What do you do when you find hundreds of living relatives? Part 1

Now I don’t want to be misunderstood. That is, I don’t want you to think my parents and each of their families were a bit dysfunctional. I’m here to confirm that “dysfunctional” is not only an appropriate characterization but also quite accurate. However, I would like you to keep in mind that my sister and I are thoroughly, absolutely and convincingly normal. Of course we are!

I’ll be writing a few posts to explain a few things and bring everyone up to date. This will be the first in a series of who knows how many posts, at least until I feel that I’ve bored everyone to tears…

Henry Dunn Robison WW II in Puerto Rico, 1944

Henry Dunn Robison World War II in Puerto Rico

Let me start by saying that both Henry Dunn Robison, my father, and Beatrice Agatha (Dickson) Robison, my mother, took the position that “What you don’t know won’t hurt you!” In hindsight, I can understand why they would have that attitude. I don’t agree with how they handled this aspect of raising my sister and I, I just understand it.

 

Cecil Lee Robison

Cecil Lee Robison

I’d like to first talk about my paternal grandfather, Cecil Lee Robison. That’s about all I knew about him. His name, that is. Well, to be honest, I also knew that he lived in Alabama and was a CPA. This picture was cropped out of a group picture that included all of his siblings. My father would call him every Christmas but was only on the phone for a couple of minutes. It was an annual ritual. It was also a bizarre ritual!  Cecil had divorced my grandmother in the early 30’s and remarried. I suppose I should talk about that a bit.

My father’s mother was Mary Virginia (Dunn) Robison. We knew her pretty well because although she was born and raised in Alabama, married Cecil in Alabama and gave birth to my father in Alabama, after the divorce

Mary Virginia Dunn Robison

Mary Virginia Dunn Robison

she found her way to Massachusetts as a Practical Nurse” and lived with us in the mid to late 50’s until she was hospitalized.  Based on interviews I’ve since had with a few of my “new” relatives, it seems that Mary Virginia’s mother, Gilma (Robertson) Dunn, didn’t approve of her daughter’s marriage and went about sabotaging it. At least that’s my current thinking. First, the family story was that Miss Gilma, an upper middle class widow, had my father’s birth record destroyed. Even today, all I can get from the Alabama Department of Health is a letter stating that they have no record of the birth of Henry Dunn Robison. So, Gilma claimed that my father was actually 2 years older than he really was in the weeks following Pearl Harbor. That put 15- or 16- or 17-year old Henry Dunn in the Navy in January of 1942. His uncle, another of Miss Gilma’s sons, was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Air Corps. I would speculate that his influence at some level may have kept my father in the Caribbean for the duration. Antigua and Puerto Rico are 2 locations I’m aware of. He was honorably discharged in 1945 and made his way to Massachusetts where his mother was working at Framingham Prison in Framingham, Massachusetts in her capacity as a nurse. Framingham was a women’s prison that had become somewhat famous due to the warden who ran it, but that’s another story.

When I was very young, the paucity of relatives and the seemingly rare spelling of our family name (Robison versus Robinson or Robertson or many others) made me believe that my sister and I were members of a family that was virtually non-existent. I would be quick to correct anyone who made the horrible mistake of calling me David Robinson. I even took to pronouncing it ROW-bi-son rather than RAH-bi-son, the way my father pronounced it. This caused quite a problem when I began a serious search for my “Robison” family. I became a genealogist.

Genealogy crept in about 1969. A person whom I’d never met sent me a letter out of the blue. It was a descendant chart of some of my paternal ancestors beginning with a guy who was born in 1849. 1849!! And it went all the way down to my sister and me. There was at least one other line there, but I couldn’t get over the fact that I now knew that name of an ancestor born 120 years ago! 1849!! I couldn’t get over it; I was so impressed, I folded it and put it away for about 25 years.

Scroll ahead to the mid-90’s. I’m know obsessed with family history. I had many successes with my maternal line relatively speaking. My mother’s sister was a great deal more forthcoming with information, some of which I now know to be true. Aunt Gert was willing to talk about anything and make it up as she went along if necessary! The truth? Well….  But I certainly knew my father was born in Evergreen, Alabama. So common sense sent me to find the Conecuh County Historical Society in Evergreen, Alabama. The archivist there told me that if I wanted any family history on the folks in Evergreen, I should write a letter to Mrs. Sarah R Coker who lived right there in town.

I wrote the letter and waited.

About 2 weeks later, I received and envelope properly addressed in a hand that was obviously of a very old person. But written well enough that it found it destination.  With a great deal of enthusiasm, I opened the letter and stared at her words: “Why hello sweety-pie! I’m your Grand Aunt Sarah. I’m your Daddy’s aunt and your grandpa’s baby sister.” I should pause here to try and give you the overwhelming sense of excitement and a bit of anger I was feeling. I loved finding Aunt Sarah. It was a thrill beyond explanation! But I was… I was… I don’t know what I was! Angry, indignant… There are no words for the how I felt at that very moment! But let’s move on.

Sarah Elizabeth Robison Coker (1919 - 2009)

Sarah Elizabeth Robison Coker (1919 – 2009)

Sarah Elizabeth Robison Coker (that’s the “R” in her name…Robison!)  had been researching for decades. And researching without a computer. No computer for two reasons: 1) She had done a mountain of work prior to the electronic age. She actually wrote letters. She actually got responses; and 2) She had macular degeneration in her old age and wouldn’t have been able to see the screen even if she had one. Naturally I wrote back with an incredible amount of enthusiasm. I don’t remember if I called my sister that very second or if I waited until later that day. But I wanted her to share in the excitement. We had relatives!!!

There’s a great deal more to tell you: I flew down to meet with her; I met the author of the 1969 letter, a second cousin named David Sanders; I was told many fabulous family stories; I was treated like “royalty!” You’ll love the part about the pictures. And a few racy stories Aunt Sarah was almost embarrassed to tell! She wanted me to turn off the digital recorder I brought with me. I’m sure you’ll get a kick out of her story about eloping to Defuniak Springs, Florida from her home in Evergreen. Then in 2003, a family reunion with over 300 relatives in attendance.

Again, lots more to tell….stay tuned!

 

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