After the Storm

My heart hurts so much tonight. The power loss and our rapidly chilling house seemed beside the point as we sat in our shadowy kitchen, peering at the photos sliding across the screen of the smartphone, and I had to believe what the captions said.

That this had been a boardwalk. An amusement pier. A row of little shops where you could grab a Coke or a tube of sunscreen or some boardwalk fries.

The Jersey Shore, to those of us who really know it, has always been so much more than the loudmouthed reality show that stole the name and made it a punch line.

“That was my childhood,” said my oldest, staring at a neat row of concrete blocks on the smartphone screen. The caption called it the Spring Lake boardwalk.

“Mine too,” I said.

Well, not Spring Lake, in my case. But Manasquan. Point Pleasant. Wildwood. Ocean City once. Seaside Heights for sure, as a teenager – who didn’t?

I have a sister who lives a mile from one of those former boardwalks. Walking the boardwalk along the Atlantic, the sun just rising, the salt breeze blowing and the day just starting, is one of the joys of her life.

I can’t reach her yet. I know that on Monday, as the storm was prowling off the coast, we talked about what we were dreading and what we thought we were prepared for.

But nothing prepares you for the sight of nothing, in place of something that was so beautiful and uplifting to the spirit.

And no, it will never be the same, as my kids keep saying. I want to hush them, and say they are wrong, but they are not. And yes, it does break my heart.

I do believe it will be back, though. It will be just as wonderful. Different, but wonderful.

Perhaps to come to terms with what we are just beginning to understand, my kids and I began talking about the summers, all the summers down the shore. I wanted them to have the shore the way I had the shore when I was little, and they did.

Just as I did, they have memories of the good stuff and the bad stuff and the sometimes scary stuff, like the ride at Seaside Heights where my older child was too scared to get on until the operator said, “See this coin? I’m going to put it on the floor, and it’s not going to move.” And she rode, and it didn’t.

Or like the first time my youngest got rolled by a wave at Long Beach Island. She was maybe a year old, and I thought I was standing in a good spot but you know how tricky the Atlantic can be. One of those breakers got us good, and broke her out of my hold, and she went pinwheeling, somersaulting through the shallows as I splashed after her frantically.

Oh no, her first wave and it’s a horror show! She’s traumatized for life, I was thinking. My husband and I dragged her up and shook the water off her and thumped her back, crying, “Are you all right? Are you?”

She beamed up at us, grinning ear to ear.

“More!” she said.

The shore will be back. And so will we.


From Genealogy Event to Weather Event

This past weekend I had a blast volunteering at The Genealogy Event in Manhattan. Along with other members of the APG Metro-New York City chapter, I was at the Living Library Lounge helping event attendees with research questions.

Then I went home to deal with the reality of an impending Weather Event called Sandy. Talk about a change of pace.

Although … I did notice that storm-preparation advice has two principles in common with effective-research advice.

1. Have the right equipment in your toolbox.

2. Stay organized and try not to get overwhelmed by all the details.

It’s always fascinating talking to other people about their genealogy triumphs and setbacks. Every family has its own puzzle pieces that just refuse to come together. There also seems to be a pattern in people’s research experience (to me, anyway) that occurs as one leaves the brand-new beginner phase and segues into the intermediate level. You wake up and realize that you don’t just have a couple of sheets of information; you’ve got a couple of binders full. Everything looks interesting and everything is worthy of following up. What do you do next, and why?

As I found myself saying to a number of people the other day, the more you discover, the more important it is that you develop visual and organizational systems for keeping track of what you have already done and prioritizing what you will do next.

Family tree charts, whether in the cloud or on your hard drive, are the foundation of Keeping Track, naturally. But like the binders or file boxes, they can also be overwhelming when you’re trying to home in upon a specific person or problem. In those cases, you need other tools that can narrow your focus more effectively.

For instance: Don’t just collect census images; keep a census log for each family group with notes about what you’ve found and what it tells you about what you need to ask next.

Or, for ancestors who insist on dropping in and out of sight, consider compiling a timeline of what you know so far about the events of each life. (Timelines have the most amazing way of highlighting inconsistencies and faulty assumptions.)

How you do these things is really a personal choice. Some people love spreadsheets. I myself am fond of simple tabular charts in Word, because for me they are quick and easy to assemble.

But however you perform them, organizational cues are invaluable for those times when life happens and you drop your research on a certain person or line for a while. If you’ve laid the groundwork properly, you’ll be able to come back to your files and know where you left off instantly, rather than spend a afternoon looking at images you’ve already looked at, and figuring out why you thought they were important in the first place. This is just a waste of time. Almost as much a waste of time as trying to find D-cell batteries the day before a major storm is supposed to hit.

Speaking of which, to all in the path of Hurricane Sandy, good luck and stay safe.

How to Give (Or Not to Give)

None of us likes to contemplate the idea of the dreaded genealogical cleanout – the prospect of an exasperated descendant pitching the trunkful (or roomful) of research that consumed a lifetime.

We comfort ourselves with the idea that someday we will organize all that stuff into some succinct form (we will, we really will!) and give it safe haven in a local library, historical society or genealogy society.

Someone surely will want that footnoted family history, not to mention great-great grandfather’s pocket watch. Right?

A recent topic on the Brooklyn, N.Y. genealogy list raised the question of where to donate genealogical research pertaining to New York City families. I found it interesting in light of what I’ve heard about existing nonprofit realities.

At one collection near me, families donated documents, manuscripts and artifacts for years, and relatively little was done to organize or assess them. Many of these items are extremely valuable, while some might be the stuff of which yard sales are made. Organizing it all is a real challenge for the current staff. I suspect their experience is typical of a lot of local and regional societies. Not everyone is able to accept just anything.

Vintage clothing is one great example. Costume collections are an extremely specialized area, requiring a lot of money to maintain properly. Not every local museum or society is able to do them justice. And who wants to accept an exquisite period gown, knowing it will only rot?

Artifacts in general are a tricky proposition. Depending upon what they’re made of, how big they are and how attractive they are to burglars, these can present headaches along with historical value to curators on a tight budget. Your best bet would be to direct your gift to an institution that specializes in that sort of artifact – textiles or firearms or timepieces – rather than a general historical institution.

What about those genealogical notes and annotated family histories? Probably fewer headaches attached here, right? I think so myself, providing they are truly useful for students of local history. For example

• They’re well researched, clearly written and conscientiously cited.

•  They really are relevant to the town or region.

•  The facility in question is really able to accept the donation and make it available to future researchers.

Many local and regional institutions are mindful of people’s desire to donate and don’t want to appear ungracious, nor do they want to miss out on a valuable addition to their collections. So a lot of them post donation guidelines on their websites to help clarify things for potential donors. Read before you give, and make sure what you’re giving is in a state to be truly helpful to future generations.

What’s in a (German) Name

Every  so often, a snippet of saved information comes up that strikes me as so useful that it’s a crime not to amplify it, even at the risk of boring the more experienced among us.

I rediscovered today’s snippet  during my fall computer-file reorganization. (When the kids go back to school, I do too, figuratively speaking.)

It’s about how Germans handle first names, which can mystify the average American investigating German ancestors in the 19th century and earlier.  My mother’s paternal ancestors, for example, largely confined themselves to Johann and Georg for baby boys. Occasionally they would go wild and spring for Johann Georg. But even that combination repeats — my grandfather was one of two Johann Georgs, born six years apart. Fortunately for our sanity, Grandpa emigrated to the U.S. and began calling himself John, leaving the original form to his older brother, who remained on the family farm.

Now, a lot of us are familiar with the practice of re-using a given name for a younger sibling in the sad event that a child dies young. But that isn’t what is happening in my mother’s family tree. Having three surviving Johanns or two Georgs or a couple of Johann Georgs in the same sibling group bothered her ancestors not one bit.

Especially from a present-day U.S. vantage point, where a passion for … inventive first names is a given, this ancestral approach looks pretty strange. Also  confusing. How did they call everyone in to dinner? The answer, as you might guess, is that German baptismal names in this period were rarely the name you used every day.

Back in 2009, Rootsweb’s Hesse mailing list contained a great explanation from German member Thierry Dietrich, who spelled out the important terminology:

Vorname = First, or given name(s). If there are additional given names, there isn’t a separate term for “middle name.” Germans simply use the plural, Vornamen.

Rufname = The name you actually use, which could be an abbreviated form of the baptismal name, a middle name, or a completely unrelated name. (Dietrich gave as an example a Theresia-Maria whose Rufname was Rosemarie.)

Spitzname = The most accurate translation for the English term “nickname.” The Rufname and the Spitzname are not necessarily the same thing. It’s possible to have a Rufname and a Spitzname.

The post is archived here and is well worth a look.

In addition, Mr. Dietrich provided some insight into how first-naming practices have evolved in modern  Germany. It’s all very interesting if, like me, you have a lot of Johann Georgs to keep straight.