A writer I am not, but every time I tell or write my grandfather’s story, it flows a little easier, almost like it’s become a part of my own life, like I was there. I often wonder how my grandfather would feel about me telling his story, a story he worked his whole life to bury. I hope he would be proud. I hope he would feel a sense of relief that he no longer has to feel ashamed of his past. I hope he knows he should be proud of everything he overcame. My grandfather’s story is long, tragic and twofold. It doesn’t start as a story about my grandfather, but of my father, his quest to know who he is and my quest to give him that answer.
My father was born in a small Iowa town in 1949, the fifth of seven children. At the time of his birth, his father was 51, his mother only 27. They were a poor family and a stable home life was lacking. My father’s older sister, approximately seven years older than him, did the child rearing. My grandfather was seldom home, always working or hunting in an attempt to provide for his family. My father has no memory of his mother and only a few fleeting memories of his father. When my father was six, his father passed away, leaving no means of support for the six children and the seventh on the way.
Approximately six months after my grandfather’s passing, all seven children were placed up for adoption. The oldest two, approximately sixteen and seventeen years old at the time, ran away from the orphanage and returned to their mother. The baby was adopted first, followed by my father and his younger sister, who were adopted together. My father’s older sibling was next, followed by the sister who had raised them. As a child, I always knew my father was adopted. I knew his parents’ names, his siblings names and where he was from. I knew that he did not have a good life with his birth parents and that he was much better off with his adoptive parents. His birth family was not a common topic of conversation, although he did occasionally tell stories about his siblings.
In 2000, my father had emergency open heart surgery and suddenly re-thought his choice to never look for his birth family. He visited the town he was born in and discovered that not only was his mother living, he had five half siblings, as well. His search also led him to the orphanage he had been placed in, now a library, which had a small notebook containing messages written by former residents and workers who had visited the home. In that notebook he found a message from one of his older brothers, looking for my father and my aunt. The note was dated 1981. Upon returning home, although he knew it was a long shot, he called the phone number listed in the note. Although it was disconnected, we were able to use the internet to find a list of men with the same name living near the area listed in the note. The first number my father tried was the right one. By the end of that night, my father had not only talked to his older brother, but his younger brother and the sister that raised him, as well. The next decade or so was a whirlwind of getting to know each other. Although his two brothers lived in different states, the older sister lived just two hours away. Strong relationships have been formed and I have watched forty-five years of separation melt away.
Now finally on to my grandfather. My grandmother’s side of the family was easy to trace. We were able to trace her family in the United States and in Europe, back to the late 1500’s. Unfortunately, we knew nothing about my grandfather’s family, other than that they were from Indiana and that he had a younger brother and a sister named Freda. We called courthouses and historical societies and searched the internet until our eyes were bleary. No trace of my grandfather anywhere. My father and uncle even visited the county where my grandfather was from. Nothing. Even after receiving my grandparents’ marriage license (a true feat when you’re dealing with adopted children, who are legally, no longer the children of their parents – in Iowa you have to prove relationship to obtain records) and obtaining his parents’ names, we could still find no trace. We finally took the step to petition the courts to unseal my father’s adoption record (again, quite a feat here), hoping there would be some helpful information. By some miracle, our petition was granted. One little detail contained in that file would change the course of our search in a split second. The file contained a discharge date from the Canadian Army. We had heard stories from my father’s oldest brother that my grandfather had worked in Canada, but we had never been able to figure out how he got there or why. The Canadian Army made us question if perhaps he had really been from Canada and not Indiana.
Thanks to the Canadian Archives digitizing their military records, I was able to find a listing for a soldier with my grandfather’s name, but the birth year was off by four years. I read the file anyway. Coincidence after coincidence jumped out at me – blind in one eye, missing part of one finger, father F. Brown, mother K. Brown. But this gentleman was born in England. Finally, on one of the last pages of the file, was my grandfather’s birth date, the correct birth date. Born in England? England is a long way from Indiana. It seemed that the more information we found, the more questions we had. My cousin’s husband was then able to locate the family in England’s census records in 1901 and 1911. The 1911 census supported the story we had heard that my great-grandparents were separated and that my great-grandfather had taken custody of the children. In that census, however, my grandfather was missing. My cousin’s husband found a record for a child, the same age as my grandfather, living in a home for boys, and again the mystery deepened.
At this point, my cousin’s husband suggested that perhaps my grandfather was a British Home Child. I had never heard of British Home Children and informed him I thought he was wrong (I would certainly eat my words later). I began researching the emigration scheme and was horrified by what I read. I found myself praying my cousin’s husband was wrong. I also began browsing websites on the internet that listed the names of British Home Children. The day I found my grandfather’s name on a list was a surreal moment for my father and myself. There it was, Brown, Charles Ernest Francis, 10 February 1898, Gibbs’ Home, Sherbrooke, Quebec. We wanted answers, but this was not the answer we wanted. I’m not sure I have ever seen my father as emotional as he was over this information. He found himself – the child of an orphan who became an orphan himself. We found ourselves desperate for more answers – why was he put into care, what happened to his parents, what happened to his brother and sisters, did he ever see his family again, why did he lie about where he was from?
We were able to apply for my grandfather’s file from the Church of England Waifs and Strays. We were fortunate to receive his brother’s information, as well. The file is small, with no photos, but it did shed light on the circumstances surrounding my grandfather’s life. The parallels between my grandfather’s childhood and my father’s childhood are many. As I read the file to my father and watched his face changed with each tidbit of information, I realized the immensity of our search. We were finding two identities – my father’s and my grandfather’s. Their childhoods so similar, the sadness and loss they felt so similar. My father’s story has a happy ending – he grew up, married, had me, has two grandchildren and has been successful his whole adult life. My grandfather’s story ended across the ocean from his family, probably full of sadness and with the belief that he had to hide who he truly was. Just when we were feeling quite saddened by all the information we had discovered, coupled with the frustration of the complete disappearance of my great grandmother from all records after 1911, something happened that reminded us of why we started this journey in the first place.
Out of the blue, I received an e-mail from my grandfather’s niece. She came across a message board post I put on Ancestry looking for family members. The family in England had no idea where my grandfather had gone. My grandfather’s niece stated her mother did not talk about her own mother or her childhood much and that the memories are painful. In that moment, I realized that our search was so much bigger than ourselves. Through chance, luck and a whole lot of man hours on the computer by many, many people, we were reconnecting family across one hundred years and two continents. That’s a pretty powerful feeling.
With love to my BHC,
Charles Ernest Francis Brown, my grandfather
Born 10 February 1898, Stourbridge, England
Died 26 November 1955, Eagle Grove, Iowa
Percy John Hector Brown, my great uncle
Born 7 August 1900, Lyminge, England