On Every Street - Updated June 2016

On Every Street - Updated June 2016

A Story by F. Mary Jesson

This is a short memoir of my search for my grandfather. When I first posted this, I had only limited information, but as of June 2016, which you'll see at the end of the original piece, I have more.



            “It’s your face I’m looking for

             On every street.”

                        Dire Straits


         I have one birth certificate and two death certificates for my paternal grandfather.  All three documents say he was born Walter Jesson, to Ada Young and Walter Jesson, on February 14th, 1900.  What is odd, very odd indeed, however, is that one death certificate says he died on November 11, 1965 at the age of 65 in Rochester, New York.  The other says he died on March 5, 1900, at the age of just 19 days in the village where he was born, Enderby, Liecestershire County, England. 


         I discovered this rather puzzling anomaly while researching my family genealogy.  It was certainly strange, but Occam’s razor immediately told me there was an easy explanation.  There must have been two Walter Jesson’s born on the same day in the same place.  Right?

         With parents named the same.  Wrong.

         No.  That’s ridiculously too coincidental. 

         What the hell was going on?  Who exactly was my grandfather and is my name even Jesson?

         If you search the name Jesson in England, you’ll find that there are about a zillion Jesson’s in England, and about a million in Liecestershire County. And, there are plenty of other Walter Jesson’s born in England and elsewhere, before and after 1900.  Ada and Walter Jesson even had a second Walter, born in 1904. Ha!  Could that be my grandfather?  Could he somehow, for some reason I may never know, have taken the identity of his older, deceased sibling?  Negative.  That Walter Jesson lived his entire life in England and died in 1971. 

         In 1991, hikers in the Italian Alps discovered the 5,300-year old mummified remains of an Iron Age man who would be dubbed Otzi, after the alpine range where he died, laid and was eventually found.  What has Otzi to do with me, and my narrative on my grandfather?  Because laid out side by side, the researchers who have studied Otzi’s remains for the past 20 odd years know more, and in some ways much more, about Otzi’s life and death, over five thousand years ago, as I can uncover about my grandfather.

         Otzi was in his 40’s when he died.  I know my grandfather was in his 60’s but without knowing for sure when he was born, I can’t drill down any further. 

         My grandfather died of heart failure.  Otzi was almost surely murdered, and died from injuries sustained by an arrow to the back and possibly a blow to the head.

         Otzi’s resting place lay undiscovered for over 5,000 years at over 10,500 feet above sea level.   My grandfather died alone, in his apartment in Rochester, New York. Someone, probably a neighbor, followed the stench and found him quite dead, a few days later.  My grandfather was then buried in an unmarked grave.  I know the cemetery, but that is all.  My father spent a whopping $585 to bury his own father somewhere in Glenwood Cemetery in Geneva, New York.  In 2011, my mother and I spent hours scouring the cemetery grounds hoping we’d find something that could be possibly his grave.  There are many unmarked or poorly marked graves in the largest cemetery in Geneva.  We couldn’t find him.  Unmarked really means unmarked.  Under 600 bucks for a box, a hole in the ground and eternal anonymity.

         Otzi’s last meal was not long before he died and it was large, and of good quality.  My grandfather was a life long alcoholic, but beyond his affinity for booze, I know nothing about what he liked or didn’t like to eat.  I don’t even know his booze of choice.  As an Englishman, I like to think it might have been gin. 

         Although Otzi died at high altitude, he had gone done to lower altitude shortly before he was killed.  He died with high quality and quite valuable belongings.  Shoes for the high alpine trek, and amazingly, a copper ax.  He was from the Iron Age, but he had a copper ax, redefining history’s timeline of when European man learned to smelt.  

         My grandfather’s landlord inventoried what was left behind after the body was removed from the apartment. 

$6 in bills

$0.98 in change

$0.25 in bottle

A check for $7.76

A couple of rings and a tie clasp

A billfold

A change purse

Personal papers

         Otzi, and his ax, redefined our knowledge of man’s history.  My grandfather defined my own history because he was a drunk who got arrested and thrown in jail a lot for beating his family and causing public disturbances.  Although my grandfather died before I was born, he left the legacy of a son so tormented by demons that that son would eventually visit them upon his own family.

         Before my father died, he wrote me letters to try to make amends for the life he had given, or not given, me.  “I didn’t realize what I was doing.  I was duplicating my unhappiness in my own family.  I learned how to be mean.”  Don’t be like me, he told me. 

         Eleven months before my father’s father died, he sent a letter to my Dad’s cousin Mary, to try to find his children, who he had had no contact with for a very long time.  It was January 1965 and he’d not seen my father since 1952, or my aunts since the ‘40’s.   He’d written letters to his daughters in 1957, but they had been returned unopened, address unknown.  He implored Cousin Mary to tell him where his kids were.  His health was “…not too good.”  He had a heart condition and couldn’t work anymore.

         Cousin Mary wrote him back, but didn’t give him any means of reaching his kids, likely because they didn’t want her to.  My Aunt Ada was “…somewhere in NYC.”  My Aunt Jackie was “…somewhere in Florida.”  My father had been married for a year to my mom, Kay, and they had had a baby, my sister.

         He waited about 6 months and wrote Cousin Mary one last time in the summer of 1965.   He implored again for her to tell him about his children.  “If the worst should happen, I have a few things I would like them to have, such as money and jewelry that I have managed to hang on to by not drinking for over a year now, I am surprised myself not thinking it was possible, in my case, after all those years.”

         If Cousin Mary wrote him back, the letter didn’t survive. I’m inclined to believe she did not.  On November 5th, six days before he died, my grandfather received a letter from my father’s attorney.  The letter required that my grandfather execute a quitclaim deed, giving his son free and clear rights to the house at 25 Pine Street in Geneva.  This was the house my father had grown up in, the house I would grow up in, the house bought when my father was a boy, by his mother, who was estranged from his father.

         He died without ever seeing his children again.  But he did dash off one last communiqué to my dad, now that he knew the address to send it.  The letters to Cousin Mary had been pleasant, if pleading.  While they had no real words of conciliation, the tone was strikingly so, nonetheless.  The letter to my father was angry, pained, quick and lashing.   He wrote of “skullduggery” and having been “double-crossed” by my grandmother’s lawyer, and “bled dry of every possible thing I owned.” 

         And he was angry that he’d spent over a decade trying to find his son while he was “right there…at 25 Pine St.  I hope the place haunts you the rest of your days.”

         It did.

         My father refused to see or speak to his father.  Refused to forgive him. Rarely spoke to his own children about their grandfather and said little to his wife about him.  But the specter of his father was always with him, until the day he himself died. 

         I, too, refused to forgive my father before he died.  There are few things I regret in life, and that is chief among them.  Not only because my father died unforgiven, but also because it has left me with a great sense of unfinished business.  It is something I’ve had to live with, not always easily, and I think that is why I’ve spent years trying to find out who my grandfather actually was.  Did he even know who he was?

         The only thing I ever remember my father saying about him was that he was an orphan and he was English.  But if his parents truly were Walter and Ada, that’s problematic.  Walter died in 1950, and Ada in 1939.  They had had children before the infant demise of Walter, and several after.  Census records show all their children remaining with them at least through 1911, except the baby Walter, who was never recorded on a census. 

         Somewhat of a brick wall.

         More research on-line and digging through dusty family files only raise more questions, and no answers.  I found that my grandfather had immigrated to the US from Canada, declaring himself English, through Vermont in 1922.  Those immigration records and an application for US citizenship consistently show a birth date of February 14, 1900.  To his dying day, he believed that was his birthday, that his name was Walter Jesson and that his parents were Walter and Ada Young.  And maybe that’s true, maybe that is who he was.  Maybe my name really is Jesson.  But then who was the baby who died on March 5, 1900?  Why did my great-grandparents (if they were my great-grandparents) declare their son dead?  Was my grandfather really an orphan, or had he left England and his family behind for some other reason, had he gotten into trouble and fled?  Had his parents given him up, allowing him to think he was an orphan, never knowing he had a living family?

         The trail to find answers has been alternatively cold, ice-cold and only rarely, lukewarm.  But it has never been hot.  New records are digitized every day.  So, I keep looking.  I keep hoping he’s just around the next corner.


“There's gotta be a record of you someplace
You gotta be on somebody's books”

         On Every Street " Dire Straits

Update June 2016


In March 2016, I took a chance. 

A while ago, I’d found an Atlantic crossing of a Walter Jessen, age 11, in 1914 from Liverpool to Quebec in June 1914.  The spelling of the last name was wrong.  The age was wrong.  And, the boy had been living in a London orphanage, about 100 miles from where I believed my grandfather was born.  This boy, though, like my grandfather, had been an orphan, and part of a group of orphan children sent to Canada through the British Home Children program.  BHC operated orphanages and sheltering homes for many years.  And also for many years, they engaged in a cooperative to send children to Canada to be indentured servants.  It was intriguing enough for me to do some research on the BHC and become a member a BHC Facebook page.  But it just didn’t seem like this boy was my grandfather.

I decided that it would be more likely that I could “exclude” this boy as my grandfather rather than prove he was my grandfather.  By excluding him, I could be sure to disregard any hits that came up in my searches that led to this little boy Walter Jessen. So, I wrote to a charity in England that could release to me his records, if there were any.  I paid the nominal fee and settled in to wait the anticipated eight to ten months before my inquiry would get to the top of the long waiting list.  I only had to wait three months.  And yes, this little boy, who I thought was unlikely to be my grandfather, was my grandfather. 

The records came to my surprise on June 27.  I looked at the brown letter sized envelope, thick and yet plain, stamped with a London return address.  I can’t say I felt excitement or even trepidation.  I really thought this would only prove to me that little Walter Jessen was another dead end, one that I could give up, but that I had to keep looking.

As I leafed through the photocopies of 100 plus year old records, my heart began to turn to the fact that maybe, just maybe… Could this really be him?

His mother had abandoned this little boy when he was about four years old. He was left in the care of the Hampstead union (orphanage) until he was sent to Canada as a BHC.  Once in Canada, he was a malcontent.  He was indentured to a farm, but was too small to handle most of the strenuous work.  He often refused to work.  He often feigned illness to get out of work.  He ran away.  He was shuttled from one master to another as “unsatisfactory”.  Nonetheless, he was described as bright and even likeable.  I never knew my grandfather, but this little boy sounded a bit like my own father.  Brilliant, but lazy.  Amiable, when he wanted to be.  Melodramatic to get his way.

And yet, as I drank in third person descriptions and reports on this little boy, I still said to myself, “It doesn’t prove this is him.”  The admitting orphanage, sadly, had never recorded his parents’ names, nor his exact birth date or place of birth.  I could be at another brick wall.

Until I hit the gold mine.  The mother lode.  Included in the remarkable, marvelous, fantastic records from England were three letters written by this little Walter Jessen, as an adult, after he’d left the guardianship.

The handwriting jumped off the page to me.  The tone, the voice, the manner.  Even the only slightly veiled passive aggressive sarcasm.  The return address, Geneva, NY.  The year of marriage, the baby girl. 

My heart hit my throat.  My pulse quickened. I had gone down this path to exclude this line of inquiry.  And I had found my grandfather.  With no doubt, I know it is he.

He wore glasses.  He had had dreams of being a chemist. He had worked part time for a railroad. He had bought a house that he had lost when he was out of work. And he had been a British Home Child. He’d been an indentured farm servant, little more than a slave.

And his mother had deserted him when he was not much more than a baby.  The records did not reveal why.

He and others alternately spelled his last name Jesson and Jessen.  And for some unknown, and possibly unknowable reason, in 1928 he began signing his name with a middle initial D for the first time.  Maybe he was making himself up as he went along. 

There are still questions.  There is still missing information.  There is still work to be done.  The haze of who my grandfather was still hangs, but I can see through patches to the clear sky.

© 2016 F. Mary Jesson

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I was struggling a little keeping he grandfather and the father apart. I assume that that is caused by my poor reading ability. I often find that I have to read word for word to make sense of things. The story left me hanging. I was somehow hoping for closure or answers, but that's life. Not all questions go un-answered. Very good, thanks for the post, Dave

This review was written for a previous version of this writing

Posted 4 Years Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

F. Mary Jesson

4 Years Ago

Thanks for the feedback. It was difficult in the writing to figure out how to distinguish my father .. read more


My first reading did not include the 'Update 2016' which relieved much of the hanging from the first part. Thanks again, Dave

Posted 4 Years Ago

I was struggling a little keeping he grandfather and the father apart. I assume that that is caused by my poor reading ability. I often find that I have to read word for word to make sense of things. The story left me hanging. I was somehow hoping for closure or answers, but that's life. Not all questions go un-answered. Very good, thanks for the post, Dave

This review was written for a previous version of this writing

Posted 4 Years Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

F. Mary Jesson

4 Years Ago

Thanks for the feedback. It was difficult in the writing to figure out how to distinguish my father .. read more
So far I like it... I'll finish it later... I'm at lunch and have to get back to work.

This review was written for a previous version of this writing

Posted 4 Years Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

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3 Reviews
Added on May 1, 2016
Last Updated on October 25, 2016
Tags: geneology, family, essay, fathers, mothers, grandfathers, legacy, abandoned child, BHC, British Home Children, British Hom Child, immigration, emmigration, Canada, Hampstead union, orphan, orphanage


F. Mary Jesson
F. Mary Jesson

Sarasota, FL

I've had a lifelong dream to be a writer. After almost 25 years working in government, I've decided to try my hand at writing a novel. more..

Chapter 2 Chapter 2

A Chapter by F. Mary Jesson