Before starting the research for this assignment, I had no idea how powerful it would end up being for me. My father’s side of the family was a bit of an enigma to me. My father, Russell, speaks very little of his childhood, family or past. Once in a great while, there will be a rare moment where he’ll share a random memory from his childhood, or a story about an essay he wrote for school, or a brief anecdote about his mother.
When he does choose to share these, it’s like catching a peek into the story of his life through a window that normally has its curtains drawn. I relish these rare anecdotes, and have been trying to piece them together for my entire life in the hopes of someday seeing the bigger picture.
As it turns out, one of my father’s cousins, Bob Anderson, actually managed to trace our lineage as far back as the 1820s. He compiled all of his research into an informative document that gave a detailed summary of each family member, their origins and how their life stories are woven together. There are also many pages of writings narrated by members of the family from generations before I was even born. The farthest back he was able to trace was to a man named John Perry, who was born in a place called Tipperary County in Ireland sometime in the 1820s. John Perry married an Irish woman, and they had four children who all emigrated to the United States by the 1850s. The children settled in Wisconsin, which is where the majority of the Perry family continued to live and still does to this day. Richard Perry, one of John’s children, is actually credited with pioneering Door County and developing the town of Forestville, Wisconsin.
My dad said he never met his father because he passed away when my dad was a newborn. I have never known anything about my grandfather except that his name was “Ralph” and that my grandma Elsie loved him very much. In the 30-paged document of our family tree, at the very end, I found a small photograph of Ralph Harding Perry that said he had been born on Jan. 14, 1920 and Died May 5, 1952 in an aircraft plant accident in Culver City, California.
When I came across this page, I couldn’t help but feel overcome by emotions. Having never seen a picture of my grandpa, the father of the most important man in my life, I had to keep myself from crying. I have seen hundreds of photos of my mother’s side of the family over the years on the walls of houses and in the pages of photo albums of all the relatives I spent so much time with growing up, but this small photo was the most powerful one I have ever come across. I have only seen about two or three photos of my dad from back before he reached his 30s, and the images that I have of my grandma are just vague memories from when she was alive. I had no way to imagine what my grandpa Ralph looked like, and here, on a page in front of me is all the information I will ever know about him: three short lines about his life and death, and a small photo.
My grandmother on my dad’s side of the family was also traced in the document, no further back than 1861 to a man named Chun Wah Sau and his wife, Chu Choon Hee, who both lived in China in a village called Nam Sha Tong (located in Chung Shan County). The Chun family ended up in Hawaii around 1890, where they were rice farmers for about 25 to 30 years.
Over the years, parts of the family moved back and forth between China and Hawaii. I learned that my grandma Elsie’s Chinese name is Ah Tau, but even after sifting through the document I know more about her origins than her actual life story. I am still not sure how she came to live in California or even how she met Ralph; only that she was born in China and lived in Hawaii for a
good portion of her life.
While there are still missing parts to Elsie Chun and Ralph Perry’s stories, I was extremely interested to read about things going on in the world that affected the lives of my ancestors. Apparently, a few of John Perry’s children fought in the American Civil War, and my grandma Elsie’s mother lived in an area invaded by the Japanese in 1939 and actually had to flee to a region of China called Macau, where she died that same year.
There are still an incredible number of questions about my father’s side of the family that I cannot answer. While the written document I have access to is substantial, I still cannot know everything. I was able to find out that the Perry’s in Wisconsin were strong adherents to the Republican Party, and aside from their involvement in the Civil War they were all farmers. Both of my father’s parents came from farming backgrounds; the farmers in Wisconsin worked mostly with hogs and cattle, while the farmers in Hawaii and China worked on rice fields.
One final thing I learned from my father’s side of the family upon doing this research is that a few of the Perry children married German women, including my great-great-grandpa, Richard Perry, who married a woman named Anna Knopp. I have never heard talk on either side of my family about having any German in our lineage, so I found that to be particularly interesting.
My mother’s side of the family was a bit harder to research, mainly because due to internal conflict we do not have much contact with them right now. The people who would have all the answers would be my grandparents; who told me all that I already reported in my Part 1 essay.
My grandmother is an excellent storyteller, but she has the tendency to embellish stories. This is partially why there are so many different rumors as to what ethnicities play a part in the story of our family, and since my DNA test results have not come back yet I’m still not sure which of these stories are true or which are wishful thinking. I do know that Catholicism used to run very strongly in that part of the family, but my grandmother converted to Atheism after seeing too much corruption in the Catholic church in Gibraltar. One heirloom I have that is very special to me is an old, beautiful acoustic guitar that used to belong to my great-grandfather Billy back in Spain.
There are many resources I wish that I had for this assignment. I would love to be able to compare all these stories I’ve heard the last couple weeks to my DNA results, or to be able to contact certain family members to hear more from them. The truth is, many of my family members are deceased, or still live back in Gibraltar with no way to speak English or communicate with us, or just aren’t old enough to have answers I haven’t already come across.
While there are still missing links, I still sifted through so many old writings, documents and oral stories to try and piece together where I came from. The most powerful thing is still that very last page of the family tree document about my grandpa, Ralph Perry. I actually feel as if my life has changed a little bit, as dramatic as that may sound. To go from hearing virtually nothing about the man- except that it gave my dad so much pain not to know him since he was only a month and a half old when he died- to actually seeing a picture and knowing his birthday, and how old he was when he passed away is something I literally cannot un-know. Those three little lines on that last page have made me feel more connected to that side of the family than I ever have before, and I am inspired to go even further than the research I’ve uncovered so far to find out how far back I can trace where we came from.
After coming across my discovery– which was both amazing and emotional for me– I can understand why it is so important for journalists to connect to their family history. It is not just about connecting to your own lineage, but connecting to the world around you. I have a connection to so many villages, cities and countries in this world that I was not even fully aware of throughout my life. This connection opens up my view of the world and the many different subjects I have to care about when reporting. I am no longer constrained to the bubble of where I grew up, and the issues that affect me directly are spread so much wider now. I know that journalists are supposed to be objective about everything, but objectivity does not have to mean indifference. The issues and topics journalists truly care about and choose to report on are what makes the best stories. In discovering where we come from and who we are, I believe we can learn to care about a lot of things bigger than our bubble.