Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Birthday Time

John T. and Sophie Laskowski McCann
As they used to say in the days of limited info/edu/entertainment media access, “We interrupt this regularly scheduled program to bring you this important announcement:” It’s someone’s birthday today.

Well, it is—and it isn’t. First of all, if my father were alive today, he would be celebrating his 107th birthday.

Or not.

It all depends on where you hang your proof hat.

Before I had that need to document everything, I was a blissfully ignorant but quite dutiful daughter who always remembered her father’s birthday came on February 8th. I remembered that February 8 was the date, that is, until someone came along to disabuse me of that notion.

And not only that notion, but the whole idea of what my father’s name actually was.

It happened this way:

Not long after deciding to get serious about my genealogy research (as in, actually writing this stuff down somewhere so I could remember it), I purchased what was then the FamilyTreeMaker database product of a company called, once upon a time, Banner Blue. Within the FamilyTreeMaker universe was a system which allowed customers to see which other customers were also researching the same family lines. By contacting the company, one customer could retrieve the contact information for those other customers following the same relatives.

Although I’m sometimes convinced that I am the only one in the world researching my family lines (try finding other researchers seeking Gramlewicz—or Aktabowski), I do occasionally find the rare like-minded researcher. One day, in working on my father’s line, I did find such a match.

There was only one problem: this researcher had my father listed as a girl.

I can’t say I blame him. He had entered my dad’s name as Vallie. That must have been some distant relative’s remembrance of what my father might have been called as a little child. After all, his full first name was Valentine. Just the right name for a February birthday. But not the kind of name that lends itself well to playing out on the ball field.

So I contacted this researcher who, after all, seemed to know more about my family history than I did. I set him on the right path with corrected information on my father. We struck up an ongoing email correspondence, and from time to time, exchanged additional informational tidbits. He was what my family liked to call “outlaws”—in other words, he was related to the in-laws of some more distant relatives. Most of what he had gleaned on my branch of the extended family was through nearly-forgotten remembrances and previous-generation connections—until the bombshell he threw my way one day.

“Say,” he queried, “Any chance your surname was Puhalski?”

Okay, I can allow that Puhalski is a do-able surname. There are such people in the New York City vicinity where my grandparents settled after emigrating from Poland.

The only problem was: I didn’t know my paternal family line was supposed to be Polish. Not at that time. We had a very Irish–sounding surname, and very limited knowledge of any family roots, other than that nearly-forgotten pesky little detail that my paternal grandmother Sophie’s maiden name was actually Laskowski.

Sophie in her parents' Brooklyn household in the 1892 NY State census

So when this guy sprang that kind of question on me, I responded as reasonably as any other researcher would have done. I told him, “Show me.”

Sure enough, here came the proof. A 1905 New York State census for the household of Anton and Mary Laskowski, with newlywed daughter Sophie and her husband, “Thomas” Puhalski—proud parents, by the June first census date, of four-month-old Valentine.

Newlywed daughter Sophie in her parents' household in the 1905 NY census

A 1910 Federal Census, again showing the Brooklyn Laskowski household, with both Valentine and his younger sister, Anna Mae. There was that same Puhalski surname again—only this time, Sophie’s husband’s name seemed to change to Theodore.

The Laskowski household in the 1910 Federal Census

And then came our researcher’s crowning glory: the double-barreled smoking gun of birth certificates for both Valentine and Anna Mae.

Granted, the spelling variations for the Polish surname (listed as “German” as the seasonal fluctuations of political spheres of influence shifted) were all across the board: Puhalski, Puchalski, Puhalaski. But try this little experiment with me, and you’ll see there is very little difference in the delivery:

Say “Puhalski.” Then say “Puchalski.”

That’s right, go ahead and say each one out loud. Listen to your results.

Now, try that again—but first, put on your very best German accent. Better yet, make it your very best Yiddish accent.

Say “Puhalski.”

Then say “Puchalski.”

No, no…I mean Puchalski. Think chutzpah. Or challah. That kind of Puchalski.

I noticed that when Dr. William J. O’Brien signed my father’s birth certificate, he was not equipped linguistically to imagine something sounding like that to be spelled “Puchalski.” So he spelled it “Puhalski.”

When my aunt came along, attending physician, Dr. S. Haushler seemed linguistically better equipped to maneuver the phonetics for his Polish-American patient.

Other than the surname, everything else fell right into place: mother’s maiden name, ages of parents at the time of each child’s birth, father’s occupation, even the 1905 address on birth certificate and state census record. All, that is, except that one little detail: surname.

Oh. There was one other discrepancy: the day of my father’s birth. It was a few—only a very few—days off.

And so I have to say that this may be his birthday. Or not.

As for his name—his real name—I guess I’ll never really know the story behind that mystery, although it sure explains why my dad never did seem to get excited about a corned-beef-and-cabbage dinner on Saint Patrick’s Day.

Happy 107th, Daddy. That sure is a long time to keep a secret.


  1. What a story! Blessings on your outlaw. You may never learn the whole tale, but I suspect you have and will invest considerable time mining the resources.

  2. Ich arbeite immer noch an meinem Deutsch Akzent und sagen "Puchalski"... "Puhalski"... "Puchalski"... "Puhalski"...

    Gutt gott im Himmel!

    Alles Gute zum Geburtstag Valentinstag! or rather...

    Zadowolony Valentine urodziny!

    1. Ach!

      Now that you've driven me to Google Translator--and thus demonstrating that neither the German nor the Polish gene resides in my DNA--I suppose the very least I can say is "Dziękujemy!"

    2. Niech cię Bóg błogosławi!!

      LOL! :)


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