(This is another special posting by Suzy. I hope you enjoy it.)
I am not a trained nor skilled genealogist. I even have trouble spelling the word, but I do enjoy the research I’ve been doing into our family history. The value of a family tree dawns slowly on most of us. Sometimes it is just the stuff of dreams: What if I were really a Princess?
My family is a typically American immigrant family. I was told that my Dad fought in the Pacific Theater during WWII because of his German ancestry. The Government was fearful of misplaced loyalty. Being part of the Baby Boomer generation I heard taunts as a child if other children learned of my German heritage. Our parents were still vehemently opposed to Nazism. During my teen years, when we visited my Great-grandfather’s brother in Germany, we were told that he provided a safe house for downed US and British soldiers during the War. Having lost two sons on the Eastern Front, it wasn’t der Onkel’s favorite time in German history. One of my favorite memories of my great-grandparents was how they would fuss at each other about whose German was better: Gussie’s hochdeutsch or Pop’s plattdeusch.
When I was in eighth grade I had an assignment to create a family tree. I took my usual place for doing homework with my back to the sofa wedged between it and the coffee table. I spread paper in front of me and and got a straight edge and sharpened pencil. I carefully put down my name and drew a box around it. Above my name I wrote the names of my parents. Then I threw the paper away because I hadn’t left enough room for lines to my great-grandparents. So I began again. I knew the names of my grandparents and three of my great-grandparents. Well, no problem, I’d just asked Moma. She began to hem and haw. Seems no one in her generation had paid much attention to that sort of information. Her grandmother hadn’t even wanted to hear German. She said that since she was now an American she would speak American. Then I learned that what Moma knew wasn’t necessarily the entire story. She knew her grandparents’ names, and Dad’s grandmother. Well, she sorta knew Gussie’s name. Auguste, aka Gussie, had been married three times. Her maiden name mutated when she immigrated, as did the surname of her first husband. Thus her last name, depending on the year, could have been one of nine choices. Moma wasn’t sure of Dad’s father’s people. She knew that they had named all twelve of their children either Joseph or Josephine as a first or second name because Joseph was their patron saint. Hence, my grandfather was J. Edwin. Well, my assignment was complete, though short.
Years later, when our youngest son was born, Walt and I were living on a small rural street on the south side of Manassas, Virginia. Both sets of our parents were living in Broomall, Pennsylvania. When we would visit we would often spend a weekend rather than make the trip, with all the paraphernalia young children need, in one day. On one of our first visits home after Allen’s birth we were sitting with my parents at dusk in their screened porch when my Dad asked why we had chosen the names we did. We hadn’t anticipated having to explain. The names sounded crisp and masculine. Because Stephen ends in “en” I wanted Allen to end in “en.” I wasn’t quite sure what they wanted to know. The evening was very hushed. We could all hear the crickets. Moma lit a cigarette. Grandmom smoothed her skirt. Slowly, Dad began to explain that he had been adopted and we had stumbled onto his birth name. Not only that, he was old enough when he was first fostered and then adopted to remember the events. My sister, sixteen years my junior, can’t remember not knowing. For me it was quite a revelation. I then decided that I should begin quizzing my parents and one remaining grandmother about what they knew of our family history. After we went home I mentioned to a neighbor-friend how interesting the twists in life. She got some papers and a folder for me and began to explain how to gather what information I had in some sort of a logical fashion. They were legal sized papers, a dull rose, set landscape with lines to fill in names and birth and death dates and places. She explained the protocol of putting male ascendants on the upper part of a marriage split and females on the lower. I began filling in what I knew, making each of our sons the focus of a page. Then when we would go home to visit I would try to lead conversation at least once during each visit toward gleaning some information. It wasn’t very easy as I was now down to Moma and one grandmother who might know something. Walt was a bit better off as we still had both his parents and his Dad’s siblings and their families.
At least, that was what I thought until we went to a family reunion the next summer. Dad’s brothers and sisters and their spouses and children were there as was an aunt who was sister-in-law to his mother with her daughter, son and his family. Keeping track of a toddler and a young boy, even in a family gathering, left no time to take notes on conversations and there wasn’t much to learn. I was told that Dad’s parents had come to this country, married shortly after and then the six children began to arrive. Dad, the eldest, had learned English when he began school and brought it home to the rest of the family. The village in Poland, or maybe the Ukraine, no longer existed due to the wars in the last part of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. There was nothing to know. Not even the name of the village.
Shortly after we moved to the West Coast. While we were there, Walt’s Mother gave me some letters that had been passed down on her side of the family. They were from her grandfather and his brothers to their parents during the Civil War. I was in heaven transcribing them. As an aside, the Civil War was the first time soldiers could take pencils with them and thus write letter home when they chose. Before, inkwells and pens with nibs limited most correspondence to officers who had portable desks. After more than a century, some of the pencil was difficult to read, but while the boys were in school I would puzzle over every little mark. I really got to know these young men. While Mother remembers her grandfather as looking like Santa Claus with a long, white beard and twinkling mischievous eyes, I see him as a slender, strong and sometimes bewildered young man with keen observations on what he was watching. Brothers and cousins and even a sister all took on vibrant personalities. Out came my folder and I attempted to make sense out of the relationships I was reading about.
About this time one of Mother’s aunts sent out copies of a family tree she had gathered that gave us Mother’s matrilineal information. She had brought it up to the “present,” so that it included our little piece of the family.
By then computers in our home had evolved to an early version of the MAC and Walt got me a piece of software entitled “Reunion.” I dutifully transferred what information I had and again hit a wall for which I couldn’t find a door. Over the next several years I would put in what tidbits I would be given by family members. Mostly, I would attempt to keep things current with marriages, births and deaths.
When we returned to the East Coast, we convinced Mother it would be best for all if she would come with us rather than be by herself in San Diego. In the process of setting up her new surroundings she shared with me a book she had that traced the families in the valley in Western Pennsylvania where she had been born and raised. What a trove of information. It covered those families from the early nineteenth century to the last quarter of the twentieth century. Now, we had her patrilineal line with all those people whose letters I had read from the Civil War as well. An obscure entry for one ancestor stated that this person could be shown to be directly related to Sir William Wallace. Walt is absolutely tickled to be related to Braveheart.
Now I use the Internet. I’m not yet ready to subscribe to a fee for information website. I would feel guilty about not putting in a full workday if I was paying. However, each year seems to make more information available in different sources. I’ve visited the Ellis Island site and found when Walt’s grandparents immigrated and the name of their ship, and where and to whom they went in Pittsburgh. I’ve also learned that they considered themselves Galicians from the village of Barszczowice, near Przemysl, in what is now Poland. They traveled on Austro-Hungarian passports. Walt’s grandmother had a brother who went to Argentina. A trail I will eventually chase down. I learned when Gussie came back from Germany with my grandmother, but without husband number two. Moma told me that her father’s mother had come from England, maybe. I’ve learned that the Spahr family of York, Pennsylvania, has been here since before our Revolution, having emigrated from Germany. So much for immigrant status. Moma had thought her father’s father had come from Holland where the family name had been spelled “Zellers”. I haven’t yet found his parent’s names, but I now have doubts about that provenance. I did find a photocopy of his marriage license. I learned that our family had many artisans: cabinetmakers, carriage painters, seamstresses, bakers and more. At the moment I am looking for the history around the people I have found. I have taught myself to read and write copperplate script in a effort to read photocopies of original sources. Sometimes I find a family tree on line that we intersect. I have found that we have some places where siblings in one family married siblings from another making for twisted lines.
None of this will ever change the lives we are living. It is, however, markedly interesting. At a party this year a friend told me how a branch of his family had been active in the Calvinist Reformation movement. That won’t change his life, but it is ever so tantalizing to wonder about their day-to-day activities. That Walt is related to Braveheart doesn’t change a thing, but it is amusing. Those who know me understand that I feel History is critical to our understanding of the Present. Family trees just add to that understanding. I wish you delight in searching out your own history.
The last word:
It is a large family tree with a little over 2,000 people represented, but certainly not a pretty one. There are huge holes in the branches, along with long sparse spikes heading out in different directions. Some of it is so dense a squirrel would get lost, in other places it would hardly make any shade. Suzy views every hole as a challenge, but we know it will never look like a textbook tree.
Keep your sense of humor.