Discovering the past is a gift in the present


Of all the wonderful places to experience in the United Kingdom, which hot spot was at the top of my list when my wife and I journeyed to the British Isles last spring? It was the Bristol Lunatic Asylum, of course. Why this unusual destination? It’s a story that’s all about ancestry and ultimately about family.

During visits with my parents in their final years, I jotted down bits of information about various branches of our family tree. One day Mom told me about Mary Egan, my Irish great-grandmother, who married Dr. George Thompson. He directed the Bristol Lunatic Asylum and was killed by a patient who hit him in the head with a flowerpot.

Intrigued by this revelation, I posted that tidbit of genealogy on Ancestry.com and was answered by a distant cousin who had traced our Egan lineage back to the 1500s. He also put me in touch with a long-lost cousin in England, who had inherited a cottage full of memorabilia from my mother’s aunt, a family archivist. Her collection was a treasure trove that included letters written by my mother, grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents.

Last April, I was graciously hosted at my cousin’s home in Berkshire. The first evening, we read letters exchanged between my great-grandfather, Dr. George Thompson, and his future father-in-law Rev. John Egan. I was in awe of their use of elegant Victorian language debating the merits of George marrying John’s daughter Mary, and knew the trip was already a complete success.

We made a pilgrimage to the Bristol Lunatic Asylum chapel, constructed during my great-grandfather’s tenure. There we saw marble altar sculptures immortalizing my great-grandmother as Mary and my grandfather as the baby Jesus. I also visited my mother’s birthplace in Bristol and walked the cobblestone streets of Clovelly, the seaside village where my great-grandparents Mary and George met in 1874. In Dublin, I toured the home of my great-great-grandparents whose neighbors were Oscar Wilde’s family.

Genealogy has led me to historical books about my father’s ancestors and to email connections with cousins as far away as Argentina and South Africa. After 10 years of research and archiving hundreds of photos, letters and documents, I published everything I had learned in a book for my family titled “We Made It So Far.” The name is derived from one of my father’s wry sayings. In his later years, when asked how he and Mom were doing, Dad would invariably reply “We made it so far!” That phrase reflects the spirit of my parents’ journey through life, individually and together. They were two amazing individuals from vastly different backgrounds who met through a combination of character, fate and destiny.

In 1933 my mom, whose parents were British ex-patriots living in Rio, arrived in Brazil after completing her schooling in England. Sadly, her father died a few days later, on her 17th birthday.

The next day, Dad, who was from a family of South Carolina cotton mill workers and the first to graduate high school, sailed into Rio from the United States to begin work with IBM. Looking for an apartment, he found Mom in the courtyard of her home, grieving alone. Dad was instantly attracted to Mom and asked her to go for a walk on the beach. She declined, but in the following months he persisted until her mother, using an English colloquialism, said “You should knock my daughter up sometime,” which meant he was formally invited to knock on her door. He did, they began courting, were married, raised a family of five children and were a devoted couple for over 70 years.

I would love to have another hour or two with my parents and grandparents to ask questions and listen to more stories of their lives. One day, I still may discover the true heritage of my grandfather, who is said to have been part Cherokee, and learn if my great-grandfather did indeed vanish in the Brazilian jungle while exploring a diamond mine. However, these facts may remain lost in mystery forever.

After my parents’ passing, I archived their photos, letters and documents as a way to know them better, keep their memory alive and learn more about myself through my ancestors. This remarkable journey into the past has given me a way to honor my parents and leave, as my legacy, a gift for my family and future generations.

Recently, I sent the ancestry book and a collection of scanned family letters to my siblings, nieces, nephews and cousins. My hope is that the stories, genealogy, speculation and imagination will encourage them and their descendants to discover more about our ancestors and be inspired to live life’s journey to the fullest.

It means the world to me knowing that my 5-year-old grand-nephew wants to know more about his great-grandpa’s adventures and that my niece will share our family history with her children when they are older.

Through DNA analysis, I now know my far-distant ancestors ventured out of Africa 1,000 generations ago. Thanks to them, to those brave souls who left their European homelands to sail to America in the 1700s, and to my dear parents who met by chance in Brazil, I have made it so far.

— Richard Rogers is an avid genealogist, web designer and webmaster at VoiceOfVashon.org.

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