Treasure Chest Thursday: Letter Full of Memories

The word is out that I’m a sucker for old stuff, so I’m a leading candidate for a call when people are cleaning out their filing cabinets. Not that I mind. Can anyone appreciate orphaned manila folders the way I do?

Several years ago, my mother-in-law gave me a manila folder labeled LYNCH SURNAME, containing some of my father-in-law’s genealogy notes. It isn’t a thick folder because my father-in-law wasn’t the genealogist of record in his  generation. That would be his cousin Eileen, whose career as a dedicated researcher and volunteer probably warrants its own book, never mind a separate blog post.

The treasure of the folder is a draft of a letter that I presume my father-in-law eventually sent in response to a query by  his genealogist cousin about their Beatty forebears. It contains some interesting notes on the family, along with a couple of priceless anecdotes.

• “I never knew my granddad Beatty except as ‘Dick’ Beatty. He was a singing teacher and used singing books w/numbers instead of the musical symbols as is used today. I have seen some of these books.” (This doesn’t sound exactly like shape note singing, which my father-in-law mentioned his grandfather teaching, and which does use note symbols  — but I sure wish I’d seen these books, too!)

• “I think I mentioned to you the occurrence where Jim Bob crawled up into a hollow tree and Bill having seen his father chop rabbits out of a tree, proceeded to start chopping about where Jim Bob’s head was. Their mother our grandmother missed the boys and went looking for them. She found them before Bill cut too deeply into the tree and almost surely would have killed Jim Bob.”

That last story sounds like it came straight out of a novel, which is not surprising. Stories like that don’t grow on trees. Even hollow ones.

Is that my great-uncle’s play in your catalog, sir?

I have a large, untidy pile of intriguing genealogy research questions I mean to figure out someday. One involves whether my mother’s uncle Georg Rudroff  copyrighted a play in 1909.

My mother always said her Uncle George was a character. He was my grandfather’s older brother, the one who left home first. He emigrated to New York City from Kottweinsdorf, Germany in 1896, 30 years before Grandpa did. My mother described him as a tavern keeper, the occupation listed on his 1940 death certificate. At other times he was a drug company clerk and a Brooklyn Rapid Transit motorman.

He also was a bit stage-struck, according to Mom. She was a little vague on this point, although she once mentioned that he wrote songs and tried to shop one of them to Kate Smith, who was not interested.

A few months ago when I was supposed to be working (shhh!), I got bored and plugged my mother’s maiden name into this search engine at the Library of Congress. Four results popped up, one citing an unpublished play in German by Georg Rudroff. (Two of the others involve genealogical works in German by Arno Rudroff, an expert on all things Rudroff.)

You never know who might turn up in the Library of Congress.

I emailed the Library of Congress to ask how I might go about reading this play. It’s in manuscript form and I’d have to go to Washington to take a look at it. So for now, I don’t know whether my Georg is the author, if it’s possible to be certain of that.

What is certain is that in 1909, someone named Georg Rudroff copyrighted a play called  Schwer Erkämpft (militärisches Volksstück in 4 akten). That roughly translates to Terrible Struggle (a military play in four acts).

Using “play” for “Volksstück” isn’t very helpful, because the Volksstück is a theatrical form with no real equivalent in today’s American theater. It was a populist work in which dialect was used to score dramatic and satiric points. A Volksstück might use a country-bumpkin character to poke fun at hoity-toity types, or trendy fashions. I can only imagine how a “military Volksstück” might look. Maybe Georg’s play was a forerunner of Catch-22?

Until we go on our oft-discussed trip to D.C., I’ll just have to keep wondering.

In the meantime, all I can say is: Try a surname search in the Library of Congress catalog. You never know.

Meant to be mysterious?

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.

Just Don’t Call It An ‘Interview’

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?

Speaking about speakeasies …

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?

Naming Traditions, Irish-Style

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.


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