Seven Dead in Ohio (and one still living)

This week's midwestern odyssey.

It’s funny: you drive the entire length of Pennsylvania (that’s 283 mind-numbing miles of I-80), and finally you cross over into Ohio, and find yourself expecting some great gratifying shift in scenery, some grand “Mother of Presidents” welcome parade.

And it all still looks like Pennsylvania. And I-80 goes on and on.

Yes, I’ve made it to Ohio. Birthplace of seven U.S. presidents (three died in office; all, strangely, served between 1870 and 1923). Birthplace of aviation (GTFO, North Carolina). Birthplace of . . . my biological grandmother?

My grandmother, Sylvia, poses on Coney Island in 1949—nineteen years before succumbing to multiple sclerosis in 1968.

The rest of this post doesn’t have much to do with presidential birthplaces. It doesn’t have much to do with history at all, really—unless you count family history—and if you’re just here to learn about the wallpaper in Franklin Pierce’s home (really, it’s astonishing), you’ll want to keep browsing.

But it has to do with this trip, I suppose—this particular nine-day Midwestern odyssey extravaganza—and with an unexpected reward of this mad dash project.

With how a wild quest towards presidential roots have suddenly, all too quickly, connected me with some of my own.

* * *

I’m blogging from Niles, Ohio, birthplace of McKinley, whose assassination, Wikipedia reports, “particularly saddened residents of northeastern Ohio.” I’m on the fast food strip, a neon-lit Days Inn somewhere between Taco Bell and Burger King, and something still looks saddened in this iron manufacturing belt, though maybe it’s not over McKinley.

Cleveland lies just 60 miles northwest. There Garfield is buried (and reportedly haunts the tomb at night), though his birthplace cabin remains a good few exits outside, in Moreland Hills.

And there my mom’s Polish ancestors settled in the early twentieth century, running a family-owned Feldman’s Department Store somewhere out of Cleveland. This was all news to me, at least until last month.

* * * *

My mother was 15 when she lost her mother, Sylvia, to multiple sclerosis. Her father soon remarried, and contact with Sylvia’s long-distance relatives grew slim, and then none. As an adult, she began to wonder. Sylvia had had a brother somewhere, an Irving, she told me in 2010. Hadn’t he moved to California? Was he there still, or alive at all? Efforts to locate him ended in failure, but what of the rest? Had they stayed in Cleveland after Sylvia’s father moved his family to Coney Island some time before the war?

What had even happened to that side of the family at all?

And if I was headed to Cleveland for my project, could I maybe sort of try to find out?

Sylvia and Irving, early 1940s.

We had to have names. We didn’t even have names.

The wildcard was a battered pocket-sized notebook owned by Sylvia in her last years of illness and found years later in a small collection of her belongings. In it were scrawled addresses of a Marvin and Clarence Feldman—my grandmother’s maiden name—in Cleveland, Ohio. Relation unspecified. Ages unknown.

And in 2011, the search began. I sourced LinkIn, messaged every Marvin and Clarence Feldman on Facebook, clicked through those stalker-style “name-search” sites until I’d arrive at an asterisk-coated email address and request for $29.99.

And, eventually—after a few days of browsing—at the practice page of one Marvin J. Feldman, a Cleveland-based attorney, 81.

* * * *

TO BE CONTINUED. OFF TO MCKINLEY’S BIRTHPLACE.

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