A few weeks ago, I reported on my frustrating search for my father's ancestors (and by extension, mine) somewhere in New York City.
I can now share the happy ending to this story.
Quick recap: my grandfather, Al, was born in New York. He lived there with his parents, Sam and Dora, and his sister Helen until he met my grandmother and moved to Hamilton to marry her.
My father and his brother knew very little about their history. Their one first cousin, the one who had some detail, had died many years earlier. Other than my great-grandparents' names, we were pretty much starting from scratch.
A couple of dear friends pitched in and helped with some research. With their help and support, we eventually found the burial site of my Aunt Helen. Sam and Dora proved unbelievably elusive. It got to the point where I began to joke - half-heartedly - that maybe they were really vampires who never actually died.
We didn't know exactly when they'd died. My father vaguely remembered their cemetery being near a bridge. Doesn't really help when you're on an island.
I did my own online research through Ancestry.com and some other genealogical sites. A couple of other people offered their own contributions. Road blocks and red herrings - including another Samuel Till, roughly the same age and also with a daughter named Helen - further muddied the water.
One Friday afternoon, when I was home early from work, I started making calls, to the NYC records offices, the Medical Examiner's office, and anyone else I could think of. I explained the nature of our hunt, that my dad had turned 75 and we were hoping to reconnect him with his family, and encountered a number of people who were sympathetic and offered to help.
Then, while my wife and I were on vacation elsewhere, my brother found and engaged a private researcher who specializes in this type of thing.
We shared with her the research we'd gathered to that point, including Helen's burial location (and, we assumed, that of her late husband).
The clock was ticking ever more loudly as the date of our departure loomed. One day, shortly after our earlier vacation, my brother called me at work and asked, "Have you looked at your email recently?"
So I did, and this is what I found:
For a few minutes, I just sat there, stunned. I didn't know how to react.
And then, I started to tear up. Partly I was feeling relief. Partly it was the recognition that we'd found the final piece of the puzzle.
Mostly, I think, it was about how it would affect my dad. My uncle, who was supposed to join us and had to bow out at the last minute, warned us, "Bring a big box of Kleenex. He's gonna blow."
He knows his brother.
Early on a Saturday morning in mid-August, my brother, father and I set out for Billy Bishop Airport and our flight to Newark. Even on a propeller-driven plane, the flight lasted barely an hour.
We got to our hotel around 11 am, got ourselves organized, and hit the Carnegie Deli for lunch. As a vegetarian, I was a little nervous about my food choices. It turned out the menu had what turned out to be a not-bad veggie burger, especially when blanketed with a thick slice of Swiss cheese.
From there we took the subway up to the Bronx and Yankee Stadium. We'd bought tickets in the Jim Beam Lounge, which turned out to have been remarkably prescient. The outside temperature that day was about 104C (approximately 37C).
My dad is 75. He's had heart, blood pressure and other health issues. He was so flushed from the walk in that heat that, when he stopped to ask for a glass of water at a concession stand, a kindly woman also offered him a bag of ice to help cool him down.
We stayed through the sixth inning, just long enough to see this:
Having watched my dad struggle with the trip up to the Bronx, we chose to hire a driver to take us back to our hotel. The driver, on learning we were there to celebrate my dad's birthday, spontaneously broke out into song. Very New York.
After a lovely dinner, we retired to our room for a well-deserved sleep.
Sunday morning started slowly, which was just fine. We'd arranged for our researcher to meet us at the hotel for breakfast. She came armed with even more information than we'd anticipated - and a couple of startling new facts.
For one thing, my father's great-grandparents were buried in the same cemetery as Sam and Dora. So were several of Dora's siblings. No one - not my father, not my uncle, no one - knew that their great-grandparents had ever lived in North America, much less having been buried there.
We also learned that my grandfather, Al (Hebrew name Avraham) was named after his grandfather. Since my daughter is named Abby (Hebrew name Ahava, after my grandfather) we now know that we can trace her name back at least five generations.
There was much more. Our researcher, Lauren, also confirmed that my family's surname was Till before they emigrated, meaning that - unlike many others - it hadn't been shortened upon arrival on these shores.
After brunch, we took a ride down to the World Trade Center Memorial. We got some pictures. It was too hot to do much more.
The driver then took us back up to the Bronx, to the neighbourhood where my grandfather and great-grandparents had lived. To the best of our knowledge, where their apartment building had once stood, there was now a storage facility.
After some negotiation and disagreement about where it was, we set out for Elmont, Long Island and the cemeteries that held my ancestors.
Sam and Dora and their direct relatives were in Maimonides Cemetery. It's very small, and with help from the office staff, we found them almost immediately.
Although it's probably not kosher, we took some pictures while we observed some quiet reflection time. Then we asked my dad if he wanted to say kaddish, the memorial prayer for the departed. He agreed, although he struggled to get through it.
Beth David Cemetery was just a couple of hundred feet down the road, more or less in an adjoining property. It was also several orders of magnitude larger.
We had to ask for directions twice before we found Harry and Helen. Part of the problem was that the section markers were mostly in Yiddish, a language largely lost to my generation. My brother and I wandered around for 90 minutes, in the scorching heat, treading up and down the rows of graves, some overgrown and faded with time. We knew we were in the right area when we started seeing similar-sounding surnames. Harry was a Marsand; we found Meersands and Mersands and so on.
My dad waited, sensibly, in the air-conditioned car while we conducted our search. As with Sam and Dora, just as we were about to give up trying, Harry and Helen presented themselves to us.
I made this same point on Facebook, and talked about how weird it had all been. A friend said, "It's not weird. They helped you find them." I love that idea.
We got my dad from the car, brought him to their graves, and paid our respects. Again, we said kaddish. My dad couldn't quite get through it, so we helped him.
My father, who's not exactly the world's most emotional person, told us several times that felt this trip had brought us closer. I think he might be right.
When we were growing up, he called my brother and me Charlie and Butch, respectively. It's been a long time since I've thought of that.
A journey like this can dredge up all kinds of issues, not all of them all together pleasant. If I were more spiritual, I would say we were blessed - absolutely everything worked out in the best possible way. Even with the oppressive heat, and a cancelled flight home (resulting in an unexpected overnight in beautiful Elizabeth, NJ), I can't complain about one single moment of it. It changed me.
I saw my dad happy, probably for the first time since I can remember. It was, quite literally, the trip of a lifetime.