We’ve all been there I know, that ugly ole brick wall must have a billion head dents in it from where we have all hit our heads over and over, trying to push through, burrow under, climb over, whatever it took to get to the next level. Finding that one illusive puzzle piece that will unlock the secrets of the next generation back. The thrill of the chase, the incredible reward of looking at an old record, finding a letter in the back of a forgotten book, having a name leap out at you and take life shouting here I am. For me, when one of my most stubborn brick walls came down, it was a double thrill, in part because the one wall I’d been bashing my head against for nearly 3 years wasn’t even my wall to begin with.
My first forays into research were deceptively easy. My Gram’s father’s family was already well documented. And that was back before we had all this wonderful internet access and information readily available. I was fortunately enough to encounter a fellow who had posted information to one of the FTM Family Tree CD’s that was from the Ohio Branch of the Buckinghams that included a great deal of information about my branch here in Maryland. Coupled with the fact that my Gram’s aunt was still alive and still sharp as a tack at 100, I was able to easily establish the connections and tuck away that line very nicely. The Houcks, Kreglos and Roots took a little more digging, but again, all my little ducks quequed up nicely in their rows. And again, owing to the wealth of family history I had from listening to my great-grandmother’s stories for years and years.
I turned my attention to my father’s family, feeling rather sure of myself. After all, I knew where we had come from originally, what little my grandfather had ever said about his father’s family was that we were French, had come over to New York in the colonial days, that Leonard was a family name and the original middle name had been Geisinger that had been shorted to Guy. That his father had died during a coal strike as a member of the national guard in West Virginia. I knew little more about his mother’s family, but not much. I knew his grandfather on that side had owned a rather successful business in Baltimore with an office in West Virginia. Thinking I had more than enough information to get started, I put my notes together and began to hunt. And got nowhere. Fast. My neat and tidy assumptions got the best of me faster than you could say Census. My maiden name is rather unique. It’s LeVee. Pronouced La Vee as my grandfather was always extremely quick to point out, not Levy, LA Vee. LeVee, it’s French, we came from France. He always said it pretty much that way, too so I always just assumed that was one of his little quirks. I posted that name on every message board I could possibly find. And again, nothing. We had no family members to talk to. My father is an only child of an only son whose father was also an only child. At the time I was beginning my search for that side of the family, my grandfather had been gone nearly 20 years. My grandmother had had a stroke and was no longer able to even recognize my father. And my father’s one aunt on that side of the family had also passed away. My father grew up in the middle of his mother’s rather large Czech family. The only family he had on his father’s side was his grandmother, her sister, his aunt, her husband and one cousin who was just a few hours older than he was and by the time I was working on the genealogy for that branch of the family, they had all passed away.
In the middle of all of this, my father got a letter from a woman by the name of Kathryn Levy Bush in Florida. A very nicely written letter, telling him that they were second cousins, that his grandfather and her grandfather were brothers. He called me out in New Mexico where I was living at the time and read it to me over the phone. He was skeptical and for that matter, so was I. Nothing in her letter matched anything we knew about our little family. As my father is a total gentleman, he wrote her a nice letter, thanking her for the contact, but that we were not the family she was searching for, he wished her well in her search and considered the matter closed. The next letter arrived with copies of old photostats of some wills and some LDS family sheets and discussing German ancestry. We knew then that this had to be wrong, We were from France. Not only that, my wonderful and loving Czech born Grandmother would have NEVER married anybody with German ancestry. In fact when I started studying German in highschool she was livid, how could I, she asked, after what they had done to her family when Prague fell. Again Daddy and I talked and he said he would send me copies of the papers. Once more, a polite, thank you, but letter went to Kathryn., although he let her know that he had forwarded the information to me as I was the family historian. My brother got involved at this point when Kathryn called him and he simply said, No, ma’am, we’re not related, our family is from France, my great-grandfather was an only child like my father, asked her not to call again and hung up.
I got this packet in the mail a couple of days later and looked it over. And suddenly the France, we came from France mantra that my grandfather had always chanted anytime we asked about our family history began to take on a Dan Ackryod Jane Curtain Conehead flavor. I recognized a name that my grandfather had mentioned once, a long time ago. Geisinger. I knew one other solid piece of information, that the name Leonard Guy was one that had been handed down generation to generation, in fact my father’s birth certificate lists him as Leonard Guy LeVee IV. While Leonard is a fairly common name, Guy is not. Seeing a whole row of Leonard Guy’s got me to thinking and for a long rather puzzling afternoon, I sat and wrote down everything I could remember that my grandfather had ever mentioned about his family. This man with a thirst for history who knew every nuance of the Shriver Family in Westminster MD from his years as that family’s historian had been very closed mouthed about his own family. My list of what I knew was very short. I got to the end of my list and went back over Kathryn’s information and then called my father. He still was not convinced when I told him that she might be on to something. I could hear the backwash of anger in his voice, not at me, but at the ghost of a possibility that he might have been lied to all these years. I decided that the best way to solve this mystery was to see if I could get his records from the West Virginia National Guard. After all, we did know that my father’s grandfather had died during a Coal Strike as a member of the national guard. Surely this very nice lady may have gotten some records mixed up, the man she was looking for died two years before my great-grandfather. It happens to all of us. So I sent away for the records, not really expecting much, maybe a sheet or two because according to what we knew he’d only been in the guard for a year or so. I put Kathryn’s information in a file and went about other things as I waited for records. About two weeks later, I got this enormous packet in the mail from West Virginia. I was rather surprised at the size of it. With heart pounding and sweaty palms, I sat down at the table and opened it. Nothing like knowing a part of who you are is just on the other side of an envelope to kick start excitement. I read through the very nice letter from the records registrar and opened this huge sheaf of papers. My first thought was, she messed up, this is the wrong man, for there in my hands were the records of Leonard Guy Levy, the gentleman that Kathryn had been writing my father about. I turned the first record over and got a cold chill. His signature on the bottom of one of the promotions could have been my father’s. Down to the way he made his L in Leonard. I went through all the records including a death notice, for this man, Leonard Guy Levy had been not only a Captain in the guard but a highly thought of, decorated solider. With a wife named Gertrude, a son named Leonard and a daughter named Frances. I sat there, stunned. There was no way that this man could be anybody else but my great grandfather. There was no way that two men could have belonged to the West Virginia National Guard and be married to women with the same first name and have two children named the same. I called my father. He’d been mulling over Kathryn’s last letter as well, to the point where he had gone up into the attic just that day and pulled out the box of papers that belonged to his mother. Important papers, such as her citizenship papers, her immigration papers, his grandfather’s declaration of intent. He’d not gone through them, simply put them in the attic after he had had to close out her apartment after she had had her stroke. He was in fact, getting ready to call me and open the box with me on the phone. I sat and waited listening to him sort through papers, making comments here and there and then silence for a moment. Then in a rather hushed voice he read me the death notice I was holding in my hand. Buried in an envelope was the confirmation proof that the records I held in my hand belonged to my father’s grandfather and in the space of a single heartbeat, not only did that old brick wall come down leaving a wide open door of information behind it, but in the dust that settled, my father and I realized, we were not who we thought we were.
To this day, we are not sure of the hows or the whys. The man that was my great-grandfather died in a snow storm in February in Charleston West Virginia leaving behind a wife and two young children. For reasons unknown she made a complete break with her husband’s family. Not only was he a decorated solider, but far from being the only child we had always thought him to be, he was the second child of a family of five children, one of whom outlived everybody and was still alive when I was born, but behind that brick wall so we never have the pleasure of knowing him. I can only surmise what the back story is. He was interred in Charleston with military honors only be be removed and brought up to the Levy family plot and buried with his family at his parents request. In 1910 the family is listed as Levy, but by the 1920 census that found my great-grandmother and her children in Baltimore, they are listed as LeVee. Did she change the name out of anger at her late husband’s family over having his body disinterred and removed to Maryland? Or was it out of fear of being a widow with young children and a German surname in the hostile environment of WWI in Baltimore. My grandfather’s insistence that we were of French descent makes the later a more plausible statement, but the fleeting memories I have of his mother don’t jive as I doubt she was ever afraid of anything. We do know that she never spoke of or had anything to do with her husband’s family for the rest of her life. To the point where my father never even knew he had family living literally just blocks away. The name change was very easy to accomplish back then. They simply changed it. And when my grandfather was required to produce a birth certificate to get a radio license, he simply wrote to West Virginia to request one be issued in the name of Leonard Guy LeVee. In 1903 West Virginia did not issue certificates. All that was required to get one was to make an application and have somebody who attended the birth co sign. My great-grandmother attested to the names and place and bingo, we were now LeVees instead of Levys.
Kathryn passed away a few years ago, but at least from the time of our discovery of who we really were until her death, my father had the pleasure of a cousinship from his father’s side of the family and got to know, indirectly at least, who his family had been.