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Woman reunited with scrapbook from grandma

by STEVE URBON The Standard-Times on September 09, 2013 11:00 AM

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Twelve years ago, Frank Medeiros of Dartmouth found an old, brown scrapbook at a church rummage sale and saved it from a likely fate in a trash barrel.

It must mean something to somebody, he thought. It is full of Mother’s Day cards, lengthy and all-knowing newspaper advice columns about the proper roles of women, hundreds of “column fillers,” little one-sentence quips and observations, a few obituaries, wedding invitations, school sports stories and a photo or two.

It’s clearly the work of a woman but Mederios made no headway locating the family or even a single living descendant.

It’s no wonder. The first entries were made in the 1920s, the last in the late ’50s.

So Medeiros took the book to New Bedford’s Wilks Library, which he frequents. Branch manager Karen Stefanik spent hours reading the whole book and extracting every name she came across.

She pieced together a family in which mother and father had four children: Walter, Hazel, William, Roy Xavier. The mother was Margaret Murphy, the father James.

The problem now: the family name being Murphy, and that’s awfully common. This was one huge haystack.

Stefanik tried Ancestry. com, to no avail. “Ancestors are easier to find than descendants,” she said.

Genealogist Paul Cyr at the main library also came up empty.

So she came to this newspaper, and I took up the challenge.

One name stood out: the sole daughter, Hazel. She married a man named John J. Conaty. Conaty. Unusual. Now I had something to go on.

But using a subscription people finder, I could find no Conaty in SouthCoast. I did find some in Rhode Island, talked with half of them, and came up empty.

Now it was Google, and I got lucky. Moe Lauzier, of Fall River, a former Republican city chairman and radio talk host, years ago used his blog to thank some of the influential teachers in his life. One of them: Hazel (Conaty) Donnelly.

Ah, the miracle of the Internet. Now I had a descendant’s married name. Two minutes later I found her address in Fall River. Two minutes after that I had her on the phone. I told her I had something that belonged to her: her grandmother’s scrapbook of her family’s life.

Last month, retired Durfee High School history teacher Hazel Donnelly, 80, still sort of skeptical, sat down in our newsroom with me, her son Brian, and the 2-inch-thick scrapbook, brown with age, with the covers falling off.

She was soon stepping back to the world of her grandmother. She started retracing all of the family connections and marriages, deaths.

She lifted a small Mother’s Day card with a children’s design. The signature inside was “Hazel.” “That’s my handwriting,” she said. “You can tell by the H.” It was the Palmer Method, the old cursive handwriting curse drilled into everyone.

“We all had the same handwriting,” she laughed. “But you can tell that’s a child’s.”

“She liked to be called Ma, not Grandma, not Nana,” Hazel recalled. She was recalling a lot of things now, such as how her youngest uncle, Walter, was Ma’s favorite.

Hazel came across a newspaper photo of her mother, Hazel, who was in a theater performance of something called “Kempy.” “I haven’t seen that before. That’s the best photo of her that I’ve ever seen.”

After an hour of reminiscing, Hazel left here with the scrapbook, no doubt destined for hours more filled with recollections of the earliest years of her life.

Frank Medeiros certainly had good instincts, the wayward book is back where it belongs and some precious family history is pulled back from the brink of being lost for good.

PHOTO: In this Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013 photo Hazel Donnelly, of New Bedford, Mass., looked through her grandmother's old scrapbook in New Bedford, Mass. The book, out of the family's possession for years, and discovered at a church rummage sale about 12 years ago, contains a Mother's Day card that Hazel Donnelly, now 80, gave to her grandmother. The book was returned to Donnelly by a librarian who used to the internet to match names in the scrapbook with descendants of the grandmother. (AP Photo/The Standard Times, John Sladewski)

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