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Obvious Choices

Updated: Aug 29, 2022

Years ago, I suffered from bad headaches. It was a chaotic time in my life and after spending quite a bit of money on counselors, neurologists and beta blockers, I found that all I really needed was order. Today, my kitchen cabinets are in order: peas, corn and tomatoes each in their respective rows. Flour, sugar, and cornmeal are sealed against pantry moths and labeled neatly on the front and top of each opaque container in red Sharpie. Each morning, I get up on the left side of the bed, hit the bathroom, then the coffeepot and check email. Before bed each night, I dim the lights in the bathroom, pour a full tub of water and add bubbles. I picture the stress and unresolved frustrations of the day draining from my fingers and toes into the bubbles. And then I pull the plug.

My little routines still rouse a chuckle from the family. About three weeks ago, my husband was making Saturday-morning waffles. A favorite. I'd emptied the large container of Bisquick into a storage container, labeled the container and thrown away the box to guard against pantry moths. Gathering the milk and eggs on the counter, he stared open-eyed at the opaque container labeled "Bisquick" and asked for the whereabouts of the box. After ten years of making Saturday-morning waffles, he'd not memorized the recipe. I fished the box out of the recycle bin and carefully pinned the recipe for waffles, pancakes and biscuits (just to be on the safe side) in bold red Sharpie on the side of the container.

There's a lesson here. When I begin researching a person, I begin with the obvious choices: the family bible, old address books, letters and greeting cards, Google, the archives on, and when I've reached my wit's end, I pick up the phone and call someone.

Researching a "dead-end" can be exhausting and a bit depressing. I've often put away my research for weeks at a time when I couldn't get a lead. Sometimes, this resting period is all that's needed to get fresh eyes and a new perspective on the trail.

I was pretty excited about the response from Christ Church in New Haven, so I requested death certificates for both my grandparents: my grandmother's would validate Ellen's maiden name; my grandfather's would validate his parents. I'd Googled Ellen's name, my grandmother's name and hadn't gotten any further. My grandmother had two sons from a second marriage; I'd tried their names last year with no result, and so I let that trail die. Last Friday, the certificates came in the mail.

That was just the juice I needed. I Googled Ellen Holt. Nothing. didn't provide any links that I hadn't already researched and incorporated into my files, so I started reading through what I'd already written. Great-grandfather: Alfred N Barrie. His and Ellen's children. My grandmother's marriage to Earle Barr Hanson; my grandfather. Their son Don, my father. My grandmother's marriage to Charles Howard; their sons Nick and Barrie. I saw my uncle Nick when my father passed away in 2005, but had misplaced his contact information. My uncle Barrie I'd not seen since...well, I don't remember ever meeting him.

I started with the obvious choices, in this case, my father's old address book. The book dated from the early 1970s when he was an executive in the carpet business. The brittle pages all bore his handwriting: neat capital letters with a sporadically circled "i". The section marked "H" was full of Hansons and Howards; all six listings for Barrie Howard marked through with a heavy black pen. But all showed that he had lived in North Carolina.

Barrie Howard turned up a half dozen hits on Google. One included a photo. There was no denying the family resemblance. I clicked on the YouTube link for his Summertime cover; he's a musician. The video included a contact phone number. We talked for a good half hour sharing quick stories, email addresses and laughter. I have cousins.

One of which is a project manager at the Library of Congress. My cousin Barrie Lee Howard, Jr. One step closer to Ellen.

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