You've Come a Long Way, Baby
Wandering through a Riverside, California, thrift store with her sister, Amy Knox stopped to shuffle through a bowl of assorted photographs from years gone by. As she looked at the faded images of nameless people, of forgotten lives captured in an instant, something nearby caught her eye.
An open, antique book was on display in a glass case that housed some of the store's delicate items. She asked the clerk to show it to her.
The fragile, old-fashioned brown paper book was half the size of a modern photo album. Bound with string, the cover of the book was roughly worn away but still bore the word "Scrapbook" carefully printed in blue. A tiny hand-painted illustration of a sailor boy was cracked, its pastel hues gone dull with age.
Knox gingerly opened the book and found its smooth, yellowed pages intact, with many of the neatly mounted black-and-white pictures still in place. The subject of adoration in every single shot is Bruce Davidson, a cherub-faced, fair-haired baby boy, whose first two years were attentively documented by his mother. On the opening page, photos taken at the family's home on North Fifth Avenue in Phoenix show the first images of the baby at three weeks old. The handwritten caption is dated June 1, 1930.
Being a mother of a toddler herself, Knox was drawn to the book. Its lovingly arranged photos reminded her of the time she had spent making her own baby book. Knox asked the thrift store clerk where the book came from and learned that its owner couldn't be traced, that the store often buys the contents of entire storage units whose renters haven't kept up their payments.
Knox decided to pay the $15 price for the book. "If that were my grandfather's book, I would've wanted someone to take care of it," she explains.
Over the next year and a half, Knox didn't give up. She scoured the Internet, made countless phones calls and searched documents in several states just so she could return the precious heirloom to him. Her past experience working as a private insurance investigator helped because she knew how to use public records.
Knox says this was an opportunity to do something nice, to actually make somebody happy at the end of her search.
At the time, her son was about a year old. "When I saw the pictures, I thought, 'He looks like my son! Oh my gosh, Ben does all of these same things!'" Knox explains. "That's how I related to it, and I thought, 'Someone is missing this!'" she says.
"Obviously, they loved him, because they took pictures of everything," she notes.
Indeed, it's evident from the large variety of pictures -- showing little Bruce sitting in a stroller, gnawing on the bars of his crib, playing with his toys -- that he was the pride and joy of his family.
"I take a lot of pictures too," Knox says. "This woman must've been just like me."
Because Knox doesn't have a lot of pictures of her own family from long ago, she appreciates how uncommon it is to find such an old book intact and full of photos. To have found it abandoned, for sale in a thrift store, is even more amazing. "I've become a little protective of it," she admits.
Knox checked the Phoenix City Assessor's Office, the Recorder's Office and the Arizona State Archives to try to get the parents' names. For records from 1930, a representative from the State Archives told her that she had to be an immediate family member to get genealogical information and that birth records only become public after 75 years.
There are few details in the photo album that helped her investigation. In fact, the parents are barely mentioned at all, except for a single note that the mother's first name was Virginia. There was only one clue to Bruce's last name. A note under a picture from January 10, 1931, lists 8-month-old "Bruce D." as one of the kids at another child's first birthday party. An earlier album entry shows him with smiling, girlish Aunt Grace Davidson, the only family member named in full and the only person in the book whose surname begins with the letter D.
Undaunted, Knox pursued many avenues, including searching genealogical archives and contacting Phoenix area newspapers. "Every once in a while, I would pick up the book and try something else to locate the family," she recalls.
Resources on the Internet gave Knox hope but didn't produce any leads. Sheer guesswork seemed more useful. Beneath a photo of a serious-looking old gentleman holding the child up next to his face, one of the captions written in elegant cursive reads, "September 28th, 1930, 4 1/2 months with Grandfather [last name illegible] at Cairo, Ill." From this bit of information, Knox deduced that the name of the grandfather would also be the mother's maiden name. She started posting messages to genealogy Web sites to see if the Davidson connection led back to Illinois. Nothing turned up, so she focused her search on Phoenix instead.
Knox, who was doing most of her research from her home in Chino Hills, California, while trying to raise her own small son, was stumped. But New Times, using addresses written in the baby book, was able to find the parents' information in the old Phoenix City Directory from the Phoenix Public Library. Unfortunately, the Davidson family's final listing appeared in 1946.
With the parents' full names, New Times found a California death record for Bruce's father and an entry in the Social Security Death Index for Bruce's mother. A 1977 obituary for Virginia Davidson reported that she was survived by a son, Bruce Davidson of Los Angeles, and a brother, Hugh Antrim Sr. of Arizona. Later, the Riverside Local History Resource Center in California was able to retrieve the text of Harlan B. Davidson's 1957 obituary, which mentioned his wife Virginia and son Bruce.
The only Antrim in the Phoenix phone book turned out to be Hugh III, Bruce Davidson's cousin. Although he hasn't kept in touch with Davidson, Antrim gets occasional updates about him from Davidson's former wife, Patricia Evanoff.
He also mentioned an elusive fact that would have helped Knox in her search: that his cousin has always been called Bruce, but his first name is actually Harlan.
Antrim provided the phone number for Evanoff, who told New Times that after Davidson suffered a heart attack and major stroke four years ago, he became disabled and moved into a residential care facility in North Hollywood.
Just after Thanksgiving, Knox finally called Davidson.
"I just talked to Harlan today and he is so much the opposite of what I expected," she says. "He wasn't bitter or angry. He was very, very nice."
Davidson's family left the Phoenix area for Southern California in the fall of 1944, when his father worked for the defense industry. Davidson was 20 years old when the Korean War broke out in 1950, so he joined the Air Force and became a load master for C-124 aircraft. After serving in the military, he got a job with McDonnell Douglas in El Segundo. He attended summer school in 1955 and went directly into upper-division classes at the University of Southern California, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in business in 1957.
That summer, Davidson started working for Shell Oil. Two years later, in 1959, Davidson married Evanoff, whom he divorced in 1980. After 30 years as a systems analyst at Shell, he retired in 1998.
Now, Davidson tells New Times he wondered how Knox found any information about him at all. He remembered having the baby book several years ago in a box of his mother's belongings, but had no idea how it left his possession.
Knox and her sister visited Davidson in early December. Davidson says he was very interested in seeing the book. "I don't care much for pictures of myself, but I was hoping to see the pictures of my mother, father and grandparents," he says.
It turns out he'd lost most of his possessions and had no family photos.
Seeing Davidson so happy about the book, Knox talked him into keeping it. "It was important to give him the book. I told him that this is a love letter from your mom," Knox says.
Now Knox and her husband look forward to visiting Davidson again at Christmas. "We have no grandparents, and he has no grandkids," she says. "It's perfect!"
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.