Monday, February 15, 2021

The Knack of Being Nosy


Since the habit of flipping pages and being nosy has stood me in good stead while researching my godmother's father's personal history, I thought I'd extend the courtesy to Michael Melnitchenko's wife, as well.

The only reason I had learned anything at all about Lydia Melnitchenko was that she was the customary chaperone for my godmother, Genia, during her early years traveling as part of a ballet troupe. Just as every passage to America for French-born Genia required reams of immigration paperwork, because she was traveling internationally as a minor, the same documentation needed to be completed for her chaperone from Marseilles, Lydia.

In the stacks of records I could find for Genia, of course her mother was always listed by her married name. If I hoped to push back the family history yet another generation, I would need to obtain her mother's maiden name, which passenger lists seldom required. I did, however, locate it in a later set of records which provided resources for my research goal: United States immigration records and Social Security applications.

Though Genia was born in Marseilles, France, and lived there with her mother while her father was earning his living in the ocean-going shipping industry, the family still very much identified as Russians. For people of Russian heritage, this naming tradition became a two-step, family-linking process.

Once the Melnitchenkos finally settled in New York City after the second World War, from Genia's own Social Security application, I learned Lydia's maiden name: Leonoff. And, a bonus for those researching family with Russian heritage, I learned Lydia's possible father's given name as well, thanks to the patronymic naming system.

That tip came disguised in index cards typed out from information on United States immigration applications, in which the women had an odd addition to their name, in the form of a man's given name inserted between the woman's given name and surname. Not quite a bona fide patronymic system, but let's just say it was Americanized.

I had first seen this on the card typed up for Genia's immigration paperwork, in which her given name was written as "Olga Eugenia Michael." Michael, of course, was the Americanized form of her father's given name. Thus, when I found the same type of card for Lydia, listing her as "Lydia Theodore," I figured that must have been her father's given name—or at least its Americanized version.

Theodore, of course, would not be how the name was written or pronounced in Russian. It is more likely it would have taken the form Fyodor. Add to that the traditional Russian patronym for a daughter of Fyodor—Fyodorovna—and we get the idea of what maiden name Lydia might have carried, back in the homeland of her Russian roots: Lydia Fyodorovna Leonoff (or possibly Leonov).

Despite having deciphered just what Lydia's name at birth might have been, I still faced substantial obstacles in being able to locate any documents from that early stage in her life, given the turmoil she had suffered in her homeland. Still, I hoped there would be a way to uncover at least a little bit more of her story, knowing how much the stress had silenced her as her life wore on toward its end.

Truth be told, I had always hoped there would be a way to find any relatives for the family at all. I already knew that Genia was an only child, and presumed that her parents had been alone in coming to this country from war-torn Europe. I always harbored that dream of discovering another family member.

That's where the lesson of being nosy and learning to flip pages came in. Just like I had for researching Michael's ordeal in surviving the torpedo attack on the ship where he had been serving during the World War, I once again started flipping pages for other records in which I had found the family listed.

This time, it was on the record of the final arrival in America of Genia and her mother, that I flipped a page and discovered there might be another family member out there. Her name was Alexandra, and she lived back in Marseilles.


  1. Oh boy, a cliff hanger! Who might Alexandra be?

    1. Wait! That's what I am wanting to know! Don't forget, I'm barely one step ahead of the story, myself. This research is still a work in progress...


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