01 March 2017

The Unknown Relation (part 1 of 2)

Althea Chase Rowland Woodruff "Woody"
with 11 of her grandchildren circa 1947
In June 1985, I graduated from Occidental College in Los Angeles.  My maternal grandparents, Barbara and Joel Dirlam, came out from Rhode Island for the ceremony and stayed in Claremont with Barbara’s first cousin, Jack Woodruff.  Bear in mind that this is my mother’s line – Woodruff is my father’s line, so it was odd to find a Woodruff cousin on that side of the family.  As it turns out, there is an entire branch of maternal Woodruff cousins who grew up in the Los Angeles area.  

My great-grandfather, Edward Gould Rowland (b. 1878), had two younger sisters, Althea Chase Rowland (b. 1880) and Eleanor Harris Rowland (b. 1882).  In 1904, Althea married Clarence Merle Woodruff and they settled in Akron, OH.  Widowed in Akron in 1922, she raised her children there and then later moved to Santa Barbara in the 1940s to be closer to her adult children and her sister in Los Angeles.  In 1947, she sent this photograph from southern California: Althea Woodruff and all but one of her grandchildren (the 12th had not yet been born).  She sent the photo to her niece, Barbara Rowland Dirlam (my grandmother) to introduce Barbara’s young daughter Hilary (my mother) to all of her Los Angeles cousins.

Althea in 1896, age 16
When I look at photographs of Althea, comparing her nineteenth century dress and pose as a young woman of 17 in 1897 to this very engaging photograph from around 1947 when she was in her late 60s, I think of the amazing changes she saw over the intervening fifty years.  As a young girl she traveled by horse and buggy in rural western Massachusetts.  As a grandmother at 67, she was riding in the great 1940s automobiles on the new Los Angeles freeways (although her grandchildren tell me that she didn’t drive, herself.  She rode the bus when traveling on her own).

I have seen some of the letters written about Althea by her mother and by her brother (my great-grandfather) and they were full of affection and love for her. When I came across the photograph of her from 1947, I was instantly drawn to her.  She seems so cheerful and engaged – and her notation on the back indicates that she has a sense of fun.  It’s not every grandparent who would want to pose with so many young grandchildren.  And even fewer who could do so with such a clear sense of humor and amusement!

The result of this photo was that she was someone I immediately wanted to know.

As I mentioned, my grandparents came to my 1985 graduation and stayed with Althea’s son, Jack Woodruff, although I did not meet him.  

I didn’t know I had maternal relatives in Los Angeles, particularly distant Woodruff cousins, so it was disconcerting to learn that there was a Jack Woodruff cousin who had been there all through my four years at college!  My father’s first cousin, David Woodruff, was in Mar Vista, out near Santa Monica, and his sister Janet Woodruff was in Brentwood.  I saw David from time to time – he would come out to rescue me from my little world at Occidental (I didn’t have a car, so couldn’t roam much in Los Angeles) now and then.  But for all four years, I thought that David and Janet were the only relations I had there.

Me, left, my dad, right, his Woodruff cousins and
Barbara Rowland Dirlam, Althea's niece and my grandmother
Therefore, the discovery of another Woodruff, and one from my mother’s side no less, made me feel as if I had missed an opportunity.

To add to the feeling, my grandparents took me to visit another relative, an older lady who lived in Burbank, just about fifteen minutes from Occidental!  She had a beautiful home and she mentioned her children and their children, some of whom would have been around my own age.  There were contemporary cousins I could have met!  This discovery was made after four years in Los Angeles, and on the brink of my leaving that city. I did not remember her name, nor did I recall her relation, although I knew it was through Barbara.

Years later when I found the wonderful photo of Althea with her grandchildren, I wondered it if had been Althea I met.  I quickly calculated that Althea would have been 105 at that time, so I realized that it was not she whom I had met.  I began to think that it might have been one of Althea’s daughters.

That’s when I realized that the process of searching out family history isn’t just about finding one’s own direct ancestors and lineage.  It’s also about expanding one’s own knowledge of the broader family.  So, 25 years later when I came across this photograph, my memories stirred and I recalled meeting that sweet older lady who had welcomed me to her home so graciously.  It came to me that those grandchildren of Althea’s, being my own mother’s contemporaries, had children of their own.  And some of those children would be my own age – those contemporaries I had missed knowing way back in college.  

Althea, far right, her brother Edward ("Ned"), my great-
grandfather standing next to her, circa 1900
Given the connection I wished I could have had with their grandmother who so engaged me through her bright smile from 1947, and through my imaginings of her broad experiences ranging from childhood in the late 1800s to riding the LA freeways in the 1940s, I felt that her descendants could be people I’d want to know as well.  I had met one son, Jack, and he was always interesting and engaging.  I thought that I had probably met one of his sisters as well, but whom?  And how could I identify her and confirm the relation?

Here I was in the year 2010 or so, holding a photograph taken over 60 years before, recalling a one-time meeting from 25 years ago.  Barbara died in 2001 and Joel died in 2005, so I couldn’t ask them.  In fact, their passing was the only reason I had possession of this photograph in the first place, having inherited all their family papers.  My next step was to see if I could locate any of these distant Woodruff cousins from my mother’s side. 

(to be continued)

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