A lost obituary started me down the path to finding the facts behind the story of Crossing. The story was much more complex, and sad, than the one I remembered hearing.
I wrote “Crossing: A Musical Journey” based on the story my grandfather, Al Morrison, told to me more than 40 years ago.
He was George Albert Morrison, but he went by the name Al, because there were so many Georges in the Morrison family. His father was George Montressor Morrison, and George's father was Thomas, who had come to America from Edinburgh in search of his father.
The story my grandfather told me was this: The son of a successful Edinburgh merchant eloped with the French maid. Her last name was Cox. The father disapproved of the son's choice of bride, had the marriage annulled, and sent the girl away. The son left in anger and came to America. The girl returned with a baby, then she died, and the grandfather raised the boy as his son. When that boy became a man, he was told the true story of his origin, and he went in search of his father. His was working in a mill when a man named Hervey Gridley told him, “I've heard your story, and I know your father. He's a wealthy man, and the man who runs this mill.” Father and son were reunited.
I had looked to document the story, but I had no details, no dates and no family documents. I had pored over ship registries looking for Thomas Morrison, but without a year, or departure or arrival ports, the search was fruitless. I had an old letter in which my grandfather referred to visiting his grandparents in Springfield, but he didn't mention the name, so I couldn't be sure to which set of grandparents he was referring.
A few months after we performed a reading of Crossing in New London, my mother called to say she has found a newspaper clipping of George Montressor Morrison's obituary. She said she was going through some old scrapbooks and it fell out, like it was directed by fate. As the character George would say, odd that.
“Mr. Morrison was born at New London, the son of the late Thomas and Frances (Baker) Morrison,” the obituary reads. He died in Attleboro, Massachusetts. I know the city well. It's where I worked my first newspaper job, at the Sun-Chronicle. He was born “at” New London, Connecticut. I know that city well. I live just up the road, in Norwich. My children went to the magnet school there. And it's where I worked my last newspaper job, at The Day. I call the City Hall and asked if they have birth records going back to 1857, when my great-grandfather was born. The person said they did. I was off to New London City Hall.
I was hoping the birth record might yield some information about Thomas and Frances (Baker) Morrison, but it was a quick disappointment. There was no record for a George Morrison. The clerk told me that “at New London” did not necessarily mean “in the City of New London.” It could refer to the county, so George Montressor may have been born and the birth registered in any of the town halls throughout the county. The record might exist in any of them. Or it might not.
I figured I would would start close to home. My next stop was Norwich City Hall. I asked the clerk if they had a record for George M. Morrison, parents Thomas and Frances Morrison, born in 1857?
After a few minutes, she returned with a large book. No, she said. But she did have a George B. Morrison, born to Thomas and Frances Morrison, on May 3, 1857. The record listed his age as 20 and hers as 17. I asked for a copy.
I also asked if the city has marriage records. The clerk took me into the archive room, where a couple of other people are at work, researching their families, I suppose, and showed me where the books were. There are hundreds of books going back hundreds of years, incredibly well kept and organized.
In about 10 minutes, I found a record. Thomas Morrison and Frances Cox, married on July 4, 1856, in Christ Episcopal Church in Norwich. They both lived in Norwich. She listed her age as 17 and her birthplace as Norwich. He listed his age as 21 – a year older than he did when his son was born a year later, his birthplace as Vermont.
Thomas Morrison was my great-grandfather's name. And I recognized Cox – from the family story, the name of the maid from France. Some of the details fit the family story; some didn't.
Maybe I had just mixed up the records of different people with similar names.
But I would find out that I hadn't mixed up anything. I was on the right path. It was just a very different path than I expected, and the real story was much more complex, and much more sad, than the one I remembered hearing.