Saturday, August 29, 2015

Who Do You Think You Are? Review: Bryan Cranston

This has been one of my most favorite episodes in a long time. Perhaps because the subject, actor Bryan Cranston, digs up some serious dirty on his paternal line; dirt I can identify with.

Like everyone I have ever tried to help with their family tree, Bryan begins by saying he doesn't know much about his father's family. In actuality though, he knew his father, who was also an actor, was born in Chicago in 1924 and that his paternal grandparents names were Edward and Alice. That's enough.

This leads him to a 1930 census record with curious details; details that uncover that Grandpa Edward had a previous marriage and a daughter from that union. Like Bryan's father, who bailed on Bryan, his siblings and his mother when Bryan was just 11 years-old, Bryan's grandpa abandoned his first wife and child as well.

Through divorce records Bryan learns that his father had a half-sister, Kathleen. In the divorce record it shows Edward Cranston's first wife, Irene, requesting to return to her maiden name, Kelly. In light of the fact she had a child, the court encouraged her to retain her married name. If one pays close attention, though, we see when the half-aunt's death certificate shows up that Kathleen is recorded as Kathleen Ann Kelly; a detail that is not discussed on the show but one that I think ought to have been.

Bryan commented on the request by Irene to revert to using her maiden name when they are looking at the divorce documentation. He states something to the effect of, of course, why would one want to bear having to hold on to the name of a man who abandoned his family.

Whether is was done legally or not when Kathleen Cranston dies at the mere age of 16 her death certificate lists her with her mother's maiden name, as Kathleen Kelly because...why would one want to hold on to the name of a father who abandoned you.

There was a time when it was much easier to change one's name; illegally if you will. Some people went by many aliases. Nowadays with Social Security and the significance of "identity," changing one's name or even spelling of one's name is an intense legal process. But back in the day, names and what one was called were two different things and spelling almost never counted. We see this in other places throughout this episode; example, the Cranstons show up as Kramston in the 1930 census. It's only now that people are so hung up on spelling. But I digress...

Bryan is visibly moved by the discovery of his half-aunt's early death. He seemed genuinely hopeful that she might still be with us at the age of 100 or at the possibility of finding a long lost line of cousins. However, he was only left to wonder if Edward ever knew his first child died so young or if he even cared about her.

Edward Cranston apparently abandoned his family and opted to serve in World War I. Bryan discovers through Edward's Soldier's Bonus Application that Edward was also an actor. Now had the genealogist more thoroughly explored Edward's WWI draft registration card with Bryan earlier on, he might have noted that Edward had been employed by the Vaudeville Theater in Chicago; that was clearly visible on the show.

The biggest surprise on that Soldier's Bonus Application is that Edward’s marital status is listed as single. This dodgy move on Edward's part ensured that Irene and Kathleen would not receive any part of his soldier's pay. Grandpa Edward Cranston, in my opinion, was a big jerk and although Bryan doesn't say that he does state that this bit of information "exposes a link between his actions and my father’s actions. My father’s indiscretions, my grandfather’s indiscretions."

The pattern goes back even further, though when Bryan finds the baptismal record for his great-grandfather, James Daniel Cranston, born in 1849 in Montreal. I love this part too because my great-great grandfather, Damase Desjardins, was born in Montreal at about the same time. And as Bryan runs his finger down the column of recorded church functions he reads off some of the surnames one of which is Damase's mother's maiden name, Clement. This makes it feel even closer to home.

The baptismal record for James Daniel Cranston list his father, Joseph, as "absent." A subsequent record shows 2 year-old James Daniel living in a home for the destitute because his mother must work as a servant and can not financially support her child since the father has "dissipated." It is later discovered that the father had left Montreal to go off and fight in the American Civil War.        

Joseph Henry Cranston is found living in Ohio in the National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. He too is listed as single when he entered the home in 1883. Through a newspaper article, Bryan learns that this great-great grandfather was found dead in a boardinghouse from what we presume to be carbon monoxide poisoning. At the time of his death 1889 the Soldier's Home appraised Joseph Henry Cranston's personal effects at just $0.25. Sad.

Granted, everything we learned about these men are facts. Facts that develop in us an opinion that is derived from our personal perspectives. We do not know the whole story. We have not walked in their shoes but Bryan ends the episode by stating: "There was so much abandonment in the line of men...these are men born with suitcases in their hands...this is what happened in my family and it stops with me."

Bryan also states that he wonders if there is really something in the genes. Is there? Or is this a learned behavior amongst certain clans that come to see this shunning, self-absorption, and distancing as acceptable? Who knows.

Bryan goes on to say that it seems you either move in the same patterns as your ancestors before you or you turn 180 degrees from it, in the opposite direction. This made me reflect on my own family's history of abandonment, well, more like estrangement in my case. And I thought really hard about it. It hasn't ended with me and I don't think it will. I do not, however, believe I am continuing in the same direction exactly. I have great hope what I do here, acknowledging of the truth of my family's history, will eventually bring about resolve for subsequent generations. I hope.    

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