I’ve shared before how our family came to Maine seven years ago. The military sent us here after my husband, Dustin, put Maine on our wish list of future duty stations. But why did this California-loving boy put Maine on the list at all? The answer lies with a clan of Smileys who made their home here at the turn of the century.
Dustin’s grandfather, Henry, was an orphan who eventually was raised on Buck Street in Bangor. Henry lived there until he and his wife, a Titcomb-Currier from Brewer, moved the whole family — including Dustin’s dad — to California in the late 1950s. My father-in-law used to deliver newspapers for the Patriot, a long-ago competitor of the Bangor Daily News. He participated in a soap box derby that went from the top of Buck Street down the hill to what is now the Cross Insurance Center. He grew up visiting Smiley relatives who lived near the standpipe, and he went to many of the local schools.
So you could say nostalgia brought us to Maine.
When we first got here, people always asked if we were related to the Smileys who ran a dress shop or the Smileys who had a dairy farm. In fact, we are. My husband basically is related to every Smiley family in the state of Maine. But he’s also related to another family — Henry’s father’s family, people whose descendants we pass on the streets today and never know it. That’s right, you and I might be related. I know for some of you this is a terrible turn of events.
Here’s what we know:
Smiley family lore says Henry Putnam Smiley was born in 1910 to an unwed mother, Marian Smiley of Bangor, who went to Haverhill, Massachusetts, to have her baby. Henry stayed in an orphanage for many years. Then, according to the story, Marian’s brother and sister came to get Henry and raise him.
This story sometimes is peppered with a tangential one about Henry’s aunt having a son named Henry, who drowned when he was 3 years old. Supposedly, her grief was what prompted the family to get Dustin’s grandfather out of the orphanage.
At least, that is the story my husband grew up knowing.
Dustin also knows his grandfather sometimes went by the name “Whit” and “Burnham.” He was a Ford mechanic on Hammond Street and drove a tow truck. After trading an old motorcycle for a bi-plane — and after his wife, Serena, sewed new wings for it — Henry liked to fly out of Old Town.
Dustin and Henry bonded over baseball and flying. Our first son is named, in part, for Henry. But the ambiguity of Henry’s past and the fact that no one knows who his dad was always has bothered Dustin. So for Christmas last year, I planned to give Dustin Henry’s original birth certificate — and maybe some answers, too.
I was consumed with ancestry.com and spent hours researching the Smileys, always feeling like I was one click away from the missing puzzle piece. Wishful thinking. Genealogy work is frustrating, with many dead ends and tracks that long have since gone cold.
I never found Henry’s dad or his birth certificate, but I did find more puzzle pieces.
Henry actually was raised by Marian’s other sister, Euginie Smiley Whitmore, who did have another son named Henry, but he didn’t die when he was 3. That Henry was married four to five times, lived all over the state and died in 1972. Euginie named Dustin’s grandfather Burnham Whitmore, and that is how he is listed on all the U.S. censuses until around 1940, when his name suddenly changes to Henry Putnam Smiley.
Given the name discrepancies, searching for Henry’s birth certificate is something like trying to wrangle dust bunnies floating across the floor. Every time I get close, the dust blows away. Once, I decided to look through every birth record in Haverhill, Massachusetts, from 1910. Record after record flipped by, penned with artful script boasting old-fashioned names such as Delia, Etta, Nellie and Ruth. Most of the parents’ birthplaces were listed as Italy, Greece, Ireland and England, showing our country’s immigrant past.
With each new name, something tugged on me. Who were these people whose very lives — lives that probably have ceased by now — began with that one slip of paper? What became of them? What struggles did they face? Whom did they love?
Over the course of several nights, I watched Haverhill’s population grow through the early 1900s. But I never found Henry. Or Whit. Or Burnham.
We are no closer than we were before.
We still don’t know Henry’s father’s name, and his past still is filled with many holes. But as I move through this state and literally travel the roads my husband’s ancestors’ did, I feel Henry’s presence. I feel him when I go into the schools or walk around the park. I look for his face — his father’s face — in people I meet. And I am comforted in some way to know the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the little boy whose own record of birth may never be found have returned to his home. I can hear Henry whistling about that now and saying, “Isn’t that somethin’?”
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She may be reached at facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.