In July 1999, a few weeks before I made my annual August visit to my dad and step-mother in Arkansas, I asked the old man to write out as much of our family history as he could. I asked a few weeks in advance because I wanted him to think hard and reach back. He took the project seriously and sure enough when I showed up in August he had a legal pad full of notes. Over a period of nights (My first ever visit to Shiloh was squeezed in between.) we sat down and looked at what he came up with. When I returned to New York City I photocopied the results and mailed them to various extended family. My uncle–my father’s younger brother–told me that there were some mistakes and gaps, which is inevitable in a first go-around on something like this. My father’s health was already declining, and though he lived another ten years before dying in 2009 (three weeks after I, his youngest, married), he had put a lot of his past behind him by that time in his life. It is amazing what he was able to come up with.
The notes sat in a drawer for years, as I started a new job, went back to graduate school, met my wife, went to ballgames, and just went on with living. Last year I signed up for Ancestry, but didn’t do a whole lot with it. The main reason I did not was because I had started this blog and, well, there are only so many hours in the day. With a week to go in my subscription I finally pulled out the notes and began the process. Like many Americans, I really only knew my family heritage back through my grandparents, all of whom were born in Boston in the early twentieth century and have now been gone for decades. I now have solid, incontrovetible record of all eight of my great-parents and two gr-, gr-grandparents. None of this would have been possible without the input my father gave me all those years ago. It was the information he provided about the extended family that allowed my to add or eliminate potential candidates. When your dad gives you the names of all seven of the children borne by his grandmother and you then look at the 1920 census record with said names right there on the card, including his mother’s, you know you have the right clan. Yesterday, April 17, would have been my grandparent’s 75th wedding anniversary.
I have been doing my mother’s side as well, and spent a good deal of my time off last week texting her with information about the family that she never knew. At the same time, she filled in some blanks that made the people real, not just names on a sheet of paper. I laughed out loud more than once listening to mother’s acid comments about this or that mother-in-law who was universally disliked, and the family skeletons that are now buried forever with the people who lived lives very much like ours today. There is a family legend on my mother’s side of the family that we are the descendants of a particular Civil War general. I crunched the data a dozen ways and have not been able to corroborate this. I even emailed a particular historical society in Connecticut and received a response from a librarian who had conscientiously searched, but with no result. As much as I would love this one to be true, it may not. So it goes. I know from my time at Ellis Island, and working at a small history museum in Texas, that what people believe about their family history is often incorrect.
Things get a little trickier from here because all my ancestors from this point on are from overseas, primarily Sweden, Italy, and Poland. The art of cooking galumpkis made its way down to my dad, who prepared them for us when we were little. My mom knows all the Italian dirty words. Needless to say, I renewed my subscription to Ancestry and have been spending a fair amount of time online. My only regret is that I did not begin sooner. If you have not asked your family where they came from and how they got here, trust me, begin now before it is too late.
(image/Leon H. Abdalian)