Good Reads: ‘The Shadow Man’

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.

A haunting search in the archives.

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.


Raiders of the lost Internet

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.

Keyword? Search me

This is another one of those posts in which I reveal my basic ignorance for the good of humanity.

You’re welcome, humanity.

See,’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:

OK, here we go.

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.

Still nothing.

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:

How novel! What is this thing you call "keyword"?

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!

Surprise! Maggie’s 91st birthday

I hit a gold mine this morning in’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.

My great-great aunt Margaret's 91st birthday was top headline news in 1961.

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!

Links 6.14.10

Call this the week that Wall Street noticed genealogy, I guess. in the news: Both Barron’s and the Wall Street Journal took due notice of, which went public last year and recently projected higher-than-expected earnings for this year. Wall Street, of course, does not really get into the technicalities of what consumers get for their Ancestry buck, or who really owns all those family trees online. Discuss amongst yourselves.

Ownership, continued: One person who is discussing ownership and copyright issues in the genealogy universe, and discussing it in absorbing detail, is James Tanner at Genealogy’s Star. His multipart series (for example, here and here) is a must-read for anyone interested in this topic.

A genealogy love story: Now for something romantic — the story of a couple of genealogy buddies who met online, bound by their common research interests, and discovered romance amid the courthouse trips and cemetery walks. I wonder how often that happens? Maybe more often than we’d think.

Arlington fallout: Various stories are popping up in the wake of the disturbing news that personnel at Arlington National Cemetery mishandled the remains of 200 troops. For instance, USA Today reports that Arlington still uses an index-card system for its records, which might contribute to its difficulties. (Yes, card indexes are hardly unprecedented in cemetery offices, but Arlington is pretty massive.) The Washington Post asks about procedures at other national cemeteries. Arlington is one of only two national cemeteries administered directly by the Defense Department. The vast majority are overseen by the Veterans Administration, and 14 are under the direction of the National Parks Service.

Trust fund windfall: Here’s a nice bit of luck for a historic cemetery. In Allentown, Pa., volunteers at the Union and West End Cemetery were pleasantly surprised to discover that the cemetery would receive nearly $30,000 in old trust-fund money. Apparently Wachovia Bank is unloading many vintage trust-fund assets, some of which date back to the 1880s, and were originally set up to maintain gravesites. Because of this, the bank decided to send the money to the cemeteries where the original depositors were buried. $30,000 might be a drop in the bucket on Wall Street, but it’s big money to a struggling 156-year-old cemetery with a $19,000 annual budget. Congratulations, folks!

Summertime genealogy day trips

As the family plans its summer schedule, the term “day trip” looms large, as I’m sure it does for many families in these cost-conscious times. I’m toying with the idea of the genealogy day trip, which would thrill me to no end. It might not thrill the kiddies as much, though.

Still, on the positive side, my kids are a little older now and might actually enjoy trooping through a graveyard or three. Plus, there’s the added bonus of a chance to make fun of Mom and her graveyard obsession. And a chance to take goofy pictures of Mom weeding graves. Sweet!

So I scribbled out this list of possibilities within a day’s drive of northern New Jersey:

• To Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island to photograph family markers there — my parents, and several aunts and uncles.

• To various cousins’ houses to look at their photograph albums. (Hmm. Might do this on a day the kids are in day camp.)

• To NARA-NYC to look at a bunch of indexes. (Another one for a day-camp day. In a perfect world, my kids would love hanging around microfilm viewers for five hours … but …)

• To Albany County to take a better picture of my great-great-grandparents’ tombstone. I really need to rectify this awful photo, which has been bugging me for four years. I would post it, but I’m just too mortified. If I succeed in getting a better one, I promise to post Do and Don’t pictures.

Will I do all of these things?  The biggest enemy to productivity is the way summer fries a perfectly good brain. Summertime always seems to stretch into infinity on the day school ends. With so many more hours of daylight, what’s the rush?

Then, all too soon,  it’s Labor Day already, and the genealogy to-do list has maybe one item crossed off.

I think I’ll ask the kids tonight how they feel about cemeteries.

Too cool for my own good

About a year ago, I took up bicycling. Some people might call it “road cycling,” but I am not one of those hard-core types. You know, the ones who have to have the latest equipment, the ones who obsess over the latest techniques.

Nuh-uh. I may think it’s fun to ride 25 miles and up a couple of mountainsides, but I would never be like that.

I don’t even own a brightly colored, zipper-covered cycling jersey that makes me look like I just came off the Tour de France. I was bragging about this recently when a fellow rider said mildly, “Well, you know, all those zippered pockets do come in handy.”

Suddenly, I felt counterproductive, not romantically rebellious.

This exchange got me to thinking about ways in which this kind of reverse snobbery has affected my genealogy. I haven’t gone so far as to avoid computer genealogy programs (thank you, Reunion!!).

But it took me a good year of saying, “Nah, I don’t NEED that gimmick” before I consistently started using the Shoebox feature on Of course I could squirrel away those records on my own. I’d just jot the image number down in my handy notebook … now where was that notebook? And that pen?

And lately, I’ve been thinking a master genealogy task chart might not be a bad idea, as opposed to all the little task lists I stubbornly cling to for each family group. Of course, I would never be that geeky … except it might actually help me get more done.

I wonder what other helpful short-cuts I’ve been missing?