Shaking the Tree

Shaking the TreeShaking the Tree

I t began when Hamden resident Mona Rhone’s sister, Gloria Demakis, looked to the north in search of Canadian ancestors. She sent letters drafted in French to anyone she suspected might know a “Francoeur” or a “Druin”—their Canadian family names—buried in the back of an aging church, perhaps, or beneath an old tree. Eventually, Demakis traveled up there to search through census and church records, coming back with a list of about 40 relatives.

The 40 relatives Demakis found included direct ancestors only, but Rhone’s curiosity had by then been piqued. Retired with plenty of time on her hands, she picked up where her sister left off, tracing lineages behind her mother’s and father’s siblings—all 22 of them. She dug through Ancestry.com and unearthed generation after generation of family history. “It’s addictive,” says Rhone, pictured above in Hamden’s St. Mary’s Cemetery. “Once you start you go on and on.”

As of today she’s found upwards of 3,000 relatives, direct and indirect. The very earliest is her 7th great grandfather, Louis Jacques, born in 1662 in Saint-Michel, Picardie, France. 630 different surnames populate the tree she’s built.

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Rhone’s appetite for genealogy wasn’t sated with just her own, and she isn’t the kind of woman to rest on her laurels, even in retirement. She joined the Southern Connecticut Ancestry Network (S.C.A.N.), a genealogical society based in Hamden. Dedicated to researching Connecticut family trees, it has special access to the state’s vital records, permitting research in vaults throughout Connecticut. Stored in town clerk’s offices, record books go back centuries. The ones from the 1800s are heavy—too heavy. At 77, Rhone says she can’t lift them anymore.

Working at S.C.A.N. introduced Rhone to findagrave.com, a nuts-and-bolts website you’ve probably never heard about before but which you might one day grace. It’s a place where members can upload virtual memorials tied to specific burial sites around the world. Founded in 1995 by Jim Tipton in order to cater to his odd hobby—visiting the final resting places of famous people—Tipton soon found he wasn’t alone. After twenty years, the site now has over 120 million crowd-sourced grave records.

While Tipton began with famous deceased people, the site doesn’t discriminate. You can find anyone from Al Capone to your favorite elementary school teacher, or an old war buddy, as long as they’ve been entered in. If you’re lucky, someone’s contributed a small biography in addition to the basics.

The site keeps contributor statistics, and Rhone is a heavy hitter. Her Find A Grave ticker currently counts 20,307 memorials added. She goes into cemeteries—like Hamden’s Lady of Mt. Carmel and Centerville graveyards, plus the older, mostly Irish parts of St. Mary’s on Whitney Avenue—armed with a notepad and a pen, walking up and down the rows and taking down names and dates to enter in once she gets home. If a cemetery is well-maintained and the burial records in order, it’s fairly easy work. But that’s not always the case.

Hamden Plains Cemetery—the first Rhone visited—was particularly out of sorts. Its burial books went back to revolutionary times, but one of the previous bookkeepers had organized the records using an indecipherable system. Graves that were supposed to be there weren’t, and others would unexpectedly pop up underfoot. New burials took place willy-nilly and some headstones had sunken straight into the soil, forcing Rhone to dig them out.

This may seem like more trouble than it’s worth, but for Rhone, the work is important. “One day years after I’m gone someone will be looking for [these graves],” she says.

In fact, people already are. Rhone constantly gets emails thanking her for “finding” their lost relatives, and while she plays down her role—“I just put up what’s there”—she also keeps a box full of printed “thank you” emails. They come not only from all corners of the U.S. but also from places like Sweden, Denmark, Scotland, Ireland and Canada. She says she used to read them all but can’t keep up anymore.

Though she doesn’t seem to dwell on it too much, Rhone says she gets a special sense of satisfaction from putting long-severed family trees back together. She even tracked down the biological mother of her adopted son, Christopher Robblee; she’d been forced to give him up at birth. “I had tears in my eyes reading her emails,” Rhone says.

As a result, Christopher, aged 48 and with a newborn child of his own, reconnected with his birth mother. He discovered half-brothers, aunts, uncles and even grandparents, too.

Rhone, of course, added them to her family tree. It’s now up to 3,247—and counting.

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

 

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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