Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Finding Family: Arlington National Cemetery

One goal of my trip east this past weekend was to visit Arlington National Cemetery and locate the graves of my grandfather William I. Connelly and great-great grandfather Dominick Connelly. About 45 years ago I remember finding my grandfather's grave but I did not realize that my great-great grandfather was also in Arlington. To tell the truth, it was only about 8 years ago that I learned any names of ancestors besides my grandparents, on my father's side. His family was not close; there must have been a rift of some sort between his mother and grandmother because even though my Dad's grandmother lived until the mid-1940's, Dad only remembered seeing her once--and his mother was extremely angry that he had done so.

We have never learned the cause of that separation. My great-grandfather, William Henry Connelly, died young and his widow (Hester Clementine Cathell Connelly) remarried to a man named Schmidt. Dad remembers that "Hettie" was referred to as "Nana Mitt" but he only saw her once, and that was at his uncle's house. Was the family angry that she remarried? Was it because Mr. Schmidt was German? That hardly seems likely since my grandmother Bertha Becker Connelly was the daughter of German immigrants. Was Mr. Schmidt a non-Catholic, and did Hettie fall away from the Church when she married him? This last seems most likely since my Dad's family were all staunch Cahtolics. Hettie had married a much younger man in her first union; was Mr. Schmidt much older, divorced, or somehow otherwise unsuitable? I suppose we'll never know. It is one of those family stories that died with those who knew about it, and I was not even aware there was a story until it was too late to find the truth.

But we had learned about Dominick in the old letters and photos my grandmother had saved for all those years. I remember many fascinating hours with my father as we searched through those pictures and he tried to remember who the people were. He had not known that all those boxes his mother had left behind held such treasures and he was thrilled to see, for perhaps the first time, pictures of his little brother Joe who tragically burned to death as a toddler. Dad said it was Joe's death that turned my grandmother's hair pure white.

Dominick, as it turned out, had served as a drummer in the Union Army in a company out of Baltimore. He died in 1907 at Colonial Beach, VA; he drowned during a family outing. He'd been a District of Columbia policeman at one time and seems to have been a colorful if perhaps rowdy kind of guy. Photos show a large man with dancing eyes, and I'm pretty sure I'd have liked him.

My sister Theresa and I were lucky to have my friend, storyteller Ellouise Schoettler, to be our guide at Arlington. Ellouise's husband Jim is also buried there, and she has done extensive research on the cemetery and has even developed a one-woman show based on this national treasure. Our first stop on Friday was, of course, Jim's grave. And what a surprise to find that resting beside him was a man who bore my maiden name! Harry Connelly is Jim's neighbor at Arlington, and quite possibly might be one of my relatives. Such a small world, isn't it?

Our sister Judy had provided us with the plot and grave numbers for our relatives. These are essential to finding anyone in that huge cemetery. The Visitors Center can look people up for you, but they could not find Dominick because both his first and last names were misspelled. But Judy's genealogical research had provided the correct information for us, thank goodness.

So, after all these years, Dominick had visitors last week. I wonder how long it's been since anyone has sought him out? Too long, I feel sure. But now we know where he is, and I hope we will be able to return, next time with a little stone or two to place on top of his stone, as is the tradition at Arlington to mark a visit.

We found Grandpa too, and Grandma of course, since they share the same plot. Now we know where they are it will be easy to find them again.

It is difficult to understand why it feels so important to locate these graves, particularly those of people we never knew. It seems like a circle closing, a completion of our family in some obscure way. I only know that it brought a sense of peace, a feeling that yes, this was something we needed to do. Our parents were not once for visiting family graves but to me it is an important part of acknowledging our past.

Our next quest will be to find the grave of great-grandfather William Henry Connelly, and perhaps also that of Hettie, that mysterious little lady who apparently caused a furor in her time. Wish us luck!

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

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