Recently I had an opportunity to assist someone through a consultation. She was searching for the Lithuanian origins of her great-great-great-grandparents, James and Anna Wassel. The information sent to me prior to the consultation had me hitting my head against the same brick walls that she and her family had experienced, and I was getting nervous that I might not be able to offer much in the way of guidance when we met. However, the morning of the consultation, I took another look at the family and two things jumped out at me that I had overlooked previously – undoubtedly because I didn’t have all my attention on the problem (the hazard of working a genealogical reference desk). Continue reading Generations and geography
As I prepared for a recent visit to Europe, I conducted some preliminary research, both on the new destinations I would be visiting and on my ancestral patrilineal village, where I would be staying for a few days. Like many readers, I revel in the historical aspects of travel, and I try to make connections to my personal genealogy whenever possible. Understanding the context in which an ancestor lived adds so much more complexity and depth to characters who may otherwise only appear in birth, marriage, and death records. Paying attention to details that are not immediately relevant can often lead to great future discoveries. Continue reading What they endured
Long before the shock and bewilderment of DNA evidence, some of us can pinpoint moments when we found family secrets profoundly disturbing. In April 1980, at the wake of my Nana’s brother Harry Rhodes of Wareham, Massachusetts, I overheard this aside: “Harry’s mother died having a back-room abortion.” These words stunned me because I thought I knew all the elements of the turbulent childhood of Harry and his siblings: Following the death of their mother Marion (Sylvia) Rhodes from “influenza,” her oldest child, Walter, age 9, went to live with grandparents and the other four children were placed in a New Bedford orphanage. When their father remarried in 1917, his new wife Mae created a home for the Rhodes children, except for Walter who chose to remain with his grandparents. Mae also erased all ties to the Sylvia family. On the marriage records of her step-children, including Nana, they gave Mae’s name – not Marion’s – as their mother. Continue reading My genealogical “coming of age”
When I was a kid enjoying idyllic summers in Provincetown, a familiar face in the West End of town where I stayed was that of Johnny Oliver, born in Provincetown in 1899 to Manuel Oliver, who had emigrated from Brava, Cape Verde, and Mary Boatman, born in Provincetown to Portuguese parents. During my childhood, there were any number of “characters” in Provincetown, those otherwise regular, hardworking folks who just seemed to have a rhythm all their own. Johnny was one of them.
He was old enough to be my Dad’s father, but he and my Dad, who had grown up in Provincetown, seemed to hit it off and I often saw them jawing out in the street, Johnny always animated no matter what story he was telling, and my Dad enjoying every minute of it. Continue reading Past is present
On the train from Washington D.C. to Boston this past summer, I sat next to an immigration lawyer by chance. Thanks to reading immigration case files all the time, I was proud that I could at least identify a few documents and steps in the immigration process he mentioned. I remember remarking how difficult it must be to understand the immigration process and navigate it successfully. Thinking about the encounter in hindsight, and after interning at the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center for a year, I realized that the immigration process being difficult, tedious, and full of unexpected challenges isn’t exactly new.
During the Second World War, the U.S. State Department was notorious for its role in impeding the immigration of refugees, particularly Jews. Reflecting fears about German spies, the Department issued a so-called “relatives rule,” which instructed U.S. consuls abroad to deny visas to any applicant with close relatives in Nazi-occupied territory. Continue reading An immigration obstacle course
Unfortunately, over the last month I had to visit a few different funeral homes. On one visit, my husband asked why funeral homes always resembled a house. Knowing a bit about the evolution of how we handle death in America, I explained that it is because a wake or viewing used to take place within the person’s home. Funeral “parlors” or “homes” are intentionally designed to resemble the parlors in homes where we once laid out our dead for visitation.
This question led me to revisit some of my old studies about death in America and how handling the dead went from being a very personal and hands-on experience for the survivors to something that is handled by professionals outside of the home. Continue reading Facing death
Like so many passionate genealogists, I descend from proud and feisty Irish famine immigrants. While the details of how my great-great-grandfather Thomas Healy made his way to the United States have not come down to us, his life here and in Ireland became clearer thanks to a tremendous amount of research time, more than a little bit of luck, and some rather unique research tools. Continue reading Texture and depth
Why should you pay attention to your ancestor’s occupation? Are you merely filling in the details of a life or looking for an essential clue to break down a brick wall? Each of our ancestors is unique – however, figuring out what makes them unique can be challenging. Finding your ancestor’s occupation may help distinguish your Ebenezer Smith from other Ebenezer Smiths, particularly if your ancestor’s occupation was something other than farmer or laborer. Continue reading Finding your ancestor’s occupation
In my mind’s eye there’s always a crow, a silly old crow really. It follows me as I search after forgotten things, and spies out the burial place where my ancestor, Erastus Lee, ought to be – but isn’t. Indifferently, that darn crow watches me, as my mind traverses the Wolverine State landscape of St. Clair County and the Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, there, in Wales Township. Like me, the old crow knows that, lost or not, this is where Erastus’s grave surely has to be. True enough, too, the crow knows that Wales Township is a place that neither of us (unless it’s the old crow) will ever get to explore. And, as much as it chagrins me to say, I’ve come to accept that there will always be “those places” in family research that many of us will never get to see. Places remaining only approachable in the mind’s eye – and visited on occasion by that old crow.
My own phantom bird travels there, northeast to Wales Township, revealing peaceful surroundings but few possibilities about the grave of Erastus Lee. Continue reading As the crow flies
At some point during the first decade of 2000s, I went to see Hall and Oates at the Orpheum Theater in Boston. They were on a tour to promote a Christmas music album they released earlier that year, but I don’t think I knew that and I don’t know that many people in the audience did either. I went there to see Sarah Smile performed live, just like everyone else. When they were about to start their fifth consecutive Christmas folk song of the night, the entire theater whined in unison, and Daryl Hall was not amused. A known curmudgeon, he motioned for the band to stop playing before he disembarked the clown car of complaints about the esthetic and operational state of the theater. He said that he had seen quite a few such old auditoriums, that the one we were all together in at that moment was one of the most beautiful, and what a shame for the current owners not to value its charm and elegance. Continue reading Sold for a song