Chicago, Illinois, USA opened up as a whole new front on my family tree last year when a DNA kit led to friendship with one of my cousins on my Mum’s Dad’s side of the family – Andrew Michael Castillo – although that wasn’t his name when we met. His DNA test revealed a whole lot more than he bargained for, as well as the shared history we are still unravelling.
Our shared ancestor is one Elizabeth Margaret Rose Coombes (1937-1999). She was his Mum, and my half grand aunt, or my grandfather’s youngest half-sister, born on 17 March, 1937. We’ve always known her as ‘Auntie Margaret’.
Her story had always been a little clouded in mystery, despite the fact that my Mum and her two sisters remember her fondly from their own childhood in the 1950s. Where had she ended up? Who were her family?
Her earlier adult life in England was the most hazy – still is. Her Mum, Ellen Eliza Sawyer (my great grandmother) died on 1 March, 1953, just a few days shy of her daughter’s sixteenth birthday. At that point, the family were living in one of the old war-time ‘nissen huts’, off Vigo Lane in Yateley.
She was one of eight children. She had two older sisters, Norah (1932-2011) and Dorothy, known as ‘Dolly’ (1934-present), plus a brother Thomas, known as ‘Tommy’ (1928-2009). Their father was Thomas Coombes (1905-1971). He was Ellen Eliza Sawyer’s second husband. By her first marriage to Charles William Holland (1879-1924), Elizabeth Margaret Rose had three half-brothers, and one half-sister: Charles William, or ‘Charlie’ (1916-2002); George Henry, who died in a submarine sinking during WWII (1920-1942); Frank, my grandfather (1921-2014); and Ellen, known as ‘Nellie’ like their Mum (1924-2002). Ellen Eliza originally came from Dogmersfield in Hampshire, as I have discussed in a previous week’s post.
Soon after the death of her Mum, her Dad moved into one of the new council houses on the Manor Park estate in Yateley, one of many springing up across the country. They lived just a few doors down from the family home my Mum was born into. It was less than a decade before Elizabeth Margaret Rose would leave English shores, but I’ve never been able to clear up whether she had a first marriage here before that, or children. She has always been a bit of an enigma since I started doing my family history research, but somebody I had really wanted to get to know.
It would not be many years before ‘Margaret’ set sail for a new life in the USA. The official ‘New York State, Passenger and Crew Lists’ show her arrival as 29 May, 1961. She would have been 24 years old.
Being connected with Andrew has been a beautiful thing. I was able to discover so much about “Margaret’s” story, but like me, he had a lot of unanswered questions about her younger days that still remain. We were on stronger ground when it came to his immediate family. She married James Rufus (1938-2019) on 2 February, 1978. Their son Andrew has two sisters Estelle Rufus and Catherine Rufus, and one brother, James Rufus. Elizabeth Margaret Rose died on 20 June, 1999.
This is where the twists and turns that DNA can bring to the table have to be flagged. In looking at his DNA breakdown, Andrew was to embark on a huge journey of discovery himself. The man he thought was his father, who had only recently died in 2019, turns out not to be so! The mix of black and white ethnic backgrounds was not as he had taken it for granted to be all of his life. His results led him to embrace a whole new heritage and identity that was from Belize, thanks to a relationship his Mum had while on a break from the marriage, with the boss when she was working in a restaurant. Andrew is now a Castillo rather than a Rufus, and has a whole extra set of relations to get to know, as well as those he has found in England.
DNA can give you answers and help fill in the gaps – but as Andrew found out, it can open up whole new vistas too, as well as helping you make new friends. I hope to welcome Andrew and his own family over to the area his Mum was born and raised in the not too distant future. He has plenty of other cousins in this area of North East Hampshire, England too, and some of them are already hooked-up with him via social media too. I will definitely be looking my American cousins up if I am lucky enough to make it over to the States in the near future.
It is clear that racism has had its part to play in this story, whether on England’s shores, within the extended family, or in the States. My grand aunt – a white woman from England – marrying a black man in the USA was still an issue for some – an issue that a dumb progressive like me can’t quite get his head around. Many of my grandfather’s brothers and sisters ended up to a lesser or greater degree estranged and I have never really got to the bottom of that either. I would love to have known Auntie ‘Margaret’. I’m thrilled that I’ve got to know her son Andrew, and am friends too with her daughters Catherine and Estelle, thanks to social media, and that Ancestry DNA kit!
Thank you for reading this week’s #52Ancestors post, which has been inspired by this week’s theme of ‘DNA’. If you can shed any further light on anything I have written, correct anything, or have any queries, please do not hesitate to contact me. If I have caused offence or upset by anything I shared, it is not my intent – again, please do get in touch. Hope to see you next week.