Void: Real Lives And Real People by Judith Liddell

Judith Liddell

The search to piece together the puzzle of our ancestors began in 1985. Our mother, then 75, voiced her lifetime longing to learn about her unknown relatives. However, the seeds of interest had been nipping at my sister, Chris, much earlier. Chris had always been fascinated with history and old things. She wanted to know about our ancestors, and no one seemed to know much, if anything. Our mother didn’t know about her uncles, aunts, or cousins, because the past just wasn’t talked about in our family. As Chris describes it, “Grandma Stage only told us what she thought we wanted to hear.” We now know there were pieces of truth to many of her stories, but her web of deception – to avoid talking about the fact she was born in a coal mining town – led us down many false paths.

Chris once asked Grandpa if he was born in London – the only city in England she knew. “No,” he answered. “Way up north, near the border with Scotland.” “He seemed very proud of that,” Chris remembers. As far as our mother knew, her parents never kept in touch with relatives back in England.

Our mother, Christiana Margaret Graham Stage, was born in 1910 in Gateshead, England. When she was 11 months old, she and her mother and a three year old brother boarded a boat in Liverpool, England to sail for Quebec, Canada. They were going to join her father who had gone before them to start a new life. We don’t think Mom ever knew that her mother crossed the ocean with two small children all by herself. Imagine our surprise when we finally found the entry on a ship’s passenger list to see only three names and the entry, “Joining husband in Amherst, Nova Scotia.” When World War I came, her father joined the Canadian Expeditionary Forces and the family followed him to England where he was stationed at Shornecliffe. Because of the war, they were not able to visit relatives in the Northeast. By June 1916, there were regular air raids, and our grandfather was being sent to the front, so my grandmother took the children back to Canada. Our grandmother kept all of the letters he sent from the war. We have poured over them many times, trying to pick up snippets of information. Our grandfather’s comments, in response to news he received from our grandmother, have given us a picture of our mother’s life in Montreal during this period. The trail of clues was difficult to follow because by the time our mother had graduated from high school, she had lived in 18 places and attended 12 different schools!

Chris was the initial researcher. Mother told her what she knew, but that was very little information. We knew our grandmother was born in North Brancepeth, Durham County, England and that she had married in Northumberland. Chris started her search by going to the Mormon Family History Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. While her daughter was taking music lessons, Chris would search the parish registries on microfilm. This involved looking in the registries in the Tynemouth area of Northumberland. Every two weeks she ordered microfilm from the Family History Center in Salt Lake City, waited two weeks for it to arrive, and then raced to the library to begin her search. For a long time, she couldn’t find anything.

She then went to the library at the University of New Mexico and started reading everything she could find on Durham and Newcastle Counties. This helped her locate the slipway where our grandfather worked. She was then able to zero in on the correct registration district. In 1992, while their children were at camp, she and her husband Bill went to Salt Lake City and spent two days looking for information on both the Stages and the Brodies. She exclaimed, “Imagine my excitement when two hours before the library closed, I was able to locate information on the marriage of our maternal great grandparents - Thomas Jones and Christiana Graham!”

That same year, Mom visited me in Seattle to celebrate the marriage of my son BJ. Following the wedding, Mom and I went to Vancouver, British Columbia to search for long lost cousins. Mom’s family had lived there from 1929 to 1930. Mom used to tell us the story of an unexpected meeting with relatives. Our family owned a small gas station and grocery store next to the Narrows Bridge. One day a man came into the store, and my mother shrieked ‘Robert!’ It was one of her brothers. She had not seen him since he had run away, taken his mother’s maiden name of Graham, and joined the merchant marine! It had been a memorable experience for Mom to meet and get to know his two children, Lena and Ronald, who were about her age, and the only cousins she ever knew.

As had been the pattern, once our grandparents moved back to California, they lost touch. My first foray into genealogy was helping Mom search city directories In Vancouver to try and locate the family. I felt like my childhood hero, Nancy Drew. When Mom and I stood in the park that now occupies the place where their store once stood, I began to understand the draw to the past that Chris felt.

By 1994, I had moved to Albuquerque and began to get interested in the results of Chris’s research. At Christmas that year, Chris gave Mom a certificate that introduced her to her grandmother, Jane Bell. By that time Mom was 84 and not as interested when pieces of the puzzle revealed themselves. Chris said, “At first I was devastated when she just stared at the certificate. I had worked so hard to verify that piece of information and assumed she would be as excited as I was. My interest in genealogy was confirmed, and I realized the quest was now mine.”

In 1999, I took my first real genealogical steps and began reading the surname bulletin boards for Brodie, Stage, Bell, and Jones on . Occasionally, there would be an entry with a name or place that intrigued me, and I would respond. Mom passed away April 14, 1999. By the time she died, we had not located any living relatives. She, Chris, and I had always talked about traveling to her birthplace someday. During her final days, we told her we would go to England the following summer - and that she would be with us in spirit. We knew that deep down, the trip we planned to take was something she always wanted to do.

Prior to our trip, we hired a genealogist from Durham, hoping he would be able to find information that we had not been able to locate from our distance. By the time Chris, Bill and I left for Britain on July 1, 2000, my birthday, we were no closer to finding relatives, but had arranged for the genealogist to drive us to see the places where Mom and her family had lived.

The first day in Newcastle, we took a “milk run” bus through the countryside and a number of villages to visit Beamish, an open-air historical museum. We were interested in seeing what life was like in a colliery town, since our grandmother had been born in the village adjacent to Boyne Colliery. The following day, the first stop in our guided tour was Segedunum, a museum depicting life at the Roman fort that had once occupied that spot. Little did we know that Joe and Gladys Nicholson (Gladys was Mom’s cousin) lived only a few blocks from that spot! Later we saw the house where Mom was born in Gateshead. The unknown past began to seem real.

After returning from our trip, we felt even more determined to find out more about the lives of our ancestors, and hopefully locate living relatives. Chris and I promised each other we would return when we located someone, but little did we know it would happen so soon. On May 8, 2001, I received the following e-mail message: “Purely by chance, I have come across your entries in the Stage Surname Bulletin Board relating to Jane Bell Stage. I have a lot of information on the family of William and Jane Stage; they were my great grandparents. From, Alan Nicholson.”

We both immediately wrote back to Alan. In my e-mail, I confessed, “I literally started crying when I read your message; my sister and I have been trying to locate Mom’s relatives for such a long time. We would love to hear more about the family.” The first thing I did when I got up the next morning was to turn on my computer to see if there was a reply. There was! Alan had written, “I am delighted that we have been able to make contact and I am so pleased to have discovered family relatives in this way (our mothers were cousins although they didn’t know it!!) I will be phoning my Mum to let her know the good news – she will be delighted. This will be the first of many e-mails I will be posting over the next few weeks – so be prepared!” Over the next few days, Alan began to provide us with extensive, verified information about our grandfather’s 10 brothers and sisters!

By August, Chris and I decided we would travel in early November, and not only meet Alan and his family, but visit Elgin, Scotland where our father’s ancestors originated. Then the terrorist attacks of September 11 threatened to shatter our dream. However, by the end of September, we felt confident we could travel safely to Britain. When we arrived in Newcastle, Alan Nicholson met us and drove us to his parent’s home in Wallsend, where we spent the next 7 hours getting acquainted, listening to stories, sharing pictures, and learning about our Stage heritage, as well as life in Wallsend at the turn of the century. We were able to visit many sites from our ancestors’ lives and create wonderful memories.

Since our return, we have had Alan’s professional, on-going help in identifying Jones relatives. He has obtained birth, death and marriage certificates for various members of the family. Through information about Eliza Jones Walker, and Alan’s perseverance and guts, we were able to locate another second cousin, Carolyn Taylor, who lives in the Walkergate area of Newcastle. What a wonderful surprise to find out that her uncle Jimmy was a professional accordion player, as was our mother! He died during the past year, but we feel blessed to have heard his story through visits from Alan. We are blessed to now have five Stage and Jones second cousins and their families in the United Kingdom whom we have added to our family circle.

The puzzle is not yet complete. Like a 1,000 piece puzzle where all of the shapes look alike, we only identify a piece every once in a while to fill in part of the picture. However, we are not deterred. The puzzle will probably never be complete, but both the search and its results have certainly enriched our lives.


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