I admit it; I was very moved by this episode, and it left me with a tear in my eye.
Christina Applegate’s episode is a fascinating contrast to Kelly Clarkson’s. If last week’s episode highlighted everything the show does wrong, this week showed how much it can do right. I wrote in my last review that when the show focuses on one ancestor alone, it is a high-risk high-reward prospect. These can be the most tedious episodes when the ancestor is too remote in time to have an actual connection to the celebrity. It’s the equivalent of looking at someone else’s vacation photos. When the relative is only a generation or two removed however, the story takes on an incredible urgency. The emotions that the celebrity has are unquestionably genuine, and that makes for riveting television. This episode in particular had the extreme potential for claustrophobia; not only did Christina Applegate pursue just one relative, she never left Trenton, New Jersey (her father’s birthplace). And yet, there was so much more power in this episode than had she hopped around the East Coast.
Christina Applegate’s search focused entirely around her paternal grandmother Lavina Victoreen Shaw Applegate Walton. Christina explained that own father Robert William (Bob) Applegate divorced her mother when Christina was very young and moved away while her mother raised her. Their relationship was therefore strained and distant for years but has become closer after Christina had a daughter of her own.
For his part, Bob was also raised in a broken home. He never knew his mother; he was raised by his paternal grandmother until she became too old, and then he lived with his father, Paul Applegate. It was not until Christina’s sister got her father’s birth certificate that he learned his mother’s name was Lavina. All he heard about her was that she was beaten to death and found outside a bar, a story he learned from his grandmother.
I am quite familiar with genealogy in New Jersey, which is perhaps another reason I had an affinity for this episode. While it is not as difficult as some places (Pennsylvania prior to last year, for example), it is also not as easy as New York City where several decades of vital records are already indexed and accessible(ish). I am also very familiar with Trenton the city, which is not nearly as nice as the show made it out to be. I think I most appreciated the appearance of the Lower Trenton Bridge with its ridiculous “Trenton Makes, The World Takes” motto.
In Trenton, Christina met with a genealogist at the Office of Vital Records. There she got the marriage certificate of her grandparents (who were married in Trenton). At this point I noticed a merciful lack of narration (which continued through the episode) and Ancestry.com and Apple plugs (which appeared soon enough). With the discovery of the marriage certificate, Christina learned her grandparents full names: Paul Schaller Applegate and Lavina Victoreen Shaw. Lavina was born October 9, 1921, which made her 19 or 20 at the time of the marriage. Christina also learned the names of Lavina’s parents: Ovid Shaw and Lavina Weaver Shaw.
(Before I move on, I would like to say that the names in the Shaw family are fantastic. We need more Classical and Biblical names in the modern era.)
From there, Christina headed to the Trenton Public Library to look up Lavina. At first I thought that the researcher (the library’s director) would send her to the Census, which is usually the first place one would look. But no, instead they looked for the “long shot” option, any mention in local newspapers (which was easily discoverable thanks to uncredited-in-the-show-but-identified-in-the-credits sponsor Genealogy Bank). I do however, call foul on this being referred to as a long shot option. First, while it is indeed rare, it is not so entirely unlikely that someone would appear in the newspaper. More importantly, this long shot option would never have been brought up if such search would have come up empty.
And sure enough, there were articles about Lavina, and her family. In fact, there are many more articles than what was shown on television, particularly about Lavina’s parents, which make for a very interesting read if you have an interest. (I wonder how much Christina learned beyond what made the show.)
The articles that Christina found indicated that Lavina’s family was well-to-do, which, from my research, is backed up by the fact that both she and her mother appeared every once in a while in the society pages of the Trenton Evening Times. When Christina finally did look at the Census (the 1940 Census only), she discovered that the family fell on hard times. Ovid had been out of work for about three months. Lavina (Jr.) was also looking for work and left school after 8th grade, which was premature for a girl of her life situation.
Going back to the marriage license, Christina remarked that it appeared Paul and Lavina never lived together, which struck me as curious. She said that in response to the fact that her father’s birth address is the same one where Lavina lived when she was married (and where Paul Applegate did not live). This remark struck me as odd given that it was not unusual back then, and is not completely unheard of now, for a newly married couple to live with the parents of either the bride or the groom–at least until they could get settled. My grandparents did that; so did my great-grandparents. So did aunts, uncles, and cousins. The fact that Christina asked that question was strange, and it foreshadowed what was to come. I wonder if the editing process fit into that somehow.
Christina’s next stop was the New Jersey State Library, where a Family Law Professor walked her through the divorce proceedings of Lavina and Paul Applegate. It’s not a pretty story. They married in June 1941, Lavina first left him in August 1941, she came back in January 1942, he kicked her out in May 1942, and they lived apart after that. They divorced in 1945. In the proceedings, she alleged abuse, both physical and emotional, and he alleged adultery and neglect of their child Bob. Both allege that the other was an alcoholic, and both wanted custody of the child. Lavina was awarded custody, which is what usually happened in the absence of overwhelming evidence that the mother was unfit.
It turned out that Bob lived with Lavina until he was two-and-a-half. No record exists as to why he left her custody, but it was not hard to figure out. Shortly after the divorce, Lavina’s mother, who had helped raise Bob, died. Lavina, for reasons soon to become apparent, could not take care of the child.
Another newspaper search showed that Lavina, who was now Mrs. Charles Walton, died in 1955 at the age of 33. But in 1955, Bob was 13-years-old. By this time, he thought his mother was dead. It is a heartbreaking tragedy, both for mother and child, that neither knew each other, although unlike Bob, Lavina knew he existed.
At the New Jersey State Archives, Christina learned from Lavina’s death certificate that she died of pulmonary tuberculosis and cirrhosis of the liver due to chronic alcoholism. That was why she could not keep Bob. She was buried at Riverview Cemetery in Trenton, not far from the Archives. Bob was mentioned as a survivor in his mother’s obituary, and he never knew it.
Christina then had the dubious obligation of telling her father the whole story. The one bright spot was that at least his mother’s death was unlike the one he was told. Bob arrived in Trenton, and Christina, after warning him of the unpleasantness, showed him what she found. There was no way to put a gloss on it. At times, he looked sick.
Finally, they went to the cemetery where Lavina was buried, alongside her
parents, only to discover there was no monument. [Update: Lavina is buried beside her father and sister. Her mother was not buried in that plot, but rather at another location in the cemetery. I apologize for the error, and thank you to those readers who pointed it out.] At the cemetery office, when Bob and Christina looked at the index cards containing plot information, they discovered that Lavina had bought a burial plot for Bob next to her, so that he would be reunited with her in death in a way that he could not in life.
At the cemetery, Bob nearly broke down laying flowers on the empty earth where his mother and grandparents were buried. He promised to buy a monument for her. It’s a heartbreaking moment.
And then came the final scene where I shed that tear. Three months after that the scene in the cemetery, the cameras returned and shot footage of a monument for Lavina and her
parents [Update: father and sister]. It has the names and dates of all three. Underneath is a single, beautiful line, “Mom, I found you.”
Next week: Chelsea Handler. This one does not look happy.