Memories of (yet another) Catholic girlhood.

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.


This Makes Me So Happy …

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.


I Can’t Even … No.

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.


Vitals: Gems, A Dud, And Wishful Thinking

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.”

That’s better.

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.


Seen: Cemeteries, Mysteries and Storms

I did promise I’d be back, so here I am. I have been working hard in the meantime.

Really! Vacation’s been over for something like a week-and-a-half. And the genealogy’s been humming. In addition to the Big Breakthrough I stumbled upon just before I left, there was a Big Brown Envelope awaiting me in the pile of while-you-were-away mail, courtesy of “New York State Department of Health — GENEALOGY.” And we all know what that means. Busy, busy, busy. Citations, citations, citations. More on that anon.

Also, for some reason the news has had stuff in it. That wacky news. For instance:

• A man abandoned as a baby in a New Jersey store in 1964 still doesn’t know who he is, but recent DNA testing results might help.

This slide show is a beautifully photographed, and extremely depressing, view of how neglect and overgrowth have completely overrun historic Woodland Cemetery in Newark, N.J. (By the way, if you think you have ancestors there and are seeking burial location information, two wonderful people named Mary Lish and John Sass might be able to help.)

• But here is some lovely news: Intense genealogical sleuthing makes possible a surprising reunion of extended family seven decades after the Holocaust.

Special Superstorm Sandy Edition: The Archaeologist has spent some quality time in recent weeks on the beautiful beaches of Belmar, N.J., where the boardwalk is back (although pavilions and other touches must await the summer of 2014). It’s been wonderful to float in the waves and contemplate the concept of human resilience. But as this story from Union Beach, N.J. indicates, the road back from Superstorm Sandy continues to be a long one. This event is remaking the face of the coastline, for better or worse.

So it’s good to see that people are chronicling this long and epic road. Check out the oral-history projects below; maybe you can share a Superstorm Sandy story of your own.

New Jersey:

Heroes of Superstorm Sandy, a project sponsored by the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

New York City:

Stories of Super Storm Sandy, sponsored by the Brooklyn Historical Society and the New York City chapter of the Association of Personal Historians.

Long Island:

A Hofstra University professor, Mary Anne Trasciatti, is collecting stories from residents of Long Beach and surrounding communities, according to a Wall Street Journal article.

If you know of other Superstorm Sandy oral-history initiatives, please drop a note in the comments.


Blog Note: Going Coastal

The Archaeologist recently experienced one of those painful paradoxes.

This is the one where a person is about to depart for a seashore holiday, surrounded by boxes of Indispensable Seashore Stuff like sunscreen, bug spray, beach towels and the seventeen boxes of mac ‘n’ cheese that the offspring are not using as their main nutritional foundation, they’re just emergency rations, honestly …

Ahem. To resume: What would be A Very Frustrating Thing in such circumstances?

A breakthrough on a genealogical brick wall, that’s what. Of all the things to happen when one is about to depart from one’s hometown library haunts and Internet connections!

Alas, we cannot pick and choose the timing of these matters. So a  full account of the excitement must wait until I return.

Meanwhile, I have had to content myself with other people’s ancestors. On Block Island, I took the three-mile (round-trip) walk from the ferry slip to the island’s hilltop cemetery — very much worth it for the exercise, the peaceful atmosphere, and the lovely view:

Cemetery atop the hill, Block Island.

Meanwhile, on the mainland, there have been nice sunsets.

photo (7)

And sea breezes.

photo (8)

But as nice as it is to get away, it will also be very nice to get back home. And get digging.

See you soon.


My Show: How Do You Think You Spell That?

I married into one of the easy names. Once in a blue moon, someone tries to spell it  “Linch,” the way my husband’s ancestors did in 18th-century Virginia, but basically, it’s easy. (To spell, not to research, which I realize is a whole other story.)

In contrast, my birth name is made for alternate spellings. I use what my great-great-grandfather settled upon in the 1870s. More likely, someone settled upon it for him, since the evidence is abundant that my immigrant ancestor was illiterate, signing his mark for important papers well into his old age. Starting in the 1872 West Troy directory, my branch spelled their surname “Haigney” and Haigneys they remained, thank God.

But research still must account for the alternate spellings random officials bestowed upon us. And with the spellings other Haigney families liked better.

Searching for possible extended family of my immigrant ancestor, I recently concluded an in-depth Troy city-directory search for the Haigney surname. I limited myself to reasonable variations, based on what I’ve encountered in 15+ years of research: Hagney, Heagney, Heaganey, Heagany, Hageny, Hagany, Haigney/Heigney/Haigeney/Heigeney and Hegney/Higney. Again, reasonable:  For sanity’s sake, I did not attempt to mind-meld with the sort of thinking that led a 1900 census enumerator to call my great-great-grandfather “Haggemy.” (Although if I saw one of these in the directory, of course I’d look hard at it.)

Two funny things about this name: On the one hand, it’s really very rare, however you spell it. For instance, when I searched for my great-great-grandfather in the Irish Family History Foundation’s baptisms database, I found only 10 Martin Haigneys (this includes variants) for all of Ireland in 1793-1911. It’s easy to get spoiled with searches like that.

On the other hand, the abundant spelling variations, and the freedom with which 19th-century Haigneys employed them, are a challenge to the confident pronouncement of my elders: “If they’re a Haigney, we must be related.”

Who is everyone, anyway? And what is our name? Sometimes after an intensive search, seeing all the variations play out, a surname starts looking like a funhouse mirror. How much of it belongs to me, and how much of it belongs to some 19th-century courthouse clerk’s imagination of how those Gaelic noises were supposed to look?

When I was a child, it seemed that my father and his siblings were the only Haigneys in the whole world. Then the Internet showed us that there were others, not as abundant as Smiths, certainly, but we no longer existed in a vacuum.

And then the genealogical databases expanded to give panoramic views of how fluid spelling was of this surname, how it varied not just from family to family, but changed within individual lifetimes. It was also apparent that not all Haigney families were created equal. Some U.S. groups, like mine, were poor immigrants who found opportunities through army service and industrial jobs. Others gravitated quickly toward white-collar employment like clerking and teaching.

What do these educational and economic differences mean? How do they play out with Haigneys in other parts of the world – the ones who stayed in Ireland, the ones who migrated to England and Australia? Why did my immigrant ancestor grow up in County Tipperary, when many accounts state with confidence that the Haigney surname is welded to County Tyrone? Are those Hagneys and Heaganys in the Troy directories closely connected to my West Troy Haigneys?

What, in short, is really in a name? It’s one of the background questions that keep my fascination with genealogy humming along.


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