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My grandfather was a British Home Child. It took me nearly a decade of searching digitized archives and websites to find that out. But what I now know is this. When he was about four years old, his mother brought him to a London orphanage, never to be seen by him again. When he was about eleven years old, he joined about fifty other little boys and girls, some as young as only four, but most around his age, sent to Canada to become indentured servants.
The BHC scheme, and I do mean scheme, shipped some one hundred thousand children from the UK to Canada to be farm workers and domestics, oftentimes little more than slaves. Canadians thought these children were orphans. Most were not, though. Most were children whose families had hit rough times. They left their child or children in an orphanage or sheltering home until they got back on their feet, only to find their kids gone when they came back. Whether or not my grandfather’s mother had planned to come back for him is still a mystery.
The Ghosts of My Past
My grandfather died before I was born and had been estranged from my father for years. All I ever knew for a long time about my grandfather was that his name was Walter D. Jesson, that he was English, an orphan, and a drunk. Oh, and that he was an abusive asshole to my father, aunts, and grandmother.
That he was an abusive asshole seemed to make perfect sense, since my own father was an abusive asshole. Or at least that’s what I had held true about my father until the day he died. After my father died, I started to look at my childhood and his life differently. It’s not to say I’ve glossed over or forgotten what it’s like to be afraid all the time. On the contrary, I determined to try to understand how that life had come about for me. Why had I been raised in a scary home with an angry, moody, miserable man? Action. Reaction. Cause and effect.
So, armed with the few personal papers on my grandfather that I had found in Dad’s effects after he died, I signed up for a genealogy site and looked. And looked. And looked.
What I initially found was perplexing, to say the least. At one point, I had one birth certificate and two death certificates for my grandfather. All three say he was born on February 14, 1900, in Enderby, Liecestershire County, England. All three say his name was Walter Jesson, and his parents were Ada Young and Walter Jesson. His date of birth, parentage, and place of birth all jived with a naturalization application I had found in Dad’s file.
Here’s the rub. The two death certificates weren’t duplicates. One said he died on November 11, 1965, in Rochester, New York (which he most decidedly did.) The other said he died on March 5, 1900, at just 19 days old. You get why I was perplexed.
It was certainly strange, but Occam’s razor told me there was an easy explanation. There must have been two Walter Jesson’s born on the same day in the same place. Right?
With parents named the same? Wrong.
No. That’s ridiculously too coincidental.
What the hell was going on? Who exactly was my grandfather, and is my name even Jesson? Did he ever really know his own identity?
I was stuck for a long time. I knew from his naturalization paperwork that he had entered the US from Canada through Vermont in 1922. But the twenty-two years prior was a black hole. I spent years trying to find his Atlantic crossing, knowing that would be the key to unlock the rest. But when you are hunting down genealogy as a pastime on your computer, you are often stymied by the fact that the records exist, somewhere, but have yet to be digitized.
“There’s gotta be a record of you some place.
You gotta be on somebody’s books.”
— On Every Street
There had to be records. He could not have just materialized from the ether in 1922.
It was during this time glaring at the brick wall of my ancestry, wondering if I really was a Jesson that I watched a PBS show on the Ice Man, Otzi. Otzi is the 5,300 year-old mummified remains of an Iron Age man who died and was eventually discovered in the Italian Alps in 1991. I’m a science nerd. I dig that stuff.
I’m not on a tangent. I swear. I sat there watching what Otzi’s investigators and keepers had learned about him and realized that, laid out side by side, they knew more, and in some ways much more, about Otzi’s life and death, over five thousand years ago, as I had managed to uncover about my grandfather.
Otzi had been in his 40s when he died. I knew my grandfather had died in his 60s, but without knowing for sure when he was born, I couldn’t drill down any further. My grandfather had died of heart failure. Otzi was almost surely murdered, and died from injuries sustained by an arrow to the back and possibly a blow to the head.
Otzi’s resting place lay undiscovered for over five thousand years at over 10,500 feet above sea level. My grandfather died alone, in his apartment. Someone, probably a neighbor, followed the stench and found him quite dead, a few days later. My grandfather was then buried in an unmarked grave. I know the cemetery, but that is all. My father spent a whopping $585 to bury his own father somewhere in Glenwood Cemetery in Geneva, New York. In 2011, my mother and I spent hours scouring the cemetery grounds hoping we’d find something that could be possibly his grave. There are many unmarked or poorly marked graves in the largest cemetery in Geneva. We couldn’t find him. Unmarked really means unmarked. Under six hundred bucks for a box, a hole in the ground, and eternal anonymity.
Otzi’s last meal was not long before he died, and it was large, and of good quality. My grandfather was a life long alcoholic, but beyond his affinity for booze, I know nothing about what he liked or didn’t like to eat. I don’t even know his booze of choice. As an Englishman, I like to think it might have been gin.
Although Otzi had died at high altitude, he had gone done to lower altitude shortly before he was killed. He had died with high quality and quite valuable belongings. Shoes for the high alpine trek, and amazingly, a copper ax. He was from the Iron Age, but he had had a copper ax, redefining history’s timeline of when European man learned to smelt.
My grandfather’s landlord inventoried what was left behind after the body was removed from the apartment.
- $6 in bills
- $0.98 in change
- $0.25 in bottle
- a check for $7.76
- a couple of rings and a tie clasp
- a billfold
- a change purse
- personal papers
Otzi, and his ax, redefined our knowledge of man’s history. My grandfather defined my own history because he was a drunk who got arrested and thrown in jail a lot for beating his family and causing public disturbances. Although he died before I was born, he left the legacy of a son so tormented by demons that that son would eventually visit them upon his own family.
I had to understand why. I had to keep digging.
“It’s your face I’m looking for.
On every street.”
— On Every Street
Diffusing—Young Living Lemongrass, Orange, and Northern Lights Black Spruce essential oils.
Music—Dire Straits, On Every Street