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.


After the storm: Fighting for a slice of local history

Life is not a disaster movie. This is generally a good thing. But one important way in which real life falls short is its lack of a boffo end scene. Real life is full of messy loose ends and aftermaths that won’t quit.

The rest of the country may have moved on from Hurricane Sandy, but Sandy hasn’t moved on from the Northeast, as evidenced by this item by Mark Di Ionno of the Star-Ledger on the Keyport (NJ) Steamboat Dock Museum. The museum collection was a unique take on the area’s history as a steamboat hub, moving Jersey produce and timber to consumers in New York City. Read how the museum volunteers performed a sad triage as the storm approached, “putting red dots on the things we knew we had to move,” as a longtime coordinator said. 

Volunteers managed to save a lot — maps and deeds and photographs; examples of glass that reflected the local bottlemaking industry. But they just couldn’t move everything in time, and Sandy’s raging storm surge gutted what was left. “Heartbeaking,” says one of the museum’s founders.

Slowly, volunteers are salvaging what they can, and thinking about a new home for the Steamboat Dock Museum. Here’s wishing them well as they do what local history buffs around the country do best — reclaiming a unique heritage for future generations.

GSNJ Meeting: New Date, Great Topic UPDATED

The Genealogical Society of New Jersey, as noted previously, was compelled to reschedule their annual meeting last month, what with Superstorm/Hurricane/Whatever It Was, We Hate It Sandy reorganizing life for everyone in so many unwelcome ways.

The rescheduled meeting is this Saturday, Dec. 8, at 10:30 a.m. in the Pane Room of the Alexander Library at Rutgers University. Gayle Ann Livecchia will speak, appropriately enough, on “Using University Archives for Genealogical Research.” UPDATE: The society announced a change in speaker and topic: Claire Keenan Agthe will speak on  “Copyright for Genealogists.” Date, time and place remain the same. And hey, it’s also a great topic.

The meeting and lecture are free and open to the public, but do RSVP by emailing

The Alexander Library is at 169 College Ave., New Brunswick. Check the Genealogical Society of New Jersey website for more information!

After Sandy, A Haven for Lost Photos

It was 20 years ago, but I can still hear it as if it were yesterday — the voice of a friend on the phone as we battened down the hatches for Hurricane Andrew, knowing we were leaving but overwhelmed at choosing what to take and what must stay.

“Grab whatever photos you can,” she said. “Grab the things you can’t replace.”

Here in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy, every day brings new stories of good news and bad news from towns we love. And in  yesterday’s New York Daily News came a heartening tale about reuniting storm survivors with those irreplaceable family photos.

Jeannette Van Houten set up a Facebook page to post more than 3,000 family photos that were found strewn around Union Beach, New Jersey, a small seaside town destroyed by the storm. It’s giving families — many who have lost everything — a chance to reunite with some treasured mementos.

Van Houten’s Facebook page can be found here.

GSNJ Annual Meeting Postponed

Among the many, many events rescheduled or relocated due to Sandy’s trip through the Northeast is the annual meeting of the Genealogical Society of New Jersey (GSNJ). According to membership chair Joan Lowry:

Due to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and the potential for additional bad
weather this week, GSNJ has postponed the Annual Meeting  that was to be
held this coming Saturday, 10 November.  The meeting will be rescheduled
shortly. More information will be posted on GSNJ website and by email as
soon as it becomes available.

Stay tuned!

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.