Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Looking for Ruth

I’m looking for my grandmother. She’s buried in Vancouver, WA, but the start of her life is murky. When she died in 1972 my mother and her sister had difficulty getting a death certificate since the State of Washington couldn’t find a record of her birth. I don’t know how they finally obtained a death certificate. Someone must have taken it on faith that Grandma was born on August 16th 1894 in the village of Ocasta, WA because there’s no evidence that she was despite the family mythology. There’s no record of her birth in Grays Harbor County period and no little girls were born there the year she was supposed to have come into the world. My mother had always believed that the records were burned in a fire, hence no birth certificate. There was no such fire.

Looking back my Aunt Mary knew something about it and didn’t tell my mother. Before his death my aunt had had a conversation with my grandfather who had sworn her to secrecy. When Grandma died Aunt Mary should have figured that her oath was lifted and spoken up while there might have been a trail to follow back to my grandmother’s beginnings, but she kept her secret for a good long while even after both of her parents were dead. As far as I know she kept the secret even after my father and uncle were dead and they knew something about it or thought they did.

My father and Uncle Pat used to tell my mother and aunt that their mother was adopted and Indian in ancestry. She had high cheekbones, dark hair and eyes and her daughters assumed they were taking advantage of those facts to give them a hard time. Being Native American would not have been a badge of honor in Vancouver, WA in the 1940s and ‘50s when I remember them making the claim. Seattle still had Jim Crow signs in shop windows. My mother laughed it off. At some point my aunt didn’t.

One day my aunt got into a fight with her husband over this allegation and in a fit of rage drove to my grandparents’ house to confront them. My grandmother was not at home, but Grandpa was and according to Aunt Mary he confirmed the story of my grandmother’s origin. And here’s where it gets even crazier. He also claimed that Grandma didn’t know and swore my aunt to a secrecy she kept too well.

Undoubtedly my aunt was upset about this revelation and was only too happy to keep it a secret. It wasn’t until her own daughter became too ill to work and needed health care that the story came to light and EVERYONE who might have known something was dead. Obviously it would have been nice to question my grandfather. He was 13 years older than my grandmother and had known the family from the time they moved from Grays Harbor to Vancouver, WA and obviously could have known that Ruth was not Amanda and Royal Austin’s natural daughter. My father and uncle had some reason for alleging the very same thing. Where did they get their information? If the story was circulating in Vancouver had my grandmother heard it?

And there’s one more piece of information that could be a clue. Amongst my grandfather’s effects my aunt found a letter that was in her grandfather’s papers. In the handwritten letter Royal bequeathed a sum of money to a home for unwed mothers in Lewis County should his wife and daughter precede him in death. They didn’t and the bequest was never made, but it does make one wonder.

So, I’m going to quit looking for Grandma in Grays Harbor County and look in Lewis County. The problems I face are the age of records and the real possibility that if she were Native American her adoption might have been suspect. Tribes were loath to give up children, but it is possible that her mother was white which would account for a home for unwed mothers being part of the equation. The University of Washington Library Archives suggested the Timberland Library System as well as the Lewis County Museum so I've sent queries. On the advice of the Lewis County Clerk I’ve also ordered a copy of my grandmother’s death certificate, but I expect it to contain erroneous information. Stay tuned.

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