“Certificates are the best source of information,” Shirley said as she chopped a green pepper. She is my cousin-in-law. More precisely, she is Errol’s wife, who is my third cousin once removed. The kinship may sound distant but we’re bonded in genealogy.
“What could a certificate reveal?” I said. I had been tracing family history since we all met in 2012 at the Trumpet Family Reunion. Between that and uncovering several family names, I figured what was left was to do DNA testing. That was the best route to overcome genealogy roadblocks. But, bruh, I was wrong.
“Check that crate over there,” Shirley pointed. It was filled with obituaries, pictures, family tree guides, birth and death certificates. I glanced at a death certificate and its information breathed life back into my genealogy. There were dates of birth, parent names and occupations. It hit me. I needed to get my hands on more certificates.
As Shirley placed the chopped peppers in a bowl to make a Mango Avocado Salad, Errol came downstairs.
“We have her family in that crate and mine in that one,” Errol said as he pulled up a chair.
“Ya’ll have tons of information,” I said.
“Here’s the paper,” Errol showed me our genealogy chart that showed our common ancestors, Jerrick Joseph Trumpet and Eleanor Boldington, my third great-grandparents, who are also his second great-grandparents.
“Have you kept up with family since the reunion?” Errol said.
“Not as much as I hoped,” I said. My third great-grandparents Jerrick and Eleanor had two children: William (Errol’s line) and Henry Trumpet. Henry had fifteen children including the oldest my Great-granddad Japheth Trumpet. Japheth, had six children including my Grandma Carmen Trumpet, who had five children including my mother, Christine Hunnicutt.
“You’re kidding me,” Errol said, “there were over 100 people.”
“Good thing we have the Facebook group,” I said.
The door bell rung. Today, we were hosting a Genealogy Potluck, a gathering among family filled with food and memories. An alternative for family in New York who weren’t able to make it to Saint Vincent – the ancestral ground of my Trumpet family line – to reunite. It was Shirley’s family.
“I don’t know why I need to know family history when I got you,” Al, Shirley’s brother, said to her as we all sat in the patio.
“What the hell does once removed mean anyway,” Al said.
“First cousins share a grandparent. Second cousins share a great-grandparent and third cousins share a great-great-grandparent,” I said, “Removed refers to generations separating cousins themselves.”
“So ya’ll cousins.”
A Genealogy Relationship Chart would of made the explanation simple.
A few weeks later, I ordered two death certificates: Willie Lawson Jr and Carmen Trumpet. Of my grandparents, I knew them the least. As I waited for the certificates to arrive, I hoped they would lead to stories behind the facts. Maybe this would prompt my family to share more of what they knew.
I knew a last name carried a history. My paternal Granddad Willie Lawson Jr.’s last name wasn’t passed on to my father, Andre Allen, who is known as Jamel. But Granddad Willie’s death certificate confirmed he is his father’s namesake. In that moment, I figured I could have been Rashaun J. Lawson. Yet, I wanted to know more about the Lawson last name not being passed on.
“I didn’t feel like it,” Grandma Arlene said when I asked. Maybe this was a way for Grandma Arlene to break tradition. Her move showed she had the right to give her child the name she wanted. Maybe bestowing a last name was an honor not earned.
“He often asked me to change my name,” Jamel said the day I asked him. Maybe their bond wasn’t strong enough. Or maybe it wasn’t my father’s priority. But the conversation showed there was a kinship.
“Giving a child your name hid the fact you weren’t married,” I can’t recall who said it. But Grandma Arlene and Granddad Willie did not marry. He was married to a Christine Sparrow.
“He wasn’t my father,” my aunt said, one day over the phone, “but when he did, he did for all of us.” This surprised me. More often than not I heard horror stories how money divided families. Who knows maybe there was a horror story like that in mine.
Granddad Willie was born on October 23, 1919 in Florida and he had a twelfth grade education. This was a great feet considering he was in school during the Great Depression. A time when children gave up learning to help support their family. Many families ate not knowing if their last meal was their final meal. Maybe he and his family benefited from the Florida land boom in the early 1920s. At some point he moved to Brooklyn where he became a steel worker for the Brooklyn Steel Company.
I am only aware of three children Granddad Willie had; my father and his sister; and Granddad Willie’s death certificate informant, his daughter, who is also an aunt I have not met. His parents are: Willie Lawson Sr. and Pinkie Mae O’neal. The death certificate uncovered and confirmed Great-grandma Pinkie.
Granddad Willie died on April 12th, 1992, at 72 years old in a hospital. I can’t help but wonder why I didn’t meet him. He only lived three miles away from my home in Breukelen projects. Maybe his relationship was strained with the Allen family.
The Lawson family line is tricky to uncover for out of all four grandparents that line is the only one I have no human contact. If only searching black folks with the last name Lawson from Brooklyn was a legit lead.
Grandma Carmen was born November 11th, 1929, the last but one child of Japheth Trumpet and Irene DePeiza’s four children (Japheth had a total of six children). She was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York under a Caribbean family structure. This meant Great-granddad Japheth was the primary bread winner and protector, while Great-grandma Irene managed the home and raised the children.
Grandma Carmen’s death certificate did not reveal much information I did not know – it actually had typos from “BePeiza,” to “Carlos” and “Trunpet.” But it confirmed Grandma Carmen was married like Granddad Charles’ family registry did. I learned she was 20 years old when she married Granddad Charles on March 4th 1950. By that time she had my oldest aunt from a previous relationship.
Grandma Carmen’s education level is unknown to me. It was not revealed in her death certificate. Nor have I raised a conversation up about it. Her occupation was listed as a housewife. But that didn’t uncover how she raised her five children alongside her husband. Perhaps her parental style reflected her upbringing.
“She taught me how to crochet and sow,” one Aunt said. This may have been a family tradition passed down from Great-grandma Irene.
“She was mean,” another Aunt said, “She would lose it if I didn’t finish my food.” Maybe Grandma Carmen set a precedence that food couldn’t be wasted. I can only imagine stretching one income for a household of seven.
“She could sing,” my aunt’s daughter said, “But she had a bad cough.” She explained that a disc with Grandma Carmen’s recorded song was among the tens of discs in Granddad Charles’ apartment. I never found or heard it. But her heavy coughs and smoking got the best of her. The death certificate revealed Grandma Carmen died at 32 years old inside the Breukelen projects’ apartment I grew up in. It was on September 22nd, 1962, eighteen days after my Mom was born.
I imagine Grandma Carmen’s untimely death affected the family for generations to come. It forced Granddad Charles to survive for his children. It may have influenced Mom to baby me. Perhaps it played a major part in her grandchildren – myself included – to grow up without strong Caribbean ties. If it only takes a death to be disconnected from a generation. Maybe there needs to be twice, no three times as many memories to stay bonded.
7 Generations – is a blog series that digs into my family tree to consider the impact of circumstances and decisions through the generations.
Rashaun J. Allen (@rashaunjallen) is the author of A Walk Through Brooklyn & In The Moment. He has been featured in several publications such as: The Chronicle, The Troy Record, Albany Student Press & UA Magazine. Find his books at www.Royalbluepublishing.com and follow his personal blog at www.rashaunjallen.com.