Sunday, June 5, 2011

Barking up the Wrong (Family) Tree

It was during those post-starving-student days—you know, that endless time when the better job you went through all that college education for fails to materialize—that I got an unexpected chance to travel back home. Home, at the time, was on one coast, and I was, unfortunately for my pocketbook, living on the opposite coast. This was an opportunity that had not made itself available for a very long time.

It also happened to be the beginning of revival of my childhood interest in genealogy. With that starving-student mindset of desperation, I figured I would never get the chance to travel that way again, so I needed to snatch up the opportunity and spring into research mode immediately.

After all, what could go wrong? I would be staying free with my sister, at the time renting an apartment right in the midst of Manhattan—next door to the Empire State Building, no less. Can’t get more Big Apple than that.

As for research resources, the New York Public Library, that icon of shushing librarians, was a mere walk down the street. Long, but a walk.

I really wanted to not miss this only opportunity to check into my dad’s roots. I knew he grew up in Brooklyn, and lived in Queens for a while. Though he had a fairly common Irish surname, his first name was Valentine. How many people named Valentine do you know? Not too many, I’m sure.

What could possibly go wrong, I thought as I prepared for a day of cranking through microfilm reels of the U.S. Census. I knew I’d have to put in the time for the grunt work—these were the days before online websites made researching a snap—but I was OK with that.

I never did find my dad in those microfilm collections. It’s not that New York is too big a haystack for finding my little sliver of a pin—it’s just that I had no idea what I was really getting myself into.

We spent some of the week’s visit doing the nostalgia tour. My sister rented a car (no self-respecting New Yorker actually owns a car; monthly parking fees were equivalent to what I was paying for my rental in California at the time) and we went out on Long Island to see old childhood haunts.

On one stop, we visited a cousin. Telling him of our attempt to do family research, he gave a first clue as to why I found nothing. His daughter had done a genealogy report for high school and discovered that the surname might not be Irish after all. As had happened to many immigrants arriving in New York, the name might have been changed, perhaps shortened, from an original ethnic form. Instead of the McCann I was looking for, the name might actually have been something like Macconowitz. It might really have been Polish, he said.

Fast-forward several years. I’m now researching in the comfort of my own home, thanks to the inter-connectedness of new technology. I’ve bought my FamilyTreeMaker database program, and I’m scanning through all the resources that company had provided online. I find an entry in someone else’s family tree readout that looks like it matches my dad’s family—only the researcher has my dad listed as a daughter with the name “Vallie” instead of Valentine. I contact the guy online, and we chat. He’s related, distantly, by marriage to my dad’s cousin.

And then, one day, I get an email from him. It has an attachment of a birth certificate for a Valentine, son of Theodore and Sophie Puhalski. “Is this yours?” he asks.

Incredibly, it lines up with one a year later, this time for sister Anna Mae, only on this document the German doctor completes the certificate with the more ethnic spelling as Puchalski.

I have to check into this. How did McCann materialize from Puchalski? But it seems to be right. A New York State census from 1905 confirms it. I see the line listing my great-grandfather, who by now I know as Anton Laskowski, and his wife Mary. And then, following down the list of household members, I see my grandmother, Sophie, listed with a husband and her newborn son, Valentine. But the name isn’t McCann. In a nearly-illegible hand is scrawled what looks like Puhalaski.

Spelling back then was not the fine art demanded by (now-retired) English teachers. Puhalaski could have been the best a poor census taker could make of what he heard in a crowded tenement room full of people who didn’t speak his language. Puchalski? Puhalski? Sounds the same to an American ear. But it sure doesn’t sound anything like McCann.

Regardless of how strong the temptation to delve into research may be, remember that it helps to know a few basic facts before you jump into it.

But if you leap before you look, just be prepared for a good laugh when you emerge on the other side of your discoveries. You might not be the Irish you always thought you were, after all.

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