The Son Rises

Given up for adoption as an infant, the author sets out to climb his family tree

Otherwise, we had a great trip. We ate lunch with Irene in a Detroit suburb, and she talked about her brother, painting a picture of him as a bon vivant and a bit of a rascal. Mickey hadn't told anyone in his family about Mary Ann, she said. Not that she, or any of the Lennons for that matter, doubted my story, despite the lack of an "official" introduction, as happened with Mary Ann. But had there been any skepticism, it was erased when Irene met me. The paternal genes shone through. "You've got his eyes," she said, "and his nose."

Irene gave a rundown on Mickey's family, whom she'd not seen much in the years since his death in 1982. His widow was alive and well. Two sons worked for the post office, and one is a lounge singer by night. The only daughter had married a Detroit cop. Another son worked at a Saturn plant in Tennessee. They all have spouses and children of their own. Mickey's parents had been religious; there were three priests and a nun in the immediate family. I was glad that both of my natural parents' families were Catholic. I'd done twelve years in Catholic school, both of my kids attended them, and I secretly loved the rituals of the church.

During that lunch, Irene promised to send pictures of my father, and the day the package arrived I was beside myself with excitement. I got a beer, found my glasses and went out onto the porch. The first picture, the biggest and the only color photo, blew me away. It was a portrait of Mickey in his Army dress uniform. He appeared to be nineteen or twenty and was the spit and image of me at that age. I knew he would be. The other pictures were also good: Mickey with his sisters and parents. Mickey as an altar boy. Mickey in high school, sport coat and tie, at what looks like a football game. Mickey with a group of white-smocked Japanese outside the Army mess hall, where they worked as cooks. He was a greaser. Cool. There were eighteen pictures, and in all of them where Mickey is with friends or family, he has his arms around someone and a wide grin. God, I wish I could've met him.

Top: Colie MacDonnell of Port Hood, Nova Scotia, signing a release prior to being filmed for an episode of the Canadian TV series Past Lives. Bottom: The author’s paternal great-grandparents,  Sam and Mary Ann (née Gillis) MacDonnell of Judique, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
Top: Colie MacDonnell of Port Hood, Nova Scotia, signing a release prior to being filmed for an episode of the Canadian TV series Past Lives. Bottom: The author’s paternal great-grandparents, Sam and Mary Ann (née Gillis) MacDonnell of Judique, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
Rohan Fernando, director of Past Lives, a thirteen-episode series on Canada’s Global Network about people searching for their roots. The series is set to air beginning March 2004.
Rohan Fernando, director of Past Lives, a thirteen-episode series on Canada’s Global Network about people searching for their roots. The series is set to air beginning March 2004.


There was a time, in the dark ages before the Internet, when genealogists sifted through piles of records to find a family line, and if they didn't pay close attention to names and birth dates and such, they might easily be led off track. There's a story about a guy who dedicated 30 years to researching his family, only to discover that the forebear he'd focused on was unrelated after all. Unless one's ancestors kept good records, it was arduous work to re-create the generations and all their offshoots through the centuries.

By now I'd developed an avid interest in genealogy. It wasn't enough that I knew the identities of my natural parents; I wanted to go further back in the family tree. Frankly, the Internet told me precious little about the Freeman or Lennon sides, but Mary Ann had given me a fairly detailed family history that spanned five generations on her father's side, back to the immigration of newlyweds James Freeman and Catherine Manning from County Galway, Ireland, through Halifax and on to Perth, Ontario, where they farmed and raised twelve children.

Aunt Irene simply didn't know much about the Lennons. But by telling me the maiden name of her mother, my grandmother, she told me a great deal. When I visited www.ancestry.com and put in Barbara Ann MacDonnell, I was astounded. Her name was attached to a lineage that spanned seven generations, beginning with Angus Gillis, a resident of Arisaig, Scotland, circa 1740, and ending with the offspring of Mickey Lennon and wife. My name, naturally, was omitted; I didn't yet exist for them.

This particular link, Ancestry World Tree Project, subheading "MacDonald of Clanranald," was maintained by one Donald Jack MacDonald. I dashed an email to the address he'd posted, introducing myself as the bastard son of Ralph "Mickey" Lennon and explaining that I'd just learned of the names of my natural parents. For his illumination, I inserted my name in the lineage where it should have been.

I hoped to learn more about these people, I wrote. Where did they live? What were their livelihoods? Was there a detailed family history? I sent the letter at 5 o' clock on a Monday evening. The next morning, at 6:30, the phone rang.

"William? This is Mac," said an unfamiliar voice.

"Mac who?"

"MacDonald. Welcome to the clan!"

Mac is a 72-year-old retiree who lives in Pittsburgh and devotes much of his day to researching and promulgating genealogy as it pertains to him and his ever-expanding clan. In the year I've known him, he has been associated with three genealogy Web sites and sends me daily updates -- profiles of distant relatives, tidbits of news, obituaries. He was born in Saskatchewan. His people, like mine, left Scotland in the early nineteenth century for Cape Breton Island; many of his relatives still live there. Our families are intertwined, but then the same is true for most of the two dozen families of the original settlers living along the western shore of St. George Bay. In 2000, two years before we met, Mac went to Cape Breton Island and attended a family reunion on River Denys Mountain, at the church of St. Margaret of Scotland. Didn't matter if the relatives were fourth cousins thrice removed; in Mac's world, they were all cousins. I'm his cousin and he's my cousin. And without him, I'd have never gone to Cape Breton Island.

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