by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak
I did something today that Iâ€™ve been dreading. I finally got the courage to search for my motherâ€™s name in the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). And yes, sheâ€™s in there, although she passed away only about ten weeks ago.
It still doesnâ€™t truly register. I thought it would be a few more decades before Mom would appear in this resource that I use on a daily basis without any thought–without any thought of what it really means. Each one of those millions of entries meant the world to someone.
Thereâ€™s a part of me thatâ€™s convinced the entry is for someone else–especially because hers is so full of red herrings. Unless you actually knew her, her SSDI listing would send you off on a wild goose chase. And for that reason, I thought it might make a good example of how we sometimes read too much into the details we find in the SSDI.
A Nod Toward Privacy
I realize it would make a much clearer example if I were to reproduce my motherâ€™s SSDI listing here, but a cautionary voice in me hesitates to provide so much personal detail–especially since Iâ€™ll be dissecting it and providing additional information. So I hope youâ€™ll forgive me if I do this semi-anonymously.
To start with, thereâ€™s her name. I wondered how she would be listed–whether the SSDI would include her under the first name she never actually used in life. She was a â€œJoisey girlâ€ but had the Southern habit of going by her distinctive middle name. Even in her business life, she used her first initial followed by her middle name. But the SSDI doesnâ€™t know any better, so sheâ€™s listed under a name that I donâ€™t associate with her.
And then thereâ€™s the matter of her choice in her last name. She was married twice, once to my father and again, just five years ago. After my parents divorced several decades ago, she resumed use of her maiden name. And when she remarried, she chose to retain that name. So in spite of two marriages, she died with the same name she was born with–not especially common for women in their 60s, but a sign of things to come.
Residence and Benefit
The SSDI listings usually provide a location for last residence and last benefit, and Momâ€™s is no exception. We frequently use this as a proxy for place of death–and in many cases, itâ€™s a good indication.
But in this case, these clues are misleading because my mother, like so many these days, was a snowbird. She passed away in Florida, but youâ€™d never know that from her entry. If you were to try to obtain a copy of her death certificate, her entry would send you to a different and less genealogy-friendly state, so youâ€™d struggle to even get a â€œnot foundâ€ response.
State of Issue
And then thereâ€™s the matter of the state of issue. Even I was surprised at this. I had expected it to be New Jersey, the state of her birth and childhood, as well as her on-and-off again residence over later years. Instead, it was a state where we had resided for a single year.
I come from a military family, so we bounced around a lot. And for whatever reasons, Mom apparently had not applied for Social Security until she was in her mid-twenties and married with two kids. I come from a generation where we applied for Social Security as youngsters, and now, most do it almost upon birth. But Momâ€™s generation of women often waited until their first job, so good luck to anyone who tried to seek her in the state of issue where she hardly lived long enough to leave any trace.
Outwitting the SSDI
To give you some sense of my mother, several who knew her best assured me that she was up there giving St. Peter a hard time. As one wrote, â€œShe was a powerhouse of a woman. The world is unquestionably a better place for her saunter across the stage. Iâ€™ll bet sheâ€™s even now demanding to see someone in charge and wondering aloud why this heaven place is not any better organized than it is, after all this time.â€
She was her own woman, and in sense, she managed to outwit even the SSDI. The portrait it provides is seemingly another woman-â€“and oddly, I find that comforting. Iâ€™m glad sheâ€™s almost hidden from view.
But maybe someone youâ€™re seeking is hiding too, and youâ€™re not so happy about that. I hope this little piece will spark some thoughts to help you unearth that clever relative of yours who also managed to confound the SSDI. Mom would like that.
Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, co-author (with Ann Turner) of Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree (as well as In Search of Our Ancestors, Honoring Our Ancestors and They Came to America), can be contacted through http://www.genetealogy.com, http://www.honoringourancestors.com, and http://megansrootsworld.blogspot.com/.
- Upcoming Events Where Megan Will Be Speaking
Joint Genealogical Speakers Guild and International Society of
Family History Writers and Editors luncheon at the FGS conference
(September 2, 2006, Boston, MA)
- Â David Ackerman Descendants 1662
(October 21, 2006, Ramapo, NJ)
- 2006 Genealogy Conference and Cruise (hosted by Wholly Genes
Software, November 11-18, 2006, Mexican Riviera)
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