How do you manage to stumble upon the secrets your ancestors supposedly took with them to their grave? Some people unexpectedly uncover such clues upon receiving the results to their own DNA tests. That, however, is not to say there is no other way to learn the hidden details of our ancestors' lives. Techniques as simple as the beginner's standard genealogy training in building a family tree can lead to surprises.
I never got the chance to even meet my paternal grandparents. As I later discovered, they were gone before I was even born.
I did, however, learn from an early age that my father was close-lipped in the face of his daughter's incessant prying. Try as I might, I could not get him to say the least little detail about his family—not even about his own parents.
When the news broke among the family members of my generation that my grandparents might not have been either Irish, as had been reported to my older siblings and cousins, or German, as was their second guess, it was tools as simple as death certificates and census records which led us closer to the truth.
The linchpin to this process of discovery came in the form of my own paternal grandmother, Sophie. My brother and my oldest cousins were barely in grade school when our grandmother lost her own mother in 1939, so perhaps they were too young to remember any details about the event or the people who gathered to mourn with Sophie. However, eventually, they came of age enough to need information such as "mother's maiden name."
It was when Sophie herself—once gone in 1952 and no longer able to hide the secret—became the unwitting revelation of that hidden surname that my siblings, cousins, and I could make any progress on unraveling the story. Step by step—much as we urge beginners in genealogy to do—I traced what I could find on my grandmother.
Long before such information could be accessed through genealogical websites, those steps might have been steady, but they were few and far between. I sent for my paternal grandmother's death certificate by snail mail, complete with stamped, self-addressed envelope—a phrase which became nearly a mantra within how-to instructions. From that information, I moved a step backwards in time and began searching for her parents—and learned, along the way, that even in reports to government officials, sometimes the information is not, um, the gospel truth.
Eventually, census records became available online, speeding up the research process. Not all decades were represented in resources available at that time, but at least I could locate the 1880 census—a bit too early to help my case—and the 1920 census. Like the proverbial Goldilocks, I was left still wishing for a record that was "just right."
"Just right" came in the form of the 1910 U.S. Census enumeration. Since my dad and his sister had already been born—and I fervently hoped their given names weren't changed in the same manner as their surname—I found an entry which seemed to fit.
There, in the Brooklyn location where I had expected to see them, were my father and his younger sister at just the ages I'd expected. There, too, was their mother—my grandmother Sophie—but she appeared with a surname different from any I'd heard mentioned in family conversations. And yet, there also—confirming some of the death records enough to guide me away from any misinformation—were her parents' names.
There, too, in that 1910 census, was the detail of how many children Sophie had given birth to—her two children listed right in the record there—as well as the same count for Sophie's mother. Thus, moving step by step, I learned there were possible collateral lines to research as well, if I was unable to make any research progress on Sophie's own paper trail.
In time, moving step by step backwards through the years, I was able to discover the names of my grandparents—those names my father was so reticent to even mention when I asked. Despite their not being here any longer to tell me themselves, I was able to learn who Sophie's two siblings were—brothers John and "Michael," who also chose to modify his surname.
The most valuable detail, however, was gleaning the information on Sophie's parents. While the 1910 census listed them as having been born in Germany—customary at that time for immigrants from the western portion of what is now known as Poland—it confirmed both the surname I wanted to chase after (Laskowski) and their approximate years of birth and marriage. By taking those rudimentary steps in the standard genealogical research process, I was equipped to move on to that next step in unraveling the family mystery: discovering who my great-grandparents Anton and Mary Laskowski were.
Above: Excerpt from the 1910 U.S. Census for the Antone Laskowski household in Brooklyn, New York, courtesy of Ancestry.com.