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What’s in a Name? Finding Your Roots

Pauline Rose Levey

Published in ChicagoNow, October 8, 2014

At first, all we had was a name – Pauline Rose. When my father-in-law, Albert, died at the age of 57, my mother-in-law divulged the secret. He was not an orphan. His father had institutionalized his mother, Pauline, when he was five. Albert and his three older sisters were divided among family members, and their father disappeared.

Because my husband’s father told everyone he was an orphan and rarely spoke of his parents or three older sisters, his side of the family did not exist. Such is the power of secrets and shame. When we found the only photo of his family that existed and saw “Indianapolis” written on the back, we set out to discover who Pauline Rose was and what happened to her.

I suppose my husband’s search for this broken branch from his family tree was also a journey to reconnect with the father he lost at a relatively young age. The search started with finding out about what happened to his grandmother Pauline. Sadly, she was committed to Central State Hospital in Indianapolis in 1921 at age 36. She spent the next 45 years of her life there, dying at age 80 in 1966.

Through old-fashioned detective work, during one of our visits to Indianapolis my husband found the funeral home that arranged for Pauline’s burial. Ironically, our daughter and son-in-law had settled there. On one cold and rainy visit, we went to search for her grave.

When we found Pauline’s grave, we didn’t realize we were just at the beginning of our search. My husband also obtained Pauline’s hospital records and discovered she came from a very large family. Now we had lots of names and we wondered who these great aunts and uncles were. A couple of the younger aunts appeared occasionally in the years my husband was growing up, but what about the rest of them?

At this point, we turned to the Internet and looked up all of those names. It was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle as we reconstructed the tree branch by branch. We found out about Aunt Billee, who performed with Sally Rand at the Chicago World’s Fair and died just a few miles from where we live in 1988. We discovered Aunt Marie, who lived most of her life raising three unknown first cousins not so far from where my husband grew up. We learned about Aunt Bertie, who grew up in Texas and had four kids who were also unknown first cousins.

Then we found six of those first cousins, met some of them, and talked to the rest. We learned about their families and they about ours. We found another cousin who lived near my family in Michigan. And that opened the door to more names and even older branches on the tree, as he was the grandson of Pauline’s oldest sister, Rose. Sitting in his house, pouring through his mother’s old photo albums, we were able to add all of those missing names from Pauline’s generation to a family tree.

Here are the names of people whose existence was unknown to my husband until recently: In addition to Pauline’s older sister, Rose, we found photos of her younger siblings Paul, Zell, Fan, Max, Sid, Gerry, and Georgia. As the Michigan cousin, David, shared what he knew about these previously hidden great aunts and uncles, they became real people and my husband felt closer to his father and his roots. And when we found a photo of the 9 siblings who survived childhood with their parents, Lena and Lewis (Lewis had died and someone pasted his head into the picture), we had climbed as far up the family tree as we could.

Then we climbed down the tree and found first cousins descended from Pauline who are scattered all over the country. Now their names – Greg, Donna, Roberta, Harriet, Dale, and Patty – are names that have come to mean something. Meeting some and corresponding with others has led to more discoveries about Pauline, her siblings, and her life.

So, what’s in a name? It turns out a lot if you have the time and inclination to look.


by Laurie Levy
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