Wednesday, June 19, 2019
To get an idea of how difficult it has been to glean the history of my paternal grandfather, all one has to do is merely take a look at the many posts I've written at A Family Tapestry over the years. That was my chief complaint on the day I launched this blog, but it certainly wasn't the last time I whined about that research dilemma. I tried tackling that problem again in 2015, though that time, the terrain over that research pathway had changed quite a bit; thanks to two different people sharing notes, our family discovered that we weren't looking for a man in New York City who was Irish, but for someone with a decidedly Polish surname.
One of those people was the daughter of one of my cousins. Doing the usual kid's homework assignment of building a family tree for her class project, she had stumbled upon an alarming possibility: that my father's mother was actually from a family named Laskowski, and that her newlywed husband, living with her in her parents' household, also boasted a Polish-sounding surname. That, in fact, was abundantly clear, once online genealogy made census accessibility a matter of a few keystrokes plus the click of a mouse. But this discovery came, back when genealogy was still an endeavor requiring cranking through microfilmed records.
The other person who gifted us with a research clue—back when the way customers viewed other people's family trees, at least through Family Tree Maker, was by ordering CDs—was actually an in-law of a second cousin once removed, from that same Laskowski line of my grandmother. He must have been a very dedicated genealogist to have gone so far afield in his own research, but no matter the reason, I'm glad to have received what, at the time, was a surprising email.
His news: my paternal grandfather was not named John T. McCann—the name we all knew him by—but actually was a man by the name of Theodore John Puhalski. Over the years since that discovery, my siblings and cousins have scrambled to make sense of not only how that could be, but who he was and how he got here.
The stories about Theodore/John were etched in the memories of my older relatives. Being one of the youngest of his grandchildren, I never had the opportunity of knowing him personally; he died before I was even born. But I could pump those others for their remembrances of every detail about the man, which I have done over the decades.
Even so, what does a little kid remember? Yet, one day—and not so very long ago—my older sister sent out a message asking, "Does anyone remember this story?" about our grandfather. He was a man who seldom spoke about his family or background—one relative produced the rare instance of recalling that our grandfather claimed he was an orphan—so my sister's recollection of a different story about our grandfather's arrival in this country was quite unexpected. She recalled him mentioning that, since he was an orphan, he had to go to work at a young age. He ended up working on a ship, and when that ship came to call at the port of New York, he made the fateful decision to go ashore...and never return. He jumped ship and became just another one of the millions of near-anonymous immigrants who now called New York their home.
Could it be? It sure sounds like the kind of story kids would relish, given a youngster's sense of adventure coupled with the lure of mystery. But it never had any follow through, not any details that corroborated that assertion. In fact, in our online era when family secrets are crashing all around me, I've managed to unearth some documents concerning him, both before and after his name change, that mysterious moment in which he reinvented himself as an Irish immigrant.
I've pulled out those records time and again, scouring every detail for an overlooked clue—yet never finding anything new to guide me further. We'll take a look at them tomorrow, just as review before launching into what can be found through these DNA matches. The real key to answers in this search, though, may well be what can be found in those other people's family trees. That, though, will require us to work on building out the branches on some very abbreviated eastern European family trees before we can reach back far enough to find those Most Recent Common Ancestors that tie us all together.
Above: Closeup of an old photograph of the man my family always knew as John T. McCann. It turns out this man was once known as Theodore J. Puhalski, born in "Germany" in 1876, who arrived in New York City possibly as early at 1884. Photograph from private collection of family.