Monday, November 23, 2015

Labeling Photographs: Memory and Mourning

Have you ever wondered why some of your inherited family photographs are impeccably labelled, and others are unfortunate blank canvases?

My maternal grandfather recently passed away, and I inherited a handful of photographs. Not the real old kind, just a few pictures from my parents' wedding through approximately my 8th grade graduation. Almost all were unlabeled, and the ones my grandmother had labeled were vague or incomplete. "Gail's wedding" or "July 16, 1997."

Luckily, I was able to identify the people and places in almost all of them, and could give at least an educated guess as to approximate dates. So when I got home from my mom's house the other night, I set right to labeling the pictures.

I found myself being more specific than usual, with places in particular. I realized that the impending sale of my grandparents' home, the home where my mother grew up and where my cousins and I spent so much of our childhood, was driving me. Scribbling the street address, over and over, on the backs of 4x6 prints, somehow made me feel like I was doing my part to keep the memory of Grandma and Grandpa's house alive. (I was there only days earlier. The race to "keep memories alive" can be premature or even irrational.)

But this influenced my labeling throughout the collection. I added street addresses to pictures taken in my current house, in my parents' house, anywhere I recognized. I was aiming for consistency, yes, but I was also imagining a future where we've moved out of the home we love and have only pictures to remember it by. A future where I've passed away and my children struggle to remember the address of the apartment in NYC where we spent the first years of our marriage. Or where my kids - who will only ever know the apartment my in-laws downsized to - can't picture them living in the big house in the suburbs where my husband spent his happy childhood. Will addresses on the back of photographs change any of that? Not by much. They can't bring back a grandfather, unsell a house, or give my son any real memories of the apartment where he spent the first 10 weeks of his life. But they can make me feel like I tried.

I wonder what my kids, my descendants, the strangers who find my albums in a thrift store will think when they see how well-labelled some - but not all - of my pictures are. I can't imagine that they will even begin to follow my thought processes.

Have you ever though about what motivated the people creating the records you use?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Family History through Song: Abbatte i manine

My grandfather, Frank Gatto, passed away on October 7, 2015. He was 88. My son was 17 months old. I'll be forever grateful that they had the chance to know each other.

Grandpa was a bit of a one-trick pony when it came to babies. He sang the same Italian clapping song, to every baby, every time he saw them.

These days, whenever my son sees a picture of his "Pop," he starts clapping his hands. I love that there's such a physical way for my not-quite-verbal toddler to tell us he remembers. (Of course, I had to run out of the wake in tears the first time he did it at the funeral home.)

As far as we could tell, the song was mostly nonsense. After spending 8 years studying Italian and a semester abroad, I could pick out a few words here or there, but couldn't make sense of the whole thing. Neither could any of my other relatives, no matter how much Italian they'd studied. (Grandpa was the last native speaker in our family, but spoke a Brooklyn-ized dialect.) Grandpa translated the lyrics as "Clap your hands/Daddy's coming home/He's going to bring you candy."

As best I could pick out, Grandpa's song went like this:

Abbate i manine
Cadame ne tata
Annuzhe a lica bette
A do e da li da!

Clearly, that translates to:

Clap your little hands
Something Something [papa?]
Something Something Something
Something Something Something

But in the past month, as we've spent a lot of time clapping hands in memory of Grandpa, I finally googled, and learned that there are apparently dozens of variations on this song sung in Italy. They typically mean pretty much what Grandpa claimed: "Clap your hands/Daddy's coming home/He's bringing candy/And [Baby's name] is going to eat it all!"

The last line, where you sub in the child's name, appeared consistently in the versions I found online but is missing from Grandpa's. This may explain why the last line of Grandpa's song sounds so particularly nonsensical.

The online version that I liked the best came from Yahoo Answers user Antony96, who says that he is from Bari (as is my family) and gives the lyrics to the song he knows as:

abbatte i manine
ka vène papé
annushe i bonbon
è tutte è tutte è tutte ( u nome d'a menénne) l'ò mangé!!

It's the closest version I've found to my grandfather's version. The second line starts with "ka," which isn't, to my knowledge, an Italian word, but which is what I always heard when Grandpa sang. Same goes for "annushe," a word I'm not familiar with but which my grandfather clearly sang. It is, somehow, incredibly validating to know that all these years, we were wrong when we thought Grandpa was making up or mangling the words.

A few of my cousins have talked about trying to learn how the song "really" goes, but I will proudly sing it the way I always knew it, and I will teach it to any future kids and grandkids I have that way, too.

Grandpa wasn't singing nonsense, he was singing dialect.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The death certificate of Mary King O'Hara: examining the document that changed everything

My 2x great-grandmother, Mary King, died on 5 November 1949 at the White Nursing Home in Brooklyn. This seems to have been a type of long-term care facility, and yet her "usual residence" is given as 505 Sixth Street, the Brooklyn row house where she had lived for many years. (A bit of newspaper searching yielded very little information about the facility, besides the fact that it was advertised as "Cheerful rooms, home atmosphere, excellent food and care. Licensed." That was a classified ad that ran frequently, maybe daily, in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle during the 1940s.) The Department of Health won't release the cause of death to anyone who can't prove that they have a reason to need it and the right to have it, so I cannot glean any information about her last days from her final illness.

NYC Department of Health, death certificate, vital record, New York City, 1949 death certificate, New York City death certificate
Death Certificate of Mary King O'Hara. 5 November 1949. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. 
The informant on this death certificate is my great-grandfather, Mary's son John J. O'Hara. He lived in the same building; he had rented an apartment from his parents, the owners, until the building was sold in 1946, and now both mother and son were presumably tenants of some other landlord. The O'Hara family had spent several years in Ireland when John was a boy, and it seems safe to say he would have met his parents' Irish relatives. He could have known the grandparents he named on this certificate. All in all, John is not the least reliable informant a death certificate could have.

Which is why it really gums up the works when the grandparents he names are not the ones I expected.

One piece of information, though, makes me wonder whether John was a truly reliable source, or whether he might instead have been confusing dates. Or was it that he had an excellent reason to get them right? Mary's date of birth is given as 3 December 1875. Her husband, also named John, had died 3 years earlier on 3 December 1946. Did John Jr. provide a date that was familiar for the wrong reason, giving his father's date of death rather than his mother's date of birth? Or was it a date he was sure to get right, forever in his mind after having lost his father on his mother's birthday just a few years ago?

Beyond the issue of her parents' names, the only slightly surprising piece of information on here is Mary's middle name, which I hadn't known, although she was routinely "Mary E." on records.

Friday, September 11, 2015

September 11, 2001

[A version of this post originally appeared on September 11, 2011.]

I've struggled with whether to blog about my memories of September 11, 2001, as suggested at Geneabloggers. It seems trite, somehow, a superficial way to treat the scariest, most vividly horrific day of my life. But I've been thinking about that day all weekend, and I want to write about it. So I'll write, and I think I may even hit "publish" when I'm done.

The night of September 11, 2001, and the afternoon of the next day, I wrote down my experiences, because I thought I'd want to remember them. I didn't realize at the time that I wouldn't be able to forget if I tried. I've never had to refer back to what I wrote when writing or telling someone how I experienced the day. The memories are too vivid, and too detailed. This will be long, I must warn you. I've tried to edit it before, and I can only revisit the memories in minute detail. They don't make any sense to me when I try to cover just the important points.

I was a sophomore in HS, in Chemistry class, when an announcement was made over the PA system. The assistant principal got on, and announced that the principal was going to make an announcement. Then the principal came on, and announced that two planes had been "purposefully" flown into the Twin Towers. My first reaction was a flash forward, to some time in the future, as I told my yet-unborn children how their grandfather had been killed the day the World Trade Center was bombed.

I specifically remember thinking "bombed," though I knew quite well that the announcement had not said that the towers had been bombed. But what word does the English language have for when you fly passenger planes into skyscrapers full of people? "Bombing" was how we conceived of terrorism at the time. It wasn't immediate that we were actually able to settle on using the word "attack" to describe what had happened that day. If you read other people's accounts of their memories, they are often full of terrified phone calls telling them to turn on the TV because "something happened in New York!" And so I thought "bombed," though I knew the word was inaccurate. But mostly, I just thought my dad was dead.

But only for a split second. Immediately thereafter, I went into what I suppose you would call "denial." It was simply inconceivable that my dad could be dead. I wouldn't be able to handle that. He just couldn't be. And so, I went about my day. "If anything's really wrong," I thought, "they'd tell me." (By "really wrong," I, in my adolescent self-centeredness, thought only of things that would affect my own life.) I had two close friends in that class who, I later found out, didn't know what at all to do with me. They knew my dad worked in the Twin Towers, but I was not at all acknowledging  the fact. I simply did my chem lab. I burned my finger on some hot glass. But I didn't talk about my dad. (My sister, a floor below me, I would later learn, was crying and leaving class repeatedly to call my mom. I, meanwhile, was acting as if everything would be okay, because, well, it just had to be.)

When my first of two periods of Chemistry was over, an unusually large number of people were called down to the office. I took comfort in the fact that Laura and I weren't among them. If anything were really wrong, they'd be calling us down to the office. All those kids who got called down, those must be the kids whose parents were injured or killed. Our dad must have been okay. It didn't occur to me that it might be hours, if not days, before some people were accounted for, and that there was no way that anyone had heard from or about my father  - or anyone else's - yet.

During our second period of Chemistry, there was another announcement: a plane had hit the Pentagon. And another: all after-school activities were cancelled. And then, after that period - we were called down to the office. I went to my locker first. I took the long way to get there. I just didn't want to hear what they might be about to tell me. I ran into a friend. She said she'd been looking for me, she wanted to talk to me. I - not at all realizing the scope of what was happening, not realizing that it must be first on everyone's mind, not just my own - thought she was going to tell me what the drama with her boyfriend at the football game Friday night had been about. Instead, she asked how I was. "I don't know," I answered. "I'm going to find out." How I was depended entirely on what they told me in the office  - and again, at this point, I assumed that "they" (the office staff? my mother? the  authorities?) would know whether Dad was okay.

Outside the office was a large crowd of students. One gave me a pinky-swear that my dad would be okay. I thought that was inane, but didn't say so. Another told me that my sister had been crying, really hard. I don't remember who that was, and I'm glad, because it made me think that Dad was dead and Laura had already been told. (She was probably just trying to let me know that my sister needed me.) Another told me to go talk to the woman wearing the red sweater. I went to talk to her. All she told me - this was supposed to be the big moment of truth - was that Virginia Ward was coming to pick me up. "I don't know who that is." But that was the name she had. A friend suggested that it might be Virginia R*****. She was the only Virginia we knew. Of course it was her. But I wasn't thinking clearly.

She came to pick us up, and then we had to go get my youngest sister at elementary school. Virginia asked me to come inside with her, since I was the oldest. In the front hall - there was a desk set up, anticipating the high demand for pulling kids out of school - a teacher told us that the kids hadn't been told yet. Virginia told me that I'd have to tell Anna, because she should hear it from family. I was lost. I felt like just a kid myself. I didn't know what was going on. How could this be my job?

As Anna left her classroom, she put her chair on her desk, just like everyone always had to do in elementary school. I seemed like such a normal, everyday, childhood movement. I couldn't believe it could coexist with what I was about to tell her. As we walked down the hall, she asked "Why are we getting picked up?" and I had to tell her. "A plane hit Daddy's office building." She reached out and held my hand. And then Virginia added, reassuringly, "But the plane hit very high up, and your Daddy's office was very low down, so I'm sure he'll be okay," or something to that effect. I only remember the beginning of the sentence, because it was new information to me. I hadn't known where the plane had hit, or remembered what floor Dad's office was on, and I hadn't thought to ask.

When we got to the house, there were lots of cars outside, and all I could think of was the scene in Cheaper by the Dozen where (spoiler alert) the kids come home after school, and they know something's wrong because of all the cars lined up outside the house, and it turns out that their father has died of a heart attack. If there are lots of cars outside, then Dad must be dead!

We went inside, where a number of my aunts and one uncle were, with my mom. Everyone was crying, and everyone hugged us. I saw Mom crying; it was to be expected. I saw several of her sisters crying; to be expected. But then I saw my dad's sister's crying face, and I knew he was dead. And then someone said something along the lines of "there's nothing we can do but wait," and I realized for the first time that no one knew anything yet. They were all just as clueless as I was. We were all waiting for news.

I remember seeing a tower fall for the first time as I walked into the TV room to greet my uncle, but I had no conscious awareness of what I was seeing. My mom went upstairs, and Virginia came over and whispered to me that maybe I should go up and check on her. This seemed uncharacteristic of me (you'll recall that I've already mentioned my adolescent self-centeredness), but I did it anyway. Mom said she just wanted to shower. I came back down. Virginia left, but soon returned with several pizzas and a few bottles of soda before leaving us to wait and watch with family. No one was hungry.

Most of my detailed recollection ends here. All the waiting was kind of a blur. I don't really know what we did with ourselves, and what I do remember, I don't remember in order. My aunt arrived, bringing with her my cousin Grace, who was not quite 2 at the time. She was, for me, literally a saving Grace. She prattled happily in baby talk, and let us occupy ourselves with something other than the news and the worry. We colored. She was just learning her colors, and that day, everything was "lello." I thought that was ironic. Or symbolic. Something. I noticed, as we stood around coloring, the outfit I was wearing - new clothes, because it was the beginning of the school year. I had on a green three-quarter sleeve shirt, with light blue jeans and a black belt. I made a mental note not to ever wear that exact outfit again - whether out of respect or superstition, I'm not quite sure, but I know I never did it.

At one point, Grace and I were alone in the play room, coloring. The phone rang. There was a bit of a commotion. I couldn't tell whether it was a good commotion or a bad commotion, and I couldn't make out anyone's words. I was terrified. For a minute, I couldn't bring myself to go into the other room. I wanted to stay where I was, pretend I hadn't heard anything, and not have to hear whatever they had learned. I forced myself to pick Grace up and go into the living room, where my mom said, "That was Lester's wife Leann. Dad and Lester are walking uptown together."

We didn't have any details - Dad and all of his friends had been trying to get in touch with their wives, but the cell phone service was overcome by demand, and most of them couldn't get through. When Lester finally reached his wife, I guess, she was given a list of numbers to call to let everyone's family know that they were alive. My family is probably not the only one that thinks fondly and gratefully of Leann, though most of us have never met her. On such a terrible day, she was the one tasked with the telling of good news, and we who received that good news have never forgotten her.

It occurs to me now that I had spent the entire day assuming any news would be bad news. It's not a hard assumption to make, when planes are crashing and buildings are falling. It's only in retrospect that I'm able to see that on that day, no news was almost always worse. For my family, and I'm sure for many others, the phone ringing was heart-stopping, but it brought good news. It was when the phone didn't ring, undoubtedly, that the worst news slowly dawned.

The rest of our afternoon became about logistics. Locating Dad, and other relatives at work in the city, and trying to get them home. No one could drive into the city, Dad's car was stuck in a parking garage near Ground Zero (though we had yet to hear the phrase) and mass transit was suspended. Who could get the closest to a bridge or tunnel, to pick them up as soon as they got onto the New Jersey side? How could we organize it? We got one phone call from Dad, from a restaurant he had stopped at, but after that he was difficult to reach.

We played soccer on the front lawn at one point. We might have watched a movie? My aunt brought my cousin by after picking her up from school, "because of Uncle Kevin." I hadn't even been sure that I would be picked up from school, and Uncle Kevin was my dad. I was only beginning to comprehend how much bigger this was than just how it affected me.

People were stopping by the house, some of them not even knowing that Dad had been in the World Trade Center. The best man at his wedding happened to be in town - I was reminded that it was my parents' anniversary. A coworker of his, who had mercifully taken a vacation day, dropped something off. Neighbors, friends, everyone wanted to see how we were.

Late that afternoon, two of my friends came by the front door. I stood on the step and talked to them for a while. They asked about my dad; they told me how school had gone after I left. They told me that Samantha D*** had been crying in gym class. "Why?" I asked. They looked at me like I was crazy. "Because of your dad." I was still so focused on how I was being affected that I wasn't aware of what the attack meant to other people, those who knew my family and those who didn't, those who were in the towers and those who weren't.

Then we saw someone walking up the road, his shoes in his hand. I assumed it was some dumb teenager. Who else would carry his shoes in his hand for no good reason? "Who is that?" I asked. My friend faltered. "I . . . I think it's your dad." It hadn't occurred to me that he would be walking home, and so it hadn't registered that it could be him. I stayed on the step, unsure of what to do. Should I run to him, or run inside to tell everyone else that he's home?

Suddenly, my mom burst out of the side gate, somehow having seen him coming from the backyard. She was followed by my sisters, my grandmother, and everyone else at my house. I'm still not sure why, but I stayed put for a minute, until my aunt came to the door and urged me to join them, at which point I did. We had our reunion near the top of our next door neighbor's driveway.

There's more, of course: the church service that night; doing my math homework before bed, since I was pretty sure my new math teacher was so strict she wouldn't find even a national and personal tragedy to be a reasonable excuse for not handing in your homework; crying on the soccer field the first day that after school activities returned, as the physical exertion finally caused my emotions to overflow; the dreams I had in the weeks after, where I watched my dad die in various televised scenarios; gathering at my grandmother's on Friday, with a "God Bless Kevin" cake, so that everyone who had worried about my dad could see him. My experience of September 11 extended well past the hours of the actual day. There are things that happened months or even years later that I consider part of my memories of that day.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Trust, but verify; or There goes 1/16 of my family tree

(Protip: Just jump straight to "verify." We can "trust but verify" on Cold War relations and Iranian nuclear deals, but not genealogy!)

I received the death certificate of my 2x great-grandmother, Mary King O'Hara, a couple weeks ago. I had wanted it for years, but had always put off jumping through the Department of Health's hoops. Big mistake.

A relative interested in genealogy had sent me Mary's presumptive birth record years ago, and I took it at face value. It was, of course, a real birth record, for a real person named Mary King, but it no longer seems likely that she was the correct Mary King. There goes 1/16 of my family tree!

Lesson learned. Always verify the research of those who have gone before you. (I always knew that I should check this particular piece of information, but took it as a "starting point" until I could do the research myself. Nothing lost but time, I suppose.) (Also, don't take online trees as gospel, either, because mine is out there and it's (at least) 6.25% wrong.)

I had for years operated under the assumption that Mary King's parents were Michael King and Bridget Hopkins, and that she was born in Claremorris, Co. Mayo, Ireland, but her death certificate puts her parents as Patrick King and Bridget Fadden. I'd like to confirm that with a birth certificate that matches, of course, but right now, I don't know where to look. I've contacted the relative who sent the first birth record to see why he thought that that Mary King was our Mary King. If it was, for example, because Mary (whom he knew as a child) had talked about her childhood in Claremorris, then at least that's a place to start. If it was just because the dates matched on an index search, then I have all of Ireland to search. I'm waiting to hear back from him.

I have Mary's death notice, and it does not include a place of birth.

Mary was born in the 1870s (3 December 1875, according to her death certificate), and the civil registration indexes available for free online in this time period do not include mother's maiden name. Otherwise, this could be a pretty easy search. Other than browsing the registers of every Catholic parish in Ireland at the National Library, I'm not sure how to find Mary's actual birth place and birth record and confirm her parents. I might have to stoop so low as to subscribe to RootsIreland, despite my serious misgivings about the service they offer.

What are your best suggestions for locating an Irish town of origin? 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Ordering Vital Records from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene

I was missing the death record of just one of my American great-great-grandparents (Brazil being a nut I have yet to crack). Mary King O'Hara died in Brooklyn in 1949, which meant I had to order her death certificate from the New York City Department of Health (DOH). She survived the latest of my 2x great-grandparents, and so was the only one whose death record was not held by the NYC Municipal Archives. In New York City, the Archives holds death records until 1948, and the DOH holds death records from 1949 to the present.

Being more than 50 years old, a death record from 1949 should be considered a public record, available to anyone. My understanding, however, is that the DOH has simply stopped retiring vital records to the Archives, and treats all the vital records that they hold, of whatever age, as equally confidential. So these records can be challenging to access. They can be ordered online, but only by certain family members, and in this case, I didn't qualify.

If you cannot order your record online, you can go in person to 125 Worth St. in Manhattan, or you can order through the mail. I chose the latter, which means filling out an application, having it notarized, and mailing it along with the $15 fee, a self-addressed stamped envelope, and a copy of your photo ID. (It was the notarizing that had held me back all these years. It seemed like such a hassle!) Then, you wait - the DOH helpfully provides regularly updated information on processing times.

I got my SASE back on my birthday, and was super excited to receive an awesome birthday present. I was disappointed.

My application was rejected because I hadn't provided the parents' names or the decedent's social security number, and because my ID was not expired but soon to expire. I know that this is the case because my drivers license, like most, is valid through my birthday, so it was still valid on the day the rejection arrived. If they'd just filled my order instead of filling out a form to reject my application, I could have had the certificate before my ID expired!

I couldn't fill in the parents' names because I didn't know them. In fact, finding those pieces of information was my primary motivation behind ordering this record. I hadn't even bothered to see if I could find a Social Security Number because the form actually said "Social Security Number (if available)." And yet leaving that field blank was indicated as being one of the reasons my application was rejected.

Not knowing the parents' names, and not even knowing if a 1940s housewife would have had a SSN, I was afraid that this certificate would remain unavailable to me. I decided to take a chance. First, I had to wait for my renewed license to arrive, and then I filled out the application again. For each field where I didn't have the answer, instead of leaving it blank, I wrote "unknown."

A month later, I received Mary King O'Hara's death certificate.

It feels a bit like they were just looking for reasons to turn me down.

Learn from my experience: Don't try to order records if your photo ID is expiring in the next 60 days. And write whatever you need to to avoid leaving any blank fields, even when the form explicitly states that the information is not required. Don't give the Department of Health any excuse to deny your application!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Irish Catholic Parish Registers: Baptism Questions

As I explore the Catholic parish registers recently put online by the National Library of Ireland, I've realized that I don't know as much as I should about the conventions that would have dictated how they were created. In that light, here are the questions that are piling up as I browse:

  • Was it standard operating procedure for an illegitimate child to have only one godparent/sponsor at baptism? I've seen this appear to be the case on two occasions, in two different parishes: different dioceses, different counties, different decades.  
  • How common was it for the father of an illegitimate child to be publicly known? Most seem to have a father listed, even when that father appears to be married to another woman. What mechanisms were in place to discover the father of an unmarried woman's baby?  
  • If a married woman was a godparent, would she be recorded in the register under her maiden or married name?  
  • Were parents ever recorded by their titles rather than their names? (Specific to my family: What English-language name (or title) could be recorded as Mayistri?)

If I can find the answers to any of these questions, I hope to write some follow-up posts to provide as much context as possible.

What sources would you recommend to learn about the context surrounding birth and baptism in 19th century Ireland? What do you find yourself wanting to know about the Irish parish registers?

Monday, July 13, 2015

RootsIreland and Latin parish registers

The National Library of Ireland has recently digitized and made available online, for free, Catholic parish registers from throughout Ireland. This is an incredible boon to Irish family history researchers, many of had previously relied on the transcriptions made available, for a fee, by the Irish Family History Foundation at

Relying on transcriptions is always a dicey proposition*, and around the web and throughout the Irish genealogy community, there has always been annoyance that you had to pay so much to access just a transcript. But I have never been as upset about it as I am now that I have access to the originals.

The RootsIreland website clearly states that "The records have been transcribed directly from the original Parish registers and Civil records in Ireland." Somehow it never occurred to me that it was strange that of the dozens of "records" I had paid to access, and hundreds of search results I had seen, all were in English.

Now that I've seen the originals, I can tell you that it's very strange that all of the "transcriptions" on RootsIreland are in English, because a substantial number of those are so-called transcriptions of Latin records. Those aren't transcriptions at all, but translations. I can't find any mention on the RootsIreland website of the fact that many of the records they provide are no longer in their original language. In fact, on their page about first names, they list the Latin names among "common variants," along with nicknames and abbreviations. As in, "Even if you knew your ancestor as Charles, don't be surprised if he shows up as Carolus instead." But never, in all my searching, did I find a Carolus, even though I'm now discovering that at least some of the results I was looking at came from registers written in Latin.

Take, for example, the sister of my 3x great-grandfather Richard Toner. She was born in 1828 and the IFHF had told me that she was Mary, daughter William Toner and Margaret Walsh. But here is an image of the parish register that recorded her baptism:

20 April 1828. Baptism of Maria Toner. Maynooth Parish, Co. Kildare, Ireland.

She is clearly recorded as Maria, and every other first name is in Latin, too. This is a particularly problematic example because there were plenty of women in Ireland named Maria. Searching the 1901 Irish Census returns over 21,000 women who gave their first name as Maria. 639 of those women were born within 5 years on either side of 1828. So while I'm fairly certain that my 4x great-grandfather was not called Gulielmi in his daily life, I can't actually assume, on the basis of this record, that his daughter was named Mary and not Maria.

I don't know why the Irish Family History Foundation thought they could make that assumption, and try to sell me the record without being open about the assumptions - and changes - they were making.

*And I should note that responsible researchers didn't "rely" on them, of course, but for many areas accessing the originals or microfilmed copies was difficult or impossible unless you were in Ireland.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Why you must understand history to understand family history

The story of my great-grandmother's immigration, as passed down through the family, went something like this:

Maria D'Ingeo's family lived in Italy. After her mother died, her father wanted to move the family to America, but while they were crossing, the quota was filled and the boat was turned away. They ended up in Brazil, where they lived for several years before continuing their journey and arriving in New York. 

I began looking for their records years ago. Passenger manifests showed them arriving in New York in 1917.

What's wrong with this picture?

The United States didn't impose quotas on European immigration until 1921, and the first permanent quotas were enacted by the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924. These were in place until the Hart-Cellar Act abolished them in 1965.

Now, I don't actually know if a filled quota meant that ships would change course mid-voyage; it seems unlikely. That is another bit of historical knowledge that I should acquire. But I can guarantee you it didn't happen to the D'Ingeos, because I know enough about US immigration history to know that they wouldn't have encountered quotas at all.

Understanding the historical context in which your ancestors lived can sometimes make all the difference when it comes to verifying family lore, finding their documents, and, most importantly, understanding their stories.

How has your historical knowledge helped you research your family's roots? What areas do you need to learn more about?

Monday, December 1, 2014

4 Awesome Stocking Stuffers for Genealogists

Just in time for Cyber Monday (because I don't know about you, but Black Friday is my idea of hell on earth), here's a list of four great ideas for genealogy stocking stuffers.

presents, stocking stuffers, genealogy, genealogists, Christmas

1. Family Tree Magazine 

I never thought of magazines as stocking stuffers until I got married, but in my husband's family, everyone always has a magazine or 5 sticking out of the top of their stockings on Christmas morning. It's still a little foreign to me, but since my husband always goes out of his way to make sure my magazines are ones like Family Tree Magazine, or other, less common genealogy magazines (or Crochet Today!, but this might not be the right audience for that one), it's something I've come to look forward to! If you want to go big, have the magazine in the stocking be representative of a year's subscription, in print or on Kindle.

2. A flash drive
The bigger, the better! (In terms of storage capacity, that is.) Because every genealogist wants to be able to save digital images or original documents somewhere convenient, or to bring along digital notes and other materials when on a research trip. (An especially good gift for someone whose spouse left her flash drive behind in a computer at NEHGS last February.)

3. Christmas Ornaments

My mom used to get those picture frame Christmas ornaments (like these) each year and put our school pictures in them. If you do this each year, they're a family heirloom being made in real time. You could also, however, put pictures of your ancestors in them to make your Christmas tree a family tree. Or make these cool Heritage Ornaments from Caroline Pointer of

4.  A disposable camera

(They still make these, right? Looks like they do!) Because, as I've said before, the digital is ephemeral. The photographs that will last are the ones that are physical objects. Genealogists don't just love to discover the past, they love to document the present for the future. Give a genealogist a disposable camera and let her document this Christmas in a way that you'll be able to show your grandchildren!

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. This means that if you choose to make a purchase from Amazon after clicking one of these links, I will receive a small portion of your purchase price as a commission. I personally make a point of starting my Amazon shopping through the affiliate links of bloggers and friends whenever possible, so that large corporations are not the only beneficiaries of my purchases, and encourage others to do the same, regardless of whether they use my affiliate links or another blogger's. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

"So This is Christmas" Geneameme

So I go most of the last six months without posting at all, and decide on the holidays as the perfect time to start writing again. It's not like I have anything else going on, right? I'm not busy these days, right? In the spirit of "Why not write 4 posts in 1 week, when I couldn't write 1 post in 4 months?" I'm participating in Sharn White's "So This is Christmas" Geneameme.


Our Christmases were religious - we always went to Mass on Christmas morning - but primarily they were family-oriented. We always spent Christmas Eve with my mother's family, having a big Italian fish dinner with 30-50 people, and Christmas Day with my father's family, which was much smaller at only 16-20 people.

Because we were lucky enough to have both sides of our family close living nearby, we always woke up in our own beds on Christmas morning, and yet were still able to see all of our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, who we visited either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

We always wrote letters to Santa. Once, several months after Christmas, I found them hidden in a cabinet above the fridge. When I showed them to my Dad, he assured me that he had made copies to mail to Santa, even though he'd held on to the originals.

We always had a live Christmas tree, usually from a small local farm. (They only grew vegetables, but sold trees in the winter anyway.) Sometimes the whole family would go pick it out, but more often my mom would stay home to get ready for dinner and decorating while my dad took my sisters and I. We always listened to Christmas music on the way, sometimes for the first time that year. I distinctly remember the year someone quickly grabbed a Christmas cassette out of storage on the way out the door and it turned out to be my mom's Joni Mitchell tape. We ended up listening to "River" - not exactly an upbeat carol - on the way to get the tree and were not happy about it.

We all helped decorate the tree. My mom would usually make appetizers - particularly those little mini quiches and pigs in a blanket - which we would eat while we decorated and listened to Christmas music (most often "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and Stevie Wonder's Christmas album).

We always decorated outdoors, with lights, wooden soldiers, and a Nativity scene. Dad did most of the work, but we all helped. My major contribution was untangling the strings of lights.

We always sent and received cards, which was mostly my mom's domain. I remember always being very excited to be get to open cards as they arrived, and excitement that lasted until I was really too old for that - at least into college. The cards were always strung on twine and hung around the dining room doorway.

We all had stockings, which hung by the fireplace. I liked my stocking, but it had my name written on it in glitter that was really quite ugly - or maybe it had once been pretty and had gotten icky and worn out over the years. Both of my sisters had their names written on their stockings quite nicely, and I was always jealous.

We always got presents from our parents and Santa on Christmas morning, and from other relatives on Christmas Eve or at Christmas dinner. Eventually, the number of kids got too be too much to handle, and the presents from other family members were scaled back considerably.

Honestly, I have no idea. Maybe my bike? Not because I was more excited for it than for anything else at the time, but because I'm still using it on a daily basis 10+ years later!

I wouldn't say I had an unrealistic Christmas present I never received, but I spent several years wanting "young" Barbies - a Skipper, or maybe there were Barbie babies at some point? All I knew was that both of my sisters had Barbie "kids" and I wanted some but never got them. I'm sure there were tons of gifts I asked for but didn't get over the years, and I have no idea why this one tiny thing sticks out in my mind after all this time!

Once I hit about middle school, I remember always giving gifts to friends. Usually they were little trinkety things like small candles, candies, etc. I'm sure we also gave gifts to my teachers (I hope), but I have no real recollection of that.

Oh the food! Our real Christmas feast was always Christmas Eve. Being Italian, we always had fish on Christmas Eve - baked clams, raw clams, fried shrimp (that was my mom's job), spaghetti with squid. And then lobster! It's everyone's favorite night of the year.

We're still having the same big Christmas Eve dinners, although most people now buy, rather than make, their contributions. My mom is the one main exception - she always spends Christmas Eve morning up to her elbows in flour-coated shrimp, frying them for the evening's meal. I know that while my grandmother was alive, she appreciated that my mom still took the time to do it by hand.

See the above description of our Christmas Eve feasts. After dinner, there's always dancing!

We always listened to pretty standard Christmas music. I know that my paternal grandmother, who was Irish, loved the song "Feliz Navidad," and because my mom loves it, the main soundtrack of our Christmas was always Vince Guaraldi's "A Charlie Brown Christmas." When I was in Kindergarten, I was chosen as 1 of 3 girls to get up on stage at the annual Christmas concert and dance in a bathing suit and grass skirt while an older grade sang "Mele Kalikimaka."

There are lots that I love, of course. "Mele Kalikimaka" has fond memories for me because of the aforementioned Christmas concert. I've always loved "Away in a Manger," although now that I'm the parent of a newborn, the line "no crying he makes" makes me laugh. Jesus was human, right? That's the point of the Incarnation. And human babies - trust me on this - they cry. As I got older, I began to really love "We Three Kings," too.

I don't remember the specifics of many parties, or of parties that were annual traditions when I was a kid, except that for many years my dad's extended family had a party a day or two after Christmas which was great, because I got to know my second cousins pretty well over the years. As a college student, my roommate and I always hosted a Christmas party in which we insisted that our friends behave like grownups for once and at least wear fancy clothes while they got drunk. It was always a roaring success.

As mentioned above, I was a dancer in the Christmas concert the year I was in Kindergarten. We had Christmas or holiday concerts every year after that; the only other one that bears mentioning was that in 2nd grade (I was in Catholic school at the time), I was an angel in our Nativity play.

Because it was winter, we were often a bit cooped up inside, unless it happened to be good weather for playing outside in the snow. Since Christmas usually fell towards the beginning of the break, I guess we probably spent most of our time playing with our new toys!

My memory is not particularly vivid, but I do remember my sister having chicken pox at Christmas one year. I couldn't have been older than 3.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Don't fuhget the fuhgotz!

I'm trying something new, or rather, something old, for Thanksgiving this year. In addition to my annual whole-berry cranberry sauce, I decided on a whim that I would try to replicate my grandmother's . . . well, her what exactly? If I said focaccia, you'd know what I was talking about, but it wouldn't feel right. We never said "focaccia" in our family.

It was this item that first introduced me to the idea that our family's linguistic heritage was something of an Americanized - maybe "Brooklynized" would be putting it better - non-standard Italian dialect. I was probably in middle school - young enough that I had to write an "About Me" assignment at the beginning of the year, but old enough to know that the word I was typing was decidedly not what I was trying to say.

My favorite food is my grandma's faggots

Well, that can't be right.

My favorite food is my grandma's fagots

That looks way too close to the other one.

"Mom, how do you spell [fuhgotz]?

Her answer, in essence, was that "fuhgotz" was not a real word, that we were just saying "focaccia" wrong. She spelled "focaccia" for me, and I found myself writing in an essay that my favorite food was this thing I'd never heard of before. I wasn't sure how I felt about it.

My grandmother was an excellent cook, and the foods she made are part of her substantial legacy. Fuhgotz were on the table just about every Sunday. (To me, focaccia will always be something you get at a fancy restaurant, not the food I grew up with). They have rarely made an appearance since she passed away, though. Though everyone has recipes for her biscuits, her pizza dolce, her sauce, fuhgotz seem not quite as prominent on our menus these days. Whenever they were forgotten in the oven in the rush of getting dinner for a huge family on the table, my grandfather would say, "You fuhgot the fuhgotz!" I hope we don't.

I asked my mom for the recipe, and she was able to give me a brief outline. It was similar to what I remembered from the time Grandma had shown me herself, years ago, though I hadn't written anything down and so would have forgotten the onions. Mom said she wasn't sure, though: "You'd have to ask Aunt Cathy. She's the only one who really knows the recipe. I just do the biscuits."

I have literally no clue how my first attempt at fuhgotz will turn out. (In retrospect, maybe the first attempt should have been one I tried out at home, not my contribution to Thanksgiving dinner. Oh well.) But this exercise has me thinking. About how fuhgotz is more of a real word to me than focaccia will ever be, even if it doesn't appear in any dictionary. And about the fractionating of legacies. How Grandma crocheted, made biscuits, made fuhgotz, belonged to the Rosary Society. How I crochet. Mom makes biscuits. Aunt Cathy makes fuhgotz. Aunt Sue belongs to the Rosary Society. Grandma could do all of those things, but while we all have treasured memories of these and many more facets of Grandma's life and personality, it seems like we are each the keepers of only some small fraction of her legacy.