With the Help of a Stranger

Ancestry Magazine • September 1st, 2007, Volume 25 /Number 6

My grandparents’ farmhouse stood outside North Branch, New Jersey, a village settled by the Dutch. Its thick Dutch-brick walls reputedly hid several walk-in fireplaces. Its hand-fashioned windowpanes offered rippled views of the old water pump and outhouse in the back. Its cellar, gloomy with packed dirt floors, led to a string of dim storerooms filled with squat jars of indeterminate, ageless content. Beyond the kitchen lay an unheated passageway leading to a locked door. Though we children frequently fetched muddy boots and other items from the passageway, we never ventured further—until the day we found the door wide open. Slipping in unnoticed, we discovered a warren of rooms, probably built for my grandfather’s farm hands.

Stacks of dishes and rickety furniture lined one wall and a huge black metal stove another. Beyond lay a clawed bathtub overflowing with dusty children’s books. After leafing through them, enjoying their old-time illustrations, I turned to the squat dresser just beyond. I unearthed yellowed tablecloths and faded Saturday Evening Posts. And beneath it all, I found a neat package tied with a red ribbon. Valentines, sweet lacy valentines. Each was addressed by a child: To My Dearest Mother, from Anita. But who was Anita?    

When I asked my mother, she minced no words. When they were children, she explained, her sister Anita had been killed in a traffic accident in North Branch. End of story. But for me, the story had just begun. While I never dared breach my mother’s wall of silence again, the mystery of Anita haunted me as surely as her death haunted my mother.

Years later, in the midst of a genealogy project, an exciting thought arose. Why not use my investigative skills to find the answers that had eluded me as a child? After all, no one need know, no one need suffer.

Because I had left North Branch far behind, I turned to JewishGen for help. Joining their online discussion group, I asked if anyone lived in or around North Branch. One kind soul, when he heard my tale, offered to do the legwork for me. Since the death of a child in a small village would be big news, he visited the nearest newspaper office for me. And it worked. Although I had supplied him with only Anita’s surname, I was soon reading the Somerville Messenger Gazette’s front page report of her death, “Local Baker’s Deliveryman Driver in Death Machine.”

According to the article, Anita and her sisters had been walking along the main road that ran through North Branch. Perhaps they were horsing around or singing or arguing or daydreaming. One of them crossed to the other side, and Anita followed. Midway across, when she noticed a bakery truck bearing down on her, Anita hesitated, changed her mind, and turned back to the curb. As her horrified sisters watched, the truck plowed into her, dragging her along. Anita sustained a fractured skull, broken ribs, a broken leg, and more. Three days later, home in the farmhouse, she died.

My JewishGen angel did more than visit the newspaper office—he visited the local Jewish cemetery, located Anita’s grave, and, as is traditional, left a stone there in my name. He also photographed Anita’s grave for me. Her slender gravestone stands tall, perhaps as tall as she stood at the time of her death in 1931. As I stare at the old-fashioned oval portrait embellishing her gravestone, my beautiful aunt, forever young, stares back at me. Hello, Anita.

appeared in Ancestry Magazine. This Work Copyright 2007 MyFamily.com, Inc., all rights reserved.To see the work in its original context and to view others like it, visit www.ancestry.comPublished: Saturday, September 1st, 2007 Volume 25 / Number