Kitchen inquisition

One of my more inscrutable brick walls isn’t made out of brick at all. Rather, it looks to be made of cheese. No, not cheddar, bleu, or provolone, nor is it built from anything lost in the Badger State. I guess if had to describe the wall – you know, to say what sort of cheese it best resembled – I’d be forced to say “Swiss.” The reason for this is that the wall is somewhat genealogically airy, with both a cheesy truth and speculation leaking through it – at least in a manner of speaking.

The wall itself is a simple one. It was built around my mother’s date of birth, or at least the year in which she was born. Now, mom wasn’t born all that long ago, in 1935, so it’s amazing just how far back and out of memory “1935” can be – especially when one is trying to meld together “the rest of the story.” Let me see if I can make all this a little bit clearer.

During the summer of 1990 my family was experiencing a bit of a genealogical renaissance. While we couldn’t quite yet see the age of Google, there was an undercurrent of interest in asking each other questions about our family history. After surviving much of the self-serving 1980s, a lot of us had begun to go through some of our old family papers – and, well, we were starting to take note of who we were and where we had come from. We did this while noting some curious inconsistencies in what we’d previously held to be true.

My mother was no exception to this, and in her general shuffle of documents to review (and maybe in the flux of spring cleaning) she discovered her original “birth announcement.” You know, the ones that became fashionable to post sometime in the early part of the twentieth century, and shortly after it became normal to “officially” record vital records. A lot of these old birth announcements were put away as mementos, and I guess mom’s was no exception.

The problem with mom’s birth announcement caught her eye almost immediately. It was the year of the postmark on the envelope – “1932.”

The problem with mom’s birth announcement caught her eye almost immediately. It was the year of the postmark on the envelope – “1932.” Needless to say, mom was a bit flabbergasted when she saw that postmark, as her birth certificate read that she was born in “1935.” Now mother wasn’t a vain gal, but she really wasn’t at all interested in suddenly being three years older than she had been a moment before.

August 1990: Alta (Sage) (Lee) Dixon (1909-2004) with her daughter Yvonne Kay (Lee) (Record) Guerry (1935-2018) examining Yvonne’s birth announcement in a “kitchen inquisition.” Screen capture courtesy of Wendi Lee Record

A family meeting of sorts was called, with my somewhat unsuspecting grandmother called “into the kitchen” to account for this peculiar discrepancy. My grandmother (“Nana”) had no clear explanation for this wayward typo, and indeed her examination of the envelope and its contents didn’t really help her to bring forth a good explanation for it during this “inquisition.” The post mark itself seemed to conspire against her, further implicating poor Nana in some sort of vital statistic cover-up.

My mother earnestly wished to know if she was three years older than she actually was, and while my grandmother tried to defer the question about mom’s year of birth, the conversation just fell into, well, you guessed it, a lot of laughter. Poor Nana concurrently blamed my mother’s dad (from whom she had been divorced for forty-five years) for somehow causing the post office to make this error, while suggesting the mistaken numeral in question was perhaps truly an “8,” thus meaning that my mother was miraculously younger than previously thought.

Well, mom would have nothing of it. She immediately figured that if she was indeed three years older than what she’d always been told, well, that this would account for the way she felt each day, i.e., tired and older than she thought she should feel. The cat had really snagged my grandmother’s tongue this time, and Nana fumbled for an explanation for what she knew wasn’t really the truth.

There was much good humor and laughter that day in 1990 while mother quizzed Nana about just what the truth was – and as to where each of them had been on that December day in 1935.

The truth is my mother was born in 1935. Of this I have no doubt. However, in the absence of a birth certificate, a postmarked envelope with a birth announcement inside becomes a very compelling form of documentation. While the postmarked envelope may not be an immutable form of proof for a date of birth, it becomes at least as valid as, say, a funeral card or even a year of birth as stated in any census record or grave stone.

So this is why I label this particular brick wall as one made of “cheese.” There was much good humor and laughter that day in 1990 while mother quizzed Nana about just what the truth was – and as to where each of them had been on that December day in 1935. I say this particular brick wall is made of cheese because the laughter somehow confounds it as a potentially valid piece of documentation. It’s documentation that (with a government postmark) might very well cause my mother’s date of birth to someday be recorded as “betw. 1932-1936,” skewing or at least obscuring the truth. Any well wishing family historians of the future may think of my poor mom as much older than she actually was. And while it is always good to look at a few of these brick walls as containing something that we can laugh at, believe me, it’s not a good idea to call mom older than she necessarily might be!

About Jeff Record

Jeff Record received a B.A. degree in Philosophy from Santa Clara University, and works as a teaching assistant with special needs children at a local school. He recently co-authored with Christopher C. Child, “William and Lydia (Swift) Young of Windham, Connecticut: A John Howland and Richard Warren Line,” for the Mayflower Descendant. Jeff enjoys helping his ancestors complete their unfinished business, and successfully petitioned the Secretary of the Army to overturn a 150 year old dishonorable Civil War discharge. A former Elder with the Mother Lode Colony of Mayflower Descendants in the State of California, Jeff and his wife currently live with their Golden Retriever near California’s Gold Country where he continues to explore, discover, and research family history.

30 thoughts on “Kitchen inquisition

  1. Well, I will ask the obvious question … how can you be certain that the contents and the envelope are absolutely “tied?” Could not some other item have been mailed to the addressee in 1932 and they later mismatched the contents and envelopes?

  2. … ahh, looking at the year too much and not the whole date … interesting that it is Jan 1? Indeed someone may have been resetting the stamp at the PO and had it wrong for some time before it was noticed.

  3. There was a lady at our old church (QUITE the character, I must add) who wanted a job that she was officially “too old” for. So she got her father to swear an affidavit that her birth records had been lost in a fire, and indicating that she was many years younger than in actuality. That worked fine for her career…but then she had to work many years past her 65th birthday before being able to collect Social Security. At her death, it was hard to know WHAT year to put on her funeral bulletin because no one really knew for certain; she literally took that secret to the grave!

    1. Hi Pamela, I really appreciate this.What a tale worth telling! What a character your lady at the church must have been, and indeed how noteworthy. I say more power to her for living a good life on her own terms. Ah! The price of staying young! She is probably chuckling at us all right about now. Thanks for lightening my day.


  4. Is there a chance that the recipient mixed up some papers when going through items and put the birth announcement in the wrong envelope?

  5. Did you consider infantile death? I have many ancestors that had infants die and then they reused the name on the next child of the same sex.

    1. James, Your suggestion here is a most interesting one to me for a number of reasons. It is certainly one that we hadn’t considered before … and given my grandmother’s evasion tactics when looking at the envelope it does give me pause to wonder. My grandmother was a bit of an artful dodger as it was:

      This certanily gives me something further to investigate and follow-up on!
      Many thanks!

  6. Perhaps whoever manually turned the numbers on the post office’s date stamp had vision problems, thought the stamp had the wrong year and switched it to the incorrect year. (I mention this option since, well, it’s something I myself have done with our office date stamp. *blush* )

    Or, less likely for still a possibility, someone at some point in the past got the birth announcement out to look at, then put it back into the wrong envelope.

    1. I agree with Jared. The postman changing the date on New Year’s Day likely imbibed a bit too much the night before, and screwed up the year by mistake!

    2. Hi Jared, Me too! And indeed this seems the most likely scenario. And like Joan says the postmaster had probably celebrated too much – a VERY typical pattern for cowboy Wyoming.

  7. Nothing is etched in stone about that birth announcement being what was originally in that envelope when it was mailed in 1932.

    It could be simply one sibling/relative playing a joke by swapping out the items.

  8. Hi Jeff,
    Your article is enjoyable, but raises some unanswered questions. Does the birth announcement gave a date on it? Was it published? Has the original source been viewed? Maybe it was just inserted into an old envelope. Makes you wonder. I kind of think someone would notice if a parent presented a 9 year old, to enroll in st grade!

    1. Hi Steve, Thanks for this. I am looking into published sources like the local newspapers. We’d been going just off the birth certificate itself (to compare the envelope to), but I am in agreement that a scan of local published sources for say 31-35 is in order!

      1. Hi Jeff, best of luck with your search for corroborating records. Please keep us posted. My Dad was born at home, in 1929, and had a Delayed Birth Certificate, which was based in part on school enrollment records.

  9. Well written/said, Jeff. Mom could’ve been 20 years older and it would have made no difference.

  10. You didn’t mention that there was any kind of dated correspondence in the envelope with the announcement. Did anyone consider that the birth announcement was just put in whatever envelope was available at some point to keep it from getting torn, and that the envelope and announcement have nothing more in common?

    1. Hi Maria, Oddly the envelope and the card are a perfect fit and appear to be a perfect match. The “set” is quite small, maybe 2″ by 3″ with both pieces looking to have aged together and at the same time. The announcement itself only says “December 29th…” with unfortunately not much more in the way of any other clues. There is a small black and white baby (?) picture glued on one side – oddly, the child in the picture doesn’t look much like my mother – and is much older than a newborn baby.

      I tell you the whole darn thing is just peculiar!

  11. Great personal drama here, Jeff, but alas it was a P.O. snafu for sure. The clerk setting the stamp, wanting to change only the last date digit on the right, turned the face of the stamp up toward him/her, placed what looked like a 5 in that position, and didn’t test it. Of course, what looked like a five was actually an upsidedown 2, which could only prove itself when used, or tested. Keep this fantastic stuff coming, Jeff, it never wears out!!

  12. Jeff, I go with the replaced in wrong envelope theory. I have several old letters from a grandmother’s time that this happened to. Or several letters from different years were placed in one envelope and none of the letters were dated. Sometimes I could figure out from the contents which letter (if any) belonged in the envelope.

    However, have you checked old newspapers from the week your mother believes she was born? Small town papers often included a notice that “The stork visited the John Smiths on Tuesday” or something similar. Accounts of a child’s birthday celebrations were also popular “filler”. If you can find a mention of a birthday party or picnic in your future mother’s honor when she was a child, that would be “compelling evidence” of your mother’s true birth year. In fact, just this weekend I reluctantly gave up an exhaustive search for the official marriage record and family Bible of a friend’s grandparents and accepted non-official accounts of the grandmother’s maiden name, making it clear in my report to my friend that this is what I’d done.

  13. While I certainly can see Mr Hager’s date-change theory as true (because I remember moving the dates wrong on stampers on early clerical jobs), Joanna’s’s suggestion will be the only way out for you. Was Saratoga, Wyoming covered by any paper, such as a county one? Ditto for Big Piney. I haven’t looked that up.

    I did look up Alta and Frank on the US Censuses to 1930 and 1940. Your mom is definitely stated to be 4 on the later one. Frank & Alta are just marrieds in 1930 living in Denver. So, 4 and a half years went by before your mom was born. (My Catholic parents made it from October 1932 until December 1936 before my older sister arrived.) The possibility of there being a 1st child who died young is strong, especially as you say the card and envelope fit (aging together) and that the pic seems to show not a new born but an older baby.

    Could it be a death announcement with the latest or last picture attached?

    Just how EXACTLY does the card read?

  14. The article was fun, as usual, and so are the comments……….always lightens my day. Thanks again for including me…….. Kathy

  15. Perhaps a school year book, or high school graduation announcement in the 1949 to1953 time range assuming “Nana” graduated high school at age 17 or 18. Great story, thanks for sharing.

  16. My own mother was tripped up by the truth about her age, and she blamed me for it! On my birth certificate, (a legal document!), she listed her age as 31. When my brother was born almost three years later, she listed her age as 32! When I began doing family research, I found that, and also came across my parent’s marriage license, (another document!), where Mom registered her age as two years older than my father. It turns out she was SEVEN years OLDER than Dad. She told me to never tell anyone her real age, but the truth spoke for itself, as she lived to the actual age of 90, fully documented in the local newspaper. She did always look younger than her age, though!

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