An Envelope Named “Jack”
April 27, 2017
Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of guest posts highlighting the ways in which intergenerational connections have inspired young genealogists. To learn more about how the NextGen Genealogy Network encourages young genealogists to build connections between all generations, see the NextGen Connection Challenge.
Genealogy started, for me, as a lonely hobby; many late-night hours of reading and researching those who lived before my time. My grandfather was adopted, so our family tree came to an abrupt halt prior to 1934. There’s a certain emptiness that comes with those broken branches. I feel it most on the holidays, when the gatherings seem to get smaller each year.
It was a particularly long summer in 2015 when I cracked open a blue plastic bin full of photos my mother inherited. So few were labeled and even fewer contained familiar faces. I found a yellowed envelope sandwiched between tattered albums and bibles. In scrawling pencil, someone had written “Jack” across the front. The name wasn’t familiar to me at the time.
I opened the envelope with care, revealing a collection of photos from the mid-1930s. My Grandpa Joe, around age five, posed with several people I didn’t recognize in front of a cherry blossom tree. He squinted in the sunlight with his freckles congregating in the crinkles of his nose as he squirmed from one image to the next. He was wearing a sailor suit, likely in honor of his adoptive father, a steamship captain.
With no further leads, the photos returned to their place in the dusty bin, forgotten for many months.
A DNA test brought me back to the envelope called “Jack.” I built an adoptive family tree on Ancestry and was surprised to find DNA matches with the same people in their trees. It suggested my grandfather was adopted by his relatives. I recognized the username of a second cousin match; it was a surname I had seen on the back of a Polaroid in the blue bin: Schommer. I reached out to this “Schommer” cousin and learned that her grandfather, who I knew from birth records as John, was known to his loved ones as Jack.
Excitedly, I recovered the yellowed envelope from the blue bin and scanned photo after photo. “Schommer,” who I came to know as Trish, recognized everyone standing in front of that cherry blossom tree. They were Jack’s family, meeting their nephew for the first time in 1935. The nephew, of course, was my five-year-old grandfather.
We exchanged emails full of stories. The CC list grew and grew as I was introduced to more new cousins who joined in to see the photographs.
“Jack is still alive,” one cousin said. “Jack’s son, Jack. He’s turning 90 this year. Loretta is turning 92.”
Jack Jr. and Loretta lived in Portland, Oregon, along with a few of the cousins. After some coordination, we agreed to meet.
My trip to Oregon was incredibly memorable. Jack Jr.’s daughter was a gracious host who welcomed this “NextGen Genealogist” with open arms to her home. There, I met Jack Jr. and Loretta, who shared their memories of our family. We exchanged photos and brought each other closer to the loved ones we had lost. I learned new things about my ancestors that no document or image could ever tell me. It was a special day.
My greatest memento of meeting my family from the photographs was taking a new picture together with Jack and Loretta, seventy years later, sitting between them in place of my grandfather. The yellowed envelope called “Jack” became much more than a collection of memories. It formed new ones, reconnecting three generations who have stayed in touch ever since.
Katie Welka is a tech-savvy old soul who enjoys traveling, writing, crafting, and family research. She is a member of the California Genealogical Society and shares genealogy tips on her website, AncestryTechie.com. She works in Silicon Valley and loves unraveling the mysteries of her Sicilian, Polish, Scottish, and Irish ancestors.