09 May 2008

Remembering the forgotten despite roadblocks

As we go through boxes of old family photographs and records, we may find something unsettling. Trying to find information may be problematic.

In this New York Times story - "Trying to Flesh Out the History of a Family That Was Minus One" - one woman tries to trace an older brother.

More than 40 years ago, when she was a teenager, Jean Moore learned something quite by accident that haunts her still.

She was 16, her sister was three years older, and they were sifting through old photos and family memorabilia that their mother had left in an old trunk in an aunt’s attic, when they came across something startling. Mrs. Moore, 62, remembers it as an X-ray of an infant. Her sister remembers it as a birth certificate. Either way it seemed to be evidence of something hard to explain — an older brother neither knew they had.

They asked their aunt about it. Nervous and discomfited, she told them to ask their parents. They did, and the scene was even more awkward. Yes, their father told them, there had been an older brother. His name was Charles. He had not developed properly — mongoloid was the term the family doctor had used. The boy had been sent away to a home that cared for children like that. Her father said such children did not live long, and he was almost certainly dead already. Either way, he made it clear that there was nothing more to be said, and that this subject was not to be discussed again. What was done was done.

When she retired some years ago, Moore began thinking about this. She saw a story about Letchworth Village in Rockland County, NY whose residents were buried in unmarked graves.

Moore learned that without a court order or proof she was a parent or legal guardian there was no way to get information.

Through sheer persistence, she managed unofficially to learn a little. Her brother was born on Feb. 25, 1937, in Brooklyn. He was taken away to Letchworth Village and stayed there until 1950. He was then transferred to Willowbrook on Staten Island, and died seven months later. That’s all she knows about her brother. But she did learn something else.

Moore's research took her to Vanessa Leigh DeBello whose mother was at Willowbrook. DeBello's blog has attracted some 25 people all trying to get the most basic information about a family member.

“In trying to protect the rights of patients, we’ve created a situation that’s kind of ridiculous, where people desperately looking for their own relatives keep running into this wall,” said Mrs. DeBello, who is writing a book about her mother’s experience at Willowbrook. “I see it all the time, and it breaks my heart.”

The story indicates that for the first time the New York State Legislature is considering a bill that would make information available to cemeteries so those forgotten in life could be remembered in graves under their own names.

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