The Search for Wilda Callaway

One of my ancestors has gone missing. A thread that runs through my maternal line dropped a stitch three generations ago, and a 23-year-old girl dropped from sight. She disappeared from the family radar in 1920, and I have become obsessed with finding her, 100 years on.

I know the story well, because I grew up hearing it from my maternal grandmother, Minerva Bone Flanigan. Minerva’s mother-in-law, Gladys Callaway Flanigan (1889-1952) had two sisters, Elaine (1893-1980) and Wilda, born 1897.

Wilda dropped off the face of the earth after her mother Lula’s funeral in Marshfield MO in 1920; the funeral announcement says among those present was “Miss Wilda Callaway of Kansas City.” The 1920 Kansas City directory lists her as a stenographer with something called Smith, McCord and Townsend Dry Goods. I do not find her in subsequent city directories.

The story I heard many times from my grandmother–a story told in almost exactly the same words no matter who is telling it–is that Wilda “ran off with a married man” and, as a consequence, was shut out of the family. The rejection seems to have been complete: Wilda does not appear in the obituaries for her father George, or her sisters Gladys and Elaine. She is not mentioned in the eulogy at Gladys’ funeral. I infer from family lore that Wilda got married at some point, although that is not necessarily so.

My daughter and I have exhausted every online resource we know: all the major genealogical websites and services as well as state and federal census records, newspaper articles, and city directories. I have joined family genealogical groups. We’ve dug up a lot of dirt, but no Wilda.

In every family there is a box or boxes full of family papers, photos of people whose names are long-forgotten, newspaper clippings and such. Lucky descendants may have durable goods, as well: a button hook, an inkwell, a great-grandfather’s doctor bag. Somebody in the family keeps these boxes in their attics.

But who are the appropriate keepers of the non-physical things: the memories and the mythology? Is family lore intellectual property; does somebody own it? Who gets to tell the stories, and do different family members get to tell the stories differently? And why do some offenses get punished and some do not? Was Wilda’s offense worse than, say, her father’s, who in our research we found (also) ran off with a woman not his wife? I am pretty sure black-sheep-hood is in the eye of the beholder. History is, as they say, written by the victors. What is the cost, down through the generations, of leaving family mythologies unchallenged?

The entire communion of saints lives on in the heart of God. Nothing is ever lost. I keep thinking about the potential for the spiritual healing of some of the broken memories in my family. It is a profound experience to be working on this project with my own daughter. I would love so much to be able to reach across the barriers of years, pridefulness, and scandal to find out what happened this woman who was our flesh and blood. O Wilda, where art thou?

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