Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Tracking Oral Histories

This week, up until Labor Day, Ancestry is offering free access to their immigration records. This is a fabulous opportunity for those thinking about starting research on their family history. I’m already a member of Ancestry, so I took that notice as a prompt to follow up on some loose ends in my husband’s Tully history.

I’m sure all families have some sort of oral history. You know: those exciting around-the-campfire types of stories that grandpa would tell the youngsters—those memories sure to be distorted by childhood imagination and then duly passed down to their grandchildren as gospel truth. Well, our Tully family had one of those stories and I’ve yet to substantiate it, though it is a tantalizing tale.

It seems that, all in a rush, the father of Catherine Malloy—who, as an adult, became the wife of my husband’s great-grandfather, John Tully—disappeared from home, mailing a note from Liverpool to a village outside Cork in Ireland where his wife and one year old daughter Catherine were staying. In essence, the letter stated, “Hi, sorry I'm giving you such short notice, but I'm leaving any day now on the Anglo-Americano to Boston, love you forever….”

Somehow, despite the “hugs and kisses” ending, I’m sure that message didn’t endear him to his young bride, whom he left alone with their one-year-old daughter Catherine.

He did, however, manage to include one shred of information in his letter: the date in which it was written. February 20, 1849, now became my benchmark for searches. Up until this point, though, I hadn’t found any proof that this event actually took place. There was a ship called the Anglo-Americano, which was a promising start. The difficulty in following through with this research task was that the surname used had multiple permutations possible for spelling. My husband’s Uncle Ed had a copy of the letter in his possession at the time he told me the story—evidently, it was something dear to Catherine’s mother Anna Flanagan, and carefully preserved as the only shred of remembrance of the man to these two women—and it was addressed to Anna “Moley.”

Spelling the surname phonetically, the possibilities certainly stretched out the research task to unwieldy proportions. Molloy and Malloy both had single-letter-L corresponding possibilities to add to the originally rendered Moley. Plus, the man’s first name was Stephen, presenting the need to research the alternate “Steven” also.

However, given the suddenness and mysteriousness of his decision to set sail, and considering the unrest of the times, our family has wondered if he were fleeing some calamitous threat, possibly assuming an alias for travel purposes. In that case, it might be near impossible to find any record on passenger lists as I try to retrace his steps 162 years after the fact.

Today’s prompt by Ancestry to recheck immigration records turned out to serve me well. It appears there was, indeed, a “Stephen Molloy” traveling from Liverpool aboard the Anglo-Americano, arriving at the destination on March 27, 1849.

Now let the research follow-up crew commence work in Boston!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

More Dockery Results

Search engines are the genealogy researcher’s best friend. My particular favorite flavor is Google, where this morning I was continuing my quest to find out more about the Dockery family of Mequon in Ozaukee County, Wisconsin. On about the third or fourth page of Google results, I overturned a cache of cemetery records that yielded what must have been the family plot at St.Francis Borgia Catholic Cemetery.

There were more than enough Dockerys to keep me busy. At least, there were several more than those I had already unearthed.

As if that weren’t enough, I continued down that Google path and found a free site where volunteers transcribe historic newspapers, and located the funeral information for Charles and Agnes Dockery’s father Michael, further confirming some relationships.

Instead of wandering about the pages and pages of Google findings, I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me first to go straight to that reliable source, Find A Grave, to check out these family relationships. Perhaps the meandering mood evolved from having started down this bunny trail as a mere quirk: the inability to resist the temptation to piece together someone’s roots, even if they weren’t my own.

And yet, still no date on Julia. Perhaps it is requisite that every family have a mystery person.

Photo courtesy Find A Grave contributor David M.Habben.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Portrait of a Matriarch

Julia Sullivan Dockery
At long last, though not writing about a member of my own family, I find the portrait of the matriarch of this inlaw-of-inlaws, the Dockery family.

Julia Sullivan Dockery, sitting for her likeness to be taken in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, is by now undoubtedly widowed. I could find no record of her husband Michael for the 1900 census, and eventually located a death record that seems to match, dated January 3, 1891.

While Michael had passed in their hometown of Mequon in Ozaukee County, Wisconsin, perhaps for this photo Julia had chosen to move in—or at least visit—her daughter Sarah, who in 1890 had married Edward E. Blewett in nearby Cedarburg. In that case—and this is something I have yet to figure out—the photograph must have been taken before 1895, when Julia’s daughter Sarah’s husband seems suddenly (and without any documentation I can find) to be out of the picture and is replaced by new spouse George W. Woodworth, in a marriage ceremony back in her hometown of Mequon, in April, 1895.

At any rate, though I’ve been able to find strands of information on Julia’s descendants to accompany the photos I’ve scanned lately, I’ve yet to find much of anything substantial on Julia, herself. I do know that she is the sister of the mother of the woman (Sarah Swanton) who married into my husband’s Tully line in Chicago. I did find a census record stating that Julia was born in February of 1832 in Ireland, and I already have a record that she is the daughter of Irish immigrants Thomas and Ellen Stack Sullivan. But that is about it for my discoveries.

Hopefully, though, that will be enough to help some others pick up that strand and weave it into the tapestry of their own family lines.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Thought On Process

Unidentified family - from Bill Bean collection
How much do you love history? How much do you enjoy delving into genealogy? I’ve found that those who love this stuff really love this stuff. Simple as that.

Perhaps, then, it is forgiveable for me to wander beyond the lines of my own tree and stumble upon the delights of other family histories. To me, there is something so compelling about knowing about those who make up your family line.

After Saturday’s post, and after driving to the airport yesterday to pick up my husband from last week’s business trip, I was reminded of another airport scenario that so stunned my sense of family.

It was Christmastime, granted, so the travel crowd was different from the usual Monday through Friday set. Our family was getting a late start on our holiday travel because, at that time, my husband had a job that required some work on weekends and holidays. You guessed it—despite having a bright-eyed little daughter all aglow with the wonder of Christmas, Dad had to put in twelve hours on the job. And so, here we were, two days later, waiting at the airport for our flight back east to spend what we could salvage of our Christmas with family.

While waiting, I got a real education in what other people do for their holidays. Clue: it seldom involves family.

We seem so taken with the holiday trips that take us away from family. The excitement of going to a bedazzled getaway destination far supersedes the concept of a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving at grandmother’s table.

Oh, I can understand the little infractions—going to the lake with some friends for Labor Day, for instance—but how little we value time with family.

Perhaps for those whose families are not spread to the four corners of civilization, the scenario might be different. After all, if mom and dad live down the street, you can see them any old time. But I don’t think every case I overheard at the airport that day represented such a situation. And I have since met a lot of people who don’t even know the names of their own grandparents, let alone spend holidays with them.

I wonder if, in reflection on this situation, there is something that rises up in me, wanting to be fascinated not only with my own mysterious family history, but deeply yearning to instill that same love in the hearts of other people for their own families. If so, perhaps that explanation may serve as my penance for those still puzzling over why I would want to wander from my own family’s path to explore the wonders of another’s family history.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Deeper Down the Rabbit Hole

I don’t suppose there are many genealogy hobbyists who share my proclivity to follow bunny trails. Most researchers want to push the envelope farther back in time, not sideways.

When I am faced with the temptation to examine the relations of in-laws, though, my weak-kneed response yields rather handily to the slightest lure. And deeper down the rabbit hole I go….

Take, for instance, that wonderful collection of Tully photographs sent to me this summer for perusal. “See if anyone in your family can identify these photos,” my benefactress offered, as I packed for my trip to Chicago.

Wonderful offer. Unfortunately, I found no takers. Those pictures remain as unidentified as they were two months ago. All, that is, but the ones already bearing inked legends on their reverse.

And so, I take the bait. Follow the bunny trail. Take the plunge down the rabbit hole. Whatever you wish to call it, I got hooked. I started researching someone else’s family.

Today, I puzzled over this photo. It was labeled “Coz Agnes,” ostensibly by Edna Tully McCaughey herself. The minute I set eyes on that entry, my heart leaped. “Why, that must be Edna’s cousin, Agnes Tully,” I concluded. That would be a serendipitous find, indeed, to receive a photograph of my husband’s grandmother in her youth, from someone in Minnesota whom I don’t even know.

But it wasn’t to be. The writing continued: “Aunt Julia’s daughter; Aunt Julia children: Michael, Sarah, Charles, Julia, Maria, Agnes.” That would never do; my Agnes’s mother was a Catherine. As I was to find out only a few days ago via records, Edna’s “Aunt Julia” was actually her great-aunt, her maternal grandmother’s sister, Julia Sullivan Dockery. This photo’s subject, then, would have been Agnes Dockery, born about 1873 in Wisconsin, soon-to-be bride of George A. O’Brien in 1899.

The photo’s inscription didn’t make life that easy, though. Underneath that hasty listing of Aunt Julia’s children, the legend continued: “Aunt Ann McCabe children: Pete, John, Sarah.”

Wait. Aunt Ann? What did McCabe have to do with Dockery? I was totally lost. Why did she include this note along with the other on the back of a picture with only one subject?

At this point, the confusion got the best of me. I had to figure out who the McCabe family was. Searching online, I found an entry on Rootsweb of a viable connection.

At least, my mind has been put at ease over relational issues. I now know the connection between the Dockery family and the McCabe family in someone else’s Sullivan line—but the nagging question still remains: whose likeness is this? Can I be satisfied with the first explanation on the page? Or deterred by the additional information? I may have to go hunting until I can form a quorum of Dockery descendants willing to vote on the issue.

Perhaps the Chesire Cat will assist me....

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Season for Searching

I don’t know about you, but my best time for genealogy research is during summer vacations. Even now, though I’ve been recently freed of the captivity of the school calendar year, I find more opportunities for research from May through August.

And August, if you haven’t had the chance yet to notice, is rapidly dwindling away. At the rate of discovery this summer has brought me, I may soon find myself with more memories left than month.

A to-do recap: this summer brought me a wonderful package of old photographs and a short diary from the William Tully family. I have about one third of the pictures yet to scan, and the diary to transcribe. Following close on the heels of that gift came another from a previously-never-met cousin on my husband’s side of the family, who surprised us with a dinnertime visit while we were in Chicago, complete with gifts of old photographs and dozens of handwritten items from various Tully and Stevens generations. Ditto, transcribing and scanning.

Reaching further back into my summer’s to-do list, I’ve meant to do more research on my McClellan line in Florida—at least enough to make a Wikipedia post on the stub already there for my great-great-great grandfather, George Edmund McClellan. That means, for someone like me who needs to go way overboard in preparation before taking step one, a lot of behind the scenes briefing on just exactly how one goes about becoming a contributor for Wikipedia.

And, earliest on my to-do list (though technically I can claim it as “done” already), I need to revisit my initial download to RootsWeb and update that file with the revisions I’m currently in the process of making, thanks to such a productive summer.

As far as my genealogy year has gone, I’m looking forward to an abundant harvest.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Weddings and Cousins

In a hallway in my husband’s aunt’s home near Chicago is a collection of his grandparents’ wedding photographs. Trapped within the old frame, the pictures would be damaged if I tried to retrieve them to obtain a copy. Every visit we’ve made, I’ve stared at those pictures, trying desperately to commit those details to memory. With this visit, though, we were blessed with a reprieve from that hopeless task: a cousin brought us his mother’s copy of the set.

Now, I can piece together the wedding photograph of bridesmaids and groomsmen with a photograph on loan from the set I received from the William Tully branch of our family earlier this summer. For, you see, those bridesmaids were cousins.

The inscription on the back of the original set in the hallway explained that the bridesmaids were Rita Dempsey and Edna Tully. (The groomsmen, by the way, were William Tully—Agnes’ brother—and Michael McCaughey, who was soon to be Edna Tully’s husband.)

The wedding of Agnes Tully and William Stevens took place at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Chicago, a building now no longer in existence. The date of the photograph was June 12, 1912.

Comparing this picture of Agnes and her cousins with an earlier one, received from her uncle William Tully’s collection, it is fairly easy to spot Edna Tully, though the match for Rita is not as obvious. A note on the back of the photograph states, “Left to right, Cousin Maggie, Esther, Margaret, Edna, Rita; Edna was about 15 or 16.” If Edna was aged 15 in this photo, that would date the picture about 1905.

I am presuming that this Maggie is the mother of Rita (who also happens to be a Margaret). The three girls in the middle are sisters, all the daughters of William Tully, brother of John (and not to be confused with the William Tully who was son of John, and groomsman in the wedding photo). Oh, the woes of namesakes: how many Margarets and Williams can one Tully family have?!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

On Second Thought

Elsie Leslie
While continuing to scan the wonderful stack of photographs on loan to me from a distant Tully relative, I ran across this cherubic pose. “What a lovely child,” I thought, wondering which family connection this face might lead me to.

I should have known better. My first clue could have been the pose struck, or at least the framing of the face. While this collection of photos did include some adorable poses, the camera’s angle seemed particularly well-suited to focusing on the facial details in this one shot. I sensed a vague, Shirley-Temple-esque aura about this child.

Then, too, I wondered about the placement of the hands—the fingers seemed self-consciously glued into place. No one of that age would naturally be inclined to bid adieu to that bane of childhood—the fidgets—long enough to hold such a position.

Second thoughts began to nudge me toward reality when I recalled another set of photographs in this collection. There were two labeled “Mary Anderson,” for which a handwritten explanation on the back of the cards stated, “Grandpa Tully’s favorite actress.” I happened to notice that, unlike the other family pictures, Mary Anderson’s likenesses also bore her name in a typewritten band across the bottom of each photo.

There was no handwritten note on the reverse of this charming photo, but taking a second look, I did happen to see that the subject in reverie also had a label across the bottom of the portrait: “Elsie Leslie.”

On that second thought, after a day of pondering, I had to Google this one. Sure enough, this Mary Anderson, though a common-enough name to garner several citations, did indeed earn enough notoriety to be recognized with a short Wikipedia entry.

If that was so, I thought, better check and see if anything surfaces with the entry of “Elsie Leslie.” And it did.

So, sadly, I bid fond farewell to any notion that my family is related to the bearer of such an angelic gaze—yet can return to the beauty that is instilled in the everyday lives of my own mysterious forebears.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

So Long and Thanks For All the Help

All good tests must eventually come to an end. Even beta tests.

The Record Search Pilot of the "labs" that bring us have, at long last, served their purpose in helping to revamp the look and function. While they have been my go-to spot for delving into their 1.3 billion records, that is still no match for the gargantuan 2.1 billion records at

Today, August 23, is the last day you can access the pilot site. You can easily guess how I'd like to spend my day. I'm not sure why, but I have a better go at scooting around and finding exactly the documents I'm searching for on the beta site. To me, the main site is too clunky.

After today, I'll just have to hone my search skills on the main site, and be satisfied with the wonderful worlds of digital documents that can be accessed with a few taps of my fingertips.

But I can't claim that I won't miss being a part of the beta test. For my record, I'd say it provided the best test results I've ever received.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Not All Pictures Are Left Nameless

Oh, the temptation when a procrastinator such as myself encounters the chance handwritten note hastily scribbled on the back of a century-old photograph. I do confess: I followed the bunny trail.

The scene was thus: on the afternoon of the tedium of scanning countless photographs, I came upon the coffee-stained portrait of a dignified gentleman. Not quite smiling, not quite frowning, but with an air of success to his profile, he fairly expected me to take note.

He was the customer of the establishment of Klein A. Guttenstein, photographer, of Milwaukee, it was evident to see. But I know more about him, thankfully owing to a handwritten tale on the reverse.

“Dr. Chas. Dockery of So. Milwaukee,” the inscription explained, “Grandma Ryan’s sister Julia’s son.”

Oh, how glad I am to already know that the two sets of Ryans who married into our Tully clan are not related (at least to my knowledge so far). That easily saved me from fruitless searching up the wrong branch of this family tree. “Grandma Ryan” was the former Mary Ann Sullivan, widow of Samuel Swanton—a man who died just after his two girls were born. With two young children—one of whom was Sarah Swanton who eventually married my Tully connection—this mother soon remarried, to an Irish immigrant in Valparaiso, Indiana, named Edward X. Ryan.

What I hadn’t yet discovered was that “Grandma Ryan” had a sister named Julia. While RootsWeb didn’t have any promising entries linked to the Sullivan family that sister Julia haled from, I was fortunate to still be able to access the beta version produced by the labs, which provided me with more information. There, I pulled up the 1880 United States Census for a town called Meguon in Ozaukee County, Wisconsin, which showed “Juliane” and her husband Michael “Dockry” with six of their children: Mary, Ellen, Juliane, Michael, Sarah and baby Charles.

By the time of the 1900 census, Julia Dockery was a widow who had been married for forty eight years, and who had by then also lost three of her nine children.

It didn’t take long to find out a few things about this Charles Dockery, physician. A Charles A. Dockery was listed as having married a Margaret Kenney of nearby Cedarburg, Wisconsin, in November, 1905. By the time of the 1910 census, Charles and his bride had moved to Milwaukee, and instead of the “bicycle shop” occupation the 1900 census had attributed to him, he was now holding the proud title of doctor.

Life seemed to be going well for the young doctor by the time of the 1920 census. He had moved his family from their first home on 1229 Rawson Avenue to a larger residence more suitable for a family of seven children. Francis, Morris, Robert, Gordon, John, Margaret and Thomas were joined by siblings Joseph and Kathleen by 1930, but the times also brought, perhaps, some dissonance. It may take more reading between the lines to fathom the reason behind the two separate households set up by the good doctor and his busy wife, both claiming their status as “married” though living apart.

Yet, the story all started to unfold for me by the quick scribble of a note on the back of a stained old photograph. And I am certain that the hand that inked that explanation had no notion that that message would unlock so much information for a mere stranger such as I.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Almost Finished

It may be a dangerous thing for a procrastinator to end her day, folding her arms and resting in the thought that at least two thirds of the job has been completed. But that is just how my Saturday ended.

I am fairly certain, though, that the task at hand—scanning upwards of seventy turn-of-the-last-century photographs—will be completed soon. The reason: not only do I need to return them to my generous benefactor, but to then, with free conscience, follow the trail of these many mystery people to their identity, wherever that clue may be found.

Take, for instance, this angel. Who is this child? Probably someone not even with us as one of our elders at this point. Evidently not even someone any of us alive would know. A nameless, fanciful face is all we have left.

There is something so tantalizing that calls to me from these pictures. This child is not the only one in the collection without any identification. Face after face I scanned, wondering who these people were. I know it’s near impossible, but I want to know their names.

At this point, all I can safely say is that the photograph was taken by an establishment doing business in south Chicago, and that there is some connection to the William Tully family, or perhaps the Sullivan, Ryan, or Clifford  families related to William’s wife, Sarah Swanton.

Yet, how I yearn to know more. While I don’t know these nameless people, I feel so strongly that they need to be remembered. And I feel fairly certain that there is someone out there who wishes that he or she could have had such a picture of the relative that this person grew to be.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bad Technology Day

Have you ever had one of those days when you just knew you wouldn’t emerge from it with your To-Do list sufficiently vanquished? I’ve had that kind of day hanging over my head for a week now, and there is no further hiding from it.

Granted, my To-Do list is rather extensive. Thanks to a half-month of playing my way through three states of older-generation family members with their all-too-eager willingness to bequeath me with boxes of keepsakes, I have a lot to do—copy, that is. Besides those boxfuls that I am now proud owner of, I am also short-term borrower of another wonderful box of the same.

Sounds like some time at the scanner, you say? Well, it isn’t exactly that easy. You see, after a week of entertaining an unexpected viral traveler who hitched a ride home with me from the airport, this is what I have yet to face: the scanner of preference in this family is a near-antique in technology terms.

It turns out that the best scanner we own is not our newest. While faster, sleeker, and with the right attachments to plug into our newer computer, our day-to-day scanner serves general purposes but isn’t the finest when it comes to capturing details of photographs. For that kind of work, we have to use—believe it or not—our older scanner, a clunker that’s parked upstairs in an extra bedroom.

The sad story of this dejected, rejected piece of equipment is that, while it does an excellent job—and was a great buy in its heyday—it seems (according to my geek-prone dear husband) to require all the wrong attachments. There is no plug that properly connects this prima donna with our current computer; we have to resurrect our old one, cross our fingers and hope everything runs so the two pieces can have a nice chat. Besides, this scanner’s operating system cares very little for any newfangled Microsoft system. Actually, it turns its nose up at any vintage post-Windows 95. Let’s just say it’s temperamental.

And yet, as most artists do, it turns out impeccable work.

My husband usually sighs and submits to the kid-glove handling required. But this week, he was out of town, I was indisposed—and talented procrastinators find wonderful inventions to keep from getting done those things which are required of us.

So, Saturday it is. The day I face my friendly enemy—the talented one. The one that dances circles around those young bucks still wet behind the ears.

It’s gonna be a long day. But hopefully, one with a sizeable collection of photographs properly preserved when day is done.

Drawing, "Position idéale d'utilisation de l'ordinateur (suggestion personnelle)" courtesy Morburre via Wikipedia under GNU Free Documentation License.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Found Faces, Lost Names

I found a great blog. I am truly humbled. It calls me to task over a matter I’ve struggled with, and I do remember my faults this day.

True confessions: I’ve been swamped with the boxes and boxes of nameless faces framed prettily in decades-old photographs. When I go through stacks and stacks of pictures of the same scenes through umpteen iterations, I lose my resolve to serve faithfully as the family historian. And yes, regretfully, I’ve chucked more than my fair share.

What’s a two-to-three-generation-removed gal to do? I have no resources left—no great aunts or great grandfathers to ply with those endless questions to get it just so. So the fifteenth-billion picture of Lassie and company finds its way to the bottom of the trash can.

So sad. But I’m sure at this point, you are excusing me. At least I’ve been doing penance.

Yet today, I found confirmation that there is a way to resolve the issue. I found someone who has made one simple gesture her mission: to serve as matchmaker between subjects of antique photographs and their long-lost relatives. Such a simple goal, yet so elegant a pursuit.

I wish I had her platform. I mean, what do you do with a photo like this one?

Central California Farm? From Bill Bean collection

Or even this?

Possibly same California location - Bill Bean front row, far right, 1939
But “Far Side of Fifty” has an audience of over 1500 followers serving as fellow sleuths as she posts antique pictures, one shot a day, on her blog, Forgotten Old Photos.

Not all the photos remain forgotten. There are at least thirty endearing stories of The Reunited—this blogger calls them “Full Circles.”

Somehow, I wish I could ship my entire collection of the unnamed and unclaimed to her for one grand feature story.

It would do my conscience good.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Operation Needle In Haystack: It’s a Go!

Even after my post yesterday on the mystery picture I found in family belongings, I had doubts that my plan of attack would yield any results. After all, what are the chances?

After posting yesterday, here’s what I did. I went to those best genealogy friends of mine, the forums on GenForum and RootsWeb. For each surname listed in the picture, I searched for a matching surname forum, and then posted my query, giving a link to this photo from yesterday’s post. I posted on any World War II forums I could find, too.

The only snag I hit in this process was the fact that there was no surname forum for one of the names in the photo: Francona. Since this was a lesser-known surname, I was hoping for better results with that name, but without a platform to shout my announcement from, I figured I’d get nowhere with that approach.

That’s when I hit upon Plan B: search that specific full name on I found two such entries in the Social Security Death Index, so I knew there were possibilities out there. And, yes, I did find an age-appropriate entry in a member’s public family tree. Thanks to the Ancestry system, I was able to send the member an email asking if her relative would possibly have served at Camp Mountain in Wisconsin in 1935. And yes! Within only a couple of hours of sending that message, I received an answer. We made a connection!

“Yes, that’s my dad,” the member told me in a return message. “Boy, he sure was skinny then!”

I haven’t heard back from any others yet, though I’ve gotten hits from readers in those forums. I’m hoping to make some more connections, so that family members of Lieutenants Manning, Sanborn, Harry Ruhe, and Bill Stover will help me find homes for this unclaimed photograph. But maybe this instant result gives me a clue to pursue the second plan of action and see if I can find better results that way.

I’ve heard that “Yahoo” really means “You Always Have Other Options.” I don’t know if that is an urban legend or reality, but in this case, I’ll buy the message. There is always more than one way to solve a problem.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Who Are These Guys?

I’m now starting the long, slow process of sorting, tagging, and logically filing all the material I’ve found on that wonderful two weeks of visiting family, dead and alive. I’ve brought home bags and folders loaded with memorabilia, notes, photos, and other odds and ends—even a tax payment log.

Lts. Manning, Ruhe, Stover, Francona, and Sanborn
In the midst of all that was a photo of people whose names I definitely don’t recognize.

 “Why do you want that photo?” my husband asked. Keeping in mind my struggle to identify unnamed faces in pictures the family does have, and coupling that with my deep desire to have some visual keepsake of at least the recent ancestors, I hated to toss the photo. That could be the picture someone else is looking for.

And so, I begin looking for the people looking for the photo.

Here’s my first try at serving as midwife for someone else’s line: a photo labeled “Army Staff—Camp Mountain 1935.” Thankfully, the back of the photo lists five names, clearly written. All have the designation, “Lt.” Some carry more detail than others.

Here are the men whose families I am now looking for: Manning, Harry Ruhe C.O., Bill Stover, Anthony Francona – Med. Officer, and Sanborn. Not much detail, but I give what I got.
It’s hard to see in the copy of the photo, but the original shows, written in white as a footer, the legend

Camp Mountain, Mountain, Wis.
Co. 3643

The “C.C.” may actually be “C.C.C.” The white ink blends into the background so thoroughly that I think I may be imagining that, except that there is the faintest period before the first “C” that I can see. (This is beginning to sound like a tongue twister or nursery jingle.)

All I know of the photo is that Mountain, Wisconsin, is roughly northwest of Green Bay, Wisconsin, in Oconto County. The photo came from the belongings of Agnes Tully Stevens, whose son Frank enlisted in the Navy (and who may have had another son in the Army for a short while).

So, for what it’s worth, here’s the photo. Hopefully, someone will be blessed with a Google search result that leads to this picture. If you are one of those family members, the photo is yours to copy with my blessings.

And somewhere, in the great universe of reciprocated good deeds, I hope someone will be able to return the favor. I have a lot of pictures of nameless people who deserve some identification.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Country Milestone

A few miles’ drive out in the country beyond my home is a farm stand. Not your usual shack that peddles fresh veggies, this place is a farm stand with attitude. I’ve loved coming out this way for years—decades, in fact. It hasn’t been only because of the selection of fresh produce, but mainly because the store’s proprietors took pride in their offerings. That pride showed not only in the way the food was displayed but also in the friendly more-than-a-customer atmosphere.

The owners were descendants of an Italian immigrant family—not unusual in the surrounding farming communities around here. And, like many Italian families I’ve known from New York to San Francisco, they were not bashful about letting their Italian shine through. In the case of this farm stand, that heritage made itself known in everything from the fresh basil picked-for-you this morning, to the accordion music playing through the sound system. Little fun touches—like the ugly-face art on misshapen peaches, or the collection of vegetable art preserved in Ball jars—added to the ambience.

Above all, the “mama” of the establishment presided in her inimitable way. At least, she maintained her presence for most of the sixty-plus years the store has been in business. Toward the later years, her health kept her from being there for the demanding schedule such ventures require—and then, a while later, she wasn’t there any more. Her health had required her to seek a more restful lifestyle.

But the farm stand continued serving its customers, a community that grew to include travelers on their way from the Bay Area to the many weekend hideaways in the Sierras. This place became their special midway stop, their little treat—especially as the business grew and added a bakery and, ever mindful of an opportunity to hearken back to their Italian roots while meeting a summertime traveler’s needs, a gelateria. Of course, the local customers appreciated the additions, too. I’ve always been a regular, driving out that way at least once a week—for the vegetables, of course.

Since I’ve been out of town, it wasn’t until yesterday that I was able to get back into my shopping routine. This being the peak of summer, that meant a trip to the farm stand.

Pulling into the parking lot, I noticed a sign out in front that hadn’t been there. It read: “Thanks for the memories, Mom.”

It didn’t take much to figure out what must have happened in the weeks that I was away. I confirmed my suspicions with the girl attending the counter in the bakery, then continued my shopping in a daze. Though my mind tells me the end is inevitable for all of us, how sad it is for those remaining when it comes.

My mind lost its way while I browsed counters full of fresh-picked fruit, thinking: yes, she certainly did leave memories. This entire operation was a legacy this woman and her hardworking husband had left. True, it was still in existence, thanks to the willingness of her son and his wife to take up his parents’ vision. But its creation was owing to the mom and dad who first took the initiative to risk their new idea, and put the diligence and personality into building a one-of-a-kind venture.

With all that I had been through in my travels in the last couple weeks—sorting through pictures of nameless relatives long gone—I couldn’t help wonder what memories this family would be sifting through. Would that extended family sit around the kitchen table as we did and pass around the pictures, reminisce, and get some relief from their grief by the soft touch of happier remembrances? What would they remember?

The scenes I was reminded of, from my recent visit with family, became echoes of what I hope for this family as they move through this process of remembrance. What a rich heritage is left to nurture them when they are ready to ease away from the initial pain of loss.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Loving History

Think, for a moment, about your high school history classes. Did you enjoy them?

I can't imagine the millions of students who journeyed through the twelve grades of public school with me would be any different than I was in finding history classes to be the dullest, driest events in their academic career. History seemed to be something to be endured. There was nothing compelling (let alone endearing) about history class.

"Don't know much about history" could have been lyrics to the theme song for such students. And it's a shame. It took me several years of detoxing to rid myself of the shudders over history class.

But then a funny thing happened: I started falling in love with history. Not history class. History.

It was the stories that did it--stories of heroes and stories of people no one knew about or even cared about. Stories, in particular, of members of my family and that of my husband--stories of everyday people who may have found themselves in extraordinary circumstances for a moment or maybe a lifetime. It's been fascinating to have the door opened to the inner workings of lives of our ancestors.

Just yesterday, a friend came up to talk to me after church. "What's that you're writing?" she asked, noting my occasional status messages on Facebook with links to my blog. Usually including a picture of a family member, those thumbnail illustrations caught her eye and she wondered who those people were.

We got to talking about genealogy. Someone in her husband's family had done research and discovered that her husband was related to Amelia Earhart, "and other famous people--like presidents," she told me. How fun to discover those facts!

Even if I never unearth a link to a famous person, though, I love to finger the threads of my family's stories. Each family member has his or her own story, and it is so precious to bring those tales to life again.

In photo, above right: Amelia Earhart standing in front of the Lookheed Electra in which she disappeared in July, 1937. Photo, courtesy Wikipedia, now in the public domain.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Little Corroboration Goes a Long Way

How frustrating it is to find a tidbit of usable information in a genealogy search, and then not be able to appropriately use it for lack of proper documentation. After all, what do you call those un-footnote-able sources like, "Some guy online told me so"?

While two wrongs don't make a right, two mis-attributed sources at least serve to offer me a bit more confidence in their veracity. Take, for instance, the wonderful find I unearthed in our family's heritage-finding fun fest the other night. On a time-faded slip of paper, I found the hand-written note:

From the baptismal registry
of Ballina and Boher I hereby
certify that John of Denis
Tully and Margaret Flannery
was baptized on the 24th
February 1842. John O'Brien
+ Mary McNamara acting
as sponsors.
Given at Ballina, Killaloe
Collare on this the 7th March
James O'Brien

What makes that such an encouraging find for me is not just the information, but the fact that I had already found a similar confirmation. A few years ago, I happened upon some information that linked our Tully family line with that of a specific Ryan family in Ontario and Winnipeg, Canada. I accidentally stumbled upon a specific member of that family, thanks to the help of an online genealogy forum, and he had sent me an email detailing his branch of the family heritage, as passed down to him from his father's handwritten notes. Among those items was his note:

Here is what I found:  A certificate of Baptism that Johanna Tully, 
"born of" Denis Tully and Margaret Flannery, was baptized May 28, 
1832 at Ballina, (presumably Ireland). Witnesses were Luke Tully and 
Kitty Flannery. The certificate was issued to someone by Father Maher 
on May 22 1892.

Now, I don't know how The Footnote Maven--the "Miss Manners" of genealogical documentation--would handle acknowledging this piece of evidence, but I'm pretty sure.there is something very un-academic about citing something as "this guy told me...."

Nonetheless, I'm glad to know that I have a second scrap of paper that basically replicated that same process for a sibling. While the dates were different, the priests listed were not the same, the parentage and hometown location are certified enough for me to know where to continue my search.

Prior to this week's discovery, and thanks to the help of other forum researchers, I had found a possible entry in a Canadian census record that seemed to match my Tully family. However--and isn't it always the case that things don't quite align themselves perfectly just when you wish for them to cooperate and do so?--the entry for daughter Johanna was spelled "Johan" and marked with a frustrating over-written M and F for gender designation. Why would an Irish family name a child by the German-sounding Johann, I reasoned. Why, too, would an Irish family do so when they also named another child John? My heart hoped for the Johan to be a census taker's error, and opted for that older child to be a daughter. But an irksome nagging plagued me, and I could never be sure my hopes were the way things really were.

I knew from family oral tradition, though, that a sister in the Tully family had married a Ryan, and that they had ultimately moved from Ontario to Manitoba. Their descendants had kept in touch with the descendants of our branch of the Tully family until at least the middle of the 1900s. With the help of that note from the Ryan family descendant I stumbled upon online, I was able to construct a family tree for his side of the family that did link him to Johanna Tully Ryan, and provide a plausible explanation for how his family and ours connected. But I didn't yet have a bona fide paper trail.

With this second--and similar--discovery, while handwritten and certainly not bearing the marks of officialdom, I still don't have what I'd consider to be classic confirmation. However, I think I've found enough to convince me that I've earned the right to hop the ocean and begin searching in earnest in the Tully family's fatherland.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Treasure Trove

We pulled in the driveway at long last, a little while before midnight. The trip had its ups and downs for genealogy research, but I'd say the best was saved for the last night: gathered around the kitchen table, six cousins and their families took a look at tokens of their family history.

The way it happened was this: one cousin that my husband has not seen since childhood drove 100 miles to join the rest of the family for dinner. He and his wife brought with them a collection of Tully and Stevens family photographs, letters, post cards, newsletters, newspaper clippings, and even a book of tax receipts, that had been stashed in his mother's belongings. He had been slowly going through her possessions after she passed away, and with the help of the only remaining aunt of that generation, distributing the newly-discovered material to the appropriate relatives. This collection of material was another installment in that process--but one we all got to participate in.

I don't think I've seen so many pictures of unidentified Tully family members all at one time. I mourn to know that some of those pictures and documents will be passed on without explanation, making them virtually useless to those who receive them.

On the other hand, I'm thankful for our remaining family matriarch, who did her best to identify those she remembered from years ago.

We did find some handwritten records that revealed a few previously-unknown family names, as well as documentation to corroborate with details I'd previously gleaned from distant relatives I met online. All this will take time to sift through, transcribe to bypass the nearly-illegible hand of some century-removed scribes, and contemplate. Another part of the story is being told, and I don't want to drop any of the details before I comprehend their significance.

It is indeed the wee hours of the morning. It's been a long day, and I'm beyond tired. But, after some early disappointments over the trip, in the end, I can say it was worth it to find these several treasures.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Drop in an Ocean of People

Today, we finish our journey with a late afternoon flight home from Chicago. While we are disconnected from our customary and numerous electronic links, I want to share a post I wrote a couple years ago upon the occasion of another cross-country trip.

Anyone who recognizes the acronym RAOK knows how futile it seems for one person to effect change among billions—and how positive some people are that such change can start with one act. To me, that one act seems to resemble the proverbial drop in the ocean, but to RAOK enthusiasts, it is the first step in getting the ball rolling.

RAOK believers do things like tell the toll booth attendant, “Here’s enough money for my toll—and keep the extra to pay for the driver behind me, too,” then drive off, serenely confident that they have made the world a better place. (Meanwhile, the driver behind zooms to catch up, swerving dangerously in front of oncoming traffic in a vain attempt to see who did such a crazy thing.)

I’m in Houston now. While my Houston-bred husband is properly impressed with the current size of the city he ditched 20 years ago, my New York Metro roots still balk at calling this “immensity.” The head count is diffused over a wide, non-descript plain of people. Even so, it is enough people to make me wonder whether any of them could be convinced to line up, just so, to replicate the domino effect.

Chris (said Texas-boy husband) has for many years made it his habit, when we travel, to initiate one of those drops in the ocean of people. He picked up this idea from a speaker at a homeschool conference: take a candy bar, add a simple message of gratitude, and pass it to anyone helping us on our trip. With a computer-printed label slapped on a Hershey bar, he is armed to distribute gratitude to bus drivers, skycaps, and airline flight crews.

His message, following a big, colorful “Thank You,” states: “When you are away from home, it is nice to know the people you trust for your comfort, safety and well-being are professionals who are dedicated to their jobs and the people they serve. God bless you for what you do every day!” Underneath, he inserts the name of each one of our family members.

Simple, huh?

What happens next gets completely complicated. It must have to do with the psychological underpinnings all we mortals carry around, invisible, underneath our pasty, face-masked exteriors. We’ve seen airline attendants, particularly, wax eloquent, brag about us incessantly over the intercom system, flock en masse to the row where we’re seated to personally express profuse gratitude.

It all had started getting overwhelming for me. I have a difficult time with my personal radar, determining sincerity from strangers, so my cynical self felt over-modulated at times in past encounters. When one attendant, a few years ago, came up to pass us a hand-written note—and evidently had tears in her eyes—I began to wonder. Some others confessed to us that they had just completed one leg of their journey which included a particularly intractable personality, and that they “really needed this.” It made me begin to wonder about the working conditions of these airline attendants—about the people these professionals are paid to encounter in their line of work every day.

But this trip took the prize. After completing what now is our customary travel ritual, we looked up at our seats to see three attendants beaming their thanks down at us. Nothing unusual here…until one attendant said, “In all my 16 years of flying, I have never had anyone thank me for what I do in this way.”



It got me to thinking about all the people we encounter in our everyday life: the toll-takers, the coffee-makers, the ticket punchers, the floor-sweepers. Anyone? Anyone thanking them?

More than that, anyone recognizing them as real people? I always have tried to make the bubble-break buffer zone in the midst of the time-squeeze routine of normal stuff like ordering coffee to say, “How are you?” and mean it. Mean it, because that person is a real person with a job that forces the rest of us to treat him or her like an extension of a machine rather than a real, flesh and blood copy of the same stuff that went into making us. How incredible that we can become so busy that we can’t take the time—by our actions—to remember that.

And so, RAOK—random acts of kindness—may indeed be the salve needed to bring people back from the brink of morphing into machines. Our business environment pays tribute to bosses who recognize their employees or professionals who affirm their clients—but what about customers who appreciate the service they receive in the countless ways we’ve come to expect in our typical work day? Yes, it’s their job, but isn’t it handled a bit nicer when it’s a person performing the duties?

I’d say 16 years is too long a time to let our free-market service professionals go unthanked. We could all use adding a couple words to our vocabulary and dispensing them liberally: “Thank you” for a job well done.

I’m looking forward to a glimpse of the domino effect resulting from the first barista keeling over in shock of some long-owed appreciation. This is a people-wave we could all look forward to surfing.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Mission Accomplished

Despite innumerable obstacles--including late departure, insufferable road construction in three states en route, and an unexpected computer glitch as was taken offline just as we pulled off the highway to access wifi for this post--we have our coveted prize for the return trip: a photograph of the John Stevens headstone from St. Mary's Cemetery in Lafayette, Indiana.

Here, a sneak peak preview of the portrait and close-up shots. When I get home, and familiarize myself with the ins and outs of Find-A-Grave membership, I'll add these photos to the collection there, as well as notify the anonymous member who was seeking a picture of John Stevens' wife Eliza's grave. On that account, the news is that there is no marker. We did, however, unearth a stone in the vicinity that got us wondering if it might be part of a marker for John's wife.

How fleeting is the time since they were buried, over 110 years ago, considering how quickly these memorials deteriorate. When it comes to commemorations, Time and the tangible work in opposition. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Lafayette: Take Two

What wasn't done correctly can always be revisited for a second attempt. That's what we told ourselves when we arrived last Friday at St. Mary's Cemetery in Lafayette, Indiana, after the cemetery office closed.

"Oh, we can find it," we told ourselves when faced with locating great-great-grandfather John Stevens' grave site. The marker was distinct--at least, that's what we thought, until we discovered that everyone else from that era must have decided to go in for the latest look in headstones, too. Driving in what seemed like interminable circles around each section of the cemetery, we failed in our mission to follow our noses.

We'd be back this way, we knew, and promised to e-mail the cemetery manager for a refresher course in locating our family's plot. Notwithstanding best-laid plans, we have yet to hear back from the fearless leader whom we had hoped would save our day. And today, we are heading back to Chicago, either bypassing Lafayette, or hoping to be saved by a last minute e-mail, retrieved by trusty i-phone or 'droid in the nick of time.

And if we miss out? Well, trips back east are not easy to come by. This sort of journey may have to be saved for another year. But oh, how I wish we could add our two cents worth to the photos on Find-A-Grave (and recognize our own ancestors in the process) with this leg of the journey.

In the meantime, we have spent time in Columbus, Ohio, with living relatives. Though they are wracked with the ravages of time and age, our elders are happy to see us, as we are to see them. Once again, who knows how soon our travels will bring us back this way--more specifically, who knows whether we'll have this opportunity again. Perhaps Time will once again get the best of us.

And for those Time has already caught up with, we've had some fresh grave sites to visit, too--some still awaiting the commemorative markers that will declare to future generations our concern for their memory. While it seems odd to call those spots part of a genealogy--the memory is too new; how can these be considered along with our "ancestors"?--that is, indeed, what their place markers become in this long march of Time. They, too, are worthy of remembrance. Perhaps, if we don't exercise our research abilities to commemorate them through our narratives, there will be someone several generations hence who will wonder about our parents the same way we wonder about our parents' great-greats.

These, too, are memories we can't let slip away.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Passing It On

When researching roots gets too close to home--hovering near the current, living generations--sometimes the going takes on a more difficult aura. It's hard to dig further into the details of those we remember living only a few years prior. There may be baggage, regrets, or memories that still need to heal. But while we have the time to document those remembrances, we need to do so.

Musing over that predicament after the loss of my mother, I wrote this piece a couple years ago on one of those anniversary dates that gives pause to remembrances. Having written that, I realized that even the difficult memories we have are part of our heritage that need to be passed along.

Last week was my mother’s birthday. Oh, no splurgy celebration scheduled. She’s been gone now for almost four years. But there is definitely a remembrance.

It’s not always an easy remembrance. I have some friends whose family members constantly dote on each other. It’s quite warming to observe their public postings of mutual support on Facebook. And no surprise that they are as obsessed with publicly appreciating their mother as they are in affirming their siblings.

But, unfortunately, that’s not me. Knowing that memories include flashbacks to not only the good days but bad ones as well makes it particularly challenging to rightly sort through the details.

I imagine a friend of mine is going through that same process right now. Today is her mother’s funeral. I have been acquainted with this mother-daughter duo for decades, having met the daughter when we were college students together. For every time she sighed in frustration over a momentary clash with her mother, I think I have matched it in one of my own. That’s not to say she didn’t love her mom—she was quite devoted to her. Yet the devotion was embedded with many passing frustrations, too.

We had talked about it from time to time. It can be challenging to not have the “Average American Mom” for a mother—the stereotypical mom who is always there to feed you chicken soup when your soul is needing a dose. But that is the legacy each of us had been given. The challenge to live up to was to honor despite the drawbacks, to see the value in what we have been given.

We are not alone, evidently. I remember talking with a coworker once, a master’s level professional. We were musing over the difficulties we sometimes had, interacting as adults with our mothers. I can remember the specific instance of horror hitting her face when she, thinking aloud over her reflections, realized, “I’ve become my mother!”

We have become our mothers. What we have found difficult, provoking, alienating, about their momentary behaviors has become the same opinionated off-the-top-of-our-heads verbal snapshots of our own lives. Their foibles, attitudes, insistences have become second nature to our next-generation beings. Without even thinking about it, we have assumed their affect, morphed into their mold.

It’s a kind of heritage. Not one that would be written out in a will, but written in an unspoken code—a genetic code. Somehow, it’s as if the product of our environment has become the very essence of our genes. After my mother was gone, I could sometimes hear her laugh, or sense her sigh—and, thinking I was hearing her again, realize that I was only hearing my own voice.

Or was it really my own voice? Where did that voice come from? The sound, the breath, the pacing, the inflection—how could it just be imitation of what I had heard countless times?

Regardless of the current opinion held of our parents—and farther back than that, our ancestors—we are actually a product of who they were. We carry all the benefits and all the foibles of what made them up. And, can we blame them? They were merely the recipients of what was given to them.

The minute tendencies that make each of us up are somehow our own, but somehow are also owing to those we call our parents, our grandparents. They live on in us. We benefit from them. We owe them much—whether in frustration or in gratitude.

And we have to understand that we, too, will pass that all along to others who will share our same frustrations. Just as there is no way to escape who we really are, there is no escaping the fact that we received it from those who went before us. The real task is to sift through that mixed bag of inherited items and learn to see the real value in what we’ve received—then pass it along in such a way that those beyond us will realize, with gratitude, what they are receiving.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Diamonds In Diaries

Thinking about my mother in yesterday's post reminded me of the many journals she left behind. I had started transcribing them, simply in hopes of speeding up the reading and comprehension processes, owing to the difficulty I have, at times, in deciphering her handwriting. After a while, though, I had given up on the process. There was too much of life here and now demanding my attention.

However, with the arrival of Edna Tully's journal in the mail last month, my interest in transcriptions was reawakened. There is so much left to do to capture the essence of these two women, which inspires me to really get busy the minute I arrive home.

I've had other inspiration prompting me to get back to this business at hand: a fellow genealogy blogger has been slogging through this same process. Joan, of Roots'n'Leaves, has been diligently transcribing the 1850s era journals of her great-great grandfather, James P. McPherson, since at least her 2001 blog entry in which she confesses her sister's apt portrayal of her passion: "Some of her best friends have been dead for 200 years."

Journals and diaries are such a wonderful window on the souls of these departed ancestors. Even in the writing of my husband's relative, Edna Tully, though she completed her diary as a teenager, it projects a slice of her life at the time, endearing her to us--and allowing us to share the pathos of one of the great losses of her life, the death of her grandmother. There is nothing like reading the thoughts of a person, in his or her own words, and letting those written passages paint the picture of who that person is becoming to us, the future generations. I so want to be part of capturing that retro-vision and passing it along so others may know, too.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

To Have a Heritage

While I'm continuing my research travels, having finished my time at the library in Lafayette, Indiana, I'd like to share a piece I wrote last year on the occasion of my mother's birthday. The photo to the left is from her professional portfolio from her young years, when her hopes were to be an actress, and when, still awaiting that moment when her dreams would become reality, she filled those starving-artist seasons with work as professional dancer, United Nations tour guide--or whatever would fill the pantry of the New York City apartment she shared with her fellow hopeful starlets-in-waiting. I've often thought of my mother as an enigma, yet at the same time, she has prompted many thoughts and observations, making me realize that what she gave me, for better or for worse, became the gems that I inherited as part of my family heritage. Remembering that we all have a heritage and we, ourselves, leave a legacy, I've often been reminded to hold dear whatever I've been given.
When I think back over the three decades I’ve dabbled in researching my family tree, I can’t help but wince remembering the biblical injunction against devoting oneself to “endless genealogies.” The message seems to be that it is of no lasting purpose to know one’s roots. My hope—or at least something I often wonder—is that there is a benefit to knowing one’s heritage.

I guess I was just born wanting to know my family’s story, though I’m nowhere in the league of bluebloods, cognoscenti, or even the lowly glitterati. Historically, the only ones deemed worthy of recording forebears were those who were making history. Many of those pacesetters were accorded notice because of agreements: covenants establishing a bloodline (kings), a right of service (priests), or a right of inheritance (nobility, landholders—or, in the case of the ancient nation of Israel, descendants of a particular promise-holder). In my case, none of these applied, but I firmly held to a blind faith that I was, indeed, some type of heritage-holder. To know this, to uncover my heritage, I needed to dig for my roots.

Though the notable Apostle Paul was the one who penned those dreary words, “endless genealogies,” in a note to his protégé, Timothy, it doesn’t mean that all hope of learning from one’s roots is now anathema. The Bible itself is replete with examples of family lines. Genesis, I Chronicles, and Matthew provide ample eye-glazing family litanies.

The thought hit me one day that there must be something to this genealogy stuff—else why would there be so much emphasis on it in the Bible? Take, for instance, the Old Testament habit of identifying a person not only by his name, but by his father’s name. In other words, a person would be listed by his father’s name too, if “John Smith” didn’t do the trick. “Oh! That John Smith!” If “John Smith, son of Joe Smith” didn’t provide enough detail, then another generation would be added. Of course, this system usually only applied to people making history, such as kings or priests—people already handily equipped to know such minutiae.

I can just see the name-calling match between prophets: Zechariah lists his resume to the third generation. Not to be outdone, the lesser-recognized prophet Zephaniah whips out his C.V. to the fifth generation, just in case anyone confuses him for that other Zephaniah.

Or take princes. Ziza, in I Chronicles 4:37, has five generations of predecessors listed to make sure no one becomes mistaken about just who is boss. To his credit, though, he had taken some significant action to get to the top of his class.

But me? Little ol’ me? The one who spent an entire student career preening on the heady insistence of teachers that each of us would become something special, that the world lay at our feet, that success was just there for the grabbing? That “me” who, despite those marvelous promises of well-meaning educator-mentors, spent adulthood as a mole burrowed in the anonymity of eight-to-five life? Where was my heritage?

Today is my mother’s birthday. While she is no longer here to enjoy the celebration, she provides a date for me to reflect on that heritage. I still haven’t found it—not in its entirety—but page by dusty page, I am uncovering the mystery that was hers to pass on to her children. I find the anomalies of life she passed down from her own misty childhood remembrances confirmed through the cold, impersonal dates and data of life records: census forms, death certificates, shipping records, land deeds. I uncover attitudes and prejudices passed along—broadly, from generation to generation, or unwittingly, from mother to daughter.

There may have been a time when people solved the problem of “which John Smith” by answering with the litany of “John Smith, son of Joe, son of Ed, son of Kevin.”

“Oh, that John Smith,” people may have nodded, remembering John’s great-grandfather.

I can’t say that many people today even know the names of their own great-grandparents.

In my quest to get to know just my own mother, I can be grateful that I am getting to learn those names. And I am getting to know a little more about each of their lives. In knowing where I have come from, I am reconstructing from lost memories my family’s own heritage. While I am not a king, not a priest, not a victorious warrior, even I can have a heritage. And it is the heritage, discovered, that benefits its possessors with significance.
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