“My family never shared anything about my family history,” a friend recently told me.
“It must be the Chinese way,” his wife added.
“Oh, no,” I retorted. “I think it is generational. My grandmother was absolutely closed-mouthed about her relatives in England. We didn’t learn about them until after our mother’s death.”
“You need to watch The Joy Luck Club,” I told my friends. It could be your story also.
The night before my sister Chris and I left for the UK to finally meet recently discovered relatives, tears began to stream down my face as I re-watched The Joy Luck Club. The story had spoken to me when I first read the book and longed to find my mother’s relatives. It seemed relevant to the journey we would take the following day to actually meet some.
The journey began for me on May 8, 2001 when I received the following email message: “Purely by chance I have come across your entries in the Stage Surname Bulletin Board relating to Jane Bell Stage. I have a lot of information on the family of William and Jane Stage – they were my great grandparents.” It was signed Alan Nicholson. I was stunned as they were also my great grandparents.
It was late in the afternoon and I was still at work, but called Chris to read her the email, and then immediately wrote back to Alan, “I literally started crying when I read your message; my sister and I have been trying to locate Mom’s relatives for such a long time. We would love to hear more about the family…”
After sending the message, we didn’t know whether we would hear back right away. However, by time we had gotten up in the morning, there was an email response telling us that “I am delighted that we have been able to make contact and I am so pleased to have discovered family relatives in this way (our mothers were cousins although they didn’t know it!! I will be phoning my Mam to let her know the good news – she will be delighted. This will be the first of many emails I will be posting to you over the next few weeks, so be prepared!!”
Chris and I decided right then and there that we would make a trip to the UK in the fall.
Over the next several days Alan send us extensive information about our grandfather Stage’s ten brothers and sisters, including a photo of Jane Stage and her family taken in 1913.
By August we had determined that we would travel in early November. Then the terrorist attacks of September 11 looked like they would shatter our dream. However, by the end of September, we felt confident that we could travel safely to the UK. We would spend the first week in Elgin, Scotland doing research at the Family History Center and try to discover more information about our Brodie relatives, and then a week visiting with Alan and his parents.
We were the first ones in line at the TWA ticket counter at 8:45 on November 13.
We were also on the cusp of TSA travel screening. Chris was picked for a random bag search, and after being so careful not to wear any metal, I set off the alarm at security and had to be frisked because of the steel re-enforcement in my shoes.
We changed planes in Chicago and flew all night to Manchester, England. The horizon started getting light about 7 AM, and as we flew above the clouds, the early morning light looked like it was reflecting off a snowy landscape. By time we arrived in Elgin at 7:30 that evening, we realized we had been traveling for 36 hours.
Before leaving for Scotland, someone I had been corresponding with through the Moray listserve suggested that I write to the local newspaper, the Northern Scott – that occasionally they printed letters from people looking for local descendants. My letter was printed a week before we arrived in Elgin. I suggested that if anyone had information about the Brodie family, they could leave a message at the Family History Center. When we arrived and there were no messages, I was disappointed.
On our second day at the Family History Center, a staff person came and found me saying “There is someone here asking for you.” My heart was racing as I approached a woman who held a clipping of my letter to the paper.
“Are you the one looking for information about Brodies?” she inquired.
“Yes,” I responded.
She told me her maiden name was Brodie and that her grandfather was Robert. I had just found information about him from the family history files.
“Robert’s father was a brother to OUR great-grandfather,” I exclaimed.
At first she seemed incredulous; and then I showed her the genealogy chart.
“I am on my way to meet my sister,” she told me and handed me a piece of paper. “Call me this evening.”
As I walked back to where Chris was trolling through the microfiche,
I was crying, just like I did when I got the email from our 2nd cousin Alan. It was beyond our wildest dreams that we would actually meet a relative, and yet we kept hoping.
The following morning we wandered the side streets of Elgin
and explored the Saturday market to kill time until we were to meet Daphne and Marie at the library café.
Over tea, we learned about the Brodies from Llanbryde, a small village near Elgin. They showed us pictures and then asked if we wanted to visit the Llanbryde area and see the farm cottage in Moss of Barmuckity, where their grandfather and great grandfather had lived. Of course, we jumped at the chance.
From there they took us to the graveyard in Llanbryde and then a nearby cemetery where other family members were buried –
and then to lunch. We parted after lunch with promises to keep in touch.
In the afternoon we headed to the Elgin Cathedral
where earlier generations of Brodies were interred – several bodies to a grave. We had to jump through multiple hoops to prove we knew whose grave we wanted to visit before the attendant would give us the location. There is normally an entrance fee to visit the Cathedral; however, since we were descendants, we got in free. The inscriptions on the grave were almost impossible to read due to the moss.
Fortunately, we had gotten the full inscription at the family history center.
The next day we headed south to Edinburgh, changing trains in Inverness, where signs are in both English and Gaelic.
As the train climbed out of Inverness, the hills became more barren, the leaves were gone and the heather was a dull mat. It started to rain by time we got to Pitlochry, where we laughed remembering our failed attempts to communicate with a wizened shepherd on our prior visit there.
We had picked our lodging in Edinburgh by its name – The Brodie Guest House, a Georgian row house. Our room had 15 foot ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows with shutters, a fireplace, and antique furniture.
During our stay there we met another American family. The wife was a professional French horn player with the Baltimore Symphony. That meeting resulted in Chris’s daughter, Caroline, transferring a year later from Oberlin to Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore to continue her French horn studies.
By mid-afternoon, we were disembarking from the train in Northumberland where Alan met us with a bear hug and drove us to his parents’ home in Wallsend.
We spent the next seven hours getting acquainted, listening to stories, sharing pictures and learning about our Stage heritage and life in Wallsend at the turn of the century.
“I could have closed my eyes and thought I was listening to grandpa and grandma Stage instead of Joe and Gladys,” I nostalgically told Chris later that evening.
On what would have been Thanksgiving back in the U.S., Alan took us to Durham County where we were able to visit the church where our great grandparents were married
and then wander through the village of Langley Moor where our grandmother was born. After a visit to the Records Office, we drove to Durham Cathedral – arriving just as the Eventide was beginning. The music and organ were beautiful.
Alan wanted to take us to a restaurant where we could get a turkey dinner; however, since Durham was a college town, the eateries were primarily pubs and pizza. We settled for a pub and were extremely thankful to eat Yorkshire pudding with beef, carrots, broccoli and potatoes – washed down with Tennents Lager.
The next evening we enjoyed fish and chips with Joe and Gladys. The fish and chips shop where they picked up dinner, occupies the spot where a grocer had a shop when our great-grandparents and grandfather lived above the store and one of our grandfather’s brothers was a grocer’s apprentice.
On our last day, we went on a walking tour of Wallsend and saw the house where our grandparents lived when our Uncle Colin was born in 1908
and the house where the Stages lived when grandpa got married in 1907.
In the afternoon we visited the Hadrian’s Wall excavation site at Segedunum just a few blocks from Sedley Road where Joe and Gladys lived. We visited the old Roman Fort in 2000. It was strange to think that we were so close to the Nicholson’s and didn’t know that they existed.
It was hard to say good-bye to Joe and Gladys the next morning before Alan drove us to Manchester. It was the last time we would see Joe and have been forever grateful for the opportunity.
When we checked into the Holiday Inn at the Manchester Airport, it already seemed like we were edging back to reality. We reluctantly said good-bye to Alan and sent him on his way to Cheltenham.
We knew that this was a life-changing experience – and a true Blessing.