Three lives were changed today. That is the power of the Red Cross.
A few weeks back, a request to locate “John P. Smith”* (John Jr.) landed on my desk. Family linking, after disaster, war, or other humanitarian emergency is a fundamental activity of the Red Cross. When affecting families separated across international borders, our Restoring Family Links service kicks in.
In the case of John Smith, I was understandably cynical about our chance at success, given the commonness of the name and the fact that the Philippo - the seeker and John’s uncle - had not had any contact with him or his sister Maria in forty years.
The back story was that John H. Smith (John Sr.) had served in Italy during WWII. While there, he married a young Italian bride named Maria and had two children, John (Jr.) and Mary. They later divorced, and John Sr. moved back to the U.S. with his children. A few years later, after their father’s early death, the children wound up in foster care.
Philippo began looking for the children not long after John Sr. left Italy. Philippo eventually moved to Australia, but never gave up the search save for an extended period of illness. According to Philippo, Maria, the children’s mother, never gave up looking either, but in the early years after her ex-husband’s departure, she remained embarrassed and reclusive, given that divorcees were not looked upon kindly at that time. Philippo’s renewed search was prompted by Maria’s death 3 years ago and by his own advancing age.
According to public records, John Sr.’s son John Jr. and likely his wife - probably named Barbara Louise - were both deceased. The only remaining leads were the name of their possible daughter, Louise, and at least a dozen telephone numbers of anyone ever associated with anyone who might have been connected to John Jr., including the residents of his parent’s former address. The outcome of every phone call was a frustrating: “This number is no longer in service.” Several of the alternate addresses provided did not exist.
There was little more to go on at that point. Each and every search using a combination of all of the names involved turned up either results on Ancestry written by Philippo years ago or dozens of families named Smith. Further, searching for a “Mary Smith,” who by now would most likely have married and changed her name, would be tantamount to searching for a needle in a haystack. That left me with John Jr.’s daughter Louise as my only viable lead.
The name Louise Smith resulted in dozens of dubious leads, while numerous cold calls to strangers by the surname Smith turned out to be all dead ends.
There was only one last thing to do: a “drive-by” of the last known address, combined with house visits to neighbors for any tidbit of information that might offer new leads. The challenge with these house visits is that these days, an anonymous knock on the door is met with suspicion, addresses are in sketchy neighborhoods or no one is home.
Then a light bulb went off in my head.
By comparing a city’s property tax records with online maps, I could make a list of every neighbor in the vicinity of the last known address. Twenty five letters and a week later two neighbors contacted me. But the emotional call came almost two weeks to the day when Lisa, Mary’s daughter, left a voicemail on my work phone.
“I’m calling on behalf of my cousin Louise Smith.” We received a letter from you in the mail regarding relatives of ours who are trying to get in touch with us and we are very very very very anxious to talk to you.”
“My cousin Louise is the one you sent the letter to - I’ll give you a little more detail when we have a chance to talk. She and her social worker requested that our side of the family handle this. “
“John Smith was my uncle; Mary Smith is my mother and we are very anxious to speak with you.”
“As you can imagine we are very anxious to talk to you. I am a school teacher but believe it or not my students know a little about my family history so if the phone rings in the middle of the class I will stop what we are doing and answer it.”
I called her back right away; she was with her 8th grade class, her excitement palatable as she relayed a family history that differed somewhat with Philippo’s.
She wrote after our conversation,
“I can’t express how weird it feels to wonder about something for so long and all of a sudden be this close to finding some answers.”
“Holy cow. I’m 43 years old and I can tell you that I literally thought this day would never come.”
I get chills rereading that last line.
According to Lisa’s mother Mary, John Sr. returned to the U.S. on military orders with the intention of bringing the rest of the family over as soon as he could. Meanwhile, Maria, who had been a 19 year old bride, had serious enough unstated issues to result in the two children being found scrounging food out of a public trash bin. The State Department got involved and the children were brought to the U.S. and into John Sr.’s custody.
Unfortunately, this occurred during the Depression, and it wasn’t uncommon for families to place their children in orphanages when they thought the State could take better care of them. Indeed, John Sr. suffered from chronic illness, and eventually died. The children were moved from the orphanage into foster care.
Lisa and her mother Mary attempted to contact Philippo years ago via letter. They never heard back. Meanwhile, Philippo had been searching relentlessly for his niece and nephew for four decades.
We quickly provided both sides of the family the others’ contact information. Lisa contacted me soon after to say,
“Thank you so much for the info. It was, quite possibly, one of the most surreal, unbelievable experiences of my life. To have something that’s been so difficult for so long all of a sudden be as easy as a phone call…wow…and we can never, ever thank you enough for everything you did to make it happen. It will be interesting to piece together the family’s history from here; I fear that Sergio and his family may have a different version of the events than we do, but the important thing is that we now know that we don’t exist in a complete vacuum.”
*All names and places have been changed to honor confidentiality