by Pam Pacelli Cooper
President, Verissima Productions Incorporated
It was a small haberdashery store in Hyde Park, nestled in the shopping center where everyone in our small community shopped for groceries, went to the Optometrist and filled their prescriptions at the drugstore. I did the same, walking the several blocks from our house to help my grandmother do the weekly shopping at the Coop grocery store.
But I never set foot in Gabe’s, a mere 200 feet away. I knew that my grandfather, my mother’s real father, worked there, but — as if there were some shield or veil around my curiosity, I never asked to go in or to see him…and he never asked about me. It was entirely a mystery to me. I knew my mother visited him occasionally, but all she would ever say is, “I stopped in to see your grandfather the other day.” The veil would descend, and I would listen, but ask no questions.
When I left home, the veil lifted somewhat, and, pre-computer and pre-internet, I began an exploration to learn more about my blood family, working from the snippets of information my mother had given me. I knew he had a second wife and at least one child, but were there more?
One source might have been Gabe’s, but, but by the time I began my explorations, it was long closed. I knew his last name, but it was common, and also had alternate spellings, so I would get lost in the white pages, trying to imagine where he might have lived, and who on that long list of Mac’s and Mc’s I might call, hoping that I might strike gold.
Over the years, I was able to discover when he had died, of what and where he had lived — but he was gone. His second wife had also disappeared, and the one child I knew about (only a few months older than I) had disappeared, as well.
Then, when we started our film business, and I became a personal historian sixteen years ago, using the rudimentary skills I had been learning for genealogical exploration and the power of the internet, I began a deeper, more focused search.
About 3 years ago, I found my way to his obituary, which had been placed online when The Chicago Sun Times finally digitized their records. I knew it was Charles, because the obit gave the names of my mother, as well his three other children.
I found out that one of them, an actress in New York, had passed away, but was able to connect with the other two and arrange for a family “union” in Chicago so my mother, who had lived for eighty-eight years as an only child could finally meet her half-brother and half-sister.
Of course, there had been strife and family secrets and family divisions to sort through, but everyone felt somehow more settled, and delighted that our small family had suddenly become larger and better connected.
Last year, they all came back (from quite a distance) to attend mother’s 90th birthday party in Chicago…and this year, on her 91st birthday, my mother received a beautiful card from her half-brother, now 81, that said, simply, “I’m so glad to have you as my sister.”
Search out your history, and preserve it this holiday season and all year long. It’s worth it.