Wednesday, May 11, 2016

In the Forest of Families

Researching your family can be fascinating pastime -- not for the faint of heart, but fascinating. Sites such as Ancestry make it easy to discover new facts, or even fill in the blanks of things you have heard.

The official story was that my father’s mother died when my father was a baby. I had no reason to question it. When my oldest brother got married in 1970, he asked my father about his mother in order to fill in the family tree in the wedding book. My father seemed to not hear the question, so my brother asked a couple more times. Then my father gave my brother a look that would kill and said – in a seething tone of voice – “Mary Ward.” 

Oh. Sorry he asked. I still did not know the story, though, and I certainly was not going to ask. A few years later I saw some old papers of my father. Amongst them was a note my father wrote his father in about 1946, asking if he knew where my father’s mother was. His father replied that the last he heard was in 1943. Interesting. The fact that I am alive today should tell you that I still did not ask any questions.

About ten years ago my nephew, son of my oldest brother, and my other brother’s wife started researching the family. When Fay and I were down for my mother’s funeral, everyone (except my father) was talking about the family in general. My sister-in-law and my nephew mentioned something about “his brother James.” I must have had a “Whose brother James?” look on my face.

“Oh, didn’t we tell you, your father had a brother.”

First I had heard about it. I had always taken it on faith that both of my parents were only children – an unusual thing considering they were both born in the 1920’s. (I don’t know exactly what, but my mother was the result of some sort of modern medical miracle).

My sister-in-law then proceeded to tell the story of how, when my father was four, his mother took him and his baby brother to the beach at Coney Island. She then took the baby brother, abandoning my father on the beach where his uncle found him at 7:00 o’clock that evening.

Later in 2007, my sister-in-law found a cousin. While I had not known of my uncle until earlier in the year, my cousin did know about my father. He had been told that my father was killed in World War II. I was sent a picture of my uncle. Except for having darker hair, I would have taken it to be a photo of my oldest brother.

Those events did clear something up for me, though. While money was tight when we lived in New York in the early 1960’s, I did wonder why we were never taken over just to see Coney Island. I now know that is the last thing in the world my father would have wanted to do.

Sometimes you wonder how things could remain unknown even when they should have been obvious. In 1975 a younger brother told my mother’s father, aged 74, that his birth was less than nine months after his parents’ wedding. My grandfather was devastated. He was afraid that my mother would disown him. My mother told him, “For Pete’s sake, it’s not as if you had anything to do with it.” The words “for Pete’s sake” were to my mother like an F bomb to many people today, so I knew how ludicrous she found the whole thing.

One of the sobering things about studying your family tree is you realize how short life is. I am now older than a brother, an uncle, one grandmother lived to be, and I am almost as old as my other grandmother lived to be – and that is looking at just two generations.

Some wonderful discoveries can be made on Ancestry. Once time I was searching for information on my father. In the “newspapers” section there was an article from 1952 in an Ironwood, Michigan, newspaper. As far as I know, none of my family has ever set foot in the state of Michigan. I did look at the article, though, and it turns out it was an AP story from Japan, calling my father a hero. The article was about an event I had heard of but about which I knew little.

Other people can contact you if your family tree is public, as Fay and Lady Red know. We have a photo of my mother’s grandmother that someone saw for sale on eBay. He contacted me. I passed the information on to my nephew who bought the photo.

Perhaps in a hundred years people will be searching to find what they can about us.


  1. Being deserted by your mother at such a young age must have a life long impact on your psyche. It is a credit to your Grandfather that your father turned out to be such a great man.

  2. Great post Matt. It's crazy how many secrets come to light when one starts digging. There was once a lot of shame and/or embarrassment associated with some of the issues you and I and Fay have been posting about, and consequently family connections are broken. It makes me wonder how much OTHER stuff we don't know about!

    Being abandoned on a beach must have been a heavy emotional burden for your dad to carry. I can't blame him for not wanting to talk about it.

    I enjoy doinking around on the Ancestry site, but there is a lot of bad info, as I'm sure you've noticed. The census transcriptions can be especially troublesome, and also many member trees are thrown together with no attempt at accuracy. I've been led down some intriguing paths only to discover it's not my family at all! So I guess I'm not descended from royalty. Or Jesse James. :))

    Methodically checking each line of a census form can be eye-crossing, but oh the gems to be found there! And nothing beats rummaging around a dusty old courthouse, peering at yellow-edged documents with a magnifying glass.

    But the stories...the stories passed down from family members are the most fascinating of all.

    1. We see a commercial for Ancestry on TV that says "all you have to do is type in some names and you get a bunch of hints." Perhaps for close relatives, but not if you have to go back very far. What makes it difficult is how common names are, even "uncommon" ones. I am sure that I have one of my paternal great uncles wrong, but I can't find the correct info.

      Misspellings are rampant -- I think some of the data entry is volunteer, and the handwriting can be hard to read on old documents such as censuses (censi?)

      Going through the newspapers and other printed documents section can be difficult. I almost overlooked the article about my father figuring that he never set foot in Michigan. However, the sample they showed gave his name , the rank I knew my father had at the time, and that he was from Brooklyn.

      Also with those types of documents, there is a bunch of stuff that is totally irrelevant. You could look up "Lady Red" (using that as an example as if it were your real name), and you will get hits on articles that say "He saw the LADY while sitting at a RED light." You may find stuff, but there are a ton of things to sift through.

      I found my birth announcement in the San Mateo Times while searching for my father -- and he was not named as such. "Mrs. My Father" was named as having given birth.

      Once you get past the obvious stuff you have to be a real detective. Fay has a family tree that someone did many years ago so we have some information to base our searches on, but it is still hard finding information.

      One more reason to have your tree public: I have seen commercials that say how you can find photos of family members. If you do, it is because the are associated with someone's public tree. I don't thing photos,as such, will be part of what Ancestry finds and uploads.

    2. Yep, you have to be careful, for sure. I keep my trees private because I use these trees as information repositories, and I have lots of stuff on there that I haven't had time to verify or support with source documents. I don't want to perpetuate bad information. I've been contacted multiple times to share photos, and I always comply.

      Two free sites that are good for research are Find-A-Grave and Family Search. I've gotten some good leads and tidbits from both.

  3. When it comes to information, I compare the different sources. Sometimes also looking at the quality and quantity of information helps me determine who may have it right.

    I have checked out Find-A-Grave, but I have not heard of Family Search before. I'll have to check them out.