In the years between my father’s death and the point at which my husband and I became parents, Father’s Day was an awkward pause in the calendar. After I was married, it was a bit of a relief to have a father-in-law who could receive happy returns — something to do, at last.
Mind you, Father’s Day was not associated with fond memories of great celebrations. My dad was prickly about receiving gifts, and uncomfortable at the idea of a Father’s Day to-do. I think in his mind he was always supposed to be the provider, and he disliked being provided for. It raises interesting questions about how he might have dealt with (or not dealt with) the challenges of aging, but it didn’t come up because he was 59 when he died of a heart attack, leaving questions like that unanswered.
One daughter with many unanswered questions about her father is the novelist Mary Gordon, whose father died when she was seven. It’s fair to say this was a defining event in Gordon’s life — probably the defining event — and she explores her landscape of loss in a beautifully written 1996 memoir, The Shadow Man.
Gordon’s book will strike a chord of empathy for many adult children who rediscover their parents as fellow humans, rather than the all-knowing beings called Mommy and Daddy. In Gordon’s case, things become very strange very fast as she begins to explore her father’s story as a researcher, not just an adoring daughter.
Family stories set in stone begin to crumble and re-assemble themselves. Gordon’s father, David, was a brilliant Harvard student whose Jewish family declared him dead after his conversion to Catholicism. One minor problem: The change of religions is the only fact that stands up to further examination. The more Gordon probes, the more she discovers that what she always believed about her father’s identity was a carefully constructed characterization, not a real person. (He wasn’t even named David.)
As for discovering the real person behind the stories, Gordon is only partly successful. Genealogy research comes into play in a long, fascinating section, “Tracking My Father: In the Archives.” Aided by a skillful genealogist, Gordon tries to trace her father’s footsteps in his Ohio hometown, where she discovers that the “Harvard student” actually dropped out of school in his teens to work for the railroad. The more facts she uncovers, the more bewildering the picture becomes. Sadly, Gordon’s mother, struggling with advanced Alzheimer’s, cannot provide any answers, either.
I have always loved this book, re-reading it to savor the lovely writing, but also to reflect on it as a cautionary tale. Genealogy is often a quest for connection, and on many levels, it succeeds in gratifying ways. But there are so many limits to what we can truly know with our research. Gordon’s is an extreme case, but an illuminating one.
Martin Hollick at The Slovak Yankee made an important point the other day about what he calls the “hidden Web” — i.e., potentially useful online genealogy databases that won’t necessarily pop up in search engine results. To me, he’s also talking about putting the “re” back in front of “search.” Sit down in front of a computer anymore and it’s all about keywords.
Well, that’s the way we’re living now, but to me the problem with keywords is twofold. First, everybody’s figured out that you have to deploy them, which means it’s possible to waste a lot of time clicking into sites that are not much more than prettily arranged collections of buzzwords. Second, thinking up good keyword searches is only one part of analyzing a research task and coming up with a coherent search strategy. As Hollick notes, you need to know about specific sites that have good information. I have gotten my best tipoffs from genealogy email lists, where kind posters have given detailed feedback on good databases and searchable sites.
I also see a lost aspect from the days before search engines (and heck, before the Web). Please understand, I wouldn’t want to return to those days. Does anybody remember things like this:
That is what it looked like when a person hooked into something called Gopher, an information-sharing protocol from antiquity, also known as 1991. You can read about it on Wikipedia, to which I am indebted for this nostalgic image. I was never anywhere close to Gopher-geekdom — I was one of the carpetbaggers who played around with it when AOL introduced its Usenet (another historical link provided) and Gopher portals back in 1994-ish. My point isn’t that text-intense, root-around situations like this are so fantastic to use — I don’t care what the nostalgists say, they weren’t — but they did encourage a bit more thought about what you were trying to find and where you might most productively go looking for it.
It’s similar to the mourning for the classic card catalog — the lost opportunities for serendipitous discoveries, the ways flipping through cards jogs the thought process in ways that clicking on links doesn’t. I wouldn’t argue for backtracking on progress, that’s silly. But it’s good to remember there’s always more than one way to tackle a problem, before we get lost in a keyword-generating haze.
This is another one of those posts in which I reveal my basic ignorance for the good of humanity.
You’re welcome, humanity.
See, Ancestry.com’s newspaper database was one of those things that I got all excited about when I first saw it, especially since it included the Troy, NY Times-Record from the ’40s through the ’70s, a very relevant period for me. I remember being all sweaty-palmed when I pulled up the search window:
In the “Name” area, I put in “Haigney” under Last Name, and came up with nothing. I made sure I wasn’t checking exact spellings or anything, since this surname is notorious for creative spellings. I played with those creative spellings.
At that point a child was having a crisis (probably the water pitcher in the fridge was empty) and I had to log out. I never made a note to schedule another playdate with the database, and somehow it got filed in my mind (an occasionally unreliable source) as Something That Didn’t Have Anything I Needed.
So yesterday morning, still blinking awake and sipping my first cup of coffee, I happened to notice an external link pointing to that very same Times-Record database at Ancestry. Probably if I was really awake, I would have remembered it was useless to me and not clicked through. Fortunately, I wasn’t, and I did. Then for some reason I decided to type in “Walker,” the married name of one of my Haigney relatives. A zillion hits popped up, naturally. So it occurred to me to consider this:
And to narrow things down a bit (probably to zero, I snickered to myself), I typed “Haigney” into the keyword box, leaving “Walker” as the main surname search.
People, the heavens opened. I believe we are at 28 clippings and counting, chronicling the comings and goings of Haigneys, Walkers and Roaches/Roches/Roachs in the Capital District in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. (My dad’s in there a couple of times, including a summertime visit from Chicago, where he was attending school.) Birthday parties. Obituaries. And not one, but two personality profiles of my great-great-aunt Maggie, who must have been a really fun interview. I have a lot of reading and crosschecking to do.
What I Learned From This Experience:
1. Avoid getting hung up on the same surname or group of surnames. Think of collateral kin, neighbors’ names, associations your kin belonged to, employers, heck, even the name of a shop or business your kin always talked about. See what happens.
2. Try combining a surname search with another surname in the keyword box.
3. Tell the kid to fill the water pitcher themselves, already.
P.S. Ancestry has a lot of other newspapers for those of you who are not obsessed with Troy, N.Y. From the “Search” area on the main toolbar, select “card catalog” and search there with your locality’s name and keyword “newspaper” — see if they’ve got a newspaper collection you can use!
I hit a gold mine this morning in Ancestry.com’s newspaper image database for the Times-Record of Troy, N.Y. Out of the blue, too!
This database had disappointed me before. However, a chance tweak of the search form this morning turned up so much stuff, and so unexpectedly, that it’s worth another post or two about tweaking search forms and defying expectations. (You’ve been warned.)
For now, I’m having a blast working my way through the treasure trove of clippings. They feature my great-great aunts, Margaret [Haigney] Roache and Mary [Haigney] Walker, and my great-great uncle, Martin T. Haigney.
Many of the clips are from a local-news page that took the terms “local” and “news” to lengths that are unimaginable today. When I studied journalism, we would talk about empathizing with our readership (yes, it was a while ago). Even so, that didn’t mean covering stories like a college sophomore “spending the holiday vacation with his parents,” or Mrs. So-and-so’s hospitalization from a broken hip. The news business hasn’t been that personal for a long, long time.
But back in the 1950s and early 1960s, news was extremely personal in the Troy Times-Record, and what good luck for me. I’ve got a lot of new leads to pursue on those summertime genealogy day trips I was musing about a couple of days ago.
In the meantime, listen to this Very Important News Item from 1961 about my great-great aunt Margaret:
Mrs. Margaret Roach prepared a birthday party yesterday.
She baked a cake and set the table for the party which was for herself. It was her 91st birthday.
The wisp of a woman, who weighs less than 90 pounds, lives alone at 2509 2nd Ave. Many of the friends whom she has been associated with throughout the years were present. She was born in Watervliet … She now lives alone and cooks, sews, shops and does about everything else for herself. She voted at the polls last November because she felt it her duty. In her leisure time, she reads and is up to date on the various news happenings. She wears glasses because of a cataract operation performed one year ago, but her eyesight is still as keen as her hearing.
There is a TON of other terrific stuff in the story, including biographical details about Margaret, her late husband James, her father and her siblings. Above all, it has those wonderful personal details that form a perfect snapshot of Margaret, still truckin’ along and throwing herself birthday parties into her 90s.
The unnamed reporter who covered this nearly 50 years ago couldn’t have known what a big favor his little human-interest story would do for me and my genealogy research. But thanks anyway!