My parents always wanted to visit Israel, and immediately on retirement began planning for the trip. One of the first things they did was apply for passports, which required proving they were who they claimed to be and that meant producing birth certificates. So they went to the appropriate county office and asked for copies of those documents. Sadly, there was no evidence in Cook County, Ill. records that either of them existed. None whatever.
What to do?
It turns out that there was a record of someone with my mother’s name born at her address in Chicago, but not on her birthday. The date recorded was exactly one year earlier than the date she’d been using her whole life. So she conferred with her older siblings, and they all concluded that the date reported to her must indeed be her real birthday. So, she wound up adding a year to her age without benefit of 365 days' life experiences to show for it.
What happened to Pa? Indeed, there was someone born on his birthday at his house to his mother and father, except that kid’s name was Sam and Pa’s name was Isadore.
How could this be? Near as Pa could tell, immigrants (both my father’s parents having come to the U.S. from a rural area in what was then called White Russia and is now Belarus) gravitated to places populated with families from the same foreign countries as they.
In my paternal grandparents’ case, his parents settled in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago because that’s where many people from minska kabernya (the province of Minsk) had settled. Having arrived there, my grandparents turned to their acquaintances from the old country to learn what they needed to live in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century.
In addition to learning where to look for housing, buy food and worship, they learned about the Settlement House -- a social agency where they could turn for everything from advice to assistance, as in where a family might turn for medical help including assistance in delivering babies.
And so on the morning Pa was ready to be born, the local settlement house gave the physician under contract to them the names and addresses of all women ready to deliver babies. How he knew who to visit first, who to see next, and so on, is unknown to me. What I do know is that he arrived at their homes prepared to deliver their babies, record the infants’ and their mothers’ vital information, before moving on to the next expectant woman. That was the plan, anyway.
The reality was a little messier. The reality is that babies show up on their own schedules and present problems in need of immediate intervention as, for example, one new born may need nothing more than a soft slap on the bottom to encourage her to begin breathing, while another might need immediate medical intervention just to remain alive. And the more complicated and time consuming the demands made on the visiting physician, the more pressured the doctor felt to get things done and move on to the next pregnant patient.
And that’s exactly what Pa thinks what happened the day he was born. The doctor finished my grandma’s delivery, made his notes, and left. And it wasn’t until later that he realized he’d forgotten the newborn’s name and rather than take the time to go back to complete his notes, he simply wrote down “Sam” and headed on.
And this error wasn’t discovered and remediated until 65 years later. And when it was, my parents now took their happily new names and headed to Israel.
Hank Slotnick is a retired UND professor who, with his wife, winters in Pima, Ariz., and summers in Debs.