It was a hot summer afternoon – a good time to be inside where the cool air from the swamp cooler wafted over us. Chris and I were engaging in our annual ritual of sifting through boxes of unidentified photos, letters and other memorabilia that had been among our mother’s possessions when she died. Most of it had actually come from our grandmother – who passed away in 1976.
Mother never felt comfortable asking questions about her family in northeast England – she always felt she was butting against a brick wall. Our grandparents immigrated to Canada when she was a year old and appeared to have cut ties with everyone. “I never knew anything about our family’s past or what motivated them to leave England,” Mom told us in her later years.
In fact, it took her at least five years to get up the nerve to look through the boxes of letters and photos. By time she did, so much was a mystery to her – and prompted Chris to begin her genealogical search to help Mom recreate her past. Bits and pieces of information began to piece together and previously unknown photos and names on letters started to fall into place. Yet many items remained a mystery – and became the basis for our annual summer ritual of looking at things with fresh eyes that now had more pieces to the puzzle.
“I came across this photo,” Chris said as she handed it to me, “when I was looking for some pictures of the girls when they were little. “She had been my pen pal when I was in high school.” she continued. “She was related in some way and Gram told me I should write to her – that we were the same age. She was someone Gram met when she visited England after Grandpa died in 1958. We wrote a few times, but didn’t seem to have much to say to each other; however, she sent me this picture. Although I have thought about her from time to time, I can’t even remember her name.”
It was a girl with a polka dot skirt who appeared to be standing on a ship or dock. We dubbed her ‘the girl in the polka dot skirt.’
The picture prompted us to look through the box of letters one more time to see if there were any clues.
There it was – almost at the bottom of the box – a letter from Gram. It was postmarked from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and talked about her visit.
Since Gram had eight siblings, some of whom we had not been able to find records for, it would be hard to know which niece she might be referring to.
Despite her closed-mouth response to Mom about her family, we discovered that she was in contact with some of her family. In 2002, our cousin Alan who lives in the UK, was able to track down and meet Lyn, the grand-daughter of Gram’s sister, Eliza. When Lyn wrote to introduce herself, she mentioned that when she had looked in her mother’s address book, she found Gram’s name and address in Yucaipa, CA!The picture of the ‘girl in the polka dot skirt’ went with us on a trip to the UK in 2008, along with an old weathered photo of a woman in fancy dress and a man in a top hat – taken behind a house. On that visit we met with descendants of our mutual great-grandparents, Samuel and Mary Jones. They were descendants from Samuel and Mary’s oldest daughter, Eliza – and we were descendants from their oldest son, Thomas. We would learn that the families of Thomas and Eliza remained close, most living in the Sherrif’s Hill and Windy Nook areas of Gateshead. We had always wondered how/why our grandparents lived there when Mom was born.
We discovered that the weathered photo was of Mathew and Eliza Mason, taken when their daughter Mary Jane married Isaac Hewitt.
When Chris passed around the photo of the ‘girl in the polka dot skirt,’ our cousin Harry said, “I have seen that picture before.” A couple of others also acknowledged it, but no one knew her name. And, in the past two and a half years, there have been no new revelations.
When Gram arrived in Gateshead in 1958, she first attempted to visit Stage relatives so she could tell them in person that her husband had died. After a chilly reception, she spent time with her extended Jones family. One of those was her cousin Elizabeth. In a letter to our mother she wrote, “you know, she is named after me.” And, in a letter to Chris and me she said, “they have treated me like a queen and just done everything to make me happy.”
When she returned, she suggested that Chris become her cousin Elizabeth’s daughter’s pen pal.
The picture remains a nagging mystery. Since all of the second and third cousins we have met and maintained contact with have helped us connect more dots and feel like we are part of a large extended family, we continue to hope that someone will recognize the girl in the picture and assist us to make contact.
“I am going to write about the girl in the polka dot skirt,” I told Chris recently. “Maybe the notion of the Six Degrees of Separation (a chain of, “a friend of a friend” statements can be made, on average, to connect any two people in six steps or fewer) will help us find her. “I will post my blog story on Facebook and urge people with ties to northeast England to share it with their friends.”
I am counting on the Six Degrees of Separation to help us find ‘the girl in the polka dot skirt.”