“I think healing happens in spite of what actually goes on. It creeps up on you.” –Kim Schotte
My grandfather, Joseph Aner was born on the last day of April in 1896. He was not given a middle name. This fact bothered him throughout his life as he viewed this as a sign of how quickly he was given away to be placed in an orphanage. It is not even clear than his surname was Aner—one database interprets the handwriting as saying his name was “Auer.” The New York Foundling Home records say it was Aner.
The question of his original surname is unanswerable and irrelevant really—whatever the name, it was made up. Neither of his parents bore that name. That name, like the those of his mother and father, was created to take away any traces of his true identity.
Prior to the age of five—I have not yet been able to find out exactly when—he was placed on an “orphan train” to Nebraska where he was taken in by a couple willing to raise a child. Unfortunately, the mother in that family died, and the father was unable to both work and take care of a little boy. Joseph returned to the Foundling Home to live.
What did it feel like not to have a family as a young child? Then to have one for a short time? Then to return to the orphanage?
As a psychologist, I know that children often have a type of “magical thinking” where they blame themselves as a means of making sense of their experiences. What did Grandpa think and feel?
I have talked with various people who know bits and pieces of my grandfather’s life. I know that when he came to Wardsville, Missouri, he first went to a family where he was physically abused. I have heard details of this, but see no benefit of sharing them here. Somehow he was then taken in by the Markway family, a surname he ultimately took on as his own, a name I now share.
When I began searching for Grandpa’s history, I was focused on finding his parents. After two years of searching, I knew the name of his father. A year later, I knew his mother. And, I had a photo of her.
I thought my search was complete.
But then new questions emerged.
I had noticed that Grandpa had changed his date of birth on documents. Why? Also, he had told a few of his descendants that his mother was named Abbie Doyle. How had he discovered her name? His actual birth date?
My mother had once said that Grandpa had gone back to New York and found his mother. But she didn’t know any details. This could explain how he would know her name. I have speculated that learned his actual birth date on that trip. How would I ever know if this is true?
I wondered how Grandpa ended up with the Markway family. I heard from someone in the family that the parish priest came to the Markways and persuaded them to give Grandpa a home.
I wanted to know more about Grandpa going to Nebraska—where? What exactly happened? How old was he? How long was he there?
As the questions kept growing, I had to accept that I would never know the answers, that the answers were buried under the sands of time.
Over the past twenty years, my siblings and I had requested information from the Foundling Home several times. My sister received a response stating the date Grandpa came to the Foundling Home, and that he went to the Markway family where he was “dearly loved.” I was told that there were no records, and how 120 years ago, they didn’t keep the kind of records I was seeking.
In 2019, I heard that the Foundling was digitizing their records. In February 2020, I made one more request. I didn’t have any expectations, but I had a little bit of hope. Then Covid hit New York City, and the city came to a standstill.
In early January 2021, I received an email from the Foundling, an email including “all the records” they had on Grandpa. There were just four pages. Two pages were the front and back of an index card that gave one or two sentence annual updates on Grandpa with the Markway family. (There was no mention of Grandpa going to another family in Wardsville first, nor of his time in Nebraska.) The front of this index card didn’t tell me much.
Then I looked at the back of the card, the second page of the records I received. A one-sentence note dated December 13, 1926 says: “Joseph asking about his History. Joseph Markway” So, Grandpa did return to New York and ask questions. That is where he learned his mother’s name. I still don’t know if he met his biological mother, but it now seemed possible. He was motivated, and it appears someone told him some things—his birth date for example.
The other two pages of Grandpa’s records consist of two letters from St. Stanislaus parish in Wardsville, the town where he grew up.. One, dated February 24, 1903, reports that Grandpa was placed with another family, after the man is his previous home “passed to eternity.” The letter also notes that this was a “change no doubt for the better.” This suggests Grandpa’s first home in Wardsville was abusive, as I had been told.
I have always wondered how Grandpa endured so much trauma and became such a loving person that I wanted to honor him by filling in the missing information of his life. How was Grandpa so resilient?
Psychologist Louise Silvern describes resilience as “that wonderful word for something we don’t understand.” Maybe I don’t need to understand why Grandpa survived and thrived to the point that his descendants revere him. It’s enough to have known him.
At age 30, he was searching for his mother, and in some ways I suspect, he was searching for himself. The pain of not knowing his parents, of being left in an orphanage, stayed with him. But Grandpa showed that the opening of his life did not define him. As he watched his kids and grandkids grow up, the healing crept up on him.