“There is no death. People die only when we forget them. If you can remember them, they will be with you always.”
― Isabel Allende (paraphrased)
My Aunt Rose was the third child of my grandmother Maria and was always somewhat of a mystery, an enigma that confounded us for generations. She was a missing piece to the family puzzle. My father and uncle searched for their younger sister for years before finally giving up in despair. While doing some basic genealogy research on my family, my interest in Rose was rekindled to no avail. As a homicide detective, supposedly an expert at finding people, I tried my hand at finding her—and I struck out. I never imagined that after over a hundred years, I would be the one to find her. But perhaps I should start at the very beginning, just to give this story some context.
My grandfather, Antonio Padavoni married Maria Giuseppe Sapienza in Baragiano, Italy about 1897. Antonio would immigrate to Chicago and work for a few years before he was able to send for Maria. My grandfather and grandmother rented a flat on Chicago’s near west side and set up housekeeping here in America. Somewhere in the immigration process the family name became Padavonia.
Their first child born in America was my Uncle Jerry, (Gerard Padavonia) born January 4, 1900. My father, James Padavonia, followed shortly thereafter on October 20, 1902. Rose was born in January of 1906.
Their mother, my grandmother, fell ill with tuberculosis and died July 15, 1907 at the age of 31. Her children’s ages would have been, Gerard 7, James 5 and Rose about 1 ½. Just a week after her death, my dad and Uncle Jerry were declared minors in need of supervision and became wards of the court. They were placed in the St. Mary’s Training School for Boys in Des Plaines (now Maryville Academy). There was no mention of Rose in the court records.
Just why the boys were sent to St. Mary’s is a subject of conjecture. Their mother had married sisters who lived in the neighborhood and they volunteered to raise the boys, not an uncommon event among extended families. But their father Antonio opted otherwise for whatever reason. It was at this point that the boys lost track of their sister Rose.
About eight years later, my Uncle Jerry was permanently discharged from St. Mary’s and sent out into the world to make his way on his own at the ripe old age of fifteen.. He had been trained to be a sheet metal worker. My father followed a little over a year later, having received training as a printer.
The boys launched their search for baby sister Rose who now would be about nine years old. Years of inquiries along those lines were more than frustrating. The child care agencies at first denied the existence of Rose, but facing the demands of my dad and uncle, who were now young adults, they gave them an address where they could find their sister. It was an empty lot.
That pattern repeated itself over the years. These agencies apparently had an extensive list of empty lots. My dad never talked to me about Rose and he passed away in 1951. My uncle however was more talkative in later years, lamenting about losing track of his baby sister and despairing that any further search would be futile. He passed away in 1966, the year that I joined the Chicago Police Department. Uncle Jerry was my last living contact with the Aunt Rose mystery
Then, the early 1970’s found me as a homicide detective with my partner at what is now Maryville Academy to interview a potential witness in a murder case. The director at that time was Father John P. Smyth. Fr. Smyth was a 6’5″ former NBA All-star. He was easy to talk with and readily arranged our interview. We had coffee in his office and while we were waiting for our witness to come to the office, we engaged in small talk. I gave him an abridged version of the Aunt Rose mystery, and while I understood in the early 1900’s St. Mary’s Training School was for boys, if they could locate my dad or uncle’s file, there might be a clue as to what happened to Rose. Smyth made arrangements to search their archives while we conducted our current business.
After about an hour, an elderly nun entered the room with a thin folder in her hand. Casting could not have done a better job. She wore a black habit and shuffled her way across the room with a stooped posture that made you wonder how she kept her balance. Her overall appearance suggested that perhaps she had not had an occasion to come up from the archives in quite some time. She had found nothing on my father, but the folder contained what remained of my uncle’s record. Inside were three pieces of paper; the court order sending him to St. Mary’s Industrial School, a record of a Christmas Pass to spend the holiday with his family, and a record of his permanent discharge at the age of fifteen. No mention was made of Rose. I was no closer to learning anything. If Rose was alive, she would be in her early seventies probably living under another adopted name. Any hope of finding the trail was rapidly vanishing.
In February 1975, my wife passed away from breast cancer. She was 31 and her children were 6, 4 ½ and 1. The parallel to my grandmother’s untimely passing was almost unnerving and I took more notice of family history. I learned that my grandmother had married sisters who lived on the near west side. But perhaps most disturbing was learning that court documents ordering my dad and uncle to St. Mary’s stated that “The father has deserted the children. The mother is ill with tuberculosis. Children are dependent on the public.” The date on the court document in fact indicated that my grandmother had been dead for eight days.
I took to including her in my prayers for my immediate deceased family on a regular basis. For some reason, I thought of her often.
In May of 2006, my son Craig and his wife Robin announced that they were naming their newborn daughter Marjorie Rose. Once again Aunt Rose jumped to the forefront of my quiet thoughts, but by now she would be near 100 years old and was most likely dead. I had no doubt her mystery would endure forever.
The following year would be the 100th anniversary of my grandmother’s death. I felt I was almost being called to mark it, to memorialize that day in some way.
I talked with my brother Jerry (yes we were named Jim and Jerry) and he agreed to meet me at the cemetery along with his daughter Lisa who always had in interest in family history. Neither of them thought what I was doing was in any way weird. Their supportive attitude encouraged me. We would do it. I would buy a single red rose, we would find the grave, most likely unmarked, say a brief prayer and lay the rose at the grave-site.
On July 15, 2007, exactly one hundred years after my grandmother’s death, my brother, my niece and I met at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside.
Mount Carmel’s computer records did not show anyone by that name buried there.
“You must be mistaken,” I was told. “Maybe she’s at some other cemetery —that was 100 years ago!”
But I had Maria Giuseppe Sapienza’s death certificate with me and it clearly indicated that she was buried there on July 17, 1907. That got the staff’s attention and a very helpful lady started a hand search of the brittle yellow burial cards. It was quite some time before the lady exclaimed.
“I’ve got it!” she said. “The name was misspelled when they entered it into the computer.”
We rushed over to the counter to get a look at the century old card.
“You know, there’s two in this grave.”
We crowded around the woman as she read the card to us.
“Infant Rosie was buried there eight months before Maria died. Rosie was ten months old at the time of her death.”
We stood in stunned silence, attempting to process the information that had suddenly and unceremoniously concluded the long search for Rose. It was some time before the three of us trekked out to the cemetery and with some difficulty and a tape measure found the unmarked grave-site of mother and daughter. We said our prayer and I unwrapped the florist’s paper and discovered they had made a mistake—instead of a single rose—they had wrapped two. We laid both of them at the head of the grave.
We stood there for several moments, staring at the grass and the flowers, and then I dialed Craig on my cellphone.
“Hey now” was his standard greeting.
“Craig, it’s Dad.”
I paused for a moment…I had not rehearsed my line…
“We found Rose…”
I cannot pretend to understand some family dynamics of today’s age, let alone a hundred years ago, but I can’t help but wonder why my dad and uncle were not informed of their sister’s death. In time of critical illness the youngest children are often shuttled about as the family struggles with how to manage each day. Maybe it started with the supposition that the boys were too young to know or understand. Why compound their grief with news of their baby sister? They wouldn’t understand anyway. Maybe that became the family’s subterfuge that over the years became so entrenched that no one had the courage to correct the fact that Rose was dead, or maybe they also never knew about Rose.
What was my fixation with my grandmother Maria over the years? She died 31 years before I was born but I thought of her so often. In her mortal, human existence here on this Earth her powers were limited by her mortality. Her spiritual existence has no limitations. Was she aware of our 100 year search for Rose? Was she reaching out to me saying:
“She’s here, Rose is here with me!”
I’d like to think so…