Thursday, August 4, 2016
A Rare Encounter
When I first started researching my father's family, about the only thing I knew for sure was the name of his maternal grandparents: Laskowski. Anton (or sometimes Antoni) and Mary Laskowski had emigrated from Poland sometime in the 1880s.
Although that Polish country of origin was kept a deep, dark secret in the family for the next two generations, now that we have access to records as commonplace as the United States Census enumerations for 1900, 1910, and 1920, it's quite plain to see.
Perhaps that transparency would have been dismaying to my grandmother, their daughter, but she is no longer here to put up any fuss about revealing the secret she wished to keep. She was gone long before I arrived on the scene, let alone when I began to flex my genealogical research muscles.
That open record policy has done me a few more good turns, including the gift of clues tipping me off about related surnames in their family. In addition to the Aktabowski surname I'm pursuing, I found a young woman in the Laskowski household in the 1915 state census by the surname Gramlewicz. Head of household Anton had listed her as his niece, which, depending on the ethnic tradition, may have meant, literally, that she was his niece—or may have included one of any number of other euphemisms for familial relationships.
Although I tend to assume Anna Gramlewicz was actually Anton Laskowski's niece—likely, he had a sister who married a man by that surname—there was one other detail which opened up the possibility of a double relationship between the Laskowski and Gramlewicz families: according to Anton's 1935 death certificate, his mother was also a Gramlewicz.
There is both a blessing and a curse to researching surnames as rare as Gramlewicz. For one thing, if any entry is found under that surname, unlike such cases as researching Smith or Jones, there is a much higher probability that it is material having to do with one's own family. On the other hand, because it is such an unusual name, it runs a higher chance of being misspelled or misunderstood. Even when it is spelled correctly, uncertain transcriptions of handwriting can falsely render a correctly-spelled version of the name into something impossible to find on a computer-aided search.
We'll take a look, tomorrow, at some Gramlewicz records I have managed to find, over the years, but for now, let's consider the reverse of that quest of mine to find material on the Gramlewicz family: the possibility that someone else will find me.
For whatever reason, about ten years ago, someone halfway around the world from here sat down at her computer and typed in her surname to see what the search engine would bring up. Among the results—which, considering the word she entered was "Gramlewicz," couldn't have been too many—was a forum entry requesting more information from anyone else researching that surname. That entry was posted by—you guessed it—me. The woman, also a Gramlewicz descendant, was a Polish woman living in Italy who, thanks to her schooling, had learned to speak and read English.
She decided to send me an email.
As the blessings of researching unusual surnames go, you know the probability of our relationship was high. As the two of us exchanged emails over the course of the next few years, my newly-found distant cousin filled in the blanks for me of what became of my Gramlewicz family from Brooklyn, New York. She had known, from her childhood, that there was the occasional letter sent out to America from her older relatives, and that, for a long time, there would be letters in reply. Of course, at some point, the letter exchange vanished, but she had never made the effort to figure out what had happened—or who it was in that far-away place who had always answered those letters.
We think we had it figured out: it likely was Annie Gramlewicz, the eighteen year old niece found in the 1915 New York State census, who had taken a position as a saleslady in a Brooklyn store and asked to stay at the small apartment of her uncle, Antoni Laskowski.
The rest of the story—of why Annie didn't just stay in her parents' home in Queens, and what had become of them—was something we figured out, partly through discussions via email exchange, and partly as more and more census enumerations and vital records became available online.
That I had such a wonderful resources in this bilingual distant cousin from halfway around the world was a blessing, but it didn't last forever. Into every life must, at some point, come some turmoil, and unfortunately, this also happened to her. Sadly, I lost contact with her. Then, out of the blue, we reconnected—she had left Italy and returned to her parents' home briefly. And then, once again, no answer.
In hopes that, just like that last time over ten years ago, someone will stumble across this mention of the Gramlewicz family, I'll begin tomorrow to explain just what happened to Annie and her family. Maybe, just maybe, another virtual encounter will lead to connecting with family members once again.
Above: Sunset in Ostend, undated oil on canvas by Belgian painter Évariste Carpentier (1845 - 1922); courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.