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As Time Goes By

Nov
8
2006

Genealogy research is one of those activities, like bird watching, you don’t come to until you are older. I don’t know why this is, because it’s rather counter-productive. By the time you’re interested, most of the people who could have provided the information you desperately need are dead or mentally incapacitated.
It started when I offered to help my cousin sort out boxes of pictures she found after the death of her mother. Anna is a cousin on my father’s side and we really didn’t grow up together. My father’s stoic German and Anglo family didn’t stand a chance up against the boisterous, ever-present Italians on my mother’s side.
Yet we each have snippets of information to provide: A story of a second marriage, a vague remembrance of hearing about a baby who died in infancy, nicknames that can be translated in many ways.
At first I enjoy making the connections as a sort of dramatic logic puzzle: if A is C’s grandfather that make A the second cousin of B.
It is not until we commit to our search by purchasing a genealogy program and register at Ancestry.com that the project takes on a life of its own.
We never knew our common grandfather, who died in the trenches of World War I. We’ve been gazing at his picture from a newspaper article written about him when he voluntarily signed up to serve in spite of his military exemption because, as he is quoted as saying, “there are plenty of slackers.”
I want to slap him, knowing as I do the hardship his death caused my widowed grandmother who was forced to dole her children out to boarding houses to raise themselves. The baby she was carrying when he gave his pompous interview died, as far as we can tell, almost immediately upon birth.
A search reveals his name on the draft registration roster and in two clicks we are looking at our grandfather’s signature on his registration form. Suddenly he is a person – our person. Our grandfather. For a moment we are speechless.
The adrenaline rush of success is addictive and we work through lunch, finding our great-uncles and aunts. Our name is not a common one, but we find a parallel family with the same last name in Bergen County, New Jersey. Our people are Union County people. Sooner or later I’m sure we merge, but for now we have to be careful not to assume kinship with just anyone.
When we see the surname “John” before the 1900s, it is almost sure to be the Bergen people. Still, I’m getting to know them pretty well too, and I’ve decided they’re the snotty branch of the family who doesn’t want anything to do with my earthy, hard-working uncles and aunts, the Williams and Evelyns.
Anna leaves at the end of the weekend, but I can’t leave the 1840s and I meet my great great great grandfather Isaac.
Each relative’s occupation is listed starting in 1840 and it is revealing and sobering to see that the girls all had jobs starting before their 10th birthdays. The boys would remain in school slightly longer but, inevitably, they too succumb to weakened finances.
There are no Elizabeth Bennetts or Mr. Darcys lurking in my family tree; not even a Jane Eyre or Jo March. My people were servants to those characters, nameless, faceless workers who supported the romance that is presented as the Regency and Victorian eras.
Is it some sort of inherited memory that I never had the same romantic vision of the 19th century as the media presents? Deep down I’m always aware that while a small population was fluttering about in hoop skirts and covering their noses with lace hankies, even more people were breaking their backs carrying the water to keep them in their dainty finery.
In 1880 Isaac disappears forever from the census and I find myself sobbing. We only just met.
I look back at my grandfather’s picture. Though he gazes back at me with my father’s eyes, I still feel anger at this arrogant truck driver who stumbled into the line of fire.
Had he not been who he was, had he not died, growing up I might have actually had a grandfather. But then, had he lived, my father might never have been forced to leave college to get a job as a jewelry salesman to support his mother. Similarly, had my Italian grandfather not died when my mother was 10, my grandmother would have never remarried my step-grandfather who obtained a job at a jewelry company for my mother. My parents would have never met. My existence depended on the trajectory of a bullet shot by a soldier whose name I’ll never know.
Physicists say that it is humans who impose a linear quality to the concept of time; some claim that events just happen without regard to past, present or future.
I think of Isaac, at 76 years old giving up the “household head” title to his son while next door his wife Almira is cared for by another son, and I find this comforting.

Share  Posted by Jeanne Jackson at 9:46 AM | Permalink

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