Hopping Off The DNA Fence

A few months ago Ancestry had a sale on its autosomal DNA test kits, and I finally — finally! — got around to putting my saliva out there, so to speak. (And I get to talk gleefully about saliva, which negates a fair amount of character-building parochial-school education, thereby doubling the fun.)

Autosomal DNA tests draw from the autosomes, which are any of the numbered chromosomes, not the sex chromosomes. The results crisscross both sides of your family tree and identify that many more potential cousins, distant or otherwise.

Then I noticed that for an additional $69, I could link up my Ancestry autosomal results to Family Tree DNA, potentially increasing my reach with another pool of test results to compare against. But was it really worth it? I got as far as clicking the “Checkout” button when one of my cats came in and started yelling for breakfast, and that was enough to shelve the problem for the moment.

However, today comes a post from Judy G. Russell, also known as the Legal Genealogist, who thinks about, writes about and above all explains DNA testing in sparkling-clear terms. It is called 2014: Most Bang For Your DNA Bucks, and if you need a primer on where DNA testing value stands at the moment, click that link. Judy is frank about her own passion for DNA testing as a genealogy tool, but she is also excellent at parsing the prices and benefits.

Basically, I read the comparisons and scenarios, and the Family Tree DNA transfer made supreme sense. The speed with which I put it through made me channel the voice of my late, beloved mom: “Judy Russell! If Judy Russell told you to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it?” Hmmm; that’s a toughie. If Judy said it would enhance my DNA results, there’s no telling.

But for now, I’m going to settle for awaiting what comes of my foray into Family Tree DNA.


Today’s Vocabulary Word Is …

… Peter Thompson.

Which is a dress as well as a guy’s name, as you can see in this picture from a turn-of-the century newspaper ad. peter thompsonI recently encountered it in a novel I was re-reading, in which a 13-year-old girl, circa 1910, waxes philosophical about fashion:

“Clean and neat is all my mother asks, and it’s all I’m willing to give. Time enough to discard my Peter Thompson and get myself up as the queen of the May when there’s a king in sight.”

The kid had a point, and a Peter Thompson was a good way to make it. This was an enormously popular mode of children’s dress that translated either into sailor suits (for boys) or dresses (for girls). I am still trying to find a reference that will tell me who Peter Thompson was, exactly, but if you’re interested in a closer look at how these dresses worked, check out these directions from a turn-of-the-century sewing book on how to make them, including steps  like soaking your material in salt water to set the color.

If you’re interested in fin de siecle New York City in general, you ‘d also enjoy the book I was reading: The Best of Families (1970) by Ellin Mackay Berlin, who was famous to a lot of people for being Mrs. Irving Berlin, but who also was a very good writer.The Best of Families is about New Yorkers who worshipped Episcopal, sent their daughters to Spence and their sons to Groton, and never met a peccadillo they couldn’t ignore, as long as the perpetrator was well-bred and discreet.

In writing it, Ellin Berlin — a millionaire’s debutante daughter whose marriage to a Tin Pan Alley songwriter was a 1920s sensation —  clearly drew upon her own memories of silver-spoon life. The novel is full of the wistfulness that suffuses memories of vanished, specific things: “trolley cars and the ferry to New Jersey and the wonderful, fast, rattling ride on the Elevated; Little Nemo and Buster Brown and his faithful dog, Tige … high-button shoes and white kid gloves so tight that each finger must be laboriously worked into its separate, stiff compartment, and the wooden stick on which even naturally wavy hair was harshly twisted into sausage curls.”

And Peter Thompsons, too. Worth knowing about, if you find an old family letter mentioning one. Your great-great-aunt might have been talking about an old dress, not an old beau.


To my online tree viewers, once I go public

I’m one of those people who struggles with the decision to take an Ancestry tree public. I’ve been torn between the desire to connect and share, and the reluctance to become part of something that’s bothered me forever: the perpetuation of mistaken associations (or just plain mistakes) when family tree information is cut and pasted without sufficient thought.

These trees online? They are works in progress. I know so much more about my lines than I did two decades ago, when I started researching them. (And boy, am I glad you can’t see some of the early trees that were on my long-ago hard drives.) I expect, if I am lucky and keep working hard, that I will know much more five or ten years from now, and these trees will keep growing and changing.

So what am I getting at? Simply:

Go ahead, use what you can. If you credit me, that would be super (and, let’s face it, decent), but you know what’s more important?

Check behind me where you can. Take my online stuff as a starting point, not the family Bible (and we all know how dicey family Bibles can be). Also, keep checking back from time to time. See what’s up. Drop me a line, compare some DNA, don’t be shy.

Above all, if something in my online universe doesn’t match something in yours …

Check. It. Out.

Don’t assume I’m right … or that you’re right, for that matter. Maybe neither of us is right. Or even, in some weird, only-in-real-life way, we will discover that both of us are right. In a world full of guys who do stuff like marry three successive wives named, say, Susan, it happens.

I will now climb down from the soapbox before it is kicked out from under me. Whoever you are, if you’re reading this, I wish you all the joy of discovery and the fun of reconnecting with long-lost relatives. But I swear, if I catch you saying that Martin Haigney (born 1828) married somebody named Mary Carroll, BECAUSE HE DIDN’T HE DIDN’T I SPENT 15 YEARS AND BEAUCOUP BUCKS INVESTIGATING THIS, I will hunt you down and … Ahem. Sorry. Got a little upset there. Better now.

Happy hunting. Really.


Stop Snickering In The Bread Aisle, You

Bread and milk before the snowstorm: the ultimate panic-buying cliché. I enjoy the jokes as much as anyone. A short while ago, it looked like we here in New Jersey were going to be smacked with a Weather Event right on top of Thanksgiving. Here’s me on Facebook, yukking it up:

noreasterfacebook

Now I’ve started thinking more about that pre-storm supermarket rush. “Why is everyone so uptight about the bread and milk?” we clever people ask.

But this is also a serious question. Why is everyone so uptight? What chord is being played in our cultural memory?

Dedicated reporter that I am, I flexed my fingers and began Googling. Very quickly, sharp insights piled up, like: “Because we are stupid,” and “LOL.” I was, as ever, impressed by the discourse, but refused to be intimidated. Time to dig deeper, into the snowstorms of the past.

The deep, dark past.

Pre-1990.

Read the rest of this entry »


A Day After Christmas Carol

On this day 128 years ago, “Pat’k Hagany,” occupation, tailor, entered the poorhouse in Rensselaer County, N.Y.

As required by New York State’s Board of Charities, Patrick’s custodians recorded a data snapshot of his life on a standard form. His age was given as 70, although he might have been as much as seven years younger. He had lived in New York State for 32 years, so he said. It was noted that he had no education, just like a twentysomething Patrick Hagney who in 1856 had signed his X to a declaration of intent to take an oath of U.S. citizenship, which duly happened in 1858, and was duly memorialized in a ledger of newly minted citizens which still sits, among many others, on a metal storage shelf in the basement of the county courthouse in Troy, N.Y.

These two Patricks, thirty years apart, are probably the same person, along with Patrick Haganey, or Hegney, or Hagany, a tailor recorded for three decades under various spellings in the Troy city directory and in state and federal censuses, although in 1870 he is called  “Patrick Egan.” The enumerator either gave up trying to get the surname right, or never tried in the first place, seeing as Patrick probably could not have offered what an official would have considered a standard Anglo-Saxon spelling to begin with. From a bureaucratic standpoint, it was a life of impotence rather than importance.

On that day after Christmas 1885, Patrick was in the poorhouse because he was old and he could not work. The questions on the poorhouse form reveal as much about the attitudes of his caregivers as Patrick’s answers tell us about himself. The proper spelling or even the substance of his name had never been worthy of attention, but other things were: his [drinking] habits (moderate) and those of his parents (temperate); the economic condition of himself, his parents and all his ancestors (self-supporting); whether he had ever been on public assistance before (no) or had been resident in a charitable institution (no).

At the end of this 19th-century character test is a final verdict: Probable Destiny. And on the line next to that the county’s version of the Recording Angel wrote: “will recover.”

I hope he did. I am still working to find out what happened next. For now, Patrick and where he spent his day after Christmas in 1885 are a useful reminder in a season of energetic cheerfulness that some seasons are triumphant just by surviving them, and the notation “Will Recover” represents its own small victory. So here’s a sincere wish to anyone reading this for all the best this winter season, whatever you celebrate and however you are happening to celebrate it. And if by any chance this year has given you challenges along with celebrations, I wish you strength, and a nice, clear “Will Recover” on your own dotted line.


Resource Spotlight: Staten Island Maps

If you have a vintage document with a Staten Island address, and Googling it gets you nowhere, you should visit this site:

Mapping Staten Island

This invaluable tool comes courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York and the Richmond County Savings Foundation, and it uses the overlapping-image technique to perfection.

From the home page, click “Explore the Maps.” You’ll open a window whereupon a map of present-day Staten Island is on your left, and a drop-down menu of historic maps is on the right.

Zoom in on the area  of present-day Staten Island that interests you. Then, on the drop-down menu, click on a vintage map. Your map image will change to show you how the present-day area was drawn on the historic map.

One important caveat: Great as the site is, you must do your homework to get the most out of it. For example, I recently used it to gain insight into an address on a 1920 death certificate: 12 Ocean Avenue. There is an Ocean Avenue in present-day Staten Island, not far from Fort Wadsworth and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. That could have been the place I sought, except that the full address on the death certificate was 12 Ocean Avenue, Oakwood Beach. The 1917 and 1922 maps at Mapping Staten Island confirmed that this 1920 death occurred in a different neighborhood altogether from present-day Ocean Avenue.

(Note: Oakwood Beach took a devastating blow from Superstorm Sandy last year, and the road to recovery continues to be a long one. This article is a great look at the courage and resourcefulness of neighborhood residents in the face of the challenge.)

Resource Spotlight is a continuing look at useful resources I’ve bookmarked over the years.


Memories of (yet another) Catholic girlhood.

I know who and where I was – a tired three-year-old, napping – but only because I’ve been told.

My first conscious memory of the events of 22 November 1963 actually dates from November 1964, and is another masterpiece of toddler insularity. I was outraged that my normal fix of cartoons-cum-Romper Room was being preempted by wall-to-wall first-anniversary coverage of an event featuring an odd, wheeled vehicle bearing a large flag-draped box.

My mother’s description – That’s a caisson – added to my vocabulary, but not my understanding. Romper Room was gone, and the box was in its place. Why was this so important? Why did everyone in the wavering black-and-white images look so serious? And why did my mother look like this had just happened, while explaining it had actually happened a year ago?  (Also: Have I gotten it right; could there really have been such a television program in the cartoons time slot?)

No, I can’t really write about witnessing a day when the world shook and changed. It happened when I was napping, and I grew up in its wake. I was a Catholic schoolgirl in a town with a lot of Catholics. Everybody, especially the mothers, had loved Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, revered her, really. At age six I modeled a little round white hat on the crown of my dark pageboy and a friend of my mother’s gasped and said, “Oh! You look just like Jackie!” By that point I knew without being told, without still knowing quite why, that this was a rare honor.

For years my parents kept a box full of memorabilia from that epochal weekend – the issues of Life magazine, the New York Daily News, of our New Jersey paper, the Plainfield Courier-News; shiny supplements filled with photos of the Dallas streets, the swearing-in on Air Force One, the streams of black-clad mourners in Washington. In a box on her bureau, the same box where she kept her collection of funeral cards from all the wakes, my mother kept a little pamphlet printed with an elegy on JFK, written by a student at a Catholic high school. You could tell that while it was a national death, it was somehow also a personal death. He was the first Roman Catholic president and he was killed. The teachers at parochial school told us that, not having to add: he was ours.

I was growing up in an age of assassinations, of which JFK’s was only the first: almost a prelude, felt rather than remembered,  through the photos in the dog-eared magazines and the thoughtful looks on the grownups’ faces.

There are a lot of JFKs one can discuss: the historical JFK and the conspiratorial JFK and the philandering JFK, to name only a few. But here I talk about history that is personal, and in that context I find myself dwelling upon that cultural JFK: the grainy image of the Irish Catholic candidate waving to the crowd, the flashing smiles, the brief moment. The member of the tribe who gained the presidency, only to die cruelly young. The minor-chord leitmotif playing in the background of my childhood.


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