It all started when Cindy Behney referred to Helen Fortna as our aunt.
Helen wasn’t Donna’s and my aunt, but just how was she related to us? I had no idea, and neither did my sister.
Helen was one of two daughters of Betts and Barney Fortna, and I recall visiting them (and they us) fairly often in the 50s and 60s.
By the way, my mother always referred to them as “Betts and Barney”; unlike, say, our aunts and uncles, who could be interchangeably “Mark and Joan” or “Joan and Mark”, “Jane and Allen” or “Allen and Jane”. Always and only “Betts and Barney”. There was another family we often visited, Arlene and Ray Light, and my mother always called them the “Ray Lights”, as in “We’re going to see the Ray Lights”. Odd. It was almost as if Arlene Troutman just couldn’t bring herself to acknowledge another “Arlene”. Whatever.
Anyway Betts and Barney were a fun couple, well matched, I thought, as they both had a great sense of humor. Betts was a hairdresser, which is probably where my mother got the idea to become one herself.
That they were related to us, I always took for granted, just as I assumed that the Ray Lights were related to us as well, but other than our immediate aunts and uncles and their children, our cousins, I never really tried to keep track of the actual relationships.
I’ve long since lost touch with Betts and Barney. I knew they had retired and moved to Florida (“Come down to visit,” declared Betts, “but don’t expect me to cook for you!”) and had died some time ago. Ray and Arlene Light had also died in the early 2000s. I had always sensed there was some sort of closer relationship between the Fortnas and the Lights, because they always seemed to go visiting at the same time, but I never knew what it might be.
Well, there was only one person left who might be able to help, so the next time I called my aunt Jane, I asked her about Betts and Barney.
“I don’t really know the details,” she replied, “but Barney was the son of one of Pop’s sisters and was raised with the rest of them.” Beyond that she couldn’t supply any information.
But that was enough to determine our relationship. “Pop” is the name our family uses for grandfather (when my father became a grandfather, he became “Pop”), and in this case she was referring to my grandfather, Harry J. Zellers.
So if Barney was the son of one of Pop’s, that is, Harry Zellers’s, sisters, a quick visit to the cousin chart revealed that Helen Fortna was Donna’s and my second cousin. Thus, Ulysses Grant Zeller (or Grant Ulysses Zeller, if you will) was our common ancestor. Pop and his sister were siblings, making their offspring (my mother and Barney) cousins, and thus their offspring in turn (my sister and me and Betts and Barney’s children) second cousins.
So we had our answer. Which I relayed to Cindy.
There was the matter of Barney Fortna’s last name. None of Pop’s sisters had married a Fortna as far as we knew. And Jane’s somewhat cryptic remark that Barney was “raised with the rest of them” seemed odd. Did that mean Barney was illegitimate? I didn’t think so, because if that were the case, wouldn’t he take his mother’s last name? Perhaps he was the product of a brief marriage where his father died shortly before or after he was born.
It seemed we had even more questions now than we did before.
As it happened it was right around this same time that I had become interested in our family tree and had started to research it on a web site. (I’ll have more to say about that in a separate post.)
One of my discoveries on that site was that Pop’s sister Sallie had married a Martin Light, and they were the parents of Ray Light. So Ray and Arlene Light’s children, Barbara et al., were also Donna’s and my second cousins.
But there was no Barney Fortna to be found in the lineage of Grant Zeller. It didn’t mean, of course, that he wasn’t part of our family tree, because I’ve discovered there are a lot of gaps on that site. If no one adds a person and/or if a person doesn’t show up in census or other records, that person won’t appear in the database on that site. So I’ve spent a lot of time these last few weeks not just looking up but also adding and editing the records when I could.
If Barney wasn’t connected to our family tree, maybe there was still a record of him in the site’s database. I tried looking up “Barney Fortna” with an estimated date and place of birth in as many ways as I could, but to no avail.
Then I decided to try looking up Betts. I was pretty certain Betts was not her actual name, I wasn’t even sure “Betts” was the correct spelling for what was likely her nickname, though it was the only name I ever heard anyone ever call her. “Elizabeth” seemed a good bet for her birth name.
And there was an “Elizabeth Rothenbach” who had been married to a “Warren Fortna”; they had been living in Myerstown, PA, in Lebanon County in 1940. I had only ever known Betts and Barney to live in the city of Lebanon, but this was certainly promising. Was “Barney” really a nickname for “Warren”? Well, why not?
Even more promising was that both of these persons had died in the late 90s in Florida!
But Warren had two parents listed, and neither of them were in any way related to the Zellers clan, at least not that I could see.
Warren’s father’s name was “Earl Light Fortna”. Now where have we heard the name “Light” before? It was a relatively common practice (maybe it still is, for all I know) to take the mother’s maiden name and assign it to the middle name of offspring.
Sure enough. Warren’s grandmother was “Sarah Dorcas Light”. So Warren Fortna was a member of the Light family.
Even better. Well, not better better, but you know what I mean. Warren’s father Earl Light Fortna died in 1930 when Warren was 16. Given that Warren was related to the Lights, it’s not too hard to imagine that he might have been taken in by a related Light family to make things easier on his mother. Perhaps that family was Sallie (Pop’s sister) and Martin Light (Ray Light’s parents).
Things were falling into place. If Warren really were Barney, this all made a lot of sense. I was about 99% convinced that Warren was Barney, I just wanted something a little bit more definitive.
And then while researching Ray Light’s sister, I found it. In Ray’s obituary in 2002 there is the following line: “He was preceded in death by a brother, Warren L. Fortna.”
What more did I need? Warren Fortna was Barney and Elizabeth Rothenbach was Betts. I now had all the evidence I needed.
While Ray Light and Barney weren’t actually brothers, when Barney’s father died, or possibly when he fell seriously ill maybe a year or more earlier, he was taken in by Sallie and Martin Light, and Ray and Barney thereafter thought of themselves as brothers. That also explains the closer connection I always felt between the Fortnas and the Lights.
One of the other surprising things I discovered is that Betts was born in Wisconsin, and her parents had been born in Hungary. I mean, it’s a small world, isn’t it?
Oh, and just to deflate my detective bubble a bit, after I discovered all this, I belatedly looked at the list of sources that the family tree site had available for Warren Fortna, and one of them was his gravestone, which clearly had “Barney” engraved on it. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble.
But one question still remains, and it’s the question that started this long search in the first place. How is Helen Fortna related to us?
Because we now know that her father Barney was not the son of one of Pop’s sisters, he was raised by one of Pop’s sisters after his own father died; Jane’s memory was a bit confused on that point, understandably after all these years. If we’re related at all, we must be related via a common ancestor in the Light family tree, and so far I haven’t been able to discover any.