If you’ve ever wondered how just how fruitful genealogy can be, this incredible story by Susanna Dorr will leave you wondering no more. A beautiful testament to our human desire to, in the words of E. M. Forster, “only connect,” this memoir also showcases how 21st century technology–like the Maine Historical Genealogy discussion forum, Google, and Ancestry.com–facilitate those connections in ways unthinkable in the past.
This story appears in an edited version in our Summer 2011 newsletter.
In the summer of my 63rd year, a miracle occurred in my life, resulting from a confluence of circumstances: One woman’s courage, my own late-night idle curiosity, and the genealogy forum on Maine Historical Society’s website.
The courageous woman is Cynthia Dorr, who grew up not knowing her father, Paul Dorr, except in the pages of a scrapbook she found tucked away in her mother’s garage. He’d left it behind upon hastily departing from Cynthia’s household and life when she was a mere six months old. The book contained photos and a treasure trove of clues about him. She learned that he was born and raised in Maine, that he was handsome and artistic, and that his father, her own grandfather, Thomas Dorr, had been the superintendent of the Maine fish hatcheries.
On one page, her father had written two names in calligraphy, “Gladys” and “Paula.” Upon pressing her mother about the identity of these two women, Cynthia learned that her father had had another family. Gladys was his former wife and Paula was his other daughter. Excited at discovering the existence of a new sibling, Cynthia immediately wanted to meet her, but, if her mother knew about the whereabouts of Paula, she refused to say. There was a fire after that, and the scrapbook was destroyed.
Decades later, Cynthia traveled with her own daughter to Boothbay Harbor to learn something about her paternal roots. She found the name of one of her father’s sisters in the phone book, but she couldn’t bring herself to call. Paul’s failure to marry her mother had left a stigma. No one in his family even knew of Cynthia’s existence. In her life and psyche, there was a complete vacuum where a father usually resides, and she was fearful of rejection by his people.
Cynthia grew up with her mother and an older half-sister, Dierdre. Back in the 1950s and early ‘60s, being a single mom was immensely difficult, even for a smart lady like Barbara Bruce. Both mother and sister suffered from emotional problems. Abusive situations ensued. Cynthia had to look out for herself very early on. Her sister went into foster care during troubled teen years, and her mother died when Cynthia was only 23.
Though she lacked any semblance of familial security, Cynthia’s Christian faith and her life-long passion for horses sustained her from an early age. Now she has a herd of fine horses she’s carefully trained for trail riding, which she enjoys with friends in the Wisconsin countryside. Her occupation is managing inmates in the kitchen of a correctional facility. She has two wonderful and accomplished children and three (going on four) adorable grandchildren.
In January of 2009, Cynthia had a moment of longing to know more about her own identity. She found the Maine Historical Society genealogy forum and spent anguished hours composing a simple query. She tweaked and tweaked the wording. Announcing her existence was terrifying to her. Finally, summoning all the bravery she could muster, she clicked the submit button. She wrote:
“Thomas and Maude Dorr were my grandparents. My father is Paul Hadley Dorr. I am looking for any information available. Thomas Dorr was the superintendant of the Fish Hatchery in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. I did find on www.doregenealogy.com Paul Dorr’s sister Elizabeth Dorr married to Maxwell Welch 05/29/1943 in Bristol, Maine.”
Months went by following Cynthia’s declaration, but apparently no one noticed. She pretty much forgot all about her act of courage.
It was a warm July night in 2010. I was up late, reflecting deeply on my own past, as I’m wont to do from time to time. I was tired but too wound up in my thoughts to be sleepy. Something propelled me to the computer to Google my father’s whole name. It was a ridiculous notion. Although Dad came from a fine New England family, he lived a troubled life, one financed by a VA disability for mental problems stemming from his time in World War II.
A couple of years before, a similar, silly urge had inclined me to Google the name of his eldest sister, Beryl. Finding her on Google was pretty much beyond the realm of possibility, but to my amazement, there was one hit: on Maine Historical Society’s Maine Memory Network website. There, I found a beautiful portrait of her, taken while she was a schoolgirl at the seminary in Bucksport, Maine. Dad always believed Beryl was actually his mother and that his family had covered up her indiscretion by pretending that the two were siblings rather than mother and son. Though Dad was prone to delusions, I was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt about this notion. I ordered an enlarged print of her from the website. What a treasure!
So, if I’d found Beryl’s youthful image, maybe Google would reveal to me something new about my father. Such a long shot. He’d met my mom in southern California at the end of the war, where she volunteered (at a USO club) to cheer up the boys on shore leave. Upon his discharge, he’d swept her up and taken her home to Maine. His parents were scandalized by the pair traveling together without virtue of marriage and arranged a hasty wedding. I was born a year later in Damariscotta. When I was two, Mom gave up on Dad as a provider and returned to California to resume her former job, leaving Dad and me in New England, likely with the hope that his advantaged family would raise me. But he had other ideas. With me in tow, he hitchhiked west after her. By the time I was four, the marriage ended in earnest. Dad departed. I was devastated. I saw him only rarely after that. Life was tough for Mom and me. Herself orphaned, Mom had a meager support system.
Dad remained my childhood hero; his absence afforded me the ability to embellish his character and amplify his affection for me. I never got enough of the daddy I recalled from my toddler-hood. We reconnected when I grew up, but by then his mental illness had progressed and his charming personality had changed. I avoided him most of my adult life. He died in 1985.
I was with him the day before his death, in a VA hospital. My last question to him had to do with a letter I received when I was 10 years old. It was from a woman I didn’t know announcing that I had a sister. My mother had dismissed this assertion and discarded the letter, but I never forgot it. So my last question to my dying father concerned the possibility of my having a sibling somewhere. “Well,” he replied, “there was that one time…,” but he refused to elaborate much, saying only that there might have been a child. I had to lay the notion to rest.
I was unable to have children of my own, and in moments, a deep longing to be surrounded by more family overcomes me. That was the case the night of July 11, 2010 when I Googled “Paul Hadley Dorr.” The search engine revealed one hit, again on the Maine Historical Society website. This time it was the discussion forum. Google’s text excerpt began “My father is Paul Hadley Dorr.” I knew I hadn’t written this sentence at MHS. Yet, as far as I knew, I was the only person in the world who could make such an assertion.
Startled into wakefulness, I clicked the link and scanned the whole post. Immediately my eyes sought out the name of the poster: “Cynthia Dorr.” My brain had a momentary meltdown as it failed to make any sense of what I was seeing. Then, out of the dim recesses of my mind, a light dawned. Could this be my father’s other daughter? I dared not hope. But I went to Ancestry.com and discovered that, indeed, a Cynthia Dorr was born in San Bernardino, California, when I was nine years old. Dad had lived there then. This was the right timing for the letter. Her birth information gave me a middle initial. I Googled “Cynthia C. Dorr,” and found a website about horses. There was a photo of Cynthia holding a bridle. She was a female incarnation of my father. Now I knew! This was my sister. I emailed her immediately in a state of shock and unbridled joy.
The next day, she read my note in disbelief. Susanna? Who? But then she got to the postscript at the end of my letter, where I mentioned that my birth name was Paula. Now she knew that I was the sister she prayed about finding so long ago while pouring over her father’s scrapbook.
In August, Cynthia flew west to meet me. Flights were agonizingly delayed and rerouted. By the time we finally connected, we were both worn out from the chaos of the day and excitement. Even so, the first real-life sight of her standing on the curb outside the baggage claim area is the happiest shock to my senses I’ve ever experienced. I stopped the car and flew out the door, rushing to her. We both spoke at exactly the same moment and exclaimed exactly the same words: “You’re so beautiful!” Never has the word “beautiful” conveyed such meaning. We weren’t talking Cover Girl.
Our visit was brief but over-the-top joyous. We barely slept. I got out all my old Dorr photos. We propped up Beryl’s large portrait, the one I ordered from MHS, on a chair and began sussing out the mysteries of our shared heritage. Though I never knew Beryl while she was alive, I had been struck with unaccountable grief at her gravesite near Pemaquid point. The graves of other family members whom I’d met as a child and loved, even if all too briefly, did not produce this reaction, only Beryl’s. That was long before Dad confessed to me his lifelong suspicion about her being his mother. Cynthia, who almost never cries, also spontaneously burst into tears upon seeing Beryl’s portrait. We found a poem Dad wrote for his high school yearbook, before the war, before the mental illness, that gave even more weight to his sensibilities about his origin. But regardless of whether she’s our biological or soul grandmother, Beryl was palpably present, beaming serenely at our discovery of one another and at being included. Sure makes a person wonder.
Next summer Cynthia will again travel west, and we’ll take a road trip together back to Wisconsin where she lives with her horses and her partner, Duke. I’ll get to meet her daughter Katy, my only niece, and her grandson Leo, my great nephew, for the first time. I also gleefully anticipate meeting her son Jacob’s family in North Carolina before long.
Just saying “my sister,” and thinking of the wonderful woman who is my sister, fills me with a joy indescribable. She writes this about the effect of our meeting on her: “I feel like my feet are on the ground, that I belong, my shoulders are a little more square, my head is held a little bit higher . . .”
We have the Maine Historical Society to thank for creating the genealogy message board on the MHS website. As a web master myself (for my local college), I know what a hassle setting up and maintaining an online forum can be.
Words can’t express the depth of our gratitude.