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.
A Google maps tour of old Red Hook, by Adrienne Onofri.
This map includes sites where lived Brooklynites who served in World War II, along with historic landmarks and just a lot of interesting information about how the neighborhood evolved. So wonderful that someone took the time to do this; it’s already answered a question or two I have about some Red Hook places.
Also, since it’s Wednesday (Hump Day) and all, I thought I’d give you something else that always makes me so happy: the final scenes of the 1982 movie My Favorite Year. I never tire of the touching performance by Peter O’Toole as an over-the-hill matinee idol doing a guest turn on a live-television variety hour.
And my mother always said it was a spot-on portrait of early-1950s New York City.
The story of a 93-year-old woman who was mugged visiting her childhood home in Manhattan is just … ragemaking.
I was relieved to read that the woman and her daughter suffered only “bumps and bruises” when the accused assailant, who offered to take them up to see the family’s old apartment, promptly proceeded to mug them. But how horrible that an innocent trip to take scrapbook pictures and revisit childhood memories should end in such a violation of trust.
I don’t know what to say about someone who would coolly trap and exploit someone like that, I really don’t.
What makes me even angrier is remembering the many times I’ve benefited from the goodwill of strangers in strange cities. Their kindness is an eloquent rejoinder to this contemptible person’s behavior.
The Big Brown Envelope of New York Vitals from Albany lingered in the pile of post-vacation mail for about a second. That’s because getting vitals from New York State is about as carefree a process as snagging a breakfast reservation to Cinderella’s Royal Table at Disney World.
Just kidding! It is not THAT bad! Still, in the interest of full disclosure: The last time an envelope from Albany arrived, I was high as a kite on painkillers following elbow surgery, but I came roaring back to alertness at the sight of a return address that read “Department of Health.” Mr. Archaeologist had no idea a zombie could open an envelope that fast.
This time was no different. Shoving silly nothings such as credit-card bills and municipal tax reminders aside, I tore into the envelope, to be rewarded with a treasure trove of data. In a lot of cases I was getting confirmation, not discovery. Overall, though, it was a satisfying haul.
There was only one dud, but it was a tough one. The certificate I thought might be for my great-great-grandfather Patrick Connors turned out to be for an 18-year-old; clearly not my Patrick, who should have been at least in his fifties.
“So you guessed wrong,” said Mr. Archaeologist helpfully.
“I do NOT guess,” I said coldly.
“Excuse me. I meant your hypothesis turned out to be incorrect.”
Well, it was true about my guess … I mean, my hypothesis … oh, let’s just come clean; this was a great example of wishful thinking. In my defense, when I ordered up the certificate, I didn’t know everything I know now. But still: I’d had a burial card for Patrick from St. Agnes Cemetery, Menands, that read 10 March 1882. When I went to search the death index microfiches, all I could find for a Patrick Connors who died in West Troy was a death on 18 September 1883. Maybe the burial card was somehow in error. (Although these St. Agnes cards haven’t been wrong yet. See? Wishful thinking.) Or maybe the death was reported some time after the fact.
The day after sending in the request, I turned up an Albany County probate filing that stated my ancestor’s death was 10 March 1882, in other words, what the burial card said. If I’d had the probate filing 24 hours earlier, I’d have snapped out of it. Oh, well. The request was already on its way.
What now? Back to the index, I guess, and see what I can see again. Did I really, truly check all the name spelling variations? Did my eyes cross over one listing too many?
It is helpful to get a reminder from time to time about how important it is to keep your cool and not let the desire for a quick solution override common sense. This is, of course, a great life lesson in general, but in genealogy, it is particularly pertinent.