It’s tough to explain the satisfactions of genealogy to nonparticipants. And I completely understand their bewilderment. Why does anyone want to traipse around cemeteries cooing over tombstones? What exactly is so much fun about libraries?
But there’s one thing that everybody seems to get, even the most bored and impatient of listeners:
It’s really, really nice to find the lost babies.
That’s what I call those children who lived and died between census years, the ones who exist perhaps as a question mark on an old family data sheet, or — in the case of my great-great aunt Rose (Connors) Brant — as a statistical squiggle on the census returns.
Rose (1860-1914) had six children, six living, when she and her family were counted in the U.S. federal census in Jersey City in 1900. When 1910 rolled around, she was the mother of eight children, seven living, her youngest child being born in about 1905. On my genealogy program, Rose’s tally was four pink circles for the girls, three for the boys, and one Unknown, which, in Reunion anyway, is a white space.
Those white Unknown spaces sadden me to no end, and the mysteries they contain can stay unresolved for years, sometimes for always. Happily, this particular mystery occurred when civil registration for vitals was well under way in New Jersey.
At the state archives in Trenton, births for earlier years are filed by certificate number.To find one, you need to examine an index reel that is arranged by year and parents’ surnames. Since Rose’s two youngest surviving children were born in 1900 and 1905, that meant she could have had a child in between — or she could have had a child after 1905, but before 1910. I decided to try that earlier time frame first, seeing as Rose was already nearing age 40 in 1900.
And very soon I found her missing child — a little boy, born just before Christmas 1902, and dead of meningitis by September 1903. I was saddened at how brief his life was. But it still felt good to type a name over that “Unknown,” and convert the white tag to blue. It’s strange to think how a life can be reduced to a set of numbers scrawled on a census tally sheet — and satisfying when you can be the person who puts a name where there was once just a statistic.
I never pass a cemetery without a second look, or a third, or even pulling over to take a fourth.
So when a chance came to tour two landmark Catholic cemeteries in Jersey City, I put on my sturdiest, ugliest walking shoes and met up on a lovely June Saturday morning with other members of the Hudson County Genealogical and Historical Society. On the agenda: an in-depth look at St. Peter’s Cemetery, on Tonnelle Avenue, and sprawling, gorgeous Holy Name on West Side Avenue, final home to many prominent (and in some cases infamous) figures from Jersey City’s past.
We carpooled to St. Peter’s, a good thing because St. Peter’s has to be one of the trickiest cemeteries to access anywhere. This might sound cheeky to those who must hack their way to ancestors in overgrown rural burying grounds, but there are other hazards in life besides brambles, and Tonnelle Avenue (a k a U.S. Highways 1 and 9) is one of them.
Those are my feet on the left, in the beat-up loafers. I was very hard on shoes, my mother said. That was also the opinion of Manny, the guy who measured us at Martin’s Shoe Store in Plainfield, N.J. He and my mother would mourn the state of my current shoe, and shake their heads, and sigh.
“She’s really hard on shoes, isn’t she?” Manny would say.
“Let’s hope this pair lasts,” my mother would say.
In my defense, I would like to draw your attention to that ripped sole of the Keds sneakers on the right, which belonged to one of my younger sisters, proof that I was not the only kid who was hard on her shoes.
The shoes in the center belong to a littler kid who went easier on them, because he didn’t play as hard as we did. However, being a little kid, he was about to commit the equally heinous sin of Growing Like You Wouldn’t Believe, necessitating a pair of new shoes in an equally indecent amount of time.
Shoe shopping was a definite event back then, partly because shoe stores were fuller-service destinations, as opposed to today, when the only stores that make a big deal of fussing over you are the ones catering to marathoners or people with really bad bunions.
But the other reason was that when seven kids all needed shoes at the same time, it meant major shopping expeditions. These took place in August, when we bought school shoes, and late spring, when we bought summer play shoes. Easter shoes were also important, but because we wore dress shoes so infrequently, we handed them down a lot. This might cause responsible parents to clutch their throats in horror today, but my mother would have thought it irresponsible to waste a set of patent-leather Mary Janes that had only been to Mass once or twice. So every Easter, we’d root around the closets and line everyone up to see which dress shoes fitted whom.
Shoe shopping was always a mixed experience for me. I loved the look, smell and feel of new shoes, but I hated being called to account for the damage I wreaked on them. “You really banged these up, kid,” Manny would say, as Mom nodded in sad agreement.
How did I do it? I was never sure. As far as I knew I was just running and walking in them, not using them to pound fence posts. Every year, I would vow that my shoes would stay smooth and whole until they no longer fit. But every year, I wore out my shoes before I outgrew them. The pleasure of new shoes was always shadowed by my awareness of their fleeting glory.
I never did turn into a person who collects shoes. I still tend to buy a pair I really like and wear it into shreds, despite good-intentioned vows to buy that one great pair in several colors and rotate them. Maybe all that early training in shoe shopping has conditioned me to stick with the tried-and-true, and await its inevitable decline.
Or maybe I’m just really hard on shoes.
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.
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.
… 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. I 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.