Tonight my family and I will bust a 60 year old family myth when we meet for the first time members of a branch of the Perrotin family, who were supposedly killed by a bomb during the Second World War.
Their names are Don and Jennifer Murray, and they are very much alive.
They are making a special stopover in California on their way home to England from a vacation in New Zealand, and we will meet them for dinner tonight. The story of our reunion is almost as exciting as the life story of our ancestors in common, our great-great grandparents, Charles Jacques Francois Perrotin and his wife, Catherine O'Grady.
Charles Jacques Francois Perrotin and Catherine O'Grady, New York City, 1884
For most of my life, all I knew about my great-great grandfather, Charles Jacques Francois Perrotin, was that he and my Irish great-great grandmother Catherine O'Grady, left France in a hurry in about 1836. It seems that at the time, all young able-bodied French men, when they turned 18, were required to serve in the military. For whatever his reasons, Charles Jacques Francois decided he would not serve, and our generations-old family story went that he and Catherine decided to go to America. But there was a hitch: they couldn't afford to buy two tickets, so they bought passage for Catherine and she smuggled Charles on board in a mattress.
Our story then continued that Charles (who became known as simply "Francois" after arriving in America), went to Niagara Falls and had a son -- my great-grandfather, Francisco Perrotin. We were told that at some point the family moved to Veracruz State, on Mexico's east coast, and settled in Orizaba, where Francisco married and had my grandmother, Maria Angela Catalina Perrotin and her brothers and sister.
It was a romantic tale, one that everyone in our family knew and loved to tell. My grandmother and my great-aunt Blanca were especially proud to be Perrotins. We didn't know much else about our beloved ancestors, just that there was something special about them.
As a teenager, I began asking a lot of questions about our family. When my family would visit our relatives in Mexico City, I used to love sitting at the table to listen and sometimes take notes as the adults told family stories. My great-aunt Blanca was usually delighted to have an audience and would pull out her boxes of family photographs and tell me about the people in them.
One afternoon she took out a set of pictures from about the end of the 19th or beginning of the 20th centuries. There were pictures of people sitting in a large room with potted palms on a tile floor. The women wore dark, long flowing skirts and had their hair done up in chignons. The men wore suits and stood proudly by. There were also photographs of some young boys in gray military style uniforms and caps. Tia Blanca said those were the Bennett boys, British cousins from our Perrotin branch of the family. Her eyes were quite lively as she talked about the Bennetts and their lovely home in England. This was exciting news, as I had no idea we had any British relatives. When I asked her for their address, she became quite upset and began to cry. They were all dead, she said. The Germans had dropped a bomb on their house during World War II. The entire family had perished in the blast.
Being young and impressionable, I was dumbstruck and devastated. You would have thought it had just happened. For years after that, I often wondered about these Bennett cousins, who they were, what their lives were like, and I would feel such a sadness that they had suffered such a terrible fate and that I would never know them. Sometimes I would dream that they were alive and that we went to their home in England. They were happy dreams.
As I researched our family, I continually hit a brick wall when it came to the Perrotins. I'd find information about most of the other branches of the family, but all I could find of the Perrotins was a ship's passenger list with names that were at best questionable. You'd think that the Perrotin family had never existed.
And then one day in June 2006, some 34 years after I saw those haunting pictures of the Bennett cousins I thought I would never know, my dreams came true.
Don and Jennie Murray, of Gloucestershire, England, sent me an e-mail inquiry regarding a family tree I had posted on the Internet. They had recognized Francois Perrotin's name and wondered if we might be related. It turned out that Jennie and I were third cousins, Francois and his wife, Catherine O'Grady, being the link between our families.
Jennie's great-grandmother was Maria Dolores Perrotin, Francois and Catherine's eldest child and the sister of my great-grandfather, Francisco. Maria Dolores and her brother, as it turns out, were born in Orizaba, Veracruz, Mexico. Maria Dolores married Timothy Bennett, a British train driver with the Mexican Railroad. The couple moved to England in 1892 and had eight children (six of whom survived into adulthood). The closest the Bennett family had ever come to a bomb, Jennie said, was when her father helped extinguish a fire caused by some incendiary bombs dropped in the forest near his home, though no homes were hit.
|Maria Dolores (Perrotin) Bennett and her children at|
the family home, Orizaba Villa, in Ruardean, Gloucestershire.
Jennie, too, had been told many family stories about her Perrotin ancestors, and a year ago she and her husband, Don, vacationed in France, where they found a treasure trove of birth, marriage, and death records for the Perrotins. There was something else. Jennie's family believed that my branch of the family had been killed, too, but not by a bomb. Apparently, letters to Maria Dolores from one of my great-uncles, Hugo Perrotin, stopped abruptly in the early 1900s, at about the same time there was a strong earthquake in Mexico, and the Bennetts concluded that all of the Perrotins had died in the earthquake!
The brick wall quickly began to crumble as we began an e-mail correspondence that will culminate in our meeitng for the first time this evening, here in California.
We have so much to learn about each other, but for now, we know that we share many things.
We both come from strong oral family traditions. Lots of family stories (and as we know now, family myths, too), proudly and lovingly passed on from one generation to another. It turns out that Catherine is a common family name. Both our grandmothers were named after their own grandmother, Catherine O'Grady -- Jennie's grandmother being Catherine Bennett and my grandmother being Catalina Perrotin. The name has thrived through succeeding generations on both sides. There is a strong resemblance between both sides (dead and living) , even after all these years.
The greatest thing we have learned is that we share a common family spirit of love and reverence for those who have gone before us, as well as a passion for and devotion to our families and our descendants-to-be and a desire to leave some record of our rich heritage for them after we are gone. I believe that this love and devotion to family are what have led us to find one another, 112 years after our respective family branches were separated.
I pray that this love will continue to grow and keep us united, both now and in generations to come. And I also pray that this will be just as special a memory for our children as it will be, undoubtedly, for us.
And what of Francois and Catherine Perrotin? Much more, it turns out. I will cover them in a future post.
- Linda Huesca Tully
Did you know, or are you a member of the Perrotin, O'Grady, Huesca, or Bennett families? If so, share your memories and comments below.