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Kimberly Powell

The Story Behind the Record

By December 17, 2013

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Records of the U.S. Customs Service, National Archives. Digital Image, Ancestry.com.As wonderful as old documents and records can be for helping us put together the pieces of our family history, they can never tell us the whole story in the way that living family members can. The passenger arrival record for my grandmother Gisele, for example, tells me that she arrived in New York from Le Havre France on 21 March 1946. A little digging led me to an article on the ship's arrival titled "War Brides Arrive from 19 Countries" in the 23 March 1946 edition of the New York Times.

"War brides representing nineteen nationalities came to New York yesterday on the former Italian liner Vulcania, now a war-bride transport operating between Europe and the United States."

Yet even with these great records documenting her arrival, I probably wouldn't have learned about my grandmother's lifelong friendship with fellow passenger Suzanne who she first met on the ship although they both came from the same town of Melun. I also wouldn't have known, although I probably could have guessed much of it, about the medical exams which took place before they could depart, and her relief at hearing her husband's name called on the list of people waiting for arriving passengers (he lived in North Carolina and didn't have a car so she wasn't sure what to expect when she arrived).

In listening to my grandmother, I also learned that her husband was shipped out from Europe in December (three months prior to my grandmother's arrival in America), and that his troop ship was delayed into New York due to hurricane force storms in the Atlantic. My grandmother was sure his ship had gone down by the time that telegram finally came telling her of his safe arrival in the United States. How terrifying that must have been...

While these family stories are not earth shattering, they bring me so much closer to understanding what life must have been like during those few momentous months for my grandparents which is why I can't stress enough how important it is to continue the conversations with living family members no matter how many times you've talked to them before. After more than 30 years of asking questions, I'm still hearing stories I haven't heard before! There is just so much we can't remember or don't think is important until someone or something evokes the memory...

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