Elyse has a great post up about whether beginning a genealogy quest in your teens or 20s confers an advantage in mining the memories of older relatives. As Elyse explains, beginning your genealogy young doesn’t help much if your older relatives are deceased or suffering from dementia.
I didn’t begin my family research until I was in my 30s. But I wouldn’t have had a head start had I started as a toddler. Both my paternal grandparents died before my parents met, and my maternal grandmother died when I was three. The only grandparent I really remember is my maternal grandfather, who lived until I was nine.
Much as I regret this, I agree with Elyse that access doesn’t necessarily guarantee answers. For instance, I was lucky enough to travel to Germany with my parents at age fourteen, where I met a number of my maternal grandma’s sisters. What an opportunity! But … I was fourteen. Yes, I was interested in family stories at that point, but I was more interested in whether everyone was secretly laughing at my Coke-bottle wire-rim specs or whether I would completely lose it if my father hissed, “Don’t make that face at me!” one more time. Painful to contemplate, isn’t it?
Even worse is remembering my attitude toward my Aunt Catherine, my father’s sister and keeper of the family history flame known as The List. I wish I could have talked to her about genealogy, but frankly she scared the poop out of me, being one of those Brooklyn Irish ladies who took guff from no quarter.
I remember mentioning to her that my mother told me the Prospect Park carousel once cost a dime to ride.
“Oh yeah?” she said. “I remember when it was a nickel.” I slunk away, terminally intimidated.
I think this is all part of the genealogy life cycle. Missed connections are a feature, not a bug, but it’s what makes the discoveries more precious. I’d love to think that if all my grandparents had survived into my teens, I would have probed their memories with care and insight. The facts of my life suggest otherwise. I believe I began the search when I was meant to, as many people do, and regrets are a waste of more precious time.
I really, really would have loved to talk for hours about genealogy questions with my mother, but she wasn’t one to go on and on about herself. Mind you, she told all of us lots of little anecdotes over the years. But try to sit my mom down for a Genealogy Interview, and she not only froze, she got irritable.
What do you need to go into all that for?
It wasn’t such a big deal.
I don’t remember. It was a long time ago. Is it really so important?
Was she hiding dark, dreadful secrets? That’s the obvious suspicion, but no, I don’t think so. (Sorry, guys.)
What I think is, my mom came from a generation that didn’t like talking about itself. Deep personal revelations smacked of showing off, pulling a Sarah Bernhardt. Memoirs were for generals and former First Ladies, not for middle-aged suburbanites musing over their childhood wrongs.
Yes, I probably made a mistake by trying to sit my mom down armed with a notebook, a pen and an expectant look. But I did succeed with one interview, which I’ll describe now in the hopes that someone else might benefit from the method.
I was on a visit back east from Chicago, where I was living at the time. I really wanted to do some sort of genealogy interview with Mom, and time was limited. There was no time for the usual awww-pleaaassee-Mom, tell me about your dad stuff, and I knew it wouldn’t work anyway.
So I suggested we meet over her strongbox of family papers. Not to talk about her, oh dear me, no. I just wanted to ask her about the papers in the box. And all of a sudden, we were talking.
Oh, look! Here’s Grandpa’s citizenship papers. Let’s see, when did he become a citizen — Oh, you must have been pretty little then. But you remember him going in for the English lessons? Where’d he go?
Something similar happened with Grandma’s immigration affadavit, which was filled out by a cousin of my mother’s. I have a page’s worth of notes on my mother’s comments about the affadavit, including a pointed assessment about the alleged value of my cousin’s house (“It wasn’t worth THAT much! Typical.”).
It was the only classic genealogy interview I ever had with my mother, and it worked because we weren’t talking about her, just about some of her papers.
For others with reticent relatives, it might be worth a try. What’s to lose?
This article in New York magazine is a thought-provoking piece on how Prohibition created modern social drinking customs — for instance, the ability to flirt in bars.
All right, that’s not the biggest social advance ever chalked up. Still, it’s interesting to consider how Prohibition changed America’s drinking landscape. Before, we had exclusively male saloons; afterward, we had “Cheers.” The nightclub is also a child of Prohibition, along with the cocktail party. Writer Daniel Okrent draws his observations and reasoning from his book, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, which is definitely on my to-read list.
It’s also interesting to think how many families may have Prohibition stories — and how many of us might not think to ask about them. Prohibition is so long gone that we completely forget what a fact of everyday life it was once upon a time. I only know of one family story from this era, and it’s straightforward — my German grandfather brewed beer in the cellar during Prohibition. It wasn’t bootlegging or running a speakeasy, but I used to think this was pretty exotic, at least until homebrewing became fashionable a few years back and Grandpa began to look like a hipster before his time.
I must make a mental note to ask about Prohibition next time I’m scouting out family stories. Who knows what might come up?
Every so often on listserves or genealogy forums the topic of Irish (and Scottish) naming conventions comes up. This is the tradition by which children in a family are named after a specifically ordered sequence of ancestors.
When you have blank spots in your family tree, as I still do with my paternal great-grandmother, talk of the Irish naming tradition can be only a tantalizing clue to shadowy identities. Still, it’s fun to know about. And when it comes to my father’s family, I think it might possibly be a factor behind his quirky first-name story.
Recently I compiled one of my primitive but useful charts, comparing what tradition dictated to what my father and his siblings were actually named. Note that some sources say the tradition didn’t really apply after the third son or daughter — subsequent names were the parents’ choice. But let’s go for the whole enchilada, shall we?
|Naming Tradition||Should Have Been (if known)||Child Actually Named|
|1st son after father’s father||Joseph||Raymond|
|2nd son after mother’s father||Peter||Francis|
|3rd son after father||Raymond||Joseph|
|4th son after father’s oldest brother||Joseph||Peter|
|5th son after mother’s oldest brother (sometimes father’s 2nd oldest brother)||Francis
(father’s 2nd brother: Leo)
So we see that by the first quarter of the 20th century, when these babies started arriving, my grandparents weren’t following hallowed Celtic tradition. Still, at the time my father, Peter, came along, his parents had already named sons after the father and the father’s father. And that was supposed to be that, because according to one of my aunts, my grandmother had no intention of naming a child after her own father. (Nothing personal; she just didn’t care for the name.) However, her mother-in-law absolutely insisted the new baby be named Peter.
Until I heard about the naming tradition, I could think of no reason (other than bizarre obstinacy) that my paternal great-grandmother would be so worked up about a maternal-side name. But perhaps she felt that the ancient ways must be served. Or perhaps she was just really stubborn. Anyway, my dad was named Peter, and his mother called him by his middle name, Jerome, for the rest of her life. Ah, tradition!
Now, let’s check out the situation with the daughters:
|Naming Tradition||Should Have Been (if known)||Child Actually Named|
|1st daughter after mother’s mother (or father’s mother)||Catherine (Kate)||Catherine|
|2nd daughter after father’s mother (or mother’s mother)||Catherine||Virginia|
|3rd daughter after mother||Margaret||Dorothy|
|4th daughter after mother’s oldest sister||Catherine (Yes, we like this name in my family)||Bernadette|
|5th daughter after father’s oldest sister (sometimes mother’s 2nd oldest sister)||Gertrude||Margaret|
|6th daughter after mother’s 2nd sister (possibly)||Not known||Joan|
This is a good time to wonder out loud what was supposed to happen with the naming tradition if several ancestors in the sequence shared a name. In this case, both grandmothers, along with my grandmother’s half-sister, were named Catherine. (There’s a similar problem in my boys’ chart, with two Josephs.) If you know, do not be afraid to be a smarty-pants in the comments.
I don’t mean to pooh-pooh tradition with my chart-making. As I dig deeper into the family’s Irish ancestry, the naming traditions may have stronger meaning. For many researchers of Irish ancestors, the tradition has been important in piecing together family relationships.
But it does seem that my grandparents, if they were aware of the Irish naming tradition, didn’t feel honor-bound to uphold it. They went their own way – which is, really, a typical American story.
A response to the 3/11 Fearless Females prompt by Lisa Alzo at Accidental Genealogist: Did you have any female ancestors who died young or from tragic or unexpected circumstances? Describe and how did this affect the family?
Anna Held Forster, my maternal great-grandmother, died in childbirth. It’s sad to think how common that phrase is to students of genealogy.
My grandmother Eva, her oldest daughter, was about 18, so by my mother’s reckoning, this happened about 1915.
The baby was perhaps an hour old when it happened. As my mother heard it from Eva, both a doctor and a midwife were on hand – pretty good for that rural corner of Germany. But they could not agree on what to do when the hemorrhage started, and while they debated tactics, my great-grandmother’s time ran out. Her infant daughter survived, along with a widower and eight other children.
Wrenching as it must have been, my great-grandmother’s death was just the first blow. Within the year, my great-grandfather Jakob died and the family dispersed. The oldest son inherited the house and land; the children who could support themselves went their ways. Some of the younger siblings became farm help in exchange for their keep. Two of my great-aunts ended up with the nuns and later took vows themselves. My grandmother eventually met my grandfather, Johann Rudroff, who was intent upon emigrating to America, where, after some hesitation, Eva followed him and married him.
Beyond the details I hope to verify and the dates to double-check are questions I can never imagine the answers to. What was it like when a mother was literally here one moment, gone in another? What did they do with the awful fear of what might come next? Could you convince yourself that eventually everything would be all right?
Decades later, I was in a car meandering the roads near my grandmother’s home village with my mother, my sister and one of my mother’s first cousins, who was driving. We passed a turnoff with a sign pointing to a village whose name I’ve long forgotten. My cousin slowed the car and nodded toward the turnoff.
His father had worked on a farm there once, with one of his sisters, my cousin said.
How old were they, my mother asked.
“Little. Six, seven.” He shook his head. “Not a good time. It was very hard.”
The other day my second grader came home very excited after sharing a family tree chart with her classmates and teachers. The Spanish instructor even complimented my daughter on her grandma’s pretty set of Iberian names: Theresa Mercedes Cecelia.
Which made me giggle a bit, since the grandma in question (my mom) was the daughter of German immigrants.
First names, which you’d think would be basic signposts in figuring out ancestors, can tie you up in knots. They might make you guess at the wrong ethnicity; they might lead you on a wild goose chase to the wrong person. They might not be real first names at all.
Fortunately, first-name stories, while difficult to unravel, can make fantastic anecdotes. Here are some examples from my own tree:
My father-in-law: First came older brothers Floyd, Lloyd, Boyd and Coyd. And then came … Renzo Alton. (Please don’t tell me you saw that coming.) His mother wanted something different, and a local schoolteacher suggested Renzo. On his mail, he was R. A. Lynch. His family called him Al. I am not making any of this up, but I bet some future descendant will swear I must have been.
My dad: He was baptized Peter Jerome, but his mother never used his first name. She referred to him as Jerome, or “Sonny.” In the 1930 census my dad is listed as Jerome. As an adult, he used the name Peter. If you didn’t know the story, or didn’t weigh all the facts, you might assume the census taker missed him in 1930, or that perhaps there were two children, one named Jerome who died young, another named Peter who lived to adulthood.
My grandfather “Francie” Haigney: Well, actually, he’s Raymond Francis, but in the 1910 census, he’s Francie. If you didn’t know better, you might think the census taker got my grandpa’s gender wrong.
My mother’s name changes: She was baptized Therese Mercedes — Therese for St. Therese of Lisieux, and “Mercedes” in honor of the nun at the hospital who cared for my grandmother after the birth. Mom disliked Mercedes, and as an adult used her confirmation name, Cecelia, as her middle name. Also, she tended to spell her first name with an “a” instead of an “e”. So in a few places she’s Therese Mercedes, but more often she is Theresa Cecelia.
Those are some of my quirky naming stories, which are peculiar to the people and the circumstances. But I can think of two other common naming situations that might leave a researcher puzzled:
Nicknames: Some nickname logic has become blurred with the generations. “Liz” for “Elizabeth” is one thing, but what about “Lillie”? And not everyone immediately connects “Daisy” with Margaret, or “Mamie” with Mary. Here’s a chart of common nicknames and their possible equivalents.
Americanizations: Just as with surnames, first names and first-naming conventions can change with immigration. Some translations are obvious, as with my German grandpa (Johann/John). But a trickier case is Grandpa’s sister Anna Kunigunde, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1907. In some records she is simply Kunigunde; she has also been listed as “Kuni.” And I also wouldn’t be surprised to find her in future as Anna, or even “Ann” or “Constance.” Here’s an article about immigrant name-changing.
My own name-changing stories, while amusing, also serve as a caution. Much as I’d like to think I’m on a first-name basis with my ancestors, I know better than to jump to any premature conclusions.
The technical term for the treasured sheets of paper might be “handwritten genealogy.” However, in my neck of the woods it is Aunt Catherine’s List, as in: “You’re working on the family tree? You really ought to get hold of Aunt Catherine’s list.”
Aunt Catherine was my father’s oldest sister, and keeper of the family flame. The List is just that, a list of everyone she remembered in our family, starting with my Haigney great-great grandparents and my Kelleher great-grandparents and continuing down the line. Every time a cousin was born, they were added to The List.
I remain forever regretful that my interest in genealogy didn’t take off until after Aunt Catherine passed away, and that I never got the chance to talk with her in any depth about family history. But The List survives!
The List is a combination of first-hand account and family tradition. My aunt was born in 1914, three years after great-great grandfather Haigney died. But many of the relatives on the sheet, including my paternal great-grandparents, were alive well into her adult years, and of course the running tally of cousins is completely hers.
So far, the information on The List has held up to scrutiny pretty well. Through it, I learned about two siblings of Grandfather Haigney who died young. The death certificate for one of these children has helped me pinpoint where my grandfather and his parents must have been living in 1900, a past source of research frustration. The List also names two children of Great-great-grandfather Haigney who died in infancy, an assertion that likely explains the large age gap between his first and second surviving sons.
Treasure though it is, The List is not the final word. As Elizabeth Shown Mills has observed: “We must mentally appraise the credibility of each detail in each document on a fact-by-fact, circumstance-by-circumstance basis.” With that as a guideline, The List should provide me with hours of interesting appraisals for some time to come.