While visiting my parents a couple of years ago I was rummaging through some of my late grandmother’s belongings. Prayer books and a few other items. One of the items was an old, sepia toned framed photograph of an older woman dressed in the finery of the day. I asked my mother who she was. She had no idea. Just that it had always been on her mother’s dresser. I asked my aunt. She didn’t know. So, I took the photo out of the frame to look on the back for possible clues. It was one of those old postcard photos. And there was only one word. Rose. No last name. No date.
My Nana was not a sentimental woman. She did not hang on to things for very long. And she very rarely talked about her family or her years growing up in the mill town of Lurgan in County Armagh, Ireland. We knew her father died young and her mother remarried. She had told my mother that during that time the kids were with relatives. I have no idea why.
I adored my grandmother so naturally I was quite intrigued. This must have been a special person in her life if the photo had a permanent place on her bedroom dresser. And since my Nana was an important person in my life I packed up that photo and brought it back with me to California. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. But I placed it on one of the end tables in my living room. And it remained there. I dusted it regularly and every once in awhile my children would ask, “Do we know who she is yet?” And I would reply, “No, not yet.” Even if I never found out who she was I would keep her picture there. Maybe as a reminder of the importance of people in our lives and maybe just as an appreciation and respect for my ancestors.
In the meantime, while pursuing my interest in my family’s genealogy, I had reconnected with one of my mom’s first cousins who lived in that very same town of Lurgan. The secretary at the local parish had given him my email address. It was amazing. Michael provided me with so much information on the family. He filled in the blanks that my grandmother had left empty. He even sent me a photo of Nana’s parents. My mom had never even seen a picture of her own grandparents. So, of course, I sent him the picture of Rose. He had no idea who Rose was but promised to show her photo around to some of the family. He did but had no luck.
I had the thought that maybe if Michael posted her photo at the church we might get some results. But I didn’t pursue it at the time. I just remembered my dad saying to go back to the church when looking for information. That was the place where births, marriages and weddings were celebrated and recorded. And as I found out… they also pass along email addresses! I put the idea on the back burner thinking that at some point I would pursue it.
I spent some time looking for neighbors or possible relatives named Rose in the Lurgan census reports of 1901 and 1911. Nothing. Dead ends.
Cousin Michael then suggested putting Rose on the storefront window of the local print shop. A place where notices, photos and events are posted. I thought it was a brilliant idea. A place where there would be a lot of foot traffic and a place for Rose to be seen.
Oh, Rose was seen all right. And she caused a bit of a stir in the town. The calls started coming. Michael and his wife, Margaret were fielding telephone calls from all sorts of different people. Seems everyone wanted to claim Rose. Some he had to reject outright since there was no connection to our family whatsoever. Some callers left the line disappointed that Rose wasn’t theirs.
But one day he received a visit from a local woman accompanied by her sister who was visiting from London. They were relatives of ours and they claimed that her name was not Rose but Mary McGovern. It was their great grandmother. I had already known that Mary McGovern was in fact my great great grandmother. My Nana’s grandmother. But I wouldn’t have a clue as to what she looked like. And I couldn’t figure out why Rose was printed on the back. Now, I think I have it. Mary McGovern’s daughter Rose emigrated to the US. I think that this photo of her mom was given to Rose. And then maybe Rose gave it to her niece, my Nana. Or maybe it was given to Nana after her aunt Rose died.
Michael received another phone call from a family member who said it was his great grandmother. Mary McGovern. And he had other photos also! Michael swung by his house but the fellow wasn’t in at the time. But his wife was and she explained why her husband was so sure of this photo. As Michael turned his head he was surprised to see a copy of the print shop photo of Rose proudly displayed on the fireplace mantle. In a brand new frame.
A few days later this relative would visit Michael with a load of family photos. He even had one of my grandmother when she was a young girl! Another one was of my great great great grandparents. Rose’s parents! I mean Mary McGovern’s parents! I cannot tell you how exciting this all was for me. I was named Mary Elizabeth after my Nana. And she was named after her grandmother. The woman staring at me from this old photograph gave me my name.
I was so thrilled to reconnect with my family, learn more about my background and have these wonderful photos of family in my possession. Sparked by my love of family history and genealogy but spurred on by a photo of a woman with a feathered hat and a shiny shawl posing for the camera. She may have been born Mary but I will always think of her as Rose. I will keep her photo on the end table because I now know she belongs with me. But also as a reminder that everyone has a name, a story, and a background. And that in order to discover these things we need to be a little creative. Think outside the box. Try different tactics. Dig a little deeper. Ask questions.
It worked for me. I found my name