I heard the sad news last night that my ‘uncle’ Bill had passed away (10:20pm 7 June 2014). We met through genealogical research and although he always referred to me as his ‘cousin’, out of respect I referred to him as my ‘uncle’. Our common ancestor (my 5th great grandfather and Bill’s 4th great grandfather) lived from 1749 to 1824. So that’s how Bill and I were connected. But that connection went much deeper than mere names and links on a family tree can state.
I ‘met’ Bill online in 1994, when I got my first computer and internet connection. I was doing some research into the Bracey name and came across a chap in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who was pretty certain I wasn’t related to his line but was equally certain I was related to Bill’s line. It took a while for Bill (who lived in California) and I to find the common connection. Our respective sides of the family came from the same area in Bristol, England, in some cases from the same street. We were certain we were related but we didn’t have the evidence. However, a particular UK Census record gave us the evidence and so I brought some 50 names into Bill’s family tree; in turn, he added about 5000 names to my tree! We corresponded via email and mail for a couple of years, then at the end of 1997, we met. My husband and I were on our way to Chicago and had a long layover at LAX, so Bill met us in person at the American Airlines lounge there.
I’ll never forget that meeting. My husband and I came into the lounge area strung out from 20+ hours of flying and layovers, and this imposing man with cropped grey/white hair rose up from a seat in the reception area, held out his hand, and said ‘I’m Bill’. I don’t think we’d even seen photos of each other at that stage — he just knew who we were, and equally, I knew who he was. His handshake was firm and he stood militarily erect, all 6 feet 4 (?) of him. He would have been 71 years of age then.
We got on immediately. I don’t know whether it was the family connection — some part of the ancient ancestral brain — or the fact that he was such a nice man, even without that connection. He thought I was wonderful for bringing him so many Western Australians to his tree, and I thought he was wonderful for all the mountains of research he had done long before the days of the internet, when he had travelled extensively in the UK ferretting out records and people, and paying quite a bit of money I expect for copies of legal documents such as birth, death and marriage certificates. So much of this is now available freely or for a small fee online, we forget that only 20 years ago you had to write letters, pay by money order, and wait weeks to get copies of documents (in the hope that you had the right person), or you had to go to the places and hunt out parish records or haunt the Public Records Office in London, looking for those elusive bits of information that tie one person’s family tree to another’s. Bill did much of that legwork research to compile the family tree, and likely spent thousands of dollars in pursuit of documentary evidence to verify connections.
In July 1998 Bill came to Australia and New Zealand to meet his Bracey relatives in the various branches. I organised a big lunch at a riverside cafe in Perth for all my Western Australian relatives and Bill papered two entire walls with his printout scroll of our family tree. For many, this was the first time they saw how they were connected to others who were still living and who had gone before them. I still have that scroll. We all had a lovely time.
From 2001, I started travelling to the US each year to attend conferences. At that time, Qantas only flew from Australia to the US via Los Angeles (we can now fly direct to Dallas), and so I started staying with Bill for a few days on arrival before heading off to wherever the conference was — his house was about a 45-minute drive from LAX. It was an opportunity for me to get over jet lag, but most importantly, it was an opportunity for me to spend time with Bill. We’d talk about the family tree research, I’d help him do stuff on the computer (and often fix issues — he always had a list of things for me to fix/explain!), we’d go out for meals, I met some of his friends, and he’d let me sleep off the jet lag as I needed to. I stayed with Bill for a few days each year for most years from 2001 to 2014, visiting and spending time with him for the last time in February/March this year.
He would often lament how much he missed ‘his Joanie’, his beloved wife of 43 years, who passed away in 1993, before I met Bill. He spoke so well of her that I felt I knew her.
I knew that he’d served in World War Two, but he never spoke about that time with me. I expect he only spoke about it with his fellow Veterans, when they had their annual get together on the east coast.
What about Bill, the person? Well, he had a very sharp mind, even in February 2014 (when I last saw him) when his body was failing. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, he was methodical, meticulous, and precise in everything he did (that engineering and military training, I expect, but did he go into engineering because he was methodical or did he become methodical as part of his training?), and he was ‘ornery’, blunt, and stubborn at times. He hated the frailty that came with his aging body.
He was such a strong, athletic man when we first met, but gradually injuries started to affect his prowess on the tennis court and the ski fields and he had to give those loves away.
I met his son Tom both at Bill’s house and in Texas, where Tom lives, and met his grandson James at least once. I never met his daughter Lisa or his other grandchildren or great grandchildren, though I feel I know them as Bill proudly showed off their photos to me and talked about their lives and how they were all doing.
He was very proud of his family and loved them dearly, although perhaps he didn’t say so often enough.
We will miss you, Bill. We’ll miss your sharp mind, your welcoming arms, your HUGE hugs, and your love. You treated us as your own, and I’m forever grateful that we got to meet you and to know you.