Musical Moments: Easter

As a choral singer of long standing at my Roman Catholic parish (and believe me, the standing is looooooonggggg between Holy Thursday and Easter Sunday morning), I am always amazed at the power of music to galvanize, unite and transport. It doesn’t always do the trick — what can? There are some stretches in every season where sore feet and hoarse throats seem far more prevalent than grace notes.

But there’s nothing like a Big Fat Oratorio Chorus to power a person past those awkward moments. Of course we associate those with Handel, but Joseph Haydn put up some pretty respectable points on this particular board, including “Achieved Is The Glorious Work,” a grandly ornate chorus from The Creation, an oratorio he composed between 1796 and 1798. I was charmed by the interpretation below, an all-woman version sung in 2011 by the Georgia Music Educators’ Association (GMEA) All-State Senior Women’s Chorus. It’s lovely, despite the audience member who just had to cough at the 2:37 mark. (OK, I forgive you; I’ve been there, too.)

Wishing you a Happy Easter, and a joyous spring after a harsh winter.


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.


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