Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Wordless Wednesday

This photo was in a box of old family photos from my mother. Probably these are distant relatives of my grandmother's, who came from Hungary, but who knows? No names, no info. That's why I resolve to label my photos for the benefit of future generations.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Five Genealogy Things to Do Before I Become an Ancestor

Our culture seems obsessed by life lists. Here's my list of 5 things every family researcher must do before he or she becomes an ancestor. If you think of additional "must do" items, please add your comments.
  1. Label all family photos. Start early--in fact, start now! How many family photos have you puzzled over during your research, trying to tease out a clue to which relative or what year or what place they depict? I'm easing into this by putting a label on the back of every family group photo from Xmas, birthdays, etc. "Xmas 2009, at ___'s house in ____ city. Front row, L -> R: Janey, Joey, Jan, Jen, Grandpa Joseph holding baby Jock." If we don't label our own photos and the old photos we found in the closet, our descendants may never figure out who's who. And don't forget to explain strange things in photos (such as unusual outfits on adults that, in the future, might not be recognized as Halloween costumes).
  2. Document key dates. Birthdays are easy, but what about wedding anniversaries, death dates, and other key milestones? Even if I don't get to updating my Family Tree Maker for a while, I need to jot down the dates of newly-found ancestors and put the notes into the appropriate file for later. Also I'm writing down recent family dates. The next generation will have an easier time continuing our research if we get the dates right. Don't fudge--even if Aunt Gertie wants outsiders to think her age is 49.95 plus shipping and handling, our family deserves the truth.
  3. Tell the stories. Genealogy is about more than names and dates--it's about the lives our ancestors lived. Who were they? Why did they do what they did? Those stories bring our heritage alive. I'm making a conscious effort to tell the snippets I remember about my grandparents and parents and their siblings. Like the fateful time Grandpa's horse ran away and made him late to his wedding to Grandma (supposedly true story from a century ago). Ultimately, I'll write down as many of the stories as I can remember and circulate them to siblings and cousins, asking for any additional memories they can insert.
  4. Stay in touch. This is one of the joys of genealogy: Getting to know cousins and other relatives I hadn't met or even knew existed. Not a one-time deal, staying in touch means e-mailing or calling or even putting pen to paper every once in a while to say "how are you?" and pass along some family news of my own. I also stay in touch with family researchers who aren't, strictly speaking, part of my family but who're fun and who share the "genealogy gene" for solving ancestor mysteries. Who else cares about our battles with stubborn town clerks or recalcitrant health department authorities over getting birth and death certificates for our late, great relatives?
  5. Think long term. Genealogy is our passion now, but we need other family members to carry on the tradition and keep the search and the documentation going into the future. One of my nieces is interested in being the next generation's genealogist. It's up to me to be sure she knows where the files are kept, where the photo boxes are, what I've been researching, who's missing, who's found, and so on. Otherwise, she'll reinvent the wheel again and again. To make it easy for those who come after me, I will (1) label all photos, (2) document key dates, (3) tell the stories, (4) stay in touch with relatives and put the next generation in touch, and (5) think long term!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Teddy's Dairy

Hidden among 1970s photos (stored in a Clairol electric roller box) was a large brown envelope with a Macy's logo and the address "New York 1, New York."

Inside that pre-Zip code envelope was the above photo of my grandfather Teddy (right) in front of his grocery store, Teddy's Dairy, in the Bronx. He was 47 at the time, since the back of the photo includes a hand-written date of 1934. I didn't realize he was a notary (see window). At the left margin of the photo is a bit of dress, which it's tempting to think is being worn by my grandmother Minnie.

This is a wonderful find; we suspect my aunt put the photo into one of her friend's envelopes (the friend worked at Macy's) and stashed it away. What else is hiding in the boxes in my sister's house?!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Searching for Uncle Sam (Really!)

Actually, he's my great-uncle Sam Schwartz, and I've been trying to find out where and when he died. During yesterday's expedition to a nearby Family History Center, I looked at microfilms showing NYC death indexes for the 1950s. Lots of Sams and Samuels. Now I've narrowed the possibilities down to 15 or so entries. Which one is the real Uncle Sam?

The "informant" would have been Sam's second wife, in all probability, and she may not have known Sam's actual birth date or place. (I only know what he reported on his WWI and WWII draft forms, which may or may not be accurate.) I'm going to assume she knew.

Also, I don't know which borough he was living in when he died. I've been assuming that he stayed on in the house he owned while married to his first wife. He probably owned it clear and free by the time he died. I'll check land records at another point.

My 1st cousin (once removed) remembers that he had a heart attack while mowing his lawn, so that suggests he died in a warm month (roughly May through September).

Only one of the entries matches all of these criteria. I'm going to go for it--spend the $15 to find out whether that's the Uncle Sam I've been trying to find. Stay tuned!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Health and My Family Tree

What's the pattern of health and disease in my family tree? I'm starting to track this so I can understand some of the possible health risks that I and my generation will face. I know a good deal about my immediate family but info on the horizontal links in the family tree is far from complete.

Privacy laws mean that I can't always find out why a relative died, even when I get a copy of the death cert. And sometimes people hesitate to talk about illnesses and death in the family, so details can be sketchy. Quite a sensitive topic to bring up when I do locate long-lost relatives--what's the best, most discreet way to ask: "What did your parents die of?"

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Resolutions for 2010

My top 3 genealogy resolutions for 2010 are below. What are your resolutions? Whatever they are, happy new year!
  1. Document my relatives and their movements. I'm about 12 mos behind in writing down what I've learned. Instead of throwing slips of paper into the files for each family in my tree, I need to slow down and document details promptly.
  2. Recheck. New info and reinterpreted details are coming online all the time. One cousin has found new info (in Hungarian, from 1909) that was never before available, info that might shed new light on our ancestors' lives and motivations. So this resolution is to review what I think I know, look for more details, and keep looking for info on distant relatives and ancestors I know very little about.
  3. Communicate, communicate, communicate. In the past two years, I've been lucky enough to connect (or reconnect) with a lot of cousins. I want to keep those family connections alive in 2010, not just for genealogy but because I want my cousins to be part of my life.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Bronx, 100 years ago

The hometown and the place where my immigrant grandparents settled to raise their family and establish a grocery store. Mom went to Morris H.S., the first public high school in the Bronx (decades later, notable Bronxite Colin Powell graduated from the same high school). In fact, the Bronx Historical Society has an entire book about the creation of this high school and what it meant to the borough.

The Bronx Board has a nostalgic series of narratives about life in the Bronx "back in the day." It also has photos, b/w and color, of Bronx people and places of the past. Very helpful as I try to reconstruct the world that my grandparents lived in and what it felt like to be a Bronxite early in the 20th century.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Magic Blue Membership Card

A fellow family researcher, seeking original documents by mail, was told by a certain town that our ancestor's death cert wasn't available, that he didn't die in that town (and the town grabbed the fee for "research").

Fiddlesticks. We know he did die there, because the date and place showed up in a reliable cemetery listing and in a family prayer book, not to mention death notices in his hometown newspaper.

I have other research to pursue, so I joined the state society of genealogists. When the blue membership card arrived, I took myself down to town hall, smiled sweetly, flashed the magic card, and presto! I got into the vault and found the ancestor's name, in black and white, listed in the town's death index (and the only person of that last name to die that year, by the way).

Then I turned to the death cert in the book of bound death certs. Alas, all this effort for very little. No name of father or mother, no town of birth, not even the spouse's name (which we know anyway). Just death date, place, name of doctor, name of undertaker, and name of embalmer (TMI). But now we KNOW for sure where and when, which is something.

Next stop: The main library in the town where this man lived for decades, and the vital records area. So many ancestors, so little time!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

For Veterans' Day

My aunt Dorothy Schwartz was on active duty with the Women's Army Corps starting Sept. 11, 1942. She got her separation papers on August 31, 1945 after having been stationed in Europe.

She was discharged with the rank of Sergeant, having received a Certificate of Merit and a Bronze Star for "meritorious service in direct support of military operations" from 1943 to 1945.

One of her letters is included in the book With love, Jane, a compilation of correspondence from American women on the war front.

In addition, she was the historian of the Woman's Army Corps Detachment, HQ, 9th Air Division in 1944-1945.

In honor of Veterans' Day, I honor her memory and salute all our vets.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Your advice wanted: Queries on message boards

I've had some good luck answering queries at surname message boards and locality message boards on sites like GenForum and Ancestry. What about you?

Do you post genealogy queries? Where? Have you been "found" by distant relatives after you posted a query? What should every query include? Any advice for writing or answering a query? Any advice for which surname or locality message boards are best to use?

I'd like to hear about your experiences. Thanks for sharing!