I continued to follow the trail of my great-grandmother Josefa, who had emigrated from Slovenia in 1899.
She had at least one baby in Minnesota who did not survive, two years before she gave birth to my grandmother. From the Federal Census records, I knew the little family had left Minnesota within a few years for another mining community—in Pennsylvania. By the time of the 1910 Census, Josefa had become Josephine, and my grandmother had a younger brother: Joseph, born in Pennsylvania about five years earlier. Eventually, I knew, the family ended up in Ohio, with the couple living apart.
I never could figure out how and when the family began to unravel. I’m not certain Josephine and Louis ever ended their marriage legally, although both were described as “divorced” on later documents, and they were viewed that way by their Roman Catholic community. Their two children were “treated like bastards,” according to my mother.
The end of my great-grandmother’s journey remained the biggest mystery of all. My mother told me that her grandmother died when she was a child. But I had come across photos of a family headstone, in a cemetery in a Cleveland suburb, on an Internet site called Find a Grave. There were three names: my grandfather, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother. According to the inscription, Josephine had been the first one to die—in 1956. That meant my great-grandmother had survived into the early years of my own childhood—a thought that brought me up short.
Still, my mother insisted her grandmother had died long before I was born. Her story seemed convincing, because of the details the recalled. Her grandmother, she said, had died of breast cancer. Her mother had excused her from attending the funeral, because it would have been so “upsetting” to her. “I was a nervous child,” my mother admitted.
Finally, I found a resource that helped resolve the question: The Cleveland Necrology Files. Despite the macabre name, this was simply an archive of death notices and obituaries from area newspapers, maintained by the Cleveland Public Library. When I searched the online archives, I found a copy of a funeral notice for my great-grandmother:
Apr 25 1956
Source: Cleveland Press; Cleveland Necrology File, Reel #089.
Notes: Adamic, Josephine, wife of Louis (deceased), beloved mother of Joseph (deceased), and Mary Kozlevcar and grandmother. Friends received 7 To 10 P. M. Wednesday And 2 To 5 And 7 To 10 P. M. Thurday at Kenneth A., Bolton Funeral Home, 19309 Nottingham Rd. Services at St. Mary's Church, Holmes Ave., on Friday, at 10 a. m.
So I had at least confirmed the approximate date. But then I realized one important detail was missing: Where had she been living at the time of her death?
When I attempted to locate an official death certificate through the Cuyahoga County office of vital statistics, nothing turned up. I began to worry that Josephine had been “disappeared” into an institution during my mother’s childhood—a psychiatric hospital, a home for inebriates, or even a prison—where she had languished for twenty years or more before she died.
My fears were reinforced by another troubling fact: I could find no direct evidence of my great-grandmother’s existence after the 1910 census. She failed to appear again in the federal census—not even in the 1930 records, where I found my mother as a little girl in Cleveland, living with her siblings, her parents, and her Uncle Joe.
Eventually, after I’d send off a few letters and written a couple of checks, a copy of my great-grandmother Josephine Adamic’s death certificate arrived in the mail. It confirmed her death from breast cancer—in 1956. She had died in another county, forty miles or more from Cleveland. So that explained why I had initially failed in my search for records.
At the time of her death, she had been a patient for two years in a nursing home, in a town called Windsor. But her home address was also listed: a familiar street in Collinwood, the Slovenian neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side where the rest of the family had lived.
I felt relief— even more than I expected—to learn that she had not been locked away in an institution for decades. .
But now I had a new question—her true birth date. In several other documents—and on the headstone—her birth year was 1880. So she would have been seventy-six, when she died 1956.
But the death certificate said she’d died at seventy-one. It also gave, for the first time, a complete date for her birth: April 24, 1885. She had died exactly seventy-one years later, in 1956.
I struggled with how much credence to give this new information. Had she really died on her birthday? If the new birth date was accurate, it meant my great-grandmother had emigrated—and married—at the age of fourteen rather than nineteen, as the records claimed.
Then I recalled something else: another age discrepancy, which I’d overlooked at the time, also suggesting her true birth year might be later than 1880. It she was really twenty years old when my grandmother was born, as the 1902 birth certificate claimed—well, she couldn’t have been nineteen in 1899, when she arrived in the U.S.
Once again, the image of an old woman dissolved, and I imagined a young girl, alone in a new country, not knowing the language. Doing whatever she had to do, in order to make her way, whether it was lying about her age or marrying a near stranger, at least eleven years her senior. To imagine that she was only fourteen at the time was heartbreaking.
Josephine never did learn much English, according to my mother.
It was strange, the way my mother’s memory of her grandmother seemed to improve, the more I searched for her.
Her grandmother was “a kind woman,” my mother said. She had a separate little apartment, with a small kitchen, in the upper floor of the family’s quarters. Her drinking was the quiet variety. She kept to herself. Come to think of it, my mother didn’t recall her mother and grandmother talking to each other much. She didn’t really know what kind of relationship they had.
Josephine worked in a pie factory. My mother and her siblings used to walk to the corner, to meet their grandmother at the bus stop, so she wouldn’t have to walk home alone after dark. Sometimes she brought home broken pies, too damaged to be sold. My mother suspected she might have broken the pies herself, so she would have something to bring back to the family.
“It’s strange,” my mother mused, “that my mother and I never visited my grandmother, when she was in that nursing home. That’s not like us.”
Perhaps. However, in fairness to my mother, in April of 1956 she was about to give birth to her fourth child in six years—my youngest sister, who would die before she reached two. The nursing home was almost fifty miles away, not accessible by public transportation. My grandparents never owned a car, and I am not sure my own family had a car at that point. So the failure to visit isn’t so hard to understand.
What is more troubling is the bigger question: How did my mother lose track of the last two decades of her grandmother’s life? And how did Josefa, a young girl who must have left Slovenia with some measure of hope and determination, turn into Josephine, alone and forgotten in America?
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders