Last week, I wrote about a book I recently read called The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century. I met David Laskin at the Chuckanut Writers Conference in Bellingham, Washington. In this post, you’ll see why the timing of our meeting is so interesting.
Sometimes, a casual conversation with my mother changes the entire trajectory of my life. One such conversation in 1998 resulted in my first book, When a Grandchild Dies. That book, and the personal transformation that resulted, propelled me into a life I could never have imagined.
A few months ago, we had another one of those conversations. I’m unsure as to where it will lead, but I know now to get ready for a new and exciting journey!
Hubby and I had decided to plan a long trip. Most of our travel lately has been to visit family, and our feet are itchy for new adventure. Where to go? Bronte Country in England is on our list, so that seemed like the place to start.
Then I looked north on the map, to Scotland. My great-grandfather, Hugh Stein, grew up there, emigrating in 1896 at 21. I’d always planned to go. Why not now?
So of course, I called Mom to give her the news. Was there anything in particular she wanted me to see?
“No one knows where my great-grandparents are buried,” she said. “It would be nice if you could find their graves.”
“I’m on it,” I said. Then I hung up the phone and thought, what have I gotten myself into? I had no experience in these matters…not that this has ever stopped me.
Within a day, though, with the help of the Internet, I found the graves — sort of.
Yes, I found the graves of Robert and Maggie Stein. I also learned, however, that Hugh Stein had a different mother — Jane Thorburn, a woman whose name I had never heard before.
Ten months after giving birth to Hugh, Jane died of typhoid fever at 26. Robert married Margaret a few years later, and she became the only mother Hugh knew. Jane vanished into the ethers of history until my search resurrected her. But was it true? Had I found correct information?
“He always called himself Hugh Thorburn Stein,” Mom said, “but he was such a storyteller we thought he just made it up.”
I had found confirmation. Naturally, the curious writer in me whispers, what other stories are there? I’m currently researching a probable connection to an innovative but scurrilous whisky dynasty.
Soon we will pay our respects to Robert and Maggie Stein. But what about Jane? Most likely, my sources tell me, she is somewhere in an unmarked grave, but local records will tell the tale. The “kirk sessions records,” kept by the local parish church, may also offer clues. Those are not online, so I will go to them.
Hugh Stein was given his father’s name at birth, so we know the family acknowledged him. We know he grew up to be a fine man, a loving husband, and someone who cared about his community. We do not know about the mysterious woman who brought him into the world, and I hope to change that.
This upcoming trip to Scotland will be unlike any vacation I’ve ever taken. These are my people and my roots. And perhaps, somewhere and somehow, we will find my great-great grandmother Jane, and welcome her back into our family. She’s been invisible long enough.