Tuesday, January 3, 2017

I Met My Grandfather’s 93-year-old Cousin on the Internet

While searching for my family, I came across a posting from someone named Rapanault looking for a Renaud family. My great-grandmother was a Renaud and I remember her having a sister with the last name Rapanault. So, I decided to reply to the posting:

6/ 10/ 2006 - "Hi. I got your email address from the French Canadian genealogical society of Connecticut website. It said you were researching the name Renaud. I noticed your last name was Rapanault. You wouldn't by chance be related to Elizabeth M. Renaud (1887-1985) who married Joseph Rapanault and lived in Southbridge, MA? Please contact me if you are. Elizabeth was my great-aunt (or something like that). My great-grandmother was her sister, Marie Clarinda (Renaud) Baker..."

Four days later, I received a reply: "Sorry for the delay in replying. Elizabeth and Joseph Rapanault were my parents. As you noted she passed away in 1985. She had lived with us for seven years in West Haven, CT. My father died in 1933 in Southbridge. Clarinda Baker was my mother’s sister. I remember her very well..."

My response: "So great to hear from you! I remember your mother. When I was a kid, she used to throw us candy from her porch. She was very nice… (I went on to explain exactly how I was related and directed the man (Lionel) to this website.)"

Lionel (6/ 16/ 2006): "Because of limited vision, I will be slow responding to your e-mails. "

My reply (6/ 16/ 2006): "Take your time. I'm just happy to be talking to you. It sounds like you know a lot about my (our) family."

Lionel (6/ 21/ 2006): "Your news about my Renaud-Martin Great grandparents was new to me. The name which intrigued me was Emily Desmarais. My grandfather, Leon Rapanault's wife was ??? Desmarais.I can't remember her first name.She had a brother Cyril whose wife was Marceline Rapanault my grand-Father's sister. I can only Remember the names of two of Of their children, Telesphore And Leona..."

Me (6/ 21/ 2006): "Hi Lionel, I spoke to my parents. They both remember you well. They said to say "Hi". There seems to be a lot of people named Desmarais in your family. Maybe there's a connection between Emily Martin (Desmarais) and Leon Rapanault's wife. According to MA Vital Records, your parents were married on Sept 30, 1907 in Southbridge. Your father's parents are listed as Leon Rapanault and Ozina Desmarais. Maybe with a few more clues, we can piece this together. I'd love to find out more about the Renaud's and Martins. Michel Martin and Emily Desmarais are a huge mystery to me. I'm wondering if they passed away before the family moved to Southbridge. Your grandmother, Emily Renaud (Martin)'s obituary said that she was born in St. Hyacinthe, Quebec. I can't find mention of her parents anywhere (other than her obituary)."

And so it began…

The conversation continued. Lionel told me many things about the family (especially about his mother's and my great-grandmother's siblings that I never knew.

It was a complete coincidence that my youngest son, C****, was looking for colleges and was interested in attending the University of New Haven in West Haven, CT (just a mile or two from where Lionel lived), so I asked (8/ 17/ 2006): "On a completely different note, you told me you live in West Haven, CT. My youngest son, C****, will be a senior in high school this year. He is interested in attending the University of New Haven. He wants to study Sport Management. We visited the school earlier this summer and it seems like they have a very good program. Do you know anything about the school or its reputation? Is it in a safe neighborhood?"

Lionel's response (8/ 18/ 2006): "...Now we can discuss UNH. It is a well respected school. Or son in law... and our sons went there. I can tell you that we were never concerned with their safety and neither were they. If you toured the campus you may have seen the Dr. Henry Lee Building. He is the internationally known forensic scientist who taught there for years. If you come to West Haven again, please drop in to see me…"

8/ 18/ 2006 - "Lionel - Thank you for the invitation to stop by and visit. I will definitely call you and stop in the next time we go to West Haven. I would enjoy meeting you..."

I would eventually learn that Lionel was a soldier in World War II. He was at Camp McCoy Wisconsin with the 76th Infantry Division when his grandmother died in 1944 and wasn't able to attend her funeral. "Rachel and I were married on July 27 1942 and on December 1st I was drafted into the Army. After basic training I applied to Medical Administrative Corp OCS and on graduating went to the 76th. We sailed for England in late November 1944. I was separated from the service on January 1 1946. Rachel and her brother came for me at Ft. Devens and I met our son... for the first time."

Lionel introduced me to Roger Renaud, a cousin who had a wealth of information on the Renaud family. Roger introduced me to Alfred Tremblay, another cousin, who turned out to be related to me on BOTH my father's and mother's sides of the family!

On October 4, 2006, we traveled to West Haven to visit UNH and see a soccer game. Lionel invited us to join his family for a "light lunch". (That was the day that I discovered that Lionel was 94-years-old!) It was an experience I will always remember fondly. His entire family was there and they treated us like they had known us forever. We instantly felt like we belonged.

(10/ 16/ 2006) "Lionel, We just wanted to thank you and your family for the very special visit on Saturday. It was wonderful meeting everyone. We enjoyed our conversation and the delicious lunch. We could easily have talked for a few more hours. We left feeling like a real part of your family…You are an amazing man! You're very bright and have a great sense of humor. You seem younger than most people half your age. It's clear that your family loves you very much. I'm sure you've been very good to them over the years. …"

Several months later, Lionel told me that he was diagnosed with heart failure. As his health declined, our conversations became fewer and fewer. Around the time of his 95th birthday, I discovered that we shared the same birthday. 

Lionel passed away May 11, 2008 at the age of 95. He was one of the most amazing people I have ever met. It was clear to me from our many conversations that he loved his family very much and that his family returned that love. I never would have guessed that a man his age would be so well-informed about modern technology such as the Internet and e-mail. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet my grandfather's cousin. It was a case of great timing and great luck. May he rest in peace with his dear wife, Rachel.

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