Telling Grandpa’s Story

(Through searching for my grandfather’s roots, and writing this blog, I was invited to speak at the 150th anniversary event for the New York Foundling Home which operates today as “The Foundling.” It continues in operation, serving those with special needs, including: foster care, developmental disabilities, and child abuse and neglect. Below is the text of my remarks. I will be writing more soon about my experience meeting other descendants of orphan train riders–one of the most moving days of my life.)

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Good Morning! I’m honored to be speaking today for the 150th anniversary of the New York Foundling Home, now the Foundling Hospital, or just “The Foundling.”

I want to begin by asking you to think about what brought you here today? What is your connection to the Foundling—is it relatively recent or long ago? Have you ever talked about that connection?

Stories are powerful things—researcher and writer, Brene Brown—says that “our brains are wired for stories,” particularly stories about overcoming adversity, stories of courage, stories that inspire us. Stories give us hope and remind us of what is possible.

Today, I’m going to tell my grandfather’s story, which is also my story. And, in some ways, it is the story of all of us here today.

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Here I am with Juanita Tate. Juanita’s grandmother was at the Foundling at the same time as my grandfather. Her grandmother rode the Orphan Train to Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.

As long as I can remember, I knew my grandfather came from the New York Foundling Home, to Central Missouri, on an orphan train. As a kid, I didn’t think a lot about it. I never thought about the empty space in his heart, of not knowing how he came into this world, of not knowing the beginning of his own story.

All I knew back then was Grandpa was the best. He made me feel loved and special. When I was three years old, my family moved back to Jefferson City MO from St. Louis. Jefferson City was where Grandpa lived and where my Dad grew up. My parents bought a two-bedroom house for our family of seven.

Grandpa was very handy, and he finished off the attic to be the bedroom for me and my two brothers. For a while, Grandpa also shared that room. It was tight, but I loved him being there.

I could go on and on with memories of Grandpa, but let me just say he was always fun and funny.

Grandpa died suddenly when I was 11. His belongings got divided up among my Dad and my Dad’s two sisters. Dad got the nametag Grandpa had worn on his clothing on the orphan train in 1901. I hadn’t seen that before, and now, seeing that name scrawled on a piece of fabric, Joseph Aner (or was it Auer?—no one knows for sure—various records interpret the cursive handwriting differently)—that nametag suddenly made his background more real to me. Who was he really?

As I grew up, I remained curious about his origins, but I had no way of exploring them. In the 1990’s when, I first got the internet, I dialed up and searched for the surname “Aner” and found a few people in Philadelphia, but that was it. Who knew if there was any connection…

Then, a couple years ago, I took an Ancestry DNA test. I still couldn’t find any connection to anyone named Aner, or Auer. After what seemed like a lifetime of searching, I found a birth certificate, with a child born April 30, 1896—that was Grandpa’s birthday. The child was Joseph Auer, born to Joseph King and Adelaide Auer, born at a Catholic Hospital serving poor, unwed mothers. Records indicate Joseph Aner arrived at the Foundling a couple days after being born, apparently with clear expectations that his parents would never be found.

It’s not surprising that parents would use made-up names when giving a child to an orphanage. A child born out of wedlock was a significant “stain” on a family at that time. An unwed mother, even under the best of circumstances, would have difficulty providing for a child. Women generally were not employed at that time, and having a child could even disqualify them from getting a job. Having a child could also limit her chances of getting married in the future.

I looked through every available online record, trying to piece together what I could about Grandpa’s life. I found his first World War I draft registration. Under Place of Birth, it said, “Unknown.” I don’t know why, but this one word hit me in the gut—it was so sad. It also didn’t make sense to me—he knew he was born in New York and that he came from the Foundling Home.

I became obsessed, knowing that DNA testing had the potential to connect me to his origins. I felt pressure to hurry—I belong to the last generation that knew him. And with each passing generation the DNA trail fades just like an old photograph. That word “unknown” gnawed at me. I didn’t want that word to be associated with Grandpa any more.

I learned more about his life by scouring old newspapers. He was among the first young men from Central Missouri drafted into World War I. I talked to my older brother about this—my brother was named after Grandpa and they did some carpentry and painting work together. They talked a lot. Grandpa wouldn’t talk about the war though—he hinted at traumatic experiences.

After the war, Grandpa married into a prominent family in Jefferson City and he started his own family. He also started a business, as an automobile dealer. Newspapers show he was doing well, when in 1929, the stock market crashed, and his business gradually disappeared.

As I continued to search through thousands of DNA matches on Ancestry.com, I found a cluster of people not related to my mother, nor to Grandpa’s wife, meaning they were the first line I could identify as being my grandfather’s. I found Grandpa’s father was a Van Sten from Brooklyn.

I still did not have any leads for his mother, though. As I was talking about this with my brother one day, Jack told me: “He always said his mother was Abbie Doyle.”  (Later one of my cousins told me the same thing.) I was stunned for several reasons…how would Grandpa know this? I remember my mother, Grandpa’s daughter-in-law, once telling me that Grandpa had gone to New York and found his mother, or did he just find out who she was… Mom wasn’t sure. But Mom knew that he had found something about his mother when he went to New York. Family lore says that Grandpa returned to Missouri and announced, “I am a Markway.”

Jack said Grandpa was clearly bothered by what he had learned in New York, and would start to talk and then stop. As a psychologist, I know that feelings of abandonment can be overwhelming. These feelings are real and deep, and they can last for generations. Grandpa had them, and they took away his voice, preventing him from telling all that he knew about his story. Being a secret hurts.

I searched everywhere for signs of Abbie, or Abigail, Doyle. I learned that searching for Irish names in New York in the late 1800s doesn’t narrow things down much. Why did they name their kids Mary Margaret, Margaret Mary, Daniel, Michael, and Joseph…and then the next generation had the exact same names? I then gave up for a few months before starting over. I finally gave up on the idea that he really knew his mother’s name. I could believe he had gone to New York to look for her, but…actually finding her seemed… unlikely.

As I went through my DNA matches again, I found a group of people that matched no other lines in my family. They had to be connected to Grandpa’s mother, but I couldn’t even see how they connected to each other…Then, as I was looking through one family tree, I saw a name, Abbie Camille Doyle.

I can’t yet say with absolute certainty that this Abbie Doyle was his mother, but other descendants of her are showing up as sharing the appropriate amounts of DNA with me. I’m working on tracing all the information I can, both DNA and paper trails, to prove one way or another. I know I’m very, very close. And soon I hope to eliminate that word “unknown” from Grandpa’s history. Or, perhaps, he already did so…

I have learned a lot about the Abbie Doyle who may be my great-grandmother. Some of it is entertaining—for example, she had a granddaughter who dated Elvis Presley. But the more I learn about her, the more I see her as a human being and not just a branch on my family tree. She was the youngest of 8 children. Her father was wounded in the Civil War. There are many signs that her life was not easy. Her sister died at age 26. A brother died at 22. I have no idea how she ended up in New York City after growing up outside Springfield, Massachusetts, but there are documents placing her in New York… And then having a baby…giving up that baby must have been traumatic for her…while, at the same time, hoping that the he would be better off…

Despite all his trauma, Grandpa was able to love. There are so many memories—my cousin Shelley remembers him teaching her to waltz, to dance. I remember coming to visit our house every Tuesday night and always bringing me a bag of peanuts. Hi ability to love—Was it the care he received at the Foundling Home? A natural, inborn resilience? His adoptive family? He has many grandkids, many great-grandkids. From what I’ve learned Abbie has many, many descendants, and her life turned out well, but she had struggles of her own.

Our society has made it a pleasant pastime to investigate where we’re from and who our people are, to see them as names on a computer screen. We are so fortunate that with DNA we can now truly know much about our history. But most Orphan Train riders never knew. I believe it’s our duty as their offspring to find the puzzle pieces and put them together. It won’t help with their feelings of abandonment, but it might help us. There is a basic human need to know who you are, and how you connect to this world.

Scientific research shows that telling our story can have healing effects. By telling our story, we make sense of the world, we figure out how we fit into that world, and we honor the person we are talking about. That is why I felt an overwhelming need to be here today. And I suspect, in some way, that’s why you’re here today as well.

Every one of you has your own story to tell—a story of confronting adversity, and overcoming it in some way. Once again, I ask that you consider telling whatever part of that story that you know, so that we can preserve your memories, and honor the reason why you came to this event.

Thank you.

10 thoughts on “Telling Grandpa’s Story

  1. Elaine Smith

    I loved hearing your story! My grandfather too was an Orphan Train rider in 1906. It never gets old telling his story and yes, my story. Family connection is a powerful thing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mary Weddle

    My grandmother also rode the orphan train and I’ve been searching a long time for clues of her family. DNA is my best hope now and I am thankful for it. Your story gives me renewed hope. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are welcome. Thank you for commenting. Have you tested? If you are on Facebook check out the DNA Detectives Group–it is a great place to learn. You might also join the NY Foundling Home Orphan Train Riders group on Facebook.

      Like

  3. Greg,

    My favorite line in your story is “Despite all his trauma, Grandpa was able to love.” That reassurance soothes the pain of all we discover on this journey.

    My grandfather was born in 1902, and his unwed mother left him at The Foundling that same day. He got off the Orphan Train in Weimar, TX in 1906, and he never knew where he came from or who he was. My father is his oldest son, and he was 80 years old when he learned who his dad was. After growing up in a Czech/German community, it was mind-blowing for him to learn he was Irish!

    We tell our grandfathers’ stories as a way to honor them, a way to celebrate our heritage of resiliency, and a way to encourage those brave souls who, like the Sisters of Charity, stand in the gap today for our generation’s vulnerable children.

    Thank you for sharing your story!

    Aileen

    Like

  4. Emaline Stroud

    I enjoyed reading this very much. Several years ago, while we was on vacation in Louisiana, my husband and I visited a Orphan Train Museum. It was helped me understand the orphan train that I had heard about but had not researched at that time. They did take these kids all over the United States to their new families. Thanks for telling your Grandpa’s story.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a wonderfully uplifting speech! I don’t have any siblings listed with my own Foley ancestor. I hope I find that she is “our” ancestor by going deeper into my research. Thanks!

    Like

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