This piece was written before the days of Ancestry.com and computerized on line searches. Though the search techniques have changed, the feelings that come up when I find my ancestors still captivate me today.
Finding my Great Grandmother
by Cathy Corcoran
One day, when I was in the third grade, we were studying the Bible in school.
Sister Saint Whilemenha was sitting at her big wooden desk at the front of the room, reading us a long list of "begats."
Abraham begat Isaac. Isaac begat Jacob. So and so begat so and so. On and on she went.
I raised my hand and asked why they never begat any girl children in the Bible.
"Oh they had girl children," Sister said, "They just didn't write their names down. They weren't important."
Over in the corner, Danny O'Brien snickered.
"Girls aren't important," he sneered.
I sat down in my chair with a thud, thinking of all those baby girls, all those mothers, all those grandmothers, not recorded, not remembered, as though they had never existed at all.
"Girls aren't important!" Danny hissed again.
My face burned. I hated Danny O'Brien.
I thought of Danny one day recently when I was working on my family tree. I knew my ancestors had come from Ireland, but I never knew when they came or what part of Ireland they came from. When I asked my mother and my aunts, they didn't know either, so a few weeks ago, I visited the archives at Boston City Hall. I thought I'd look for an hour or so and see what I could find.
I poured over the dusty books in the archives, and found my mother's birth certificate and her parent's marriage certificate. As I traced the faded handwritten names with my finger - James and Catherine Moran - a shiver ran down my spine. Before I knew it, the archives were closing for the day and I had a long list of names to invstigate. Before long, I was obsessed.
I went to the National Archives in Waltham and the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. I became a detective, an expert on soundex codes, microfilm machines, birth indexes and death certificates. Within a few weeks, I had traced part of the family - the Nashes - all the way back to 1863 when they left Tipperary and arrived in New York.
But I couldn’t find a birth certificate for my grandfather, Michael James Moran (Though he was known throughout his life as "James" or "Teddy," his real name was Michael James.)
My mother told me there was a vague rumor that her father was adopted.
I was determined to find the truth.
At the library, I poured over the 1880 census records and gasped when I saw the entry for the Morans. Four year-old James Moran was listed as "Michael James," a nephew. His sister Mary was "niece." That meant the old family rumors were true! The children were adopted, but not from an orphanage, not from strangers. They were a niece and nephew. I should be able to find their parents!
Back at City Hall, I still couldn’t find a birth certificate for Michael James. I knew he was born on January 3, 1876, but I didn't know his last name at birth. The entries were all handwritten in ramdom order. No alphabetizing, no chronological order.
"You'll have to go through each entry individually," the woman at the archives said, but it was clear that even she considered this a daunting task.
There were nearly 11,000 babies born in Boston in 1876. The search could take days! I might misread someone's handwriting. I might miss the entry altogether!
I sighed as I picked up the dusty book. It fell open on the table and I looked idly at the names on page 525. I scanned the page and saw entry number 10,881. "January 3, Michael James." it said.
"Here's a Michael James born on January 3," I said to the woman who ran the archives.
"Maybe that's the one," she laughed. I laughed too as I read slowly across the page.
"Father's name, Michael Naughtin," it said. "Mother's maiden name, Anna Moran."
Anna Moran! The name practically leaped off the page.
My hands shook as I gripped the book. I kept digging and finally, I found Anna's story.
Michael James was born on January 3, 1886 to Anna Moran Naughtin and Michael Naughtin. Anna died of hepatitis in December of that year at the age of 28. Her brother took her children in, and raised them as his own, naming them James and Mary Moran. I could find no further record of the children's father. He seems to have disappeared after the death of his young wife.
As I left the archives and headed for home, I walked slowly. My heart was heavy, as though there had been a death in the family. And of course, there had been a death in the family. The fact that it happened more than a hundred years ago makes it no less sad to me today.
Anna haunts me. She lived. She bore two children. She died. And but for my digging through the dusty records at City Hall, like so many women before her, we never would have known she existed.
What are the odds that I would open the book to that page and see that record? Eleven thousand to one? A million to one? It was spooky.
"You found that record because Anna wanted herself known," the woman at the archives said.
I believe she did.
Here is what I know of her: Anna Moran was born in County Mayo, Ireland in 1848, and died in Boston in 1876. She left behind a two-year-old daughter and a baby son, not yet a year old. That baby boy grew up to be a father to ten children. One of those children was my mother. Anna Moran was my great grandmother.
May she rest in peace.