How I traced my father’s family - Chris Ewington

I decided in February 2001, at the age of 53 that I had to know who I really was, where my roots were and what had helped form my nature. From then to actually stepping onto American soil for the first time in my life was certainly a long journey of discovery.

Initially my objectives were to obtain a photograph of my American father, to know how old he was, where he was from and whether I had any siblings. Armed with just one piece of paper with my father’s name on it, an American Army Certificate of Baptism I started my search. My first point of contact was the American Embassy in London, they sent me a Form 180 to fill in! The only information I could provide was my father’s name and the fact that I thought he was serving with the American Army in Munich in 1946/7. I sent it off to NARA (National Personnel Records Centre) in St Louis, Missouri and I waited and waited …………. Then on the 25 October 2001 I received an email from NARA saying that they had found the record I was looking for and that they were mailing me a large yellow envelope that contained the proof that this was the correct person. I was also told that Vernon Swindall, my father, had died in 1977.

The 10-day wait was agonising. The envelope arrived and the papers enclosed gave me my father’s service number, military career but more importantly his last address in California and the fact that he had 3 children. The proof however, was a copy of a letter written by my mother seeking maintenance payments. This letter also told me that my father had paid the hospital bill and my mother’s flight back to the UK. My father had been born in Virginia and after retiring from the Army as a Lt. Col. he became a teacher in Los Angeles until his death aged just 60 years old. No photograph was available.

I now had to search for my half-siblings. I did a White Pages search on the internet and came up with just 18 matches for the name Swindall in the State of California. I starting phoning, I got to the 9th name on my list and "Uncle Bud" gave me the name and telephone number of his niece who was better at these things! A real lead – Carol, the niece had a sister Nancy who was really into genealogy and had this wonderful book that dates the Swindall family back to 1622. Next phone call – Nancy. Yes, Nancy had the book and told me that I had 3 half-sisters, Rose Ann, Barbara and Robin. She gave me contact details plus another telephone number which I believed to be the son of the lady who had compiled the book. That lady was no other than my father’s eldest sister, Hetty Sutherland, who was coming up 100 years old.

I telephoned and was shocked to find that I was speaking to my father’s youngest sister – Betty Hibbitts. I took a deep breath and told her that I was her niece, the daughter of her brother Vernon. I was asked to send a copy of the Baptismal Certificate and a photo and she would be able to tell if I was a Swindall or not!!! My heart sank – I didn’t know whether I looked like my father or not! Just one week later, Nancy who had given me the real lead, had sent me copies of photographs from the book. I now knew what my father looked like, as well as 2 of my sisters and numerous other relations including my grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents. The same day another package arrived – the Swindall/Austin book from my aunt! My Aunt told me that there was no doubting who I was – I am so much like my father and two of my sisters!

I then started a dialogue with two of my sisters, my two aunts and several cousins. I didn’t get to the States for my Aunt Hetty’s 100th birthday in December but I made the trip in April 2002 just less than 6 months after finding my family.

The Purpose of my Visit

I knew I just had to go and meet some of my American relations and visit my father’s grave so that I could finish my "jigsaw" and know who I really was. The opportunity came when Air Miles announced 75% off flights to the States – I had just enough to go! One condition was that I had to make the trip and be back in the UK by 30 April. There followed a flurry of emails and my trip started to take shape.

The Trip

On Monday 15 April 2002 I left Heathrow to start my epic journey which covered some 18,000 miles! I flew to Los Angeles and stayed at the Marriott Hotel. The next day Carol and her sister Barbara (my cousins 4 times removed) and their husbands Robert and Bruce came up from San Diego and drove me to Newhall to the Eternal Valley Cemetery where my father is buried. It felt strange, but peaceful to be standing so close to where he lay – I reflect on what could have been.

I make my peace and have a feeling of calm within and am still amazed that I have had the determination and perseverance to see this through. We then did a tour of Newhall, saw where my father lived and brought up two of my half-sisters. Next was a meal and then back to Los Angeles.
I am unable to contact my youngest half-sister, Robin, which is disappointing but it is now time to move on.

I am now using the Air Canada Pass I purchased that will cover my internal flights. The next stop is Toronto to meet my godmother who shared a flat with my mother in Munich whilst they were working for the United Nations. Vi had not seen me since I was 4 years old. I get a lovely hug, a teddy bear and we have lots of catching up to do. Whilst being filled in on life in Munich where I was born, Martin, Vi’s nephew decides we can do some sightseeing. I manage to fit in a visit to Niagara, do the "Journey behind the Falls" and the "Maid of the Mist" boat trip on the Horseshoe Falls as well as a visit to the CN tower in Toronto to see the views, have a meal and stand on the glass floor. All too soon it is time to say goodbye and fly on. There were no real revelations other than my father had "airs and graces" and neither Vi nor Vernon took to each other.

The butterflies start to kick in as I am about to meet my eldest half-sister in Washington DC. Meeting people from the flight takes place in Baggage reclaim and I can foresee problems in identifying each other. I need not have worried – I cross the hall and see someone talking to an attendant, she turns round and I know that this is my sister! Immediately there was such a feeling of warmth and within a short space of time it was as though we had known each other all our lives.

Rose Ann is just so easy to talk to and is very generous in sharing with me a scrap book about our father (Vernon) that her mother prepared for her as a child. She also shares some letters that her mother wrote leading up to her marriage and shortly afterwards. Vernon divorced Rose Ann’s mother in 1945. Whilst in Fairfax with Rose Ann and her husband Joe we have a Pot Luck dinner and I meet some cousins who live at that end of Virginia. Rose Ann is planning on visiting her mother at the end of May and will take her some photos and the story of my existence – she wants to tell her face to face and feels she may be comforted to know that she was not the only one to be badly treated by Vernon.

All too soon it is time to leave with Brenda, the daughter of my father’s brother Bruce, for the drive down to Clintwood, South West Virginia where I will stay with my father’s two remaining sisters. It is a long drive – some 460 miles – the roads are fairly quiet and once the rain stops the scenery and the Blue Ridge Mountains are breathtaking. We stop off in Abingdon at Cathy and Doug’s house (cousins) and also meet Hester the wife of Vernon’s brother, Bruce. Again I am warmly welcomed to the family. We all go out for dinner and then continue the journey to Clintwood. My two aunts give me a nice welcome and my 100 year old aunt is not as frail as I had feared and is totally alert.

Nikki, a cousin (the daughter of my father’s sister Zona) from Tennessee arrives and 5 of us spend the day touring where my "roots" are. We visited the family cemeteries, homesteads, schools and churches. I stand by the graves of my grand-parents, great grand-parents and great, great grandparents as well as many other relations. The countryside is just so pretty with lots of trees and the Cumberland Mountains in the distance, we then drive along the route of the Pound River. The scenery is spectacular and I find it difficult to understand how my father could have turned his back on all this beauty. I understand now that "my roots" are responsible for where I have chosen to live in the North York Moors National Park.

My aunts throw a party in my honour and I get to meet 24 close relations. I am picking up all sorts of stories about my father and the family. They too comment that my father developed "airs". Everyone says that there is no doubting that I am a Swindall and I am commended on my courage in pursuing my search to the end thus enabling me to visit my roots and family. I feel that they are pleased I did.

The icing on the cake is when Aunt Hetty (very much the matriarch of the family) suggests that we get a press article done on how I found my family. We call into the Newspaper Offices and I am interviewed for about 45 minutes and both my aunts are asked for their reaction to me finding them. I also talk to my Aunts about my application for American Citizenship and they are both happy to support this and see it as mine by rights. During the day we visit Mabel and Thadys’ house (a 2nd cousin) and watch a video which is a show that his son takes on tour around the States and UK. It shows life "South of the Mountain" and puts into perspective how poor families were and how hard life was. My father’s family, although poor, all had a good education and did well for themselves.

I have time to reflect on the past few days and feel that I could never, in my wildest dreams, have imagined that my phone call to my Aunt Betty, when I announced that I was her niece could ever had turned out so well.I guess that I am now a true Swindall. I feel I have real acceptance by the family.

The drive back is just as long but I get to meet Rose Ann (my eldest half-sister) again and Betty Lou, another cousin for dinner. It is then time for the flight to San Diego to meet the distant cousins responsible for helping me to find my roots.

I am staying at Carol’s house and I run a card workshop for her and some friends (this is what I do in the UK). I find a project with totally new techniques to anything they have done before. After the workshop 8 family members have lunch at the San Diego Yacht Club and we then do a little bit of sightseeing and shopping. The next day a party is held to welcome me. Carol puts on a Spaghetti luncheon for 24 relations – the food is very good and everyone enjoys hearing my story and looking at the album of pictures I took out with me of where I live and my English family. I get to meet "Uncle Bud" who was the man who was instrumental in helping me to locate my family. He has a lovely smiling face, with twinkling eyes and is just the sort of gentleman to listen and give his time to someone who is trying to locate the family of the late Vernon Swindall.

It is now time to make our way to the airport and for me to fly home to my husband and English roots. I have missed my husband, Terry, very much and I am just so pleased to see him.

My jig-saw is now complete. My aunt has given me a framed photo of my father, when he first got his commission; I know who I am, where I came from and have "a past" as well as a present. I can now go forward with my life and build on the relationships I have established. I know I will be back and I am already talking with Rose Ann and others about a visit with Terry next year. I am sure some of my relations will visit us in England. I count myself lucky that my trip has been so positive and enabled me to fulfil my desire to know who I really am.

I can’t thank my family enough for making my first trip to the States such a success and hopefully I will get to meet my youngest half sister in the future. (Barbara has no desire to meet me and indeed has nothing to do with any family members other than her younger sister, Robin).

Having crossed so many time zones I managed not to be affected at all by jet-lag – well there was just so much to see and do.

May 2002