Not too long ago, my daughter asked me if I would look into the Danish ancestry of a “new friend” of hers – a guy named Charlie. Now Jen’s usually quite secretive about father learning anything at all about her prospective beaux, so I jumped at the chance to take a look at the ancestry of her new fellow – a guy who just might easily show up to our house for Sunday dinner. I knew I had to be a bit careful about it all, too. I wanted to make sure that I researched Charlie’s Nordic connections as respectfully as possible, not only for his sake, but to make sure that my daughter would continue to value my counsel – and not summon one of my mother’s ancient curses against me. (Little did I know that in doing all of this, my hubris and I were about to experience an embarrassing genealogical gaffe…)
Researching Charlie’s questions about his Danish ancestry went easily enough. I haven’t had a lot of experience in the Rigsarkivet, but I found many of their records on Ancestry.com and familysearch.org. The Danes look to have been great at record keeping, and aside from their naming practices (and a slight propensity to repeat an unvarying number of first names), researching “Denmark” in my living room made for an enjoyable place to look for Charlie’s “roots.” Yes, it all went together quite well, and I was happy to at least clarify two more ancestral generations for Charlie’s direct paternal line.
Charles, 6 David, 5 John, 4 Valdemar Johnson, 3 Jens, 2 Peder Jorgensen1
As I had gone about linking Charlie through his immediate generations back to that of his great-great-great-grandparents, I’d been careful to make sure that I had enough ‘connective tissue’ to support each generation. Charlie had given me the rudimentary family data to build from, and by the time I delivered my findings to him I believed myself finished with the research. Further, as I went over all of what I had found out about his ancestry, I remarked to Charlie, “Did you know that you have Italian ancestry too?” (You see, Charlie had not mentioned any other ancestry, let alone an Italian grandmother – because, indeed, he was not Italian…) Charlie, quite amazed by this, said, “Please, you must tell me how?!”
And such my friends were the beginnings of my genealogical gaffe…
Now Charlie is an educated man, got his degree from Boston University and, indeed, I’m the one who’s ‘supposed’ to be the genealogist – but boy did I miss the mark. Charlie had of course supplied his father’s direct ancestral lines (his father was David and his grandfather was John) and it had been (even in the absence of original vital records) easy enough to locate Charlie’s and his father’s dates of birth (1948 and 1976 respectively) through city directories and various indexes. However that being said, it had been up to me to fill in the blanks (as it were) from there and beyond. It all went easily enough, or so I thought, especially so when I found the obituary below – at least I thought it had. See if you can see my gaffe:
“Catherine E. Johnson, 71, of Francis Street, died peacefully on Monday, Feb. 25, 2002, in Cooperstown. She was born Sept. 27, 1930, in Herkimer, the daughter of the late Alessandro and Angelina (Macrina) Ciuffa. A lifelong area resident she was raised and educated in Herkimer where she graduated from high school. On Nov. 25, 1954, she married John W. Johnson in Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Little Falls. The shared a loving and devoted union of 41 years until his passing on June 20, 1992. She was self-employed realtor of 20 years, retiring in 1990. She was a member of the Real Estate Board and the Women’s Bridge Club of Utica. Surviving are son, David W. Johnson and his wife Jeanne of Keene, N.H.; a daughter, Karen Johnson-Kimball and her husband Wayne of Conrad, N.H.; a brother and his wife, [sic] Bernedict and Barbara Ciuffa of Kalamazoo, Mich.; three grandchildren, Charles…”
Yes, there it was! All of Charlie’s immediate ancestry tied up in a tidy little published source – and with Italian ancestry to boot (no pun intended…). Well, I quickly closed up shop here, it seemed there was nothing left to do, perhaps order originals, locate a grave or two, or a more historical obituary. Yes, and wouldn’t it be great fun to let Charlie know that his grandmother was Italian? Yes, the ancestry of Alessandro and Angelina (Macrina) Ciuffa could not be more Italian. I was so surprised that he hadn’t at least mentioned it before – I mean think of all the really great food! How could he have forgotten all of that??
Yes, the ancestry of Alessandro and Angelina (Macrina) Ciuffa could not be more Italian.
Charlie’s surprise at my “Roman proclamation” caused me to go back and re-examine my work. While I couldn’t quite believe that in addition to his Danish roots that he wasn’t also Italian, I remembered now that I’d felt slightly ‘uncomfortable’ as I whizzed past the birth year for Charlie’s father David Johnson (that of 1948). I mean it did seem a bit odd that his parents weren’t married until 1954 … but after all the obituary for Catherine (Ciuffa) Johnson clearly stated that she was “survived by son David W. Johnson” and [grandchildren including] “Charles…” The U.S., Cemetery and Funeral Home Collection, 1847- Current even offered a further confirmation that David’s mother was indeed Catherine Johnson. It felt untoward to bring up this slight ‘variance’ in polite conversation; I mean, perhaps John W. Johnson and Catherine (Ciuffa) Johnson had been married to each other earlier or even to each other twice? (Yes, I know, I know, assumptions and narratives … please don’t tell Alicia.)
Well, I don’t know how many of you have ever seen the old movie, Back to the Future, but there’s a line from the movie I like to use when someone is being an utter dunce (in this instance me) and that line is: “Hello, McFly?!” (And please, no offense to anyone born under the banner of that noble name…) You see when I went back to take a closer look at Charlie’s supposed Italian ancestry, it became pretty evident that I hadn’t done my due diligence and gone well past that obituary. The Italian ancestry in question, the very same Italian ancestry in that obituary, was that of Charlie’s step-grandmother – and despite what it said in that obit., there was not a biological tie. (Score 1 point for gaffes and take away two points away from Jeff…)
So I come to you today, heart and pride in hand, to talk about how easy it is to give into (what I like to call) “the propriety of the facts” or, in other words, facts do gossip. For me, this was a cookie cutter rookie error in documentation, and one that could have been easily resolved if I had bothered to just look a wee bit past propriety (and a damnable abstract or two) and at the actual timeline of events and relationships in getting at the truth of the matter. Sadly, I must report to you that yours truly, your very own Genealogist McFly, found no Italian ancestry for Charlie. (Shocker!) There is, however, a silver lining to my silly remedial gaffe. My daughter Jen has had a good laugh over dad’s genealogical foibles, and her new friend Charlie has give me another chance – this time to examine the ancestry of his actual not-so Italian paternal grandmother’s line. Hopefully, this time I will be paying a bit closer attention to details, and enjoy a chance at saying arrivederci to my own personal nemesis, the terribly myopic Genealogist McFly.
 Rigsarkivet – the Danish National Archives.
 FindAGrave.com memorial no. 90264322 for the obituary of Catherine (Ciuffa) Johnson (1930-2002).
 Alessandro Ciuffa (1898-1968) and Angelina Macrina (1907-1995).
 As viewed on Ancestry.com, though I suspect this “second” verification was an extraction from information contained in the first, that of Catherine Johnson’s original obituary.
 Back to the Future, a 1985 science fiction film by Robert Zemeckis, and per backtothefuturefandom.com, the expression “Hello, McFly?” is heard whenever [character] “Biff demanded better than average ‘thinking,’ he knocked a victim on the head with a closed fist saying, ‘Hello? Hello? Anybody home [McFly]?’”