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In Search of My Father

How much — or how little — do we know about the man behind the role?

Who was this man I know as my father?
His coincidence with that term is a big deal to me.
    To him, fatherhood was one of a long life’s many roles.
    In the 36 years before I was born, he was son, grandson, nephew, brother, student, rail-rider, card player, bartender, shore patrolman in the Navy, husband and, as I am now discovering, many things it was not my business to know.
    I shared my half-century with him with people dearer and occupations more pressing.
    Yet there’s nobody left to know him better. Nor anybody more curious to know the man who was more than my father.
    History is a story surmised by survivors. The last living witness, I have set out to summon ghosts.
    Prodded out of its Rip Van Winkle sleep, my memory has lots to tell. Starting with the anthology of semi-tall tales my father told when I was a little girl full of the same questions I’m asking now.
    When I was a little girl, he’d say. When I was a fireman … When I carried my crippled brother on my back … When I rode the rails and rods … When I slept riding a Greyhound bus to my father’s funeral and woke to find my shoes gone.
    In those pre-transgender days, my father had ­probably not been a little girl. How, from all the wisps of memory thinned and tossed by time, am I to sort out the probably true from the probably false?
    With glee, like Sherlock Holmes with the game afoot, I’m turning the craft I’ve learned in four decades as a reporter, telling thousands of people’s stories, to telling my own.
    The fact that all my sources are dead is less trouble now than it would have been at any other point in history. The World Wide Web puts the answer to almost every question at my fingertips. Genealogical references including Ancestry.com and Find A Grave pinpoint who was where when.
    Every inkling is a question that can be confirmed or denied and set in context. Was it the Chicago Field Museum or the Museum of Science and Industry the boy who was my father watched rising?
    In minutes I know that the Field Museum, though on Lake Michigan, was too far north of my father’s Hyde Park neighborhood. The Museum of Science and Industry, in the right place, opened too late, in 1933. Except that the great structure was repurposed from 1893’s Columbian Exposition. With a trip to Chicago, I rank my father’s awed watching of its reconstruction very likely true.
    My best source in my quest are the words of the dead, preserved as fresh as the moment they were written in the correspondence received by my saving cousin Cora Smith over her long life. 
    That’s where my father’s story begins.
        Arrived 7:30pm
        this 26th day of November 1907
        Albro Jean Martin
        Weight 11.
    An engraved card is a reliable source. Especially one that bears the Official Seal of the Stork. This stork-certified notice is small, 33⁄4 by 21⁄2 inches, but it reports all pertinent information.
    Mailed to maternal first cousin Cora Smith on November 29, from 5452 Calumet Ave., Chicago, Illinois, the birth announcement confirms both facts — as I believe them — and legend.
    My father was reputed to have been a big baby. Eleven pounds is a very big baby.
    Nearly 110 years after Elmer Martin mailed his first son’s birth announcement, the tangibility of his little card and its return address make it a talisman. Anchored on that certainty, my wisps of memory are taking shape as stories.
    To be continued …

Your Help Wanted

    What’s this car? In about 1927, grandfather Elmer Martin and four friends went golfing in southside ­Chicago — perhaps Jackson Park — or Flossmore. What were they driving?
    Identify the car positively (and first), and I’ll take you out to lunch: editor@bayweekly.com.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher
email editor@bayweekly.com, www.sandraolivettimartin.com