Tuesday, August 2, 2016
Coming at it Sideways:
A Research Strategy
While having a father whose name regularly appeared in newspaper reviews might have been a great boost for filling in the blanks on family history, that was only a gift guaranteed to illuminate the story for one generation. Of course, as much as I wanted to know about my dad's life—yes, even the reviews at Billboard—it was the silence of preceding generations which begged me to pursue further back in time.
Those more distant generations, though, proved such a puzzle to me as to keep me stopped in my tracks. I needed a strategy—a research strategy to help me make an end run around my mystery ancestors.
I chose the unlikely surname of Aktabowski to aid my escape from that dominating brick wall. The choice was somewhat unfortunate at first—when I started this approach, it was back in 2002—because the surname was so rare that I found relatively little about the family online, or even in books.
I had what I thought might be a sound reason for my choice, though. It was all based on a conjecture spun off a discrepancy on two death certificates. The problem was this: on one death certificate, the maiden name of my great grandmother was Zelinski, while on her own death certificate, her father's surname was Jankowsky.
Ah, death certificates. You know the routine: the entire family is so distraught about the loss of a loved one—while all the while scurrying to notify relatives of the impending funeral and simultaneously attending to all the arrangements that needed to be completed before said relatives actually show up at the funeral. In the midst of all this turmoil, someone would pull key family members aside into an office, offer them a chair and another box of tissues, and ask for the details that must be affixed to the official death certificate.
At that point in time, the answers to such questions couldn't be farther from everyone's mind. People in deep distress sometimes cannot tell you their own full name, let alone the names associated with the dearly departed. Sometimes, the very mention of that loved one's name prompts heaving waves of sobs and great distress. Who cares where his mother was born? All that matters is that he is not here, anymore.
Yet, somehow, the funeral director—or whichever official scribe is tasked with the duty—comes up with answers with which to fill in each blank on the governmental form, and the death certificate is ready within days to duly note—and irrevocably so—the chain of events tying the generations together.
So, for my paternal grandmother's own death certificate, her bereaved husband declared in 1952 that Sophie Laskowska McCann's mother's name was Mary Zelinski. Yet, when Sophie, herself, was in that very same position only thirteen years previously, she noted that her mother Mary's father's name was not Zelinski, but Jankowsky.
Did Sophie not know her own grandfather's name? It could be possible; she left her homeland and, after a long ocean voyage, landed in New York City when still a small child. Possibly, she never saw her grandparents again.
As for Sophie's husband, reporting those same familial details for Sophie's own death certificate, it could have been one of many distractions which prevented his proper reporting of the facts: his distraught mind, his age at the time—he was seventy five when she died, and in ailing health, himself—his failing memory. Or, maybe he just didn't know. Perhaps he had heard others in the family mention that surname, Zelinski, several times and presumed it was the right name. Who knows? Maybe Sophie's mother was married before, and he gave a married name instead of the required maiden name.
Despite all that confusion, what caught my eye in these discrepancies was not the names associated with Sophie's maternal grandfather, but with her maternal grandmother. For Mary, Sophie's mother, may have had a mother with a maiden name spelled almost exactly like Aktabowski.
Why, you might be asking, would the name Aktabowski bear any meaning? What I had also uncovered, while working every angle I could on this poorly-documented immigrant family, was that Sophie had had a brother who married a woman with that very same surname: Aktabowski. In fact, it seemed that surname intertwined itself with the Laskowski family quite a bit.
My thinking was: if I can't find out anything about this Laskowski family, perhaps I can make some headway by taking the indirect route of studying those Aktabowskis and see if things were more completely documented for them.
And that is the pursuit I've returned to this line to clean up. I'm hoping there will be several more clues about this surname than there were, the last time I left this trail.
Above: Sophie Laskowska McCann as a young child; photograph from private collection of family.