During decades of family holiday gatherings in Maine, my cousins and I heard a number of versions about how our grandmother got here. We have also uncovered photos, letters and public documents that have given us bits and pieces of her story, since she never divulged all the details.

In 2012, a small group of third-generation family members, myself included, decided we should meet for a weekend in Camden to explore her journey. We brought computers, iPads and cellphones to search sources on the internet related to the information we had. A paper flowchart was created to map people and places into an orderly fashion. As with any task, my cousins and I did not make this simply a chore, but a fun exploration into our grandmother’s past that included happy reminiscences of growing up together, shared cooking duties leading to wonderful meals and much laughter. What we learned that weekend was remarkable.

We began our timeline with her birth date and place. Although there are conflicting reports, our grandmother Suzanne, fondly referred to as “Tutu,” was born in Paris, France, in August 1901. There are notes and memories that indicate her parents met in that city while her mother was studying and her father worked for the French daily newspaper Le Figaro.

We do not know the circumstances, but early in her life her father took on the role of sole caregiver and took Tutu to Schongau, Germany. She was left there with a family so he could travel to Africa, where jobs in the diamond mines were lucrative. His intention of sending funds to support her was short-lived – he contracted malaria and died.

Her German family was no longer able to care for her without regular payments, so they organized passage for Tutu to Ellis Island. She was given a temporary name and was accompanied by a stranger traveling by steamship to America. Upon arrival she was taken into the care of a minister affiliated with a church in Massachusetts and a New England orphanage. Her first placement with a family was unsuccessful, but her second placement was with a doctor and his wife in Portland, Maine. The wife had learned German, and they also had adopted another young girl whose father had died, in the sinking of the SS Portland. Tutu found a ready-made, loving family, which helped her to thrive.

My cousins and I continue to dig into these details, as there are still gaps in this narrative. We have come to realize that this account of starting over involved so much hardship and trust in strangers and yet, Tutu was able to create a family of her own with love and kindness that has continued on for many generations right here in Maine.

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