Tuesday, October 5, 2021

When Family Stories
Weren't Exaggerated


Sometimes, we attempt to verify stories passed down through the generations in our family, and discover that family "history" wasn't quite so. That, however, doesn't necessarily mean we should dismiss all such oral traditions as exaggerations. Sometimes, they reveal a kernel of truth.

It was through collaboration with my older siblings and cousins—and their children, as well—that I first learned that my name was, well, not my real name. You see, it was my paternal grandfather who, for whatever reason, decided to reinvent himself in the wake of an international crisis. Before the tensions which erupted into the first World War, he was simply an immigrant from Poland living in New York City. By 1915, suddenly, he inexplicably morphed into an Irish-American, complete with Irish surname.

That his children were not born with the name they now claimed was beside the point: the whole family, moving into a new neighborhood in the borough of Queens, now assumed a different identity.

The clues only began leaking out when my oldest cousin's daughter began sketching out her family tree as part of a school project. How she found the first detail, I don't know. Perhaps she sweet-talked her dad into spilling the story.

Once the story was out, though, the word spread among the cousins. My brother was the first to tell me, then a call from another cousin's daughter led to volleys of emails between us, sharing remembrances of stuff that just didn't add up. One relative recalled, for instance, the strange discovery of how she caught her mom, guilt-ridden, hiding a piece of sheet music—a piano arrangement for the Polish national anthem. Why did she hide it? Because her parents had severely warned her against revealing any sign of their roots.

Simple stories such as these—my mother, for instance, wondering why my "Irish" father never seemed to relish the traditional corned beef dinner she prepared on Saint Patrick's Day—may have seemed inconsequential, when taken individually. In the aggregate, as we cousins worked together, the stories pointed to a family secret, one which was important enough to our grandparents for them to justify the extent they took to silence their own children as the change took place.

If any one of my grandparents' descendants had stumbled upon only one clue, perhaps we would have missed the story. After all, one tearful confession can be written off as the reaction of an overly-emotional individual.

Sharing those stories with each other which we each realized didn't quite add up encouraged us to dig deeper into a subject which had previously been invisible to us. Sharing what we found, once the search began, helped bolster the project. Even the slightest details—like old photographs, or keepsakes found—could now be seen in a new light.

While there is a synergy that comes from working as a team, nothing super-charges a family history search like the right tools. Once we had access to the Internet and online search capabilities, the documents kept supporting what had started as the first whisper of the family secret. If it weren't for this now-assembled paper trail, that hidden family story might have ended up discarded as simply another unreliable family myth.

Not that the search is over, of course—and that's the point of this month's research goal. To get to that point, though, we'll first take a look at the paper trail we've already blazed and introduce the known players. From that point, we'll take a look at the next generation, and see what can be found about those unknown family members.



  1. Oh my. Had you had trouble finding your great-grandparents of this "Irish" family? Good example of people will do to try to keep their families "safe."

    1. Oh, believe me, Lisa, when I first started down this trail--pre-Internet, incidentally--I opened up the city directories and microfilmed census records for New York City, merrily churning away, page by page, looking for families headed by someone named John McCann. You can image how old that got in no time...I had no idea.


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