A few weeks ago, my father forwarded to me an email that might otherwise easily have been mistaken for an internet scam. It was a notification that a distant relative had passed away without a will and that as one of her heirs, I was eligible for a share of her estate. The letter came from a solicitor's office in Glasgow, where I was born, and the deceased in question was the sister of my paternal grandfather. It wasn't the notion of an unexpected windfall that shook me -- the solicitor was quite clear that the estate was extremely modest and that, as one of 84 blood relatives, my share would be modest.Â It was the fact that I had this relative at all, about whom I knew absolutely nothing, that rattled me a bit.
A little background is required, I suppose, to appreciate my reaction. As I said, this woman was the sister of my mother's father, a man I never met. I knew him only as a cautionary tale of alcoholism, abuse, familial abandonment and financial ruin. He was the source of tremendous pain for my grandmother, my mother and her brother. That was his place in the family legacy. He had run off long before I was born and, so the story went, the last time my mother laid eyes on him was an accidental encounter at a bus stop in Glasgow, the day before her wedding to my father.
My grandfather's absence made him more intriguing to me than his presence probably ever could and while the rest of the family seemed content to write him off to history, I've always been exceptionally curious to know what happened to him. As far as we knew, he was dead. It didn't seem likely that with his lifestyle, he'd lived long and prospered. Still, I remained curious about how and when he had died, where he lived before that, how he passed the years of his life.
After my mother died in the fall of 2003, I went to Glasgow for a memorial service in her honor. There I met my mother's older brother, who I hadn't seen since I was a very young girl. He had also done a bit of a vanishing act but had, curiously enough, sought out my mother just months before her sudden and unexpected death. It was the first time they'd spoken in more than 30 years and they were able to meet up with each for what would turn out to be the last time. What my uncle told me stunned me. He said that he had been in contact with his father -- my grandfather --Â just over a year before. It was almost more than I could process. I'd lost my mother but discovered that her father was, in all likelihood, still alive. It seemed the cruelest of outcomes. What kind of world was it in which my mother, barely 60, died but her father, whose emotional abuse and abandonment trickled down to affect generations, had survived?
If I was curious about my grandfather's whereabouts before, I was mildly obsessed then. After I returned to the states, I made some meager attempts to find my grandfather. He was, understandably, not an easy or welcome subject of discussion for my grandmother or his other son, the uncle I'd known best growing up. I knew only his name and that he was last known to live in England. The online searches I was able to do without a date of birth or a last known address were limited, and I came up empty-handed. That was five years ago and I had actually done a fairly good job of putting it all out of my mind when I received notice that his older sister had died.
After I responded to the solicitor's email, I received a follow-up letter, accompanied by a family tree of heirs. It began with my great-grandparents. Until I that the piece of paper, I had no idea what their names were. Nor did I know that my grandfather was the fifth of nine children. After hisÂ name were the words "date of death unknown." I was surprised and maybe even a bit disappointed. He would have been at least 91 by now, but I suppose I'd retained something resembling hope that he was still alive, still find-able. I don't know what I would have said or done if I had found him, but I had a few fantasies, often involving confrontations that made sure he understood how much pain he'd caused my grandmother and their children. I wanted him to be sorry that he had been so selfish. I wanted him to be sorry that he had missed out on so much. And I wanted to find out what his life had been like without all of us in it.
Now I knew he was dead. I wasn't mourning a grandparent, because he'd never been one to me. I was mourning a chance that was suddenly gone, a closed door.Â There just wasn't the possibility of finding him anymore and, somehow, by extension, that meant there was a part of me that was gone, a puzzle piece I'd never be able to identify. And yet now, on this piece of paper, there were suddenly all these other new pieces -- names and birth dates of relatives I'd never even had the chance to know.Â I had five great aunts and four great uncles and all of them were dead, too. More shut doors. (Interestingly, only one of the four boys in the family had known death dates.)
Here's what I have been able to learn from this piece of paper sent to me from a lawyer's office in Glasgow: My mother's middle name, Ivy, came from her aunt Agnes, who died at age 22, just two years before my mother was born. My grandfather was born somewhere between 1912 and 1917 and, based on the few tidbits of information my grandmother has shared about her former husband, I think it was probably 1916. I learned that my great aunt Elizabeth, whose will is in question, was the last of her siblings to die. I learned that I had 18 first cousins, once removed (my mother's cousins) and that, if the records are correct, only two of them had any children. Ironically, the only two cousins I do know about aren't part of the family tree, although I alerted the solicitor to their absence on the list. It turns out I have three second cousins I'd never heard of before and that their mother, like mine, is deceased.
There are all these connecting boxes, with names I've never seen before, names of people who are actually my relatives. This is a strange phenomenon to me. My family moved to the states when I was ten and we were largely without extended family. Back in Scotland, I had three cousins I knew about, none of whom we were close to. I took it to be a strangely American phenomenon that people knew their second and third cousins and had gigantic family reunions once a year. You have to understand that most of these "distant" relatives of mine never left Glasgow yet by the time I was born, my mother wasn't in touch with any of her father's relatives. Nor had they, to my understanding, made any effort to stay in touch with her. Isn't that strange? Isn't it strange to think that they may well have passed each other on Glasgow's busies shopping streets at some point and not known it? Or is it more strange to think that maybe they never did?
I don't know where all this is going or what it means. I know that it has opened up a deep place of melancholy, as there is my mother's name on the list with the word "deceased" in parentheses following her name. That she is, on this chart, just one of many people whose lives have ended and I have to admit that's very hard to see in print. And then there is my name, and the names of my four siblings, also on this chart. Black type, each of us in our own little box, surrounded by and connected to all these other boxes, each with a name inside. You can follow the lines from one box to the next and so on, and if you if move beyond my mother's box, and past the ones for her two brothers, every single one of them connects to a person I'd never met. All but one connect to people I've never heard of. And that makes it really easy to wonder where the lines are that do connect you to things you know, just what it is in terms of history and family and facts of life, that really anchors you down.