Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Tale of Two Grandmothers
Part Two: “Hers”

Polish immigrant child in NYC
As much as I know about my husband’s grandmother Bertha, I don’t know about my own paternal grandmother, Sophie. To start with, I never met Sophie. She died a few years before I was born. While I was growing up, my father never talked about her. I never even knew her name until after my father died, when, in conversations with older relatives, I started gleaning bits and pieces.

There seemed to be something mysterious about her—a story one was forbidden to tell. When a cousin of mine tried to ask her own mother about Sophie, her mom nervously changed the subject. That was my own experience, too. Bit by bit, each of us, the descendants, has been working on piecing together what data we could find. As is the case in so many family research attempts, it is mostly, now, a paper chase.

Sophie—or later, as I found out, Sophia—was born somewhere in Poland in 1885. She came to New York City with her family, supposedly, a few years later, about the time of her childhood picture above. I say “supposedly” because I can find no records of her arrival—yet. She obviously made it to New York, because that is where she lived and died. The little “Poland” factoid comes from her family’s declaration on various official papers—census records and death certificates—though she seldom dared to breathe the word to those around her, not even to her own family.

Sophie’s family settled in Brooklyn, one of the boroughs of New York City. Apparently, a few years after she married and had two children, she and her family were able to move up in the world...or at least move up to Queens, which seemed a better situation for her then-prospering family.

That’s where the break in information shows up. In Brooklyn, I could find her under either her maiden name, or in her father’s household, along with her husband, under her new married name. When she and her immediate family moved to Queens, suddenly the surname changed, though all the players remained the same. And, no, it wasn’t due to a divorce.

Asking family members for clues wasn’t helpful. After all, the move occurred sometime between 1910, when the federal census showed them in Brooklyn in her father’s residence, and 1915, when the New York State census indicates a family in Queens with similar data—similar, that is, except for surname. None of the relatives alive now knew about that little paper glitch.

I can’t even be the one to claim discovery of the smoking gun. An in-law of a distant cousin was the one to make the find, posting it to the records of FamilyTreeMaker. At that point, my initiation into Polish research was only just beginning. I had hardly gotten my head around the fact that, in Poland, while the dad may be surnamed Laskowski, his unmarried daughter would carry the name as Laskowska.

But this surname change was not a mere matter of “i” versus “a” but a change from Polish to Irish. Where did the Irish come from?

It’s been many years since I first found that name change. Several years of searching through documents has turned up little. I did find that one of Sophie’s brothers—Michael, or Michko—had taken the liberty to shorten the decidedly ethnic surname to a more streamlined Lasko. Whether he endured the legal process of making the change official, I can’t tell. I haven’t been able to find much of a trace of him or his own family since he left the Laskowski home in Brooklyn in his twenties, other than a mention in Sophie’s obituary.

But I have yet to piece together the story of what impelled Sophie and her husband to move from their home in Brooklyn and surface in Queens with not only a different surname but a new ethnic identity.

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