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  • Donna Hanson

Finding Ellen

Updated: Aug 29


Ellen Holt Barrie, me, and Mama (Bertha Hicks Hanson)

Sometime in 2000, I was visiting my mother and as we sifted through photographs of long-dead relatives I held one in my hand a bit longer than the others. The photo was of me, in my mother's arms, reaching for a kind elderly woman, her arms extended inviting an embrace. As I looked at the photo, my mother retelling familiar stories about my father and his mother and how he danced at their wedding with his mother until everyone had drained the band and the gin, I asked "tell me about the woman in the photo, mom. Tell me about Ellen."


"Well, that's Gram Barrie...Ellen Barrie, your father's grandmother. She was English."


My father died in 2005 of cancer. My mother passed this last year the day before Mother's Day, but their lives together, our lives as a family, ended in 1961. Family stories have always been important to me probably more so in light of the lack of aunts and family picnics and Sunday visits to grandparents during my childhood. Sometime in 2000, I realized that we had family stories. I just didn't know them yet.


I started documenting our family history. Today, I have over 2,000 relatives dating back to the late 1400s. It's not just knowing their names that interests me. I want to know about their lives. Why did they come to this country? Why did they stay?


The branches of my family tree have spread like an old oak. Some winding long and laden with fruit. Some jutting like a spur from the base of the trunk with no apparent purpose. Perhaps the search for all of these relatives has now led me to just one. Finding Ellen.

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