Probate and the Executor, Part 1


The first few days after death are among the most busy for the executor of the estate, but one could be forgiven for thinking things will settle down shortly after that.  After all, you read on websites and people say to you things like “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” assuring you to take your time and not stress out.

Unfortunately, it stays busy for months.  If the estate is not large enough to warrant hiring an attorney, the executor can be quite busy, and there are court-imposed deadlines for getting various things done, independent of the natural desire to wrap things up and get the money to the heirs and beneficiaries.  If the estate’s assets are not complex, and if there are few heirs, then truly it doesn’t have to be very complex.  My father’s estate was not large and not complex, consisting almost entirely of a simple bank account, but there were a large number of people named in his will.  Some of those people were children, and some of them were non-US citizens, living overseas.  One of them was a child living overseas.

As soon as there is more than a single beneficiary, the estate has gained complexity.  When one or more beneficiaries are minors, that complexity expands considerably.  When international beneficiaries are added to the mix… well, you get the idea.

As executor, you are legally bound to pay attention to every detail, and whether or not the process sails easily through court or gets bound up in all kinds of oversight depends upon getting those details right.  Well-meaning relatives will tell you “oh, don’t worry about x, y, or z”, because it’s just a family affair and everyone will understand, but that actually doesn’t wash.  It’s a legal affair, and it’s also an IRS affair, and courts and the IRS are not known for being forgiving of fudging the details.  Additionally, when there are many beneficiaries, and some of them are relatives who have grown distant from the family, whom you no longer know very well and don’t know how they will respond, there is added impetus to dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s.  The executor can be legally liable for any mistakes.  You have to protect yourself.

So, all that sounds rather scary, but actually it’s not that bad.  The key is attention to detail and being organized.  Some advance preparation can help as well.  I am not a highly organized person by nature, but I am detail-oriented, sometimes to a fault (this is useful in my job, but sometimes causes personal projects to take far longer than needed).  Knowing that it would be a difficult and unfamiliar process, I took steps before my father died to map out what the process would look like, to create an outline of what had to be done and when.  I created a death checklist.

Death of a loved one, even when expected in an elderly parent, is generally an emotionally difficult time.  I anticipated this, and I thought having a checklist that I could follow, ticking off the tasks as I completed them, would help keep me on track.  That turned out to be true, although not everything happened the way I expected it to. What I did not anticipate was how clinical I could become about the whole process, relegating it in my mind to this checklist, this series of steps to take, documents to file with the court and mail to the beneficiaries, arrangements to make with the bank and other institutions, forms to send to IRS.  It was necessary to stay focused, but at times I actually feel guilty for not being more emotional about the fact that my father is gone. It hits me every once in a while, but overall I feel rather detached, and I wonder if there’s something not quite right about me because of that.  My siblings have thanked me again and again for handling this and praised the job I’ve done, and inside I still at times feel a bit like a fraud, because after all, I’m just following this checklist.  At times I’ve had to harangue some of the beneficiaries (or their guardians, in the case of the minors) when I’ve needed something from them, and this especially makes me feel awful.  I send off a hopefully-diplomatically worded email, or Facebook IM, or actual letter in one case, and afterwards I remember that this person just lost their father, or grandfather, or great-grandfather, and I’m harassing them about some document or other.  I had to send another such missive off last night, and here it was, the eve of Thanksgiving.  What a holiday spirit.

So there you have the first set of rocks that, as executor, you must carefully navigate around.  You need a careful balance of humanity and detachment.  The detachment is necessary if the job is to be done, and done right, and in a timely manner.  Really, everyone else will thank you for this in the end.

So what really is the job of the executor?  What is all this work that I’ve alluded to above?  Well, in my case, the job started about two years before my father actually died, and perhaps that’s why I was so detached from it all when the time finally arrived.  I had been anticipating and preparing for it for a long time.

It all started when my older brother suffered a worksite injury that put him in the hospital for about six weeks, and for which the outcome was rather uncertain.  He eventually recovered pretty much fully from that, thankfully, but at the time it was rather frightening.  As the eldest of all the siblings, he had somewhat naturally assumed the job of taking care of our elderly father’s affairs, especially in the first year after Dad moved into assisted living.  Suddenly he was out of commission, and it fell to me to pick up the reins.  I think at that point I realized that I had always been rather selfish, letting my brother take care of all the family business while I just got on with my life, and I resolved to step up and do my part.

FYI, I blogged about my brother’s hospital experience at http://www.caringbridge.org (login required), and that was my first-ever blog.

After spending the best part of a week at my brother’s bedside in the ICU, I resolved to pick up where he had left off in the care of our father.  The biggest part of that was regularly visiting him at his assisted living center.  I had visited him, of course, but as it was nearly a ninety-minute drive (in traffic) from my home, it wasn’t all that frequent.  Now it became a weekly affair, and soon I was making the drive from downtown Seattle to Gig Harbor every Monday after work.  We spent this time chatting, watching movies on his TV, eating dinner at the facility’s cafeteria, and talking about his fascinating life story (a few hints of which have already appeared in these pages).

Tax season was approaching, and I knew that my father would need help with his taxes.  So, we executed a Financial Power of Attorney and I began sorting out his finances.  I found a mess.  Rob, my brother, had done much to see to Dad’s medical affairs and general day-to-day wellbeing, but he had left his financial affairs alone, and we had both trusted that Dad knew enough to take care of things for himself.  It turned out that his mental state had been deteriorating for some time before he went into assisted living, and we just had not realized it.

Organizing his finances for purposes of tax preparation gave me a very good picture of his overall financial picture, of course, and keeping things on track for the next couple of years, up until his death, meant that when the time came there were no hidden surprises in store for me.  So, this was the first part of being prepared.

Once I had the Financial Power of Attorney in place and had settled his bank accounts and tax status, I moved on to getting the rest of his estate in order.  I asked to see his will.

He had one, hand-written, un-notarized, a single paragraph stating, in effect, that he gave everything to Rob and trusted him to distribute it fairly.  In his papers I found another one, typed but un-signed and un-dated, in which he said something about giving money to each of his grandchildren, so that they might remember him.  It was not clear which was the most recent, and of course they were in conflict.  Neither was likely to stand up to any challenge, should someone object.

So, I discussed this with both Rob (by this time he had mostly recovered from his accident, but we agreed that since I had delved so deeply into Dad’s finances, I should continue in the role, while Rob would handle the Medical Power of Attorney duties — a division of duties that suited me perfectly, as if the need for a ‘pull the plug’ decision were ever to come, I really really didn’t want to have to lead that) and Dad.  The three of us agreed that a new will was required, and after a lot of spreadsheeting of various scenarios, we agreed on a plan.

One of the elements of this plan was an attempt to bring some of Dad’s great-grandchildren, who had been inadvertently cut off from the family by the actions of their father, back into contact.  In essence, Dad named great-grandchildren in his will both so that they would have something to remember him by, but also so that there could be an ‘inciting incident’ (to use literary terminology) to bring us all back together.

This was a brilliant idea, and one that ultimately worked extremely well.  It also added considerable complexity to the estate management, a fact I would not realize until after Dad’s death when I delved into the particulars of making it all happen.  I have no regrets on that score, however, and the complexity has been worth every day of work missed, every court appearance, the attorney’s fees that ultimately had to be paid anyway, and all the extra filings and snarky emails I had to send.  By this simple decision to extend his will to one further generation, Dad re-united our family in a way that had stymied us previously.

Again, money was an issue, so hiring an attorney to draft the will was not a reasonable alternative.  Fortunately, without real estate or business assets involved, nor an expectation of anything highly contentious, an attorney was not required.  We selected Nolo’s WillMaker software to draft the will and found a notary public who would travel to Dad’s location in Gig Harbor.  Easy peasy.

And of course, who would be selected as executor?  I volunteered, of course, but it only made sense.  I had been Dad’s financial advisor and power of attorney for some time.  I pretty much managed his bank accounts for him, giving him monthly reports on his status.  I talked with him regularly about his wishes.  I prepared his tax returns and represented him to IRS.  I helped him draft the will.  I lived not too far away.

I worried, of course, that some might see a conflict of interest, since I was also named as a beneficiary in the will.  I am his son, after all.  So, I took great pains to be as open and forthcoming as I could with everyone about every aspect of the estate, without compromising Dad’s privacy too much.

Later, after Dad suffered his stroke, it was clear we needed to update the will, as by then a new great-grandchild had been born and another was on the way.  We planned to wait until Eleanor would be born and then revise to include the new family additions.

But, last February, on the advice of Dad’s doctor, he entered hospice care, and we all agreed that we could not wait for Eleanor’s birth.  I could not find anything to indicate a problem with naming an unborn beneficiary, and of course we hoped that she would be born by the time the will had to be put into action.

That was not to be, however.  Dad died only a few weeks after signing the new will in front of a notary provided by the hospice.  Not long after that, I presented the will in front of a judge to have it admitted into court and the probate opened, and the judge assigned an attorney as Guardian Ad Litem to ensure the rights of the minor beneficiaries would be adequately observed, including, of course, the one beneficiary not yet even born.  The GAL, as court documents thereafter referred to him, found it unusual to name an unborn child as a beneficiary, but he could think of no precedent or law to indicate anything wrong with it.  His comment was “I hope the parents are right about her sex,” to which I replied, “Well, if it turns out to be a boy, I’ll tell them they still have to name him Eleanor!”

About two months after Dad’s death, Eleanor was born, a beautiful baby girl.  She never did get to meet her great-grandfather, but because of him she now has a small financial stake for her start in life.  It’s not much, but from tiny beginnings, great things may come.

(to be continued)

A Final Voyage


Captain Fraser has sailed into his sunset.  Early on the morning of Sunday, 3 March 2013, my father breathed his last and departed to rejoin his wife, who left us sometime earlier, in 2002.  My brother and I spent the night at his side, holding his vigil and keeping him company, while he ranged ahead to scout his path, until he no longer had need of us.  He was 92 years old.

The past year has been a busy one for me, and I fear both writing and research had to take a back seat for a time as my father had more immediate needs for my attention.  Last August he suffered a stroke, which necessitated a month in hospital and rehab and then a move to a more advanced long-term care home.  Our days of watching Game of Thrones together and discussing his nautical adventures came to an end.  Instead our attention had to shift to ensuring he was getting the medical care he required and, sadly, seeing that his affairs were all in order.  I still visited him about weekly, but due to the communal nature of his new living arrangement, it was not reasonable to spend hours with him the way I had in his previous assisted living center.

In February his doctor advised him to shift to hospice care, and this was a good call.  I think all the exams and tests and needle pricks were probably getting to be a bit much, and now there was no longer any need for all that, replacing it instead with a focus on comfort and quality of life.  Indeed, the changed nature of the attention paid upon my father rather brightened his outlook, and his health rebounded somewhat, but the doctor’s prognosis was not in error.  His kidneys were failing, he had persistent low-grade pneumonia, and things were just shutting down.

That Saturday evening the staff at his home called me to say he was in rapid decline, and when I fussed about calling my brother my wife said to me, “I’ll take care of that; you go.  You don’t want to be late.”  The home was only a block from my own, and so I grabbed phone, wallet, and keys and ran over there.  When I arrived he was in his bed, unconscious, breathing with difficulty, and a nurse from the hospice was attending to him.  My brother arrived not long after that.

The youngest of the caregivers from the home, the one who had found my father slumped, unresponsive, in his chair, looked on, clearly fighting hard to hold back tears.  In a halting voice she told us she tried hard not to become too attached to the residents, for obvious reasons, but then the tears came on strong and she admitted, “But I fell in love with your dad.”  He always did have that effect on the ladies.  Hers were not the only wet eyes.

As the evening wore on most visitors left, the nurse having given the staff instructions to administer a medication regularly.  We called our sisters to let them know, and the two in California elected to catch the next flight, departing at 7am.  The staff woman staying on duty that night slept on the couch, getting up every two hours, like clockwork, to come down and give him his dose.  My brother, Rob, and I stayed on, awake, through the night, dozing but a little in the darkest pre-dawn hours, speaking to my father, reading him poems, and holding his hand.

Shortly before 7 we stepped upstairs for a cup of tea.  We were upstairs for perhaps ten minutes.

When we came back down, he was gone.  It was just after 7, and Jocelyn and Deborah’s flight had just taken off from San Francisco.

I looked out the window at the sunrise and saw that the forecasters had got it wrong yet again:  it was supposed to be cloudy and drizzly on Sunday, but in fact the day dawned clear, bright, and beautiful, if rather chilly.  I am not an overly emotional person, but I struggled with it then.  It is not at all uncommon for dying people to wait for others to leave the room, and I knew this, even thought of it while drinking that cup of tea, and yet now I could not shake a sense of guilt for having stepped out of the room.  Later something my niece would say to me would cause me to realize that, after the years of rather intense invasions of privacy, both physical and financial, associated with assisted living, this would be the one final act that my father could take in complete privacy, on his own terms, and this was a comforting thought.  He remained the Master of his fate, the Captain of his soul.

A few hours later the girls arrived, with only one slight detour due to Seattle’s infamous street signage (no, you cannot drive a car down a stairway, though city maps might lead you to believe it is a through route).  We had elected not to tell them until they arrived, knowing they were driving a rental car in an unfamiliar city while sleep-deprived, but Deborah took one look at my face and knew.

The hospice sent out another nurse to help us prepare Dad for his last journey.  He was a big fellow, no two ways about it, and while the nurse was entirely competent and professional, she was also a younger lady of slighter stature.  She did not ask for it, but it was clear she was going to need some help.  Rob and I looked at each other, went into the room with her, and shut the door.  She was very thankful.

I will not describe the process of washing and dressing my father’s body, but I will say that it was at once difficult for me and also helpful.  I cannot say it was at all pleasant, by any means, but it felt ritualistic, and by the time we were done it had helped me come to terms with everything. The nurse helped tremendously with her cool professionalism and calm, respectful manner.  My final image of Dad is one of patrician dignity lying in calm, peaceful repose.

The funeral home’s man arrived, and we helped shift Dad’s body into his black van.  The fellow apologized that he had another “passenger” that day, so he hoped we would not mind if Dad had to share the ride.  We believe Dad’s only objection would be that his companion was a gentleman rather than a lady.  I watched as the van drove off and out of sight, then turned and went back inside to rejoin the others.

The next 36 hours are a bit of a blur to me.  Sunday afternoon was all about family, and Monday was yet another beautiful day, with the Olympics, Cascades, and Mt Rainier shining in crystal snow-capped clarity.  We took a walk along Magnolia Bluff and watched a tug towing a barge into Elliott Bay.  It was not a Foss tug, unfortunately.  That evening the girls caught their flight back to California, and Tuesday my work dealing with “officialdom” began.  Appropriately, Tuesday was more typically Seattle grey.

Captain Robert William Campbell Fraser, Lieutenant Commander, RNZNR, Marine Superintendent, and Master Mariner, veteran of World War II, of Foss Launch & Tug, Dillingham Corporation, the Union Steamship Company, and J&C Harrison’s Shipping, husband of Dorothy and Judith, son of John Fraser and Gladys Annie Dinah Statter, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, brother, uncle, and friend, has departed on his final command, a last cruise, at the far end of which his beloved wife awaits him.  So he had always believed, and so it is true.  May we all live a life so well.

The Falkland Islands


CONFIDENTIAL

Ministry of Defence
London, England WC32

FLTC-660
1 April 1982

MOD Order 10482

Robert William Campbell Fraser
Lieutenant Commander, Royal New Zealand Navy
c/o Foss Launch & Tug Company
660 West Ewing Street
Seattle, Washington 98119
United States of America

Reference:  (A) MOD Directive 33182

In accordance with Reference A, you are hereby recalled to active service in support of Her Majesty’s Naval Forces efforts to regain control of the Falkland Islands.

As soon as practicable, and not later than 12 April 1982, you are directed to proceed to Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, where you will assume the duties of Commandant of the Falkland Islands, with the rank of Captain, Royal Navy.

Your duties will be to assemble all military forces remaining in Port Stanley and hold position until formally relieved by Her Majesty’s forces.

Upon successful cessation of hostilities, you will be released to inactive service with the rank of Captain, Royal Navy, and the honorary title of Commodore.

By special dispensation from the President of the United States, your service in support of the Crown will not alter your United States citizenship status.

(signature)
John Nott
Secretary of State for Defence

———————————————————————–

So reads a letter, in triplicate, that I recently discovered among my father’s papers.  I didn’t have any memory of him heading out of the country urgently in early 1982 (this would have been two months before I graduated high school, and at the time I was not in Seattle, but San Mateo in California).  I was pretty sure that if he had rushed off to take command of military forces in the Falklands at the outbreak of the conflict, I would have known about that.  The letter appeared genuine.  It’s clearly typed on paper that is aged about right to be from 1982, and in an envelope that is similarly aged.  I don’t know what John Nott‘s signature is supposed to look like, but he was indeed Secretary of State for Defence in the British government at the outbreak of the Falklands War.

So I asked my father, “What is this?  Were you called up for service in 1982?”  His response:  “Oh, that.  I assumed it was a practical joke and ignored it.”  And of course, it has to have been a joke.  The letterhead is missing the Ministry of Defence logo.  There are no accompanying details about orders or disbursement of funds or exactly how he was to get himself to Port Stanley at a time when Argentina was pretty much blockading the place.  And why exactly would the Royal Navy call upon an ex-reserve officer who had been out of the service for about twenty years, and New Zealand’s Navy at that, and was now living as a private citizen in the United States?  To take command, of all things?  Surely the Royal Navy must have had an active duty commander available; surely they wouldn’t be quite that desperate.

Still, what if it wasn’t a joke?  What if it was real, absurd as it sounded?  My next question, then, was “Well, did you check it out?  Did you follow up, or contact anyone at the Ministry of Defence?”  No, he did not.  He just filed the letter away and ignored it.  He assumed one of his sons (not I) had concocted it.  What if?  Thirty years later, and could he be considered derelict in his duty?  Surely not.

I asked my brother Rob what he knew about it, and he had no memory of the letter.  It wasn’t him.  Not his style, in any case.

1 April 1982.  April 1st.  An April Fools joke, surely.

As it happens, at midnight that night, April 1st, is when Argentine amphibious troops began landing on the islands, and as the buildup to this event had occurred over the previous few months, British forces were already steaming toward them.  By the end of the next day, London was telexing to find out what happened:

LON (London): HELLO THERE WHAT ARE ALL THESE RUMOURS WE HEAR THIS IS LON
FK (Falklands): WE HAVE LOTS OF NEW FRIENDS
LON: WHAT ABOUT INVASION RUMOURS
FK: THOSE ARE THE FRIENDS I WAS MEANING
LON: THEY HAVE LANDED
FK: ABSOLUTELY
LON: ARE YOU OPEN FOR TRAFFIC IE NORMAL TELEX SERVICE
FK: NO ORDERS ON THAT YET ONE MUST OBEY ORDERS
LON: WHOSE ORDERS
FK: THE NEW GOVERNORS
LON: ARGENTINA
FK: YES
LON: ARE THE ARGENTINIANS IN CONTROL
FK: YES YOU CAN’T ARGUE WITH THOUSANDS OF TROOPS PLUS ENORMOUS NAVY SUPPORT WHEN YOU ARE ONLY 1600 STRONG. STAND BY.
–Duncan, Andrew, The Falklands War, Marshall Cavendish Books Limited, ISBN 1-84415-429-7

In retrospect, I am convinced the letter was indeed an April Fools joke, although the timing was propitious and the invasion was certainly no joke.  Indeed, the whole thing has the feel of the work of my other brother, Peter.  The attention to detail in the letter would be just right for him, as would the idea in the first place.  I wish I could ask him about it now, but of course that’s impossible.

Peter died in 1996.

John Fraser and the Archives


Genealogists and historians alike have apparently been quite excited by the public release earlier this month of the 1940 US Census, and with good reason.  There is a great deal of information available about a pivotal time in the history of the world.  Compared to the 2010 census, the 1940 might also be more revealing, as families were asked about 65 questions compared to an average of 10 questions most recently.  However, those 65 questions will probably not help me very much, as my family did not come to the United States until 1969.  Oh, it’s possible I’ll find something of interest in there when I begin to seriously look at some branches that had forays to the US prior to my own emigration, but meanwhile all the excitement seems to be passing me by.

That’s all right, however, as this month did drop a nice little present into my lap as well, so I needn’t feel completely left out.

My grandfather, John Fraser, born and died in New Zealand, was a war veteran.  While the 1940 Census may be of special interest to those researching the Second World War, John was a veteran of the First, or as it was known in his time, the Great War.  I knew this, and from family oral history I knew that he was a veteran of Gallipoli and France, and that somewhere along the way he was wounded, a wound which would give him pain for the rest of his life.  This, however, was about all I knew.  I never did get to meet my grandfather; he died five months before I was born.

Discussions with my father and my uncle have shed a little light on John’s character and history, but much about him remains unknown to me.  I know that he was born in 1894 in Tauranga on the Bay of Plenty.  I know that his father died when he was only 11, and although his father appears to have had a little money, none of it seems to have been left to the family after his death.  I know that by the age of 12 he was working to help support the family, and probably he never got much in the way of a formal education after that point.  A few years later, probably about the time he was 17, his mother emigrated to Australia, where she would spend the rest of her life, but it isn’t entirely clear if John went with her.  His two sisters both ended up living in Australia as adults, and John certainly spent some time there, but he and his older brother Robert both were back in New Zealand at least by the time war broke out in 1914.  In those few years from about 1911 to 1914 he “carried his swag” (to use my uncle’s words) around Australia and even apparently spent a little time working for a circus.  I have no documentation of these movements, however.

What is documented is that in 1914 John Fraser signed up with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.  Actually, eleven different John Frasers signed up that year, and six of them had no middle name, like my grandfather (an oddity, that, as his brother had a middle name, his father had a middle name, he gave all his children two middles names each), which doesn’t exactly make it easy to isolate which one was him.  However, of those six, only one was in the Auckland Military District (which would definitely have included Tauranga), and according to the New Zealand Army WWI Nominal Rolls, that one gave as his next of kin Mrs Annie Fraser, mother, of 99 Victoria St, Darlinghurst, Sydney.  My great-grandmother was Mrs Sarah Annie Fraser (née Cliffe), and she moved to Sydney around 1911, where she lived until her death in 1936.  By 1936 she had a different address than Victoria St, but over that space of time it’s entirely likely she moved at least once, and besides, the two addresses are an 8-minute walk from each other.  She didn’t move far.  As for calling herself by her middle name, I don’t know if that was her custom, but her mother was also Sarah so it would not be unusual for her to grow up being called by her middle name.  She called her firstborn daughter Annie, so it seems she was fond of the name, and that Annie then went on to be known by her middle name.  There seems to be some support for the notion that Sarah Annie Fraser would be known as Annie.

The evidence that this is my John Fraser seems quite strong, but it’s still not conclusive, and we still don’t know much about what he did other than sign up.

Enter Archives New Zealand, the official archival office of the New Zealand government.  The Archives holds most of the older war records (the Defence Force keeps everything more recent), and they have published an index to their holdings online.  Now, as you might imagine, there are many mentions of a John Fraser in the government archives, but most of them have nothing to do with my family.  Twenty-two of them are WWI personnel records, nine with no middle name, and most of them have only the index online.  How to find the right one?

Well, going back to the Nominal Rolls, which have been digitized on ancestry.com, and assuming the record I found earlier is my John, I have a critical piece of unique identifying information:  his regimental number.  If I’ve got the right man, my John Fraser was number 13/993a in the NZ Army, and that number 13/993a, appears in the Archives index.  We have a match.

Drilling into the index, I come across the statement “Access to this record has been restricted… for preservation reasons,” which means the microfilm on which the record is kept has become fragile.  They aren’t letting people handle and view the microfilm.  The restriction will next be reviewed in 2015.

For a moment I have a sinking feeling, akin to when you find a record and realize it will require a personal visit on the far side of the world to see it.  Not that I wouldn’t love to travel back to New Zealand and spend time digging around, but it’s not in the cards for this year.  Or next.

Further reading, however, reveals that for a nominal fee I can ask the Archives personnel to digitize the record and make it available online.  Presto!  I quickly submit my application, pay my fee, and now I am just waiting for the result.  The details of this record should make it absolutely clear if I have the right man, since it should list details about his birth and next of kin that are known to me.  Beyond that, the record should give a history of his movements during the war, his wounds, and any medals he might have earned.

So now we wait.  While waiting, however, I decided to google a bit more using some of the other information I gleaned from John Fraser 13/993a’s record in the Nominal Rolls.  From that scant record, I know that he joined the Auckland Mounted Rifles and was part of the Third Reinforcements.  That information was enough to lead me to the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Association, an historical society dedicated to this particular subgroup of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.  The Auckland Mounted Rifles have their own page within this group, and there’s a great deal of history particular to this unit.

And just while writing this, I discovered that the digitized copy has become available.  Serendipitous timing!  Actually, it’s probably been available for some days, but I’ve been waiting for an email to tell me that, and I just happened to go back to the website and look and there it was.  Now the record is publicly available to all who are interested (and indeed, I could use some help deciphering some of the handwriting, as I’m terrible at that), but I can tell you straight off, based on the particulars in the file, that this is indeed my John Fraser.  From a quick glance I see a record of his being wounded in the Gallipoli campaign seriously enough that he was discharged as physically unfit for duty, and then not long after being returned to New Zealand he managed to enlist again, this time in an infantry battalion, and was sent off to France, where he was wounded again!  No wonder he had pain for life.  On this second deployment it appears he was promoted at least once to Lance Corporal.  It also appears that he had a period of rebelliousness, as there are some mentions of forfeiture of pay and so forth, apparently for unauthorized absences.  I’ll have to read those more carefully.  Nevertheless, this fits with what my father has previously told me about his father, that he was wounded in Gallipoli, that he was discharged for the wound, and that he then signed up again to go to France, where he was wounded a second time.

It seems it was this second wound which put him in hospital in England for a while, and the family history is that this is where he met his wife, my grandmother, while she was working there as a nurse.

But that story will have to wait for another time.

Publishing Pedigrees


I’ve been doing some thinking about how best to publish a pedigree chart that would show the relationships between the various people I’ve mentioned to date and myself, and I admit this is where my newbie status as a blogger shows itself.  Indeed, this might be where it would be better to use a regular website and not a service like WordPress, which for all its power doesn’t seem to be very friendly to uploading formatted text, unless one is something of an expert with cascading style sheets and so forth.  I’m not, and nor do I really have a desire to be; I’m here to research and write, not spend all my time figuring out how to publish pretty pictures.  So, for those wanting to see a fancy chart, I’ll get there, but meanwhile I’ll have to resort to the old-fashioned descriptive text.

Of course, other genealogists (and genealogy bloggers) whose work I’ve followed seem to be of two minds about whether to even publish such charts in the first place.  For one thing, it seems there’s a trend toward “genealogy theft”, i.e. people simply lift the result of all your hard work and graft it onto their own family trees, for whatever reason I can’t quite fathom.  Why anyone not related to me would want to put my ancestors in their family tree is beyond me, but apparently it happens.  I suppose if I manage to somehow, some day, uncover the missing link between myself and some famous historical personage, it could be tempting for someone else with a family name appearing in my tree to “attach” themselves to that famous person.  It might look very impressive to their friends, but it wouldn’t be true.  Ah well, at this point I’ve not uncovered any such famous ancestors (well, maybe locally famous, but not such that they’d have a Wikipedia page or something).

Belay that last.  As I wrote that, I thought to myself, hmm, well, there is a line of ancestors on my father’s mother’s mother’s side that had a fair bit of money in the 19th century, a landed estate in England, and even a (rare) book* about them.  Perhaps I should check.  Wouldn’t you know it, my great-great-grandfather’s younger brother has his own Wikipedia entry after all.  It seems that 3x-great-uncle William Hamilton Yatman (1819-1913) was moderately famous for his feats as a rower while at Cambridge.  That, and a property he once owned is today a second home for Prince Charles.

Ok, maybe someone might want to lay claim to some of this line after all.  On the other hand, the Yatman family pedigree, at least as far as it went a hundred years ago, is well known, so anything I publish is not exactly going to be news.

Anyway, back to the original point, which was pedigrees for those mentioned so far — and yes, I realize I’ve now mentioned another one in this post.  In fact, let’s start with him.

William Hamilton Yatman (1819-1913) was the younger brother to John Augustus Yatman (1817-1894), about whom I will later have more to write.  John Augustus (or J.A.Y. as he sometimes signed papers) and his wife Anna Victoria Blachley Turner (1837-1922) had seven children, the eldest of whom was Frances Mary Yatman (1860-1949).  Frances (“Gran” to my father) married William Henry Statter (1857-1895), with whom she had three children.  She married again after William’s death (a Turner, but no relation to Anna Victoria as far as I can tell) and had two more children.  The youngest of her children by her first marriage was Gladys Annie Dinah Statter (1885-1980), affectionately known as “Nin” to those of us who knew her (she hated the name Gladys).  So far this has been an entirely English family, but Gladys married a New Zealander, John Fraser (1894-1964), and emigrated back to his country with him.  John and Gladys had six children (five who lived to adulthood), second eldest of whom was Robert William Campbell Fraser (1921-present day), my father.

In an earlier post about names, I introduced Alexander Fraser (1802-?) and his wife Grace Campbell (1811-?), residents of Perthshire, Scotland.  Alexander and Grace had ten children, second eldest of whom was Robert Campbell Fraser (1838-1905), who emigrated to New Zealand for reasons not yet known to me.  There he married a Kiwi girl, Sarah Ann Cliffe (1864-1936), and had eight children, four (or maybe five — I haven’t been able to track down what happened with one of the daughters) who lived to adulthood.  Third eldest of those living that long was my grandfather, John Fraser, the one who married Gladys of the Statter/Yatman family.

In The Voyage of the Adamant I introduced James Spratt (1844-1935) and his wife Maria Rawlinson (1844-1909), who emigrated from England to New Zealand.  See Emigrants to connect from the Spratts to me through my mother’s line.

* A History of Winscombe Hill and the Yatman Family, by Maria Forbes, published 2005, appears to be a very limited run.  I have found exactly one copy for sale, used, and the seller is asking for more than $300.  It might have to wait.  I have a few tantalizing photocopied pages sent me by my uncle which I believe are from this book, and which show my great-grandmother Frances and great-grandfather William at the time of their marriage.  I think the author wrote the book specifically for one modern descendant of the Yatmans, Sue Gunn, to whom it is dedicated, and who I believe may have been the last private owner of the family estate at Winscombe Hall.

Captain Fraser 1


A good place to start is with those still around to tell us their stories, and so a week ago I sat down with my father, set my iPhone in front of him on the Voice Memos app, and asked him to talk about anything he liked.  He was uncertain at first, even said I shouldn’t have told him I was recording so that he’d be more natural, but it didn’t take long before he forgot all about the recording device and just talked, and talked, and talked.

Mostly he talked about his time at sea, as those are the stories he remembers best and most likes to tell, and of course I had heard some of them before.  In times past he would suddenly launch into a detailed rendition about some naval engagement in World War II, and I would always regret that I didn’t have a tape recorder handy.  This time, with a little prompting, he went into much more detail, and the larger story of his early life began to emerge.  Before we were done that evening, I had recorded over an hour of our conversation, which I am still transcribing.  We covered the period of his life in some detail from the age of 17 until his late 20s, which covers the war years through obtaining his Master’s Certificate as a merchant mariner.  We touched on later events in a little less detail up until the time of his emigration to the United States at the age of 48, not much older than I am now.  I expect to follow up with him when he’s ready to go back into this period (1945-1969) in more detail, and also to press on to the later years, when of course I was more present in the picture and have a few memories of my own to complement.

Our discussion naturally raised more questions and left me with some leads for further investigation.  He mentioned attending “Clifton College” or the “University of Clifton” in Bristol, England, in 1938, studying in their Department of Navigation.  So, I contacted the Assistant Keeper of the Archives for Clifton College, which is a well-regarded public school (private school to Americans), knowing that it didn’t seem the sort of institution which would be training merchant mariners.  It is really more of a university-prep high school, and indeed the Archivist confirmed that my father was not on their rolls.  He suggested, however, that I try the City College of Bristol, which does have a marine studies program today.  I am waiting to hear back from them.

My father served on ships belonging to the J & C Harrison company out of England, but J & C Harrison is now out of business after having run steamships around the world for nearly 100 years.  He then served aboard ships for the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand; they too are now defunct.

Southerly aspect from Norwich Quay. At No.4 Wh...
Union Steamship Company vessel MV Kaimiro at Lyttelton, New Zealand, in 1956

However, I have contacted Maritime New Zealand, which in the 40s and 50s was known as the Marine Department, and from them obtained a scan of handwritten entries in their register showing the dates my father’s 1st Mate‘s and then Master‘s Certificates were issued.  His received his 2nd Mate‘s Certificate in England, so they don’t have a direct record of that.  Unfortunately the actual Certificates, along with his papers detailing the ships he served aboard, have been mislaid during a house move in recent years, which is something of a tragedy.  I do hope that perhaps we will still find them among papers held in storage, but my confidence in this is not high.

I do have, however, a crew manifest from the Hartlepool upon her arrival in Astoria, Oregon, from Nagoya, Japan, in April 1939, in which my father’s name appears as a Cadet.  I also have a document from the British National Archives detailing one or more of the medals he was awarded for service aboard merchant ships during the war.  The actual medals still hang upon his wall in a frame.

Together we also applied for a copy of his service record from the New Zealand Defence Force Archives, as he was an active member and officer of the Royal New Zealand Naval Reserve.  I am still waiting to hear back, but as this is happening by regular postal mail, it may take a while.  It appears similar records may exist with the British Royal Naval Reserve and merchant service, but most of these do not appear to be available online; they will eventually require a personal visit to their offices.  Fortunately, I may be able to call upon family in England to help with that.

Slowly, piece by piece, his life is coming together as a coherent narrative.  For these early years, at least, it is a narrative of adventure, a boy running off to sea to find his future, a war shaping the boy into a man, and a man coming home only to sail over the horizon once more, commanding ships as they ply all the waters of the world.  There are torpedoes and dive bombers, cold Russian ports and warmer Pacific ones, romance across the Atlantic, and love found while far from home.

Emigrants


Earlier I recounted a story of the emigrant ship Adamant on her 1875 voyage from England to New Zealand, but I didn’t give much detail about my connection to that ship.  The Adamant brought the Spratt family, of Liverpool, to New Zealand, where they settled in Invercargill, one of the most southern cities.  James and Maria Spratt (nee Rawlinson), both 31 years old, and four children, Maria (who turned 12 and became a “single woman” during the voyage), Elizabeth, Ada, and Harriet, all set out for a brave new world, leaving behind the life they had known.  James opened a shop in Invercargill as a sailmaker and cloth worker, and he and Maria had four more children after arriving in the new country.  One of these, Florence, born almost exactly four years after arrival, would become my great-grandmother.  James would live to the age of 90, and Maria to 65.

In 1905, at the age of 25, Florence Spratt married John Crabbe Winning, another native-born New Zealander of Scottish parents, moving their family slightly north to live in Dunedin, Waimate, and Timaru.  John was a butcher, and then a stationer, by trade, with a fancy goods shop in Waimate.  The both of them enjoyed singing, composing their own songs and performing in an orchestra.  They had two children, the elder of whom, Dulcie Rawlinson Winning, was my grandmother.  Florence would live to the age of 68, and John to 87.

Dulcie, born in 1908, at the age of 20 married a Christchurch man, John Charles Hargreaves, another native New Zealander born of English parents who would take her north to his town.  There they would have a daughter, Judith, who would later become my mother.  The family later moved to Wellington on the North Island, where John would rise to the position of managing director of a large department store, Kirkcaldie and Stains.  Unfortunately, Dulcie did not live a long life, passing away at the age of 47, and John went on to marry twice more, eventually being survived by his third wife when he died at the age of 84.

A year before her mother’s death, my mother married a dashing sailor, a merchant marine officer by the name of Robert Fraser from an Auckland family, and Auckland is where they chose to live, until 1969 when they emigrated to the United States with four children, one of whom was — me.