One of my more inscrutable brick walls isn’t made out of brick at all. Rather, it looks to be made of cheese. No, not cheddar, bleu, or provolone, nor is it built from anything lost in the Badger State. I guess if had to describe the wall – you know, to say what sort of cheese it best resembled – I’d be forced to say “Swiss.” The reason for this is that the wall is somewhat genealogically airy, with both a cheesy truth and speculation leaking through it – at least in a manner of speaking.
The wall itself is a simple one. It was built around my mother’s date of birth, or at least the year in which she was born. Now, mom wasn’t born all that long ago, in 1935, so it’s amazing just how far back and out of memory “1935” can be – especially when one is trying to meld together “the rest of the story.” Let me see if I can make all this a little bit clearer.
During the summer of 1990 my family was experiencing a bit of a genealogical renaissance. While we couldn’t quite yet see the age of Google, there was an undercurrent of interest in asking each other questions about our family history. After surviving much of the self-serving 1980s, a lot of us had begun to go through some of our old family papers – and, well, we were starting to take note of who we were and where we had come from. We did this while noting some curious inconsistencies in what we’d previously held to be true.
My mother was no exception to this, and in her general shuffle of documents to review (and maybe in the flux of spring cleaning) she discovered her original “birth announcement.” You know, the ones that became fashionable to post sometime in the early part of the twentieth century, and shortly after it became normal to “officially” record vital records. A lot of these old birth announcements were put away as mementos, and I guess mom’s was no exception.
The problem with mom’s birth announcement caught her eye almost immediately. It was the year of the postmark on the envelope – “1932.”
The problem with mom’s birth announcement caught her eye almost immediately. It was the year of the postmark on the envelope – “1932.” Needless to say, mom was a bit flabbergasted when she saw that postmark, as her birth certificate read that she was born in “1935.” Now mother wasn’t a vain gal, but she really wasn’t at all interested in suddenly being three years older than she had been a moment before.
A family meeting of sorts was called, with my somewhat unsuspecting grandmother called “into the kitchen” to account for this peculiar discrepancy. My grandmother (“Nana”) had no clear explanation for this wayward typo, and indeed her examination of the envelope and its contents didn’t really help her to bring forth a good explanation for it during this “inquisition.” The post mark itself seemed to conspire against her, further implicating poor Nana in some sort of vital statistic cover-up.
My mother earnestly wished to know if she was three years older than she actually was, and while my grandmother tried to defer the question about mom’s year of birth, the conversation just fell into, well, you guessed it, a lot of laughter. Poor Nana concurrently blamed my mother’s dad (from whom she had been divorced for forty-five years) for somehow causing the post office to make this error, while suggesting the mistaken numeral in question was perhaps truly an “8,” thus meaning that my mother was miraculously younger than previously thought.
Well, mom would have nothing of it. She immediately figured that if she was indeed three years older than what she’d always been told, well, that this would account for the way she felt each day, i.e., tired and older than she thought she should feel. The cat had really snagged my grandmother’s tongue this time, and Nana fumbled for an explanation for what she knew wasn’t really the truth.
There was much good humor and laughter that day in 1990 while mother quizzed Nana about just what the truth was – and as to where each of them had been on that December day in 1935.
The truth is my mother was born in 1935. Of this I have no doubt. However, in the absence of a birth certificate, a postmarked envelope with a birth announcement inside becomes a very compelling form of documentation. While the postmarked envelope may not be an immutable form of proof for a date of birth, it becomes at least as valid as, say, a funeral card or even a year of birth as stated in any census record or grave stone.
So this is why I label this particular brick wall as one made of “cheese.” There was much good humor and laughter that day in 1990 while mother quizzed Nana about just what the truth was – and as to where each of them had been on that December day in 1935. I say this particular brick wall is made of cheese because the laughter somehow confounds it as a potentially valid piece of documentation. It’s documentation that (with a government postmark) might very well cause my mother’s date of birth to someday be recorded as “betw. 1932-1936,” skewing or at least obscuring the truth. Any well wishing family historians of the future may think of my poor mom as much older than she actually was. And while it is always good to look at a few of these brick walls as containing something that we can laugh at, believe me, it’s not a good idea to call mom older than she necessarily might be!