Jennifer Danny | Bringing My Great Uncle Home

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My great grandmother was Jennie, and I am her namesake. I’ve mentioned her husband, my great grandfather Harry, previously. Together they had four children: two daughters and two sons. They were poor, and at times the children were sent to foster care because my grandmother couldn’t provide for them. And she wasn’t always able to rely on her husband. 

My grandfather John was the one who really lucked out because he was sent to live with a very wealthy family who lived in upstate New York. He had a pony and attended a wonderful school, and the story goes that when his mother came to gather him, though he adored her, he didn’t want to leave his new life. 

His brother didn’t fare so well in the foster care department, and was sent to live in a home for boys. One day after a recent snowfall some of the kids had the idea to go sledding. Included in the group was my great uncle. He never made it back. The story that got handed down through the ages was he had died in a sledding accident; that his sled had hit a trolley. 

By the time my mom was retelling the family history to me, all of the major players were gone. The one thing that bothered my mother is that no one could remember the name of the boy who died in the sledding accident. In 2001, she received a phone call that her family doctor had passed away, an incredible woman they called Dr. Fannie. Fannie had lived well into her nineties and while my mom was reading the memorial program she saw a mention of The Hebrew Orphan Asylum as a place where Dr. Fannie had worked. My mom, ever the detective, looked up the orphanage and found a listing for a boy who had died while there. It turned out to be her uncle, my great uncle. 

Cause of death: A compound fracture of the skull. It was listed as accidental. Mystery solved!  

An interesting irony is months earlier my mom had been looking though a box of “stuff” that had belonged to her father. She found a manila envelope with photographs inside. She was drawn to one in particular — of her father, who looks to be 8, and of her grandfather, Harry (my great-grandfather), and there was also another boy in the picture. He was older and my mother assumed it to be her uncle — the one with no name. She put the photo back into the envelope and came over to my house to show me. She said, “Jen, I think I found a picture of Grandpa John’s brother. You know, the one who died in the sledding accident.” 

I’ll admit I was a bit apprehensive of seeing the “boy who died,” so I put the photo back in the manila envelope, deeming it too spooky at the time.  

My mother was elated that she had been successful in finally finding out the name of her long lost uncle and she was in the middle of emailing her brother with the news. The email read in part: 

“I was looking up the orphanage that was mentioned in the memorial program for Dr. Fannie, and found a listing for a Samuel Rothberg, no one has ever been able to tell me his first name, it was surreal,’ and then mom writes, ‘Somehow I’ve changed the fonts and I haven’t a clue in heck how!!!’” 

That is true, the entire email written to her brother regarding their father’s deceased brother was in a regular typed font, but when she typed in the part of finding the listing for him and typing his name, the font changed to italics for that phrase only, exactly like I have done in the paragraph above. Mom continued that he died on Feb. 1, 1918, and he was buried in Salem Fields Cemetery on Feb. 3, 1918, on what would’ve have been his 14th birthday. And guess what, coincidentally he shares a birthday with my niece.   

An interesting footnote to the story is that I admit I did find the photograph spooky, in part because a young man’s life had ended too soon, and because of the haunted look he has on his face. In the picture his eyes stare off to the side, while my grandfather and great-grandfather’s eyes look directly at you. I’ve often wondered if perhaps he knew his fate? 

Suffice to say that when my mother showed me the email, printed out, italics and all, I took the photo out of the manila folder and said; “So your name is Samuel. Pleased to meet you, we will honor you on our family wall!”   

I went to my hallway that is adorned with family pictures. I got a hammer and nail, put the picture in a frame, and tucked in the printed page of my mother’s email along with it. I found a perfect spot, hammered in the nail, positioned the frame, took a step back and looked at Samuel. I wondered what path his life might have taken had it not been cut short. I imagined how he must have felt being sent to an orphanage, even if it was only temporary.  

The lure of freshly fallen snow and an invitation to go sledding had ended a life. And when my grandmother was able to get her children back, her family was less one. Samuel never got the opportunity to be with his family again. 

I guess, in essence, I was giving him that chance. I whispered to the photograph, “Welcome home.” 

Jennifer Danny is a Santa Clarita resident.

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