Monday, June 8, 2009

Madness Monday – Family Secrets!

Warning: This is going to be a long post!

I am currently reading the book Annie’s Ghosts by Steve Luxemberg. He writes about the shock of learning that his mother had a secret sister and his search to find out all he can about her (I highly recommend this book). As I’m reading it, I’m thinking, “how would I react in this situation?” Well, I have since found out!

When I first began my family research, I didn’t have much on my father’s side. I received a few names from my cousin on my paternal grandfather’s family – the Farrell’s – that have proven very fruitful. However, my paternal grandmother seemed to have just appeared out of thin air, that my grandfather wished for a bride and there she was! Actually, I did have a couple of tidbits – I always knew that she was called “Nellie” and she was born on April Fool’s Day. I never got to spend too much time with her because I lived clear across the country and we only visited maybe every 3-5 years. When she passed away in 1980, I was sent a copy of her funeral card, which gave her full name as well as her birth and death dates and where she was born (Ellen Devylin, b. April 1, 1892 in Euckenleck, Ayrshire, Scotland, d. May 22, 1980).

I tried searching on Ancestry for Ellen Devylin born on April 1, 1892 in Euckenleck. I soon found that her last name is Devlin and it’s Auchinleck (so much for accuracy on funeral cards!). I revised my search and still came up empty. I decided to try something way off base and used her nickname, Nellie, and the first entry that showed up was the 1901 Scottish Census showing a Nellie Devlin born about 1892 in Auchinleck, daughter of William Devlin and living in Auchinleck. O.K. that’s a possibility. I scroll down a little further and find another Nellie Devlin born about 1892 in Auchinleck but living in Sorn, Ayrshire (which is not too far from Auchinleck). O.K. now I’m beginning to think that someone is just playing with my mind – how can this same person be on the same census report living in two different places. I look at the file and see that this Nellie Devlin is the daughter of Peter Devlin. Turns out that Peter and William are brothers and they both had a daughter named Nellie born about 1892. By now I’m pulling my hair out. How can two brothers have a daughter born the same year and call them both the same name? Why are they doing this to me!! How am I supposed to know which one is my grandmother and why hasn’t my Aunt answered my letter of two months ago where I asked her for this information! I decided to give up for now and go concentrate on my mom’s side of the family – they were a lot easier to find!

I have a little tree up on Ancestry of my Farrell family and a couple of weeks ago I noticed a little green leaf next to my grandmother’s name. I clicked on it to see the “hint”. Someone is also researching the Devlin line and has a Helen Nellie Devlin born April 2, 1892 in Auchinleck. Well, that’s pretty darn close, especially the “Nellie”. I do know that Nellie is a nickname for Helen so my grandmother’s name could have been Helen instead of Ellen. The birth date is also nearly bang on. The Helen Devlin posted on Ancestry has a father named Peter (maybe I’m getting somewhere here, I think), but, and that’s a big BUT, this Helen had a child named Peter Gibb Devlin who died at 4 months old, father unknown (I kind of figured that with the same last name that the child was illegitimate). Frustration has fallen in my lap once again because “I know” that my grandmother only got married and had a family AFTER she immigrated to Canada.

I decided to continue to search, this time on Rootsweb and found someone else searching the Devlin line. He also had a Helen Devlin born April 2, 1892 in Auchinleck, whose father was Peter Devlin, with a child named Peter Gibb Devlin that died at 4 months old (father unknown). This was getting way too coincidental. But I just “knew” this couldn’t be my grandmother because she didn’t have kids until she came to Canada – or so I thought!!!

The time had come to pick up the phone and call my procrastinating Aunt! Here is how the conversation went:

Ring, Ring

Aunt Lily: Hello?
Me: Is this Lily?
Lily: Yes.
Me: Hi Auntie Lily, it’s Alana.
Lily: From Montreal? (I think I shocked her that I was calling because I haven’t spoken to her in 3 years)
Me: Ya, how are you doing?
Lily: I’m doing great (which was good to hear since she had a 7 by-pass operation 2 years ago). I bet you’re calling to find out when I’m going to answer your letter.
Me: Kinda!
Lily: I don’t know how much I can help, I think you have everything.
Me: Any little bit would help. What I was wondering, though, was if you remember what your mother’s parents names were.
Lily: Her parent’s names – no I don’t. (crap!). Your granny and her parents didn’t get along very well and she didn’t speak of her life before coming to Canada. I don’t know if you know this, but she had two little girls before coming here.
Me: What? (after picking myself up off the floor) Really?
Lily: Yes – and she left them behind when she immigrated.
Me: What? (picking myself up for the second time) Was Granny married before she came to Canada.
Lily: Oh no, but she did have a boyfriend and they were planning on getting married. See, you never know what you're going to find when you start searching (no kidding!)

By now I’m so stunned I’m speechless. I was hoping for her to maybe mention a little boy, but two little girls? She never did mention a little boy and I was too stunned to ask.

Apparently my grandmother had two illegitimate girls while still living in Scotland. She and her boyfriend were planning on getting married but this caused a problem with her mother. Because my grandmother was still living at home, with the little girls, her mother was getting money, my Aunt thinks possibly from the government. If my grandmother married or moved away and took the girls with her, her mother would no longer receive this money. This caused such a rift between my grandmother and her mother that my grandmother got so upset that she up and left. Not just the house, or the town, but the country – and left her two little girls behind. That must have torn her apart.

I asked my Aunt if my grandfather knew about this and she said no, that my grandmother kept this a secret during their 45 years of marriage. I assumed that she decided that she was going to start fresh in this new country and forget what was past. Not so - my grandmother kept in contact with her sister who updated my grandmother on the little girls and how they were doing, but destroyed the letters before my grandfather saw them. She carried this secret with her to her grave. My Aunt only found this out by accident in 1990 – 10 years after my grandmother died. On her way home from a visit in Montreal, she made a stop over in Winnipeg to visit her cousin, Nettie. While there, Nettie says to my Aunt “I don’t know if you know this, but I’m really not your cousin – I’m your niece!” Nettie is the child of one of these little girls that my grandmother left behind. She has been living in Canada for a long time and has been “posing” as my Aunt’s cousin to protect my grandmother’s secret (she would really be my cousin). All that time my grandmother knew that Nettie was her granddaughter but couldn’t acknowledge it for fear that her secret would come out.

My Aunt has promised to send me the stuff I requested as well as Nettie’s address so I can write to her to get the whole truth.

Since speaking with my Aunt I have managed to find my grandmother’s birth record, which lists her father as Peter Devlin (one mystery solved). Just out of curiosity, I searched for the death record of this Peter Gibb Devlin and I found it on ScotlandPeople. He is listed as illegitimate, mother’s name is “Nellie” Devlin, and grandfather is Peter Devlin. So, did my grandmother actually have 3 children before coming to Canada. Who are these little girls, how old were they when my grandmother left and who is the father (or fathers)? The questions are just coming from everywhere. Now the wait is on again for my Aunt to send Nettie’s address.

I just hope I don’t have to wait another two months. I don't think I could take it!


  1. Wow, what a story, thank you for sharing!!! You just never know what kind of information people will take to their grave. I just found out several months ago that my grandmother who died in 1974 had a little girl before she got married that she gave up for adoption. No one on this side of the family had a clue!

  2. That's an amazing story! This should be a really fascinating branch to research. Thanks for posting this; I really enjoyed reading it.

  3. Great read!How sad for your Grandmother to live her life with those secrets.But I'm sure she thought she was protecting everyone involved.Look forward to hearing more!

  4. Great presentation of your story. I couldn't stop reading. I can't wait for your post after you find and add them to your family.
    Thanks for sharing.

  5. It almost sounds like Amy Tan's mother in China, doesn't it? Sad times in your grandmother's day, and illegitimacy was a shameful thing. Your great-grandmother ruled the roost, as did most mothers, and your grandmother had few choices if she wanted to live her own life. I am glad the sisters continued corresponding, but so tragic that your grandfather never knew and your grandmother felt she had to destroy all the letters (and photos?). I stumbled across your blog while looking for information on "Annie's Ghosts."

  6. Wow, I'm so glad that I just discovered your blog. That's the best genealogy story I've heard all month, and I just came from a genealogy convention where I heard a lot of stories! Isn't it sad that this was all hidden. It made your research so difficult!

  7. Heather, I'm glad you found my blog - hope you return often. Needless to say, this family secret was quite a surprise to me. My aunt finally sent the address of this new cousin of mine (my grandmother's "other" grandaughter. I'm trying to gather my thoughts and info together so that I can write her. It's going to be a strange letter to write and I'm hoping she can shed some more light on the situation.