There has been a surge in interest in genealogy. People are wanting to know where they came from. For Americans this is particularly intriguing as we more than most have a myriad of cultures, places, and ethnicities embedded in our DNA. My genealogy was three fourths completed years ago even before the internet was able to accommodate such research, through intense effort by family members.
A distant relative from France traced my maternal grandmother’s lineage. It turns out that a Louisiana governor whose name was Pierre Bourguignon-d’Herbigny is in fact one of my ancestors. He fled France during the time of the revolution and arrived in Pennsylvania in 1790 where he took a wife. He eventually moved to New Orleans in 1800. He became Governor of Louisiana in 1828. In 1829 he was killed in a horse and buggy accident in Gretna, Louisiana on the west bank of the Mississippi River from New Orleans.The author of the book written 1979 was Michel d’Herbigny of Lille France. There was a lot of work that went into this book as the sheer number of relatives produced from the line of Derbigny ( the Americanized spelling) is staggering. Well into the book there is section detailing where a woman named Louisiana LaBarre married a man named John Wagner. That union would produce two offspring, Peter John Wagner in 1884 and Anna Wagner in 1895. Their father, John Wagner, died the same year of Anna’s birth and her mother would pass away four years later, which meant that Anna Wagner would grow up in an orphanage in New Orleans. Anna Wagner was my grandmother.
On January 19th, 1884 the SS Prinz George, which had left Sicily in 1883, arrived in New Orleans. Among the passengers was Nicolo Cuccia and and his wife Calogera. This had been a grueling voyage that came at a great cost as their eleven month old son Giuseppi had died while the ship had been anchored in New York harbor a month earlier. The Cuccia’s would go on to have eight more children in New Orleans. In March of 1897 their sixth child, Giacomo, was born. Giacomo, later to be called Jake, was my maternal grandfather. This information was gathered by a cousin, Mike Stapleton, who still resides in New Orleans. Jake Cuccia and Anna Wagner would eventually wed and have six children, including a daughter named Joyce in 1923. Joyce Cuccia was my mother.
In 1823 Belgian immigrants arrived in Rosiere,Wisconsin. Joseph and Barbara Wautelet began a family that generations later would result in the birth of a son to Fabian Wautlet ( an e having been dropped from the surname at this time) and his wife Rose Meyer Wautlet. The son, Merle, would be one of ten offspring born to Fabian and Rose, nine of which survived to adulthood. The year Merle was born was 1925. Merle Wautlet, later to be known as Merriel Wautlet, and then finally Merrill Wautlet, was my father. My cousin Kay Warning, a Catholic nun, compiled all of this in a book in 1997.
The problem with genealogy is that it gives you facts but lacks background. You can only surmise what your ancestors were like. Without a direct oral history to give you the nuance and details of their lives you are often left with questions. My father passed away suddenly when I was eleven. I never got to know him as an adult. I never got to seek his counsel or ask him questions about his life choices. The man I loved so much died without me having a chance to find out what kind of man he was down deep. So I went looking for him. What I discovered was that he was an enigma, but a highly regarded one.
My journey started by asking my family members in New Orleans what my dad was like. He had spent much of his adult life there and had been married to my mother for twenty years when he died in 1970. What I found were reoccurring themes. He was universally regarded as being intelligent. That he was someone that was considered wise and people sought his counsel when they had problems. That he was easy going, friendly, and tolerant. I knew he liked sports, as we often watched football together. I knew he had been a Merchant Marine in World War II, and later a merchant seaman until he met my mother. I recall him being handy around the house and that he was able to make routine repairs. I knew he enjoyed a cold beer after work. Sometimes he would bake Chocolate Chip cookies, which I later learned is something all my Wisconsin relatives do. What was lacking was insight. Why did he leave his home in Wisconsin? What drove his desire to see the world as a young man? What were his beliefs on politics and religion? What I was getting was the surface of the man. He stayed married to a volatile and challenging woman until his death. What was his reason for such devotion to someone who could be so unstable and fiery one minute, and sweet and loving the next? I needed and wanted to know more.
I decided to query my relatives in Wisconsin. He had left home at the age of 17 so many of his younger siblings knew little about him as well. With the death of his older brother as a child my father only had four contemporaries for me to select from. His older sister Arleen, his sister Marian, and his brother and sister Karl and Carol, who were twins.
My late Aunt Arleen did did give me some of the insight I was yearning for. She said my dad was highly intelligent but had little interest in school and often skipped going to class. He had a strained relationship with my grandfather. This made sense to me. I often asked my father questions about his dad and his responses were vague. All I knew was that my grandfather was a carpenter who died suddenly at the age of 51 from a stroke. I’m fairly certain my dad never had a chance to reconcile with his father any differences that they may have had, and that this must have bothered him.
Aunt Arleen told me my dad left home as a minor at the age of 17 to go join the Merchant Marines and that while my grandmother was reluctant to grant permission it was my grandfather who persuaded her to let my father leave. My late Uncle Karl confirmed for me that my father’s relationship with his dad was tempestuous. He said that after my dad left home from that point on contact was limited to letters he wrote my grandmother and an occasional brief visit home. I do recall relatives coming to visit us in New Orleans and we in turn traveling to Wisconsin to visit them. One of my most vivid memories is seeing my dad’s eyes well up with tears when we were saying good bye in the summer of 1970. We were heading to Germany in a few weeks, as my dad had been transferred there for work. He would pass away four months later. It makes me wonder if he felt somewhere deep inside if his time was limited and that this would be the last time he would see his mother.
After all of that I felt I had hit the wall and was just going to have to accept the fact that there would be some things about my dad I would never know. Then a year ago I saw an ad for Ancestry.com. I knew it was run by the Mormon Church, and that they had the most extensive genealogical records on earth, in part based on a belief we all came from a common descendant. I decided to check out the free trial. I had one goal in mind, to see if there was anything in there about my dad that I didn’t already know. With no hope at all I rolled the dice and much to my joy I struck some gold.
On the website were links to some records from my father’s time at sea. I found four ship manifests. The first was dated 1944. It listed my dad as being 19 years old standing 5’11 and weighing 175 pounds. The ship he was on had left the Marshall Islands near the equator in the Pacific Ocean and arriving in Seattle that same year. Also in 1944 was a manifest that now listed my dad as being 6’0 and 180 pounds on a ship that left the island of Saipan and arrived in San Francisco.
in 1946 he was listed as being 20 years old, 5’11 and 185 pounds, and was on a ship that left Mobile, Alabama, went through the Panama Canal, and arrived Honolulu. In 1947 at the age of 22 he was on a ship that left Port Said, Egypt and it docked in New York.
My puzzle began to connect. It wasn’t that my father was a bad student, he was an unmotivated student. He craved knowledge but wanted it first hand. He didn’t want to read about the world he wanted to see it, experience it intimately, not from a text book. I can only imagine how many other sea voyages he had between the ages of 19 and 22 or the years after that. How many books he must have read during his time at sea when there was no satellite television. The people he met and the cultures he came in contact with.
I was on a roll now. I abandoned Ancestry and went on memory. I found the community in India he lived and worked in for almost two years in the early sixties. I found the plant in Wales he worked at just before his death when we were in Germany. I recalled bits and pieces of conversations now about places such as Shanghai and Rotterdam. My father was a man of the world and now through my computer I visited the places he had been and began to make sense of the man I loved and admired.
In all honesty there are still missing pieces and questions that will remain unanswered, particularly since almost all of his peers are deceased. I’m ok with that though. As an adult myself I realize some things are yours and yours alone. What I came away with is that following your dream isn’t always easy and there are consequences at times. My father’s desire to be true to himself, and having the courage to leave home and go into the great beyond leaves with me a great sense of pride and admiration for him.He packed a lot into his 45 years and and in the process touched a great many people. Everyone I had ever spoke with about him always had left me with the sense that they not only liked and respected him, but in many ways they revered him. Now I have a much better sense of where that presence and quiet command came from. I think my search is over…for now!