“Let me get this straight,” said my husband as he dropped me off at our local Metro station. “You’re going to New York to meet a guy you met on the internet?” We laughed. What he said was literally true, but it wasn’t quite as foolish as it sounded. I did meet Brian on the internet but it was on ancestry.com, not Tinder or some such shady meeting place. Though I suppose statistically a long lost second cousin is just as likely to be a serial killer as any random stranger. But Ancestry declared us a DNA match and we have nuns in common on our family trees. Surely a sign of divine favor. So I waved goodbye to my husband and set off to take the train to New York.
Actually it’s not strictly accurate to call Brian a long lost cousin. I never knew of his existence to be able to lose him, so newly discovered cousin is more accurate. Just a year ago I knew virtually nothing about my Irish family though I always assumed that I must have relatives here in America. I even wondered if David Byrne of the Talking Heads was family. But it wasn’t until the advent of online genealogical research that I discovered my grandparents’ families. Starting with just a few clues – my grandmother’s maiden name and birth year, the town she and my grandfather were from, and the name of one of her siblings – within days I knew the identity of my great-grandparents and all their children. My grandmother was one of seven and my grandfather one of twelve. And as I suspected, while my grandparents emigrated to England many of their siblings went to America. Their descendants in my generation are my second cousins.
Once you start creating a family tree on Ancestry you get hints of likely matches between your relatives and people on other family trees. That was how I “met” Brian. His grandmother Margaret was my grandmother’s elder sister. She stayed in Ireland, married James Kilduff, and had seventeen children. Her daughter Mary Ellen was Brian’s mother. Mary Ellen emigrated to New York City and, like so many young Irish women, worked as a domestic servant for a wealthy family. As I explored the commonalities between our trees to verify the relationships one clue clinched the matter. Brian had posted a photo of two nuns. I immediately recognized the younger as my father’s cousin Sister Bernard Joseph. We often visited her at her convent in Lancashire when I was a child. The older nun in the photo was identified as her aunt. That clicked, because I knew my grandmother had a sister who was a nun. We used to receive letters from her that my father read aloud at the dinner table, commenting that they were like the mystic writings of a medieval saint. But here’s where it became a bit tricky, because while my family knew her as Sister Trea, Brian’s photo identified her as Sister Pia.
Given the level of discourse on the internet, I can imagine people on Ancestry getting into spats with newly discovered family members over differences in their versions of family history. But in the emails we exchanged Brian and I handled the discrepancy tactfully, neither of us insisting we owned the truth. The names are similar enough that it was easy to imagine spoken or written misinterpretations. We agreed that I would contact the religious order to verify the name. From the clue of an address in my father’s 1943 diary I identified a convent in Islington, London, where Sister Trea/Pia lived at the time. The convent belonged to the Cross and Passion order which was founded in Manchester in the nineteenth century. That made sense as my Irish relatives all immigrated to Manchester. Nuns are not particularly easy to get hold of but eventually I was put in touch with the order’s archivist. Yes, there is such a thing. I enquired about both nuns. Expecting some brief reply, instead I received two extensive documents relating their entire histories with the order. The elder nun was indeed Sister Trea, named after a fifth century Irish saint converted by St. Patrick himself.
I forwarded the documents to Brian who responded:
“My God Rita, this reads like a report prepared by field agents for J. Edgar Hoover. Who knew they kept such dossiers. It sounds like the work of the secret state.”
Perhaps it was the irreverent humor of this reply that gave me the idea of traveling to New York to join one of the monthly cousins lunches he had told me about. Now here I was sharing the business class Acela carriage with a bevy of elegantly dressed young women working away on their laptops. Once arrived at Penn Station I quickly identified the exit where I was to meet Brian, but having some time to spare I went in search of a restroom. There followed the worst twenty minutes of my day. I descended into a teeming sulfurous circle of hell with no restrooms or exits in sight. After almost stumbling into a men’s room and taking several wrong turnings in the underground warren I emerged at last into the bright New York morning.
Brian was there to meet me as promised along with his husband Bob and sister Mary. We were immediately stuck in a typical New York City traffic gridlock. In the spirit of our morning jest I texted my husband:
“In car with cousins and an interior decorator posing as a chauffeur. He is obviously the mastermind of the operation. Not sure where we’re going.”
We eventually broke free of the city traffic and sped along the Long Island Expressway to the lovely little town of Roslyn. The restaurant was serene and dignified with none of the vibe of the hangout for retired mafioso where my daughter worked when she lived in New York. I met several more cousins, our conversation winding through the complicated tangles of family relationships and stories. Inevitably our conversation turned to the nuns in the family. I learned about another, Sister Bernard Joseph and Mary Ellen’s elder sister Sister Kevin, who emigrated to Canada and spent a lifetime as a convent housekeeper. I shared a story from my father’s 1943 diary. He was eighteen at the time and doing army training in the London area. One evening he set out to a dance club but decided to stop first at the Islington convent to visit his aunt Sister Trea. He wrote:
“Lucky I visited her too. Coming back I missed a bomb by about five minutes. A direct hit on the very place I’d have been but for going to Islington.”
The club was a pile of rubble and there were many casualties so in a way Sr. Trea saved his life.
Too soon our lunch drew to a close. As we said our goodbyes I wondered what our common ancestors would think of us all together here in New York talking about them. With no knowledge of modern technology they would wonder how we managed to connect. Between their world and ours an unimaginable distance.
With cousin Mary as my guide my second visit to Penn Station was much less stressful. She led me to the grand rotunda on the main level, where train information and even restrooms were clearly signposted. Obviously in the morning I had gone down when I should have gone up. The journey home was long and uneventful but I had much to ponder from my New York adventure. Recounting the story to a group of people a week later most were shocked that I would go to meet a stranger and even get in a car with him. Said one, “Don’t do anything like that again!”