Finding Ellen

This is the heartwarming story about two grade-school summer playmates, a small-town boy and a big-city girl, who were apart more than fifty years but rediscovered each other, shared their experiences and renewed their simple friendship in their golden years.

No it isn’t.  It’s a story about a man in his early 60s who let curiosity get the better of him, so he decided to spend more than a few hours at his computer to ferret out whatever became of Ellen.

Ah yes, Ellen.  My extraordinarily faithful readers may remember my earlier post about Ellen two years ago.  Here is how I introduced her then:

One summer, when I was 8 or 9 years old, a girl was visiting her grandmother just up the street from my house in Western Pennsylvania.  Her name was Ellen.  Her grandmother’s last name might have been Ruskin.  The only things I recall about Ellen are coloring in coloring books on her grandmother’s side porch, her sandy-colored hair, and the ice-cream or popsicle stains on her T-shirt.

At the time, I thought that the name Ruskin in my post — along with some curiosity and search engine magic — might eventually draw Ellen’s attention to my blog, but it was not to be.  I had nearly forgotten about Ellen until a few weeks ago when I took a nostalgic Google Street View trip through the neighborhood where I grew up.  I viewed my house first, of course, and then I made my way up the street where Ellen’s grandmother once lived.  And there it was, the brick house with the side porch — except that I remembered it as a sun room with knee-to-ceiling windows.

Ellen's Grandmother's House (Google Street View)
For some reason, it had never occurred to me to find out the number of this house on Moreland Blvd. and do a search for anyone who may have lived there.  This turned out to be the key to unlocking the puzzle of Ellen.

Note: In this story, I use actual first names but fictional last names.  I also use fictional street names and generic place names.  I do this so no one else can make use of this post for their own research.

My search for 211 Moreland Blvd. led me to several hometown newspaper articles from the 1950s and 1960s mentioning Morris and/or Sylvia Ruskin.  [Ruskin is similar to but was not their last name.]  Morris owned a jewelry store bearing his family name, and he often ran classified ads in the local paper.  He sold his business and retired in the early 1950s.  Morris passed away in the mid-1960s at age 77, leaving his wife Sylvia, his daughter Joyce, born in 1927, and his son Edward, born in 1933.  Morris’s obituary also mentioned two grandchildren, but not by name.

Sylvia passed away in 1973 at age 75.  (By then, she had moved to an apartment building where, by coincidence, my own children’s grandmother lived for many years.)  So it was Sylvia who was keeping an eye on her granddaughter and her playmate that summer day in 1961, and who served us treats on her porch as we colored away.  Sylvia’s obituary mentioned Joyce and Edward but again the two grandchildren were not named.

If Sylvia was Ellen’s grandmother, then who raised Ellen?  Was she Edward’s daughter or Joyce’s?  Ellen was about my age, meaning she would have been born between 1952 and 1954.  In 1953, Edward would have been 20 and Joyce 26.  But Edward was still a student at the state university in 1953, according to the college newspaper.  So it was more likely that Joyce was Ellen’s mother.

This conclusion was borne out when I found Edward Ruskin’s obituary.  He passed away in 1976, only 43 years old.  His obituary said that his only survivor was his sister, Joyce Hoffman of Long Island.  This meant I could turn my attention to Joyce.

In August 1947, the social page of the local newspaper announced that Joyce Ruskin and Joseph Hoffman, son of Albert and Ruth Hoffman, had married and were planning to reside in New York City.  In August 1950, the same paper published an announcement that Joyce and Joseph, now living on Long Island, had given birth to a son, whose name was not provided.  He would have been one of Morris and Sylvia Ruskin’s two grandchildren.

I failed to find any kind of record verifying that Ellen is Joyce’s second child.  But there is a good deal of supporting evidence.  One important piece is a legal decision involving the estate of Joseph Hoffman, who died in 1972 at the age of 46.  It notes that his children Paul and Ellen were 22 and 18 at the time of his death, and it also mentions his mother Ruth.  All of this fits the narrative, but the decision refers to his widow as Florence, not Joyce.  My guess is that Joseph and Joyce divorced some years before Joseph’s death.

My ensuing searches for Ellen Hoffman gave me an outline of her adult life.  Ellen married Edward Tisch in December 1974.  Their daughter Sarah was born in 1978.  At some point, Ellen moved to Indiana, and Ellen and Edward divorced.  In 1986, Ellen Tisch married Mark Mayer.  They divorced in 1988 and Ellen reverted to her birth surname, Hoffman.  Ellen Hoffman married Robert Harnick in April 2003.  Robert passed away in 2008 at the age of 56.  From what I can tell, Ellen has not married again.  She is about 61 years old.

Ellen does not have a social media presence, at least not one that she shares with the public.  But her daughter Sarah does.  She posted this photo of Ellen (seated at right) on her old MySpace site.  I have to admit, Ellen does look familiar.  I didn’t think I would recognize her without the popsicle stains on her T-shirt.

I don’t know Ellen’s occupation, but I do know that she is — or was — a songwriter and singer (a video of her performing one of her songs is posted on YouTube).  Ellen used a stage name derived from her first and middle names.  I have not found any references to performances by Ellen beyond 2011, so I’m not sure she is still playing.  It may be that she has enough on her plate, looking after her mother Joyce (who now lives in the same Indiana city) and being a grandmother to Sarah’s three-year-old son.

 •  •  •  •  •

Without going out of my door, and without having paid for information, I am about 98% confident that I could now phone Ellen, or send her a message on Facebook, or drive to her house, knock on her front door and reintroduce myself.  But I am not going to do that.

First, there would be no point.  Ellen and I were playmates for a few days one summer.  This is the not the kind of experience that justifies insinuating yourself into another person’s life, no matter how much curiosity is involved.

Second, my very research created a gross asymmetry in knowledge.  While Ellen could have scouted me as easily as I did her, it would be incredible to think she has done so, even if she had, by some unlikely misfortune, retained a similar vague memory of me.  Friendships do not develop from one person having such advantage over the other.

Finally, there is the creepiness factor.  Imagine how you would react if a person you do not know or remember called you on the phone, claimed to have known you from childhood, and then proceeded to recite assorted details of your life that you figured only your family and the government knew.  I would suspect I was either being stalked or that my identity had been stolen.  Even if the story sounded convincing, I still might change my number, cancel my credit cards or contact the police.  I would probably feel violated.

I hadn’t set out to be creepy.  For me, it was about the challenge of solving a puzzle, of seeing how far I could go on such small fragments of my memory.  I did solve my mystery, so good for me I suppose.  But at the same time, it is unsettling to see how much personal data is out there waiting to be collected, and how easy it is to gather via sites like MooseRoots, Mocavo, Yasni and many others, all of which are delivered free to our doorsteps by our friends at Google.

The irony of this endeavor is that in the end, in spite of all the facts I found, I really know nothing about Ellen at all.

 •  •  •  •  •

CRITO:  Yes, indeed, Socrates… But did you carry the search any further, and did you find that which you were seeking?
SOCRATES:  Find! my dear sir, no indeed.  And we cut a poor figure; we were like children after larks, always on the point of catching that which was always getting away from us.  But why should I repeat the whole story?  At last we enquired whether that gave and caused happiness, and then we got into a labyrinth, and when we thought we were at the end, we came out again at the beginning, having still to seek as much as ever.
 — excerpt from Euthydemus by Plato, 380 BC

 •  •  •  •  •

I have deleted all the links and files related to the search.  This blog post is all that remains of my finding Ellen.

Read 5 comments below | Read other posts in Life

5 responses to Finding Ellen

  1. Lynn Rubenson says:

    Well, I am a impressed with your computer sleuthing skills (and maybe just one iota horrified at how easily we can be traced – so much for ever trying to go off the grid). And as usual, your narrative engages your readers!!

  2. Lynn Rubenson says:

    BTW – you need to update your quiz – still asking for 2014 and I’m sure you don’t want to live in the past LOL

  3. Eric says:

    Very interesting tale, Craig, that reminds us that data is not the same thing as information. I imagine that most of us have traveled at least a few steps down similar paths.

  4. Joanne Wetzl says:

    Fascinating how one detail leads to another path of research, similar as to how historians work. All this intertwining of lives, all these threads…..I have to ask, what is the purpose of it all?
    Not YOUR purpose, of course. That purpose is clear…solving a puzzle. But what is the meaning of the puzzle in the first place, all these billions of lives, carrying on in at least 4 dimensions?
    Great sleuthing, btw. You would have made Holmes proud, and Watson amazed.

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