Three random events occurred recently, which combined to provide new insights into previously unknown aspects of our family history. First, my cousins asked me for information regarding our family tree, for my Uncle Billy’s obituary. It was obvious from some of the questions that there were some confusion regarding the timing of events, particularly about my grandmother, Blanche.
She passed away in 1932, just twenty-five years old, allegedly during childbirth. Blanche left behind my father and uncle, two and one-half and four respectively, and my grandfather.
Second, I had to spend some unexpected time in my hometown providing me the opportunity to do some family research. Third, I was driving down a road near my grandparents’ house, listening to Songs from Grandad Bill’s Gramophone, on the UK 1940s Radio Station. The host of the program, Dave Adams, routinely plays music from the 1920s, known as the “Roaring 20s.” I realized this was the very music my grandmother listened to in her teens and early twenties. The thought reminded me of how little I and others knew of Blanche.
Over the years, I have seen many graves from the 1800s and early 1900s — young mothers who died during or shortly after childbirth. I felt remiss in not investigating a similar situation in my own family. Blanche’s other descendants live over two-hundred miles from Wilkes-Barre, PA, and now have little reason to visit the area. I recognized if I didn’t make an attempt to find Blanche’s grave, it was possible no one else would ever visit it again.
“There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.”
Visions Of A Dancing Girl
For some odd reason, the image of a young woman I had never seen, dancing to the music on my radio, played over and over again in my mind. Each song seemed to remind me of how little I knew about Blanche. All I knew for certain was that she died in 1932, was approximately twenty-five years old, give or take a year, and described as tall and attractive, with beautiful blue eyes.
The Roaring 20s was a time famous for its culture, fashion, jazz, and incredible economic growth. It was a response to the tremendous hardship, devastation, and loss of life resulting from WWI. Blanche entered her teenage years at the start of the decade. No doubt the spirit of the times left a strong impression on her interests and tastes.
“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”
— Marcus Tullius Cicero, Orator
After a few internet searches, I found some records indicating Blanche was buried at the Holy Family Cemetery, in Sugar Notch, PA. Sugar Notch is a small town, with a Main Street less than 1.5 miles end-to-end. Some of my fellow high school students grew-up in the area. The cemetery was only ten minutes from my parents’ home.
It was separated by a crumbling wall from an adjacent cemetery, St. Charles Borromeo. I began to wonder if the website information was correct, and whether she might have been buried in either cemetery.
As I surveyed the cemetery grounds, I realized I could easily spend hours searching for Blanche’s grave. Her gravestone could have been covered by lichen, moss, or grass, as many others were. Many older gravestones were made from limestone and other materials subject to premature aging. It was possible that ninety years of Northeastern Pennsylvania weather might have made the information illegible. I didn’t have high hopes for locating her grave.
Five Minutes And…
As I began walking down the first row of graves in the Holy Family Cemetery, I brushed freshly cut grass off flat headstones, and lifted up some grass that had grown over others. I recognized many of the surnames on the graves, as they were likely relatives of my high school classmates.
“The moment seemed endless, but it was probably only half that.”
― Steve Toltz, A Fraction of the Whole
Reaching the end of the cemetery, I began another pass. Within twenty feet, I glanced back over my right shoulder and saw a row of gravestones perpendicular to the road. I thought I saw “Blanche” written on one lichen-covered stone, but considered that my mind was playing tricks on me. Could I have found Blanche’s grave so quickly?
My 25 Year Old Grandmother
Walking toward the grave, I realized I was right. I had not expected to see her name written in the original Polish spelling – Wisniewski. Allegedly, my great grandfather had changed it to Vishneski, believing it sounded “more American.” I did not know the date of his changing the name, but had no reason to believe Blanche’s last name would be listed as Wisniewski.
I sat down in front of Blanche’s grave, said a prayer, and contemplated what little I knew about this young woman’s life. It sounds strange, but I felt sad knowing she was buried alone, without any family members nearby.
Throughout the years, I had wondered how her death had affected my father, uncle, and grandfather. Losing one’s mother is always traumatic. And it is impossible to calculate the impact on children when they are so young. I have no doubt that Blanche’s premature death affected everyone in our family tree, even if such impacts can never be measured.
“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
— Clarence Odbody, It’s A Wonderful Life
When I reached out to my cousins in upstate NY to share photos of Blanche’s grave, I was surprised to learn one of my cousin’s daughters, Kara, had a photo of Blanche. She inherited it from my Uncle Billy. A few text messages and viola! Finally, I was able to see Blanche’s face.
When my wife and I visited the Finger Lakes on vacation a few weeks later, we stopped by Kara’s house and took photographs of the pictures of Blanche and Uncle Billy (above) with my Nikon D810. Below is the result after some clean-up in Photoshop.
Unfortunately, the aging process caused the areas around her eyes and under nose to blacken. I suspect the photo was taken when Blanche was in her late teens. She wore “the bob,” as it was known — a hairstyle accompanying the flapper look — showcased in movies about the Roaring 20s, such as The Great Gatsby.
“And I saw for the first time how, despite the isolation of our own lives, we are always connected to our ancestors; our bodies hold the memories of those who came before us, whether it is the features we inherit or a disposition that is etched into our soul.”
— Alyson Richman, The Lost Wife
A Thread… And Then…
I still knew precious little about Blanche. I began searching on the internet but hit one dead end after another. On a whim, I sent an email to the North East Pennsylvania Genealogy Society (NEPGS) explaining my dilemma. Shortly afterward, I received a response from Mary, one of the staff members. She suggested I try Family Search, indicating the site had a significant number of genealogy records and was free for basic searches.
Within seconds, I had found a record of Blanche’s information linking it to my family members. I was floored. I knew so little about this mysterious young woman throughout my lifetime. Now, I knew the following:
- She was born in Lithuania on June 27, 1907
- Her official name was Bertha
- Her father emigrated to the United States in 1906, just prior to Blanche’s birth
- Blanche and her mother emigrated to the United States in 1913
- They settled in Paw Paw, West Virginia, population 698
- Blanche was 13 when she and her family registered for the 1920 United States Census
- She married my grandfather, Anthony, on September 27, 1928
- Her and my grandfather’s last name were always listed as Vishneski, causing me to wonder who decided to list Wisniewski as her last name on the gravestone
- She died on October 17, 1932, in Nanticoke State Hospital
Knowing the spelling used on her gravestone, I quickly found a photo on findagrave, a valuable service employing thousands of volunteers, who take photos of cemetery stones and upload data to the website.
I emailed the woman who had taken the photo of Blanche’s gravestone, and thanked her for documenting Blanche’s grave. We exchanged some thoughts about her extensive volunteer efforts and my search for information about Blanche. She was very sweet and a treasure trove of knowledge about findagrave’s work in the area.
A Marriage License
Some document links pointed me to Ancestry.com. I signed up for a trial membership. When I came across Blanche and Tony’s marriage license application, I was ecstatic. Apart from her photo, her grave, and the few documents I found, there was little evidence of Blanche’s existence. Now, I could see her signature along with that of my grandfather.
“In some cases, a few old, faded photos may be the only evidence someone ever existed.”
— Jack Zeleski (Entanglement by Daniel Jackson)
I found Blanche (listed as Bertha) in the 1920 census. Her mother and father, Helen and Adolph Syrieka, were forty and forty-six respectively. Blanche was twelve-and-a-half at the time. The census listed her sister, Pauline, as four years and three months old and her brother, Walter, as five. The census taker listed the family as Italian. I had a good laugh at these entries. So much for the accuracy of government information.
Blanche’s older sister, Agnes (Zablotny), had likely moved out of the house by 1920, as she would have been 18. Pauline Syrieka Shinal lived to be 92. Had Blanche lived as long, we would have had her with us until 1999. That was quite a thought to consider. I have yet to find the details for Blanche’s other sister Helen (Shenlosky). Stanley Syrieka, Blanche’s younger brother, visited our home a number of times during my youth.
A Death Certificate
As I continued searching, I saw another link… to her death certificate. My heart started pounding as I positioned my cursor over the document link. I had no idea what I was about to see. I had never had a reason or inclination to look at anyone’s death certificate, let alone that of a relative.
Seeing the high-resolution image appear on the screen gave me a jolt. Looking over this colored document was like traveling back in time. Blanche died of Puerperal Septicemia (sepsis) and anemia. Throughout history, sepsis has been one of the leading causes of death during childbirth. Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII, allegedly died from the same condition after giving birth to his long-awaited male heir, Edward, in 1537.
Blanche’s baby likely passed away shortly after birth. This explains the fact that the child’s name is not listed on the gravestone along Blanche’s, nor are there any records of the baby’s birth. A representative of Geisinger Nanticoke Hospital explained that stillborn babies or those that died soon after birth did not always receive death certificates during this period. Blanche remained in the hospital, her sepsis infection worsening. Thus, she did not die during childbirth as we believed, but a week later.
A Sad Movie Unfolds
The previous mysteries of what happened to Blanche faded away. As I read the death certificate, I saw the scenes unfolding as if from a movie: a poor young pregnant mother of two; giving birth and seeing her baby die; she and her family dealing with their heartache; her sepsis condition worsening over the course of a week; an emergency operation attempting to stop the bleeding; family members and physicians feeling helpless; Blanche going into shock; her life slowly ebbing away until she was pronounced dead at 6:20 in the morning of October 17th; and a funeral three days later, on October 20th.
Despite my father only being two and one-half at the time of Blanche’s death, he could recall scenes from her wake — held in the house of the neighbor, as was custom in those times — especially the many red candles surrounding her body. It was the only memory he had of his mother.
I was curious as to what Blanche saw during her brief life and did some additional research.
The Year Blanche Was Born
- Russia, France, and Britain formed an alliance against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy
- Louis B. Mayer — who went on to lead Hollywood’s most famous studio, Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM), opened his first movie
- Teddy Roosevelt was President of the United States
- Oklahoma became the 46th state of the United States of America
- Hershey Park is opened for Hershey Company employees
- Florenz Ziegfeld staged the first Ziegfeld Follies in New York City
- The electric washing machine is introduced
- Introduction of Mother’s Day
- First helicopter takes flight in France
- New York City sees its first taxicab
- Frida Kahlo, John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, Lawrence Olivier, Burgess Meredith, Rachel Carson, Orville Redenbacher, Fay Wray, James Michener, and Ray Milland are born
- The ship Lusitania crosses the Atlantic Ocean in a record 5 days
- Over 800 people die in earthquake in Kingston, Jamaica
- Mining explosions in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Alabama kill 692
- USA life expectancy: Males – 45.6, Females – 49.9
The Year Blanche Died:
- Amelia Earhart becomes the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic ocean
- Franklin D. Roosevelt runs for and wins USA Presidency
- Adolf Hitler runs for and loses German Presidency
- III Olympic Winter Games held in Lake Placid, New York, United States
- The Soviet Union begins the Ukrainian Holodomor (death by starvation), resulting in ~4 million casualties and millions more in birth defects and other crippling effects due to malnutrition
- Senator Ted Kennedy, Johnny Cash, Elizabeth Taylor, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Casey Kasem, Oscar de la Renta, and Sylvia Plath are born
- Radio City Music Hall opens in New York City
- Bonnie and Clyde connect and begin their crime spree
- Ronald Reagan graduates from Eureka College
- X Olympic Summer Games held in Los Angeles, California, United States
- Babe Ruth points to centerfield, and then hits a home run during the World Series
- George Eastman, the inventor of the Kodak camera, commits suicide at 77
- Al Capone enters prison for tax evasion
- The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) begins international radio broadcasting
- USA life expectancy: Males – 61, Females – 63.5
Coming To America
Blanche’s family and fellow Lithuanians were undoubtedly tired of famines, lack of job opportunities, and the heavy hand of the Russians. They barely escaped the devastation that would soon envelope Europe starting in 1914. WWI would become known as “The War To End All Wars.” Unfortunately, it would not live up to its billing, considering the destruction unleashed during WWII, only twenty-one years later.
America must have looked like the land of opportunity for Blanche and her family — just as it appears to many around the world today. Over the fifty years preceding the outbreak of WWI in 1914, Lithuania lost twenty percent of its population.
Blanche had little, if any, contact with her father for six-plus years as he lived in the United States, learning the culture, saving money, and preparing for Blanche and her mother to join him. This was a common practice among immigrants during these times. It’s difficult to imagine replicating it in our modern world, particularly given the limitations of communication in those days.
The Life And Times Of Blanche
Blanche worked as a millhand, likely in one of Wilkes-Barre’s many silk factories. Although I knew the textile industry played an important role in Wilkes-Barre’s history, I had no idea the town was the Silk Capital of the United States in the 1920s. In researching Blanche’s life, I came to understand more about the economic and political events shaping my own life. As the coal mines closed and manufacturing plants went overseas, they left a significant void in the region, one that affected the area for decades.
Blanche saw much during her short life, including some of the major events in modern history listed below. No doubt, of all the events, the Great Depression must have had the most impact on her and her family.
I have often wondered how the challenging conditions of this time might have impacted the healthcare industry and indirectly contributed to Blanche’s premature death.
- The start and end of WWI
- The overthrow of the Russian Czar and rise of Lenin as the first head of what would become the Soviet Union
- Coming of age during the Roaring 20s, seeing an economic boon and untold changes in society, culture, music, and the arts
- Woman’s right to vote in the United States of America
- The Great Depression, the catastrophic event that influenced people’s lives beyond measure and ultimately drove political, social and economic decisions for decades (and still influences our thinking today)
- Prohibition, which started in 1920 and didn’t end until after her death
- Moving from West Virginia to Northeastern Pennsylvania where she worked as a mill hand or laborer in a factory
- Getting married and having two children that survived (my father and Uncle Billy)
Just A Moment Ago…
When I sat down on Blanche’s grave this past September, she had been dead just shy of ninety years. And yet… it didn’t feel that way. It’s a difficult feeling to describe, but I sometimes find events that once felt like long ago history now seem as if they happened just a short time ago.
I was reminded of a few scenes from one of my favorite movies, The Legend of Bagger Vance. It’s based on the Bhagavad Gita, and tells a tale of a young man attempting to reconcile his past, face the challenges of competition, and overcome his inner demons. There are few scenes in which Matt Damon’s character recognizes his perception of time is very different than those around him:
Rannulph Junuh: “But – Then – Well, tell me what to say… It was too long ago…”
Adele Invergordon: “No it wasn’t… It was just a moment ago…”
— The Legend of Bagger Vance
Some Mysteries Solved, Some Remain
While my effort to find Blanche began as a search for her gravesite, it quickly became the need to find out more about this young woman, who had been an enigma. I was glad to finally fill in some of the details that were unknown for so long.
Although I wished I had begun my search earlier, I realized that I might have hit more dead-ends. Some of the documents referenced above had only been uploaded within the past two years. Thus, perhaps my timing wasn’t so bad after all. Had I attempted a search a few years ago, I might have given up prematurely, not realizing that more information about Blanche was forthcoming.
I am grateful to the people from the various genealogy services and findagrave, who so generously give their time and effort ensuring our history and culture will not be lost. These services allow us to locate documents online within a few clicks that would otherwise be impossible to find without Herculean levels of time and effort.
I will never be able to answer all the questions I have about Blanche’s short life, but my other family members and I now know far more about this young woman than we knew for the past sixty-plus years.
“Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them: they can be injured by us, they can be wounded; they
know all our penitence, all our aching sense that their place is empty, all the kisses we bestow on the smallest relic of their presence.”
― George Eliot, Adam Bede
After publishing this post, I continued my research, and was pleased to find a second cousin, Susan Denne, who was active on Ancestry. Susan is the granddaughter of Blanche’s sister, Agnes. She was able to provide some additional information regarding Blanche that her mother and grandmother passed along. The gist of her comments were:
“She loved life and lived it to its fullest. She was born way ahead of her time.”
Susan provided a photo of Agnes and two of Blanche, as a young girl. I’m grateful for Susan’s help in going through the family archive and sending these photos to me. If I am able to secure more information and photos of Blanche and others from her family, I will post them here.
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