Not long ago, filmmaker Yael Reuveny recounted the emotional roller-coaster ride of directing her first full-length film, Farewell Herr Schwarz, a family-history documentary rooted in the Holocaust. In particular, she writes about handling a prickly interview subject – her own mother. And I think genealogists working on their own family histories may find her insights quite useful.
Early in the making of the film, Reuveny sweated out a two-hour session in her childhood home, interviewing her mother. The result felt like a disaster. “My mother is the worst interviewee imaginable,” was how Reuveny described it. “I’m beyond exhausted. This was obviously a very bad idea.” Her mother sounded forced and awkward; Reuveny was snappish and impatient. The footage was a mess, best ignored.
Except of course, Reuveny couldn’t. Four years later, with a painful family mystery retraced, it was time to review and assemble a wealth of material, and as Reuveny’s editors warned, her mother’s absence would “create a real hole in the film.” Reuveny had to face the music. She apologetically asked one of the editors to watch the old footage without her, “just in case … [although] it’s probably a waste of valuable editing time.”
Within two hours she had her feedback: “Pure gold.”
What had changed? Perspective, and passing time. As Reuveny observes, the tension and awkwardness between mother and daughter generated an energy that was peculiarly apt in a film about a mystery unsolved and even unspoken for decades. It just took a while for the interview to slip into its proper place. And it took another viewer, “a certain distance,” to see what Reuveny herself could not.
I think the lesson for those of us investigating our own family stories is that patience is key, both with our subjects and with ourselves. Questioning a relative, particularly a parent, is tricky even for those with professional training. It’s a rare family historian who sails through interviewing Mom and Dad without a chilly patch or two. The interviewer can feel as embattled as the subject.
Another important lesson: We can’t rest our reactions on our first impressions. The interview we feel doesn’t go deep enough or isn’t compelling enough might take on a different luster with the benefit of more research. Even more important is the benefit of an outside opinion. A third party might look at our allegedly frustrating material and see poignance, rather than pointlessness.
Note: Farewell Herr Schwarz, about a Polish-Jewish survivor of the Holocaust and his mysterious decision to make a new postwar life a stone’s throw from the site of the concentration camp where he was imprisoned, won the Best Documentary prize at the Haifa International Film Festival. I grind my teeth at the fact that I missed its recent run in Manhattan. In the meantime, here’s the trailer.
… That’s how long it’s been since this little blogging endeavor got off the ground.
What’s happened since 2009 in my personal genealogy hunting, you might ask? Well, I’ve had my share of discoveries, some satisfying and some simply bizarre.
Like finally confirming the identity of my Connors ancestors in Watervliet, N.Y., for example, along with their offshoots in Jersey City, which, in turn, solved a little mystery that was the subject of one of my very first posts.
I discovered that there is indeed such a thing as a “butt factory.”
There are ongoing, tantalizingly incomplete stories to unravel. For example, the great-aunt on our German side who had immigrated to New York City, unknown to anyone. How did my grandfather manage to forget to mention a sister? She was a real mystery for a few years there. I know more about her rather complicated story now, with still more to unravel (and write about, in due course).
Or the story of Patrick Hageney of Troy, N.Y.: Famine-era immigrant, tailor, question mark. There are many indications, but unfortunately no smoking-gun evidence, that he’s a brother of my great-great-grandfather Martin Haigney. Will I ever be satisfied on this point?
Or on any point? Are any of us ever completely satisfied with the state of our genealogy research?
Probably not. But stay tuned. And thanks for reading.
“They told me, ‘It must have been your grandfather or your great-grandfather.’ They thought I was lying and looked at me like I was crazy.” – Hazel Jeter, daughter (that’s right, daughter) of Civil War veteran Silas D. Mason, First Maine Cavalry
As a nice coda to Veterans Day observances, check out this National Geographic piece on a select segment of U.S. citizens: the living sons and daughters of Civil War veterans. It’s a very select group – the Geographic puts their number at less than 35 – but honestly, that’s pretty good even so, considering that Appomattox was nearly 150 years ago. The piece includes wonderful quotes from the “children,” all in their 90s and upward, along with the Geographic’s typically vivid photography.
Four years ago, I wrote about the fascination of extended genealogical timelines. The cornerstone of that post was the living grandchildren of John Tyler (1790-1862), 10th president of the U.S. from 1841-45 – as in “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” for those of you who keep track of political slogans. They are still going about their business, as evidenced by the current genealogy at SherwoodForest.org, the website of the Tyler family plantation in Virginia. One of the grandsons, Harrison Ruffin Tyler, gave a delightful interview to New York Magazine in January 2012. (By the way, I wouldn’t mind paying a visit someday to Sherwood Forest, which is still in Tyler family hands. According to the website, it even has its own ghost.)
I always love these reminders that, useful as it is to include “typical” generational ranges in sorting out genealogical problems, humans can always throw you for a loop by reproducing when they darn well feel like it.
Two years ago I was in a road-cycling crash, which left me the proud possessor of an itty-bit of metal in place of a piece of my elbow bone. It also left me extremely wary of getting back on the bike, even though I could have broken far worse things than an elbow. Like, this summer is the first time I’ve started riding farther than the supermarket. To confess all.
So when I recently puffed my way through my local park on what I optimistically called a “cross-training walk,” I almost hid behind a bush when my Very Fit Friend (who has run marathons, including the Big One at Boston) entered the path just ahead of me. But she saw me, and suggested we walk together.
Turned out that my friend, although she could still walk me into the dust if she wasn’t feeling kind, was also coming back from an injury.
I told her I didn’t know what I was thinking when I kept going on longer and longer group rides with a crowd whose attachment to bike gadgetry made me increasingly uneasy – all that watching the RPMs and rearview mirrors and heart monitors instead of the road was bound to end in grief for somebody. She told me she couldn’t believe, in retrospect, how hard she pushed herself through one of the worst winters in recent memory, dodging traffic, skidding on ice patches. While neither of us regrets our fitness goals and accomplishments, we’re both re-evaluating what we were doing, and what we want to do next.
This made me thoughtful about those times in life when the forward momentum burns fiercely enough that the risk is not in falling behind, but losing track. For instance: genealogy (of course there is a tie-in).
My hard-charging cycling summer reminds me a bit of how it feels right after I’ve made a breakthrough – like the time I finally confirmed the identity of the family to which my Connors great-grandmother belonged. Oh, that was a time! What a huge family, how many offshoots and collaterals and half-thises and step-thats! I got a bit drunk with power and adrenaline, shoveling names onto the family tree program.
But at length I did slow down, as I always do, and asked myself: What next?
I mean, I could keep adding names. But how much did I actually care about the third great-grandparents of the spouse of a first cousin twice removed? What is the value added?
A long time ago I decided that I was more interested in stories than lists. Which means that every so often I stop collecting the names and start researching the facts behind them. Which means that at genealogy conferences, sooner or later I end up being made fun of by somebody whose database entries number in the thousands rather than my paltry hundreds. (And here I was thinking my paltry hundreds are overkill.)
This is not to say that either of us is wrong. But yes, it’s about the goals, and pulling yourself up by the side of the road every so often, and checking the map, and asking yourself: What I am I doing here?
Is it really where I want to be?
 It is merely to say that I am right.
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.
I’m one of those people who struggles with the decision to take an Ancestry tree public. I’ve been torn between the desire to connect and share, and the reluctance to become part of something that’s bothered me forever: the perpetuation of mistaken associations (or just plain mistakes) when family tree information is cut and pasted without sufficient thought.
These trees online? They are works in progress. I know so much more about my lines than I did two decades ago, when I started researching them. (And boy, am I glad you can’t see some of the early trees that were on my long-ago hard drives.) I expect, if I am lucky and keep working hard, that I will know much more five or ten years from now, and these trees will keep growing and changing.
So what am I getting at? Simply:
Go ahead, use what you can. If you credit me, that would be super (and, let’s face it, decent), but you know what’s more important?
Check behind me where you can. Take my online stuff as a starting point, not the family Bible (and we all know how dicey family Bibles can be). Also, keep checking back from time to time. See what’s up. Drop me a line, compare some DNA, don’t be shy.
Above all, if something in my online universe doesn’t match something in yours …
Check. It. Out.
Don’t assume I’m right … or that you’re right, for that matter. Maybe neither of us is right. Or even, in some weird, only-in-real-life way, we will discover that both of us are right. In a world full of guys who do stuff like marry three successive wives named, say, Susan, it happens.
I will now climb down from the soapbox before it is kicked out from under me. Whoever you are, if you’re reading this, I wish you all the joy of discovery and the fun of reconnecting with long-lost relatives. But I swear, if I catch you saying that Martin Haigney (born 1828) married somebody named Mary Carroll, BECAUSE HE DIDN’T HE DIDN’T I SPENT 15 YEARS AND BEAUCOUP BUCKS INVESTIGATING THIS, I will hunt you down and … Ahem. Sorry. Got a little upset there. Better now.
Happy hunting. Really.
I know who and where I was – a tired three-year-old, napping – but only because I’ve been told.
My first conscious memory of the events of 22 November 1963 actually dates from November 1964, and is another masterpiece of toddler insularity. I was outraged that my normal fix of cartoons-cum-Romper Room was being preempted by wall-to-wall first-anniversary coverage of an event featuring an odd, wheeled vehicle bearing a large flag-draped box.
My mother’s description – That’s a caisson – added to my vocabulary, but not my understanding. Romper Room was gone, and the box was in its place. Why was this so important? Why did everyone in the wavering black-and-white images look so serious? And why did my mother look like this had just happened, while explaining it had actually happened a year ago? (Also: Have I gotten it right; could there really have been such a television program in the cartoons time slot?)
No, I can’t really write about witnessing a day when the world shook and changed. It happened when I was napping, and I grew up in its wake. I was a Catholic schoolgirl in a town with a lot of Catholics. Everybody, especially the mothers, had loved Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, revered her, really. At age six I modeled a little round white hat on the crown of my dark pageboy and a friend of my mother’s gasped and said, “Oh! You look just like Jackie!” By that point I knew without being told, without still knowing quite why, that this was a rare honor.
For years my parents kept a box full of memorabilia from that epochal weekend – the issues of Life magazine, the New York Daily News, of our New Jersey paper, the Plainfield Courier-News; shiny supplements filled with photos of the Dallas streets, the swearing-in on Air Force One, the streams of black-clad mourners in Washington. In a box on her bureau, the same box where she kept her collection of funeral cards from all the wakes, my mother kept a little pamphlet printed with an elegy on JFK, written by a student at a Catholic high school. You could tell that while it was a national death, it was somehow also a personal death. He was the first Roman Catholic president and he was killed. The teachers at parochial school told us that, not having to add: he was ours.
I was growing up in an age of assassinations, of which JFK’s was only the first: almost a prelude, felt rather than remembered, through the photos in the dog-eared magazines and the thoughtful looks on the grownups’ faces.
There are a lot of JFKs one can discuss: the historical JFK and the conspiratorial JFK and the philandering JFK, to name only a few. But here I talk about history that is personal, and in that context I find myself dwelling upon that cultural JFK: the grainy image of the Irish Catholic candidate waving to the crowd, the flashing smiles, the brief moment. The member of the tribe who gained the presidency, only to die cruelly young. The minor-chord leitmotif playing in the background of my childhood.