The Family Lens, With Perils and Rewards

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.


A Shadow Across Generations

For me the search for family history began as a search for medical history — as it probably does for a lot of people. So I was fascinated by this ABC News story about a medical condition that has stalked a family for four generations.

Reading about Lisa Salberg’s struggles for answers about hypertrophic cardiomyopathy reawakens my respect for what family history can reveal about our health — as well as the limitations of those revelations. Her family’s terrible dance with the condition goes back at least a century to a great-great uncle, an Irish immigrant who died suddenly in a New Jersey mine at the age of 19. As the story points out, there is a strong genetic component in hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which affects the muscles of the heart and, left undetected, can result in sudden cardiac arrest in otherwise healthy young people.

But there’s no simple, smoking-gun clue to who is most vulnerable — there are over 1,000 genes associated with cardiomyopathy. For this reason, many experts do not consider genetic testing an effective screening tactic. Apparently it yields false positives as well as negatives.

Although this condition isn’t in my own family, as far as I know, it was my father’s fatal heart attack at age 59 that eventually got me going seriously about my genealogy. Looking back, I began with a pretty simplistic assumption. I knew my father, and both his parents, had died before age 60 of heart attacks. (My grandfather was 49 when he died.) When I began going back further than that, I thought I would find a string of similar deaths. But instead, I found a cluster of ancestors, including my great-great-grandfather, who lived into their eighties and beyond. Unsurprisingly, I also found a lot of people who died from things we can treat today — tuberculosis, pneumonia and the like. The picture, in short, was a lot muddier than I’d imagined.

So reading today’s story reawakened my respect for the mysteries we can encounter at the intersection of genealogy and genetics. The connections are a lot more intricate than I naively assumed when I began studying my family years ago.

Sentimental Sunday: Rules to Live By

Truly great ideas leave a real mark –  the one that occurs when you smack yourself upside the head while wondering: “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Take this family history project from my friend Helen that is simplicity itself. She calls it her “Family Rules Project.”

Many families have the sort of rules she means. They’re the commandments of everyday life passed on by the elders, often when the elders are trying to get the kids out of their hair. They cover such basics as what constitutes fair play, when to take your hat off and who gets the last chip in the bag.

The foundations of civilization, in other words.

Helen came up with a funny and often touching compilation by canvassing her extended family. She grouped the results in categories such as “Observations,” “Tips,” and “Health and Safety.”

Some examples of her clan’s ancestral wisdom:

 If your mother is watching, wear a helmet.

Remove the Plumpy the Plumtree card from the Candyland game. No one likes to go back that far. (Ed. Note: True, too true.)

 Cook enough + some. You never know who will stop by.

 Little kids never strike out and always make it to base.

For the love of Mike,” “For Pete’s sake,” and “Son of a gunare acceptable alternatives to swear words in exasperating situations.

When she had a good bunch of these sayings, Helen sent them around again, including a final sheet tacked on to the end with blank spaces for everyone to write down favorite sayings that might have been forgotten.

It’s a simple and yet powerful idea,  awakening shared memories and humor in a direct, creative way. It would work wonderfully in partnership with vintage family photos, but the words themselves are vivid enough to stand on their own. Helen is busy packaging her research into a book to distribute to family members. I can’t think of a nicer keepsake gift for the holidays.

What were your family’s rules to live by?

Happy Father’s Day

My dad, circa 1927 -- and what was that thing he was standing on, anyway?

A quick nostalgic Father’s Day detour here, with what I think is the earliest photo we have of my father, Peter Haigney. Not to say there might not be an earlier picture of him somewhere. But this is the earliest one that we had among those rescued from the Evil Magnetic Photo Albums. It was taken in South Brooklyn when he was probably 3 years old, which would mean about 1927.

The full picture is a wonderful shot of Dad and some of his siblings standing on a wooden, platform-like structure. This structure defied explanation for many years, until recently, when a friend who saw it said she thought it might well be the entrance to a coal cellar, having remembered a similar set-up at her grandparents’ Brooklyn house. (Thanks, Karen!)

Dad died of a heart attack when I was 23, so Father’s Day went on hiatus for me personally for a while, until the birth of my first child. Meanwhile I lived it vicariously through other fathers in my life — my brother, my friends and of course, my father-in-law, all of whom got me in the habit of thinking about Father’s Day in broader terms.

Sure, it’s a day to miss the fathers who aren’t here anymore to pretend great joy at the latest bad necktie gift. But it’s also nice to send good wishes to all the dads out there who, I hope, are enjoying the day, whatever color the necktie turned out to be. Happy Father’s Day, guys.

Newspaper Database: Troy (N.Y.) 1834-38

I’m quite excited, and not just because it’s the second time in as many weeks that I’ve managed to sneak a reference to the Whig Party into the blog. The Troy Irish Genealogy Society has a new addition to its Troy Newspaper Project:

The Troy (N.Y.) Daily Whig, Deaths and Marriages, 1834-1838

This is the sixth data set added to the newspaper collection, and includes 821 reports of deaths and the names of 1,749 brides and grooms. All of it is from a period that considerably predates 1880, when civil registration became law in New York State.

Project coordinator Bill McGrath shared these highlights:

• Most of the records are from the Capital District area, i.e., Troy and neighboring cities such as Albany, Watervliet (West Troy) and Schenectady.

• A significant number of records came from nearby states such as Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey.

• In the next few months, the society plans to add more of the 28,000 death and marriage records reported in 40 years of the Troy Daily Whig from  1839-78. They’re also working on a database of 4,000 burial records from St. Mary’s Cemetery in Troy.

Gut Reactions: A 19th-Century Medical Adventure

I’ve blogged already about the Civil War pension records pertaining to Martin Haigney, my great-great-grandfather who served at the Watervliet Arsenal in West Troy, N.Y. Previously I wrote about the joys of discovery, the fun of organizing all that paperwork and the larger social implications of the pension system — all lofty, rewarding stuff.

Today, however, we descend into the bowels of the file. Literally.

It started at the dining room table, which was probably not the best place to be dissecting a Civil War medical record. Still, when I noticed not one, but four diagnoses of cholera in Martin’s medical history, I couldn’t help blurting out my astonishment.

“Cholera? What’s that? Is it serious? Do you throw up?” The eldest daughter suddenly lost interest in her cinnamon Pop-Tarts.

“Four times? That’s highly unlikely,” said Mr. Archaeologist, who in real life is an actuary and keeps track of statistics and stuff.

“Shush, you two,” I said, re-checking the page. [Note: Mr. Archaeologist is a casualty actuary, not a life actuary, so it was OK to shush him. — Ed.]

Yes, there it was on the record, four times. Here is the transcribed list from a War Department memo of 24 January 1899:

  • Aug. 7 to 9 54, Cholera Morb.;
  • Sept. 18 to 20, 54, Diarrhea;
  • Mar. 5 to 8, 55, Pneumonia;
  • Aug. 29 to Sept. 1, 57, Sick;
  • Nov. 13 to 15, 57, Influenza;
  • Aug. 16 to 19, 59, Cholera Morb.;
  • Aug. 8 to 12, 60, Diarrhea;
  • Sept.  6 to 9, 61, Cholera Morb.;
  • Nov. 2 to 4, 61, (no diagnosis);
  • Aug. 20, 62, Diarrhea;
  • Feb. 2 &3, 64, Diarrhea;
  • Mar. 17 to 30, 64, Measles;
  • June 9 to 11, 64, Diarrhea;
  • Aug. 5 to 7, 64, Dysentery;
  • Jan. 23 to 29, 65, Tonsillitis;
  • July 11 to 12, 65, Diarrhea;
  • Jan. 5 to 12, 66, Dysentery;
  • June 29 to July 1, 66, Rheumatism from exposure to cold & rain, ret’d to duty as – Hagney, Corp[? illegible];
  • July 24 to 26, 66, Cholera Morbus;
  • Jan. 19 to 21, 67, Lumbago, ret’d to duty;
  • Nothing further found

“Eeeww,” said the eldest daughter, who had managed to finish her Pop-Tarts anyway.

“That’s some gut,” said Mr. Archaeologist brightly. [Note: Actually, his comments have been somewhat edited — Ed.]

Indeed. But what was going on with all those reports of cholera? Everyone knows how how swiftly cholera claimed its victims. From what I’ve read, it was possible to survive it back in the day, once. But to have it four times and live to get a pension? C’mon.

It turns out this is a classic example of reading a 19th-century list with 21st-century eyes. The clue is in the fourth instance, where the diagnosis is spelled out as “cholera morbus.” A quick Google led me to the Wikipedia entry on gastroenteritis, where my mystery was solved, although I had to scroll to the bottom of the entry for the payoff.

Before the 20th century, the term “gastroenteritis” was not commonly used. What would now be diagnosed as gastroenteritis may have instead been diagnosed more specifically as typhoid fever or “cholera morbus”, among others, or less specifically  as “griping of the guts”, “surfeit”, “flux”, “colic”, “bowel complaint”, or any one of a number of other archaic names for acute diarrhea. Historians, genealogists, and other researchers should keep in mind that gastroenteritis was not considered a discrete diagnosis until fairly recently.

The listing of my great-great-grandfather’s ailments certainly seems to point to a chronic gastrointestinal condition. Or maybe to a chronically compromised drinking water supply.

So consider “cholera morbus” your archaic diagnosis of the day. And since I’m feeling generous, here’s an extensive list of archaic disease terminology to consult at your leisure.

I recommend waiting until after breakfast, however.

Sentimental Sunday: Routines and Rituals

Note: Posting was light last week because of a death in the extended family, which prompted this post. It isn’t exactly genealogy, I’ll admit. But it IS sentimental.

What takes you by surprise is how practiced you’ve become at this routine.

The long-distance phone call, answered with a pleasure that vanishes with the bad news. The day spent conferring with your brothers and sisters, discussing logistics. Who can make the funeral, and who can’t? Who’s carpooling with whom?

The most appropriate outfit for the funeral is always at the cleaners. Why is this? Never mind; just get down there to liberate it before they close for the day. And print out the directions to everyplace (when are you going to get a GPS, already?).

A day later, you rattle down the expressways and over the bridges to a church in an area you dimly remember from childhood visits. Or maybe you just think you remember it. There have been many morning funeral Masses in many sunny churches. (Except for your father’s, where everything seemed dark, which can’t be right, because he was buried on a broiling, bright August day.)

So many little packages of Kleenex, discreetly unearthed from purses and pockets. Nobody wants to come unprepared. (“Make sure you have lots of tissues,” the church secretary told you and one of your sisters the day before your mother’s funeral. “You may not think you’re going to cry in front of everyone, but you will.” Your sister, furious, said the secretary had no right to make assumptions about such a thing, and she stayed dry-eyed the next day. But only at church.)

People do cry. Including yourself, including at funerals where the death was expected, the illness long. There is always something that breaks your heart and your composure. Sometimes it’s just the sheer weight of all those past funerals. Singing the hymns helps, if it’s a singing kind of crowd. But Irish families, who love to sing at parties, don’t always do that sort of thing at funerals.

The ride to the cemetery always snaps you back to attention. Clinging to your spot in a long procession of cars winding through neighborhood streets and crowded parkways is a tradition in your big Northeastern family. Someone always gets lost somewhere. There was a huge problem once trying to get to Holy Cross in Flatbush, involving your father and a wrong turn or two that he never discussed afterward. Determined not to become a family story this time out, you grip the steering wheel grimly, refusing to let civilians cut in on the procession. Too bad for them.

After the cemetery, there is lunch. The restaurant is an old favorite of the aunts and uncles and cousins. You went to your first big grown-up party there. Your 13-year-old has been there, too, although she would not remember, being one at the time. The decor and the menu are unchanged. Ditto the waiters, unsmiling but fast, quiet and efficient. There is great pleasure in eating and talking with all the cousins, catching up. When you were younger, you wasted a lot of energy feeling guilty about taking pleasure in such a thing, on such a day. Now you just roll with it.

All too soon, it’s time to go. You need to beat the traffic at the bridge crossings. Everyone hugs, and the cousins ask whether you will be all right, going all the way back to Jersey. Of course you will be. It isn’t really that far. Unlike the distance from the time when the parents and the uncles and the aunts were all alive, when the parties and fights and jokes were epic, when you were one of the kids.