Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Genealogy Blog Party: Time Travel to an Ancestor!

I may not understand many of the Dr. Who references in the party invitation, but I'll take an ancestor time machine any time! These days, I'd go back to the late 19th century to meet my enigmatic 3x great-grandfather Richard Toner.

He could answer lots of questions for me:



I certainly would not tell Richard Toner who I am. There were times when he seemed a bit psychologically unstable, and I'm not sure a visit from 2016 would be in his best interest. This is part of what makes him such a fascinating ancestor; there are a lot of interesting things going on in his life, a lot of different jobs, activity with different organizations (police, fire, Democratic party, just to name a few), a roller coaster of financial fortunes (in 1877, he was "formerly worth considerable money") and some apparently very difficult personal relationships. I'd love to get to know this complicated individual. Even without revealing myself, though, I'm still going to have to deal with disrupting the future, because the best way I can see to help him with a problem would be to teach him to boil water during a cholera epidemic, in hopes of saving the lives of two of his children, Julia and James Thomas, who died during NYC's 1866 epidemic.

By Sanatory Committee, under the sanction of the Medical Counsel, in New York City - New York Historical Society. "Plague in Gotham! Cholera in 19th-Century New York." New York Historical Society. April 04, 2008 - August 31, 2008., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23608577

Since the official cholera prevention advice of the time wouldn't do much to save my 3x great aunt and uncle, I'll have to step in and do it.

What impact would this encounter have on the future? None of Richard's sons lived to have children, as far as I have been able to determine. If James Thomas had survived to adulthood, there might still be Toner men in this family to test for Y-DNA! If Julia had lived, wouldn't be another Julia Toner. My 2x great-grandmother, the second Julia Toner born into this family, would have had a different name. That is, of course, if she had been born at all. Who really knows whether Richard and his wife Mary would have gone on to have a 9th child in 1868 if they hadn't lost 2 - the oldest and the youngest - in 1866? (Another boy, Richard Joseph, then the youngest, had died in 1863.) If Julia hadn't been born, I wouldn't be here today, and neither would something like 50% of the people I know and love. And if I weren't here, I wouldn't be around to travel back in time to save the elder Julia and potentially wipe out our entire line. (Then what?)

But when I think about the heartbreak of the Toners, losing two children in two days, I'm convinced that going back in time to institute a boil water advisory is a risk I'd have to take. (Plus I really want to find out what happened to the money!)

Monday, April 18, 2016

Scenic views of my ancestral homelands

I used to commute to work by bike, from my home in Queens, through Brooklyn, and into Manhattan, a route which took me across the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge. This bridge separated the two most harrowing parts of my commute, connecting a poorly marked bike lane and heavy truck traffic with no bike line, heavy truck traffic, and an excess of double parking. The bridge itself has no bike lanes, and the incline is enough that once you've crested the hill on a bike, you're pretty invisible to cars coming up behind you. As a result, I usually walked my bike on the sidewalk, and took advantage of the delay to take in the scenery.

Newtown Creek from Greenpoint Avenue Bridge 02
Newtown Creek from Greenpoint Avenue Bridge 02
Postdlf from w [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Whalecrtanksjeh
Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant
By Jim.henderson (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Inspiring, isn't it? It's not exactly the most picturesque part of Brooklyn, and certainly bears little relationship to Park Slope's brownstones or Williamsburg's trendy boutiques. And yet it never failed to move me, on some level. This industrial Brooklyn is my Brooklyn, my ancestors' Brooklyn. They didn't live in Greenpoint, of course; they lived in Red Hook. But here on the Newtown Creek in Greenpoint is where I felt the most connection to the gritty, industrial Brooklyn that they would have experienced.

I was once out with friends in Brooklyn Heights, and as we walked past the building that had been the Hotel St. George, I mentioned that it was where my grandparents had been married. A Brooklynite friend asked me, slightly exasperated, "Seriously Kathleen, why don't you live in Brooklyn?" As nice as it is to walk past the place where my grandparents were married, though, those special-event, one-of-a-kind locations are not what connect me the most to my family history. It's there on the Newtown Creek, where I wouldn't dare touch the water. It's when I got stuck in growing lines of automotive and bicycle traffic as they raised the Greenpoint Avenue drawbridge to let some industrial, waste-bearing barge pass beneath. It's the sight of sewage treatment plants, shipping containers, and storage warehouses that line both sides of the creek. These are today's equivalents of the shipyards and grain elevators that employed my Mulvaney and Toner ancestors along the Red Hook waterfront, the modern counterparts to the industry that would have been the backdrop to their daily lives, and these are the elements that make me feel the closest to them.

Friday, April 8, 2016

*Brand New* Online Resource: NY City Clerk Marriage Index, 1908-1929

I am a big fan of the non-profit group Reclaim the Records, which is fighting to get public access to the public records genealogy depends on. Their first case, and first success, won the release of copies of the microfilmed indexes to the NYC City Clerk's Marriage Indexes for 1908-1929. These were put online at the Internet Archive today, and I got right to work!

The records indexed here are distinct from the Health Department records already indexed by the Italian Genealogical Group and available on its website, as well as at Ancestry and elsewhere online. Reclaim the Records says,


"These marriage records were kept by the New York City Clerk's Office, not the Health Department. And they are not the two-page certificates. Instead, they are a three-page document set, consisting of (1) the application of the couple wishing to get married, (2) the affidavit from the couple stating that they are legally allowed to get married, and (3) the marriage license granted to the couple so that they could go get married at a date in the near future. Therefore, the dates of the documents listed in this index were usually several weeks before the marriage; the date is not the same date that the wedding took place."

It seems that these records should cover the same couples covered by the Health Department Records (plus anyone who applied for a marriage license and then didn't actually get married), but they may contain additional information. What additional information, or how much of it, I'm not sure of.

I picked a couple to use as a test case - my trickiest set of great-grandparents in this time period. My great-grandmother, Maria D'Ingeo, was born in a still-undetermined location, and my great-grandfather, Domenico Gatto, was married once before, but I have no information on his first marriage. These seem like great records to possibly provide some information about one or both of these topics, so I wrote to the NYC Municipal Archives to request the record. Once I receive it and see what it contains, I'll be able to evaluate whether to pursue this set of records for each set of my great-grandparents who married in NYC.

Bonus Tip: Check the end of each section of the index! Apostrophes are tricky. The index is arranged by year, then by first letter of the last name, then by quarter, then by first two letter of the last name. So to find a Maria D'Ingeo who was married in October 1919, you would expect to go to 1919, then to the letter D, then scroll through to the last quarter of the year, and then go to the Di section. If you did this, you would read through every name that starts with Di and not find her. You have to then scroll through an extra 1.5 blank pages of pre-printed DIs to find "D'Ingea, Maria" at the very end. Always check the end if you don't find your subject where you expect to.

genealogy, reclaim the records, vital records, family history, marriage records, public records access
Screenshot: Index to NYC City Clerk's Marriage Records
1919 - D - Sep-Dec - Di
D'Ingea, Maria


Monday, March 21, 2016

A living heirloom is better than a dead one

Does a family tree grow better in potting soil or perlite?

Am I mixing up my hobbies?

Or just combining them?

Wait, there's an "heirloom vegetable" pun to be made here somewhere!

My late grandfather's house is for sale, and with it, of course, the various improvements he made on the property as a life-long gardener. And since a living heirloom is better than a dead one, my mom and I recently made cuttings of his fig tree, in hopes of keeping its descendants in the family.

I'm not sure that anyone is positive about where Grandpa's fig tree came from, but the consensus seems to be that he probably got it from my grandmother's cousin Mike Rossano.

I spent weeks reading up on how to root fig trees from cuttings, and what I gathered was:

It's so easy, anyone can do it!

Everyone who's ever done it has used a unique method.

And everyone's method is the only method that works this well!

The house will be sold by the end of the month. These cuttings are my only chance to have a piece of this tree. I was terrified of committing to the wrong method and losing them forever. (I do not respond well when you threaten my heirlooms . . . of any variety.) My mom? Her cuttings are still in the damp paper towel she put them in over a month ago! She keeps meaning to do something with them . . . If only I could be that relaxed about heirloom plants.

I took four cuttings for myself. I live on a teeny tiny piece of property with no room for four fig trees, but I was leaving room for error.

I put one cutting in a plain jar of water. I had read that rooting cuttings in water leads to weaker, more delicate roots, but I figured I'd give it a try, as that's the only method of rooting cuttings that I'm familiar with.

I put two cuttings in pots of perlite.

I put one cutting in a 50-50 mixture of perlite and potting soil. This mostly because I ran out of potting soil and had to cut it with perlite.

Several weeks out:

I'm lucky enough to have an active toddler in the house to rip my cuttings ("BIG stick!") out of their pots every so often so I can check whether they have roots or not. The one in potting soil and one of the ones in perlite have been subject to this treatment. Neither one had roots yet when last we "checked," prior to moving them out of reach.

At least they still look alive. The other one in perlite, safely on the dining room table out of harm's way, looks positively dead, and may in fact be rotting from the bottom up. I'm days away from resigning it to the compost pile.

And the one in a plain old jar of water has nice little white buds under the water where roots should be forming, and - get this - green leaves showing up on top! But its roots seem to have stopped growing once the leaves appeared, so I need to troubleshoot before my only thriving fig gets too big to sustain itself.

heirloom plants, genealogy, family history, gardening, figs
Figs, Day 1
heirloom plants, genealogy, family history, gardening, figs
Figs, week 8ish

Do you keep any living heirlooms?

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Accentuate the Positives Geneameme 2015

I have not had a lot of time or money for research or writing in the past couple of years, but I thought I'd give Jill Ball's perennial Accentuate the Positives meme a shot and see if I can rustle up some things I may have managed to accomplish in the last year.

1.  Elusive ancestors I found were Patrick King and Bridget Fadden. They were elusive because they were being hidden by impostor 3x great-grandparents (in other words, I was looking at the wrong record). I'm still working on corroborating their names. 

2.  A precious family photo I found was of my 2x great-grandmother, Pasqua Occhiogrosso

4.  An important vital record I found was Mary King O'Hara's 1949 death certificate

7.   My 2014 2015 blog post that I was particularly proud of was RootsIreland and Latin Parish Registers

8.   My 2014 2015 blog post that received a large number of hits or comments was Trust but Verify; or There goes 1/16 of my family tree

10. A social media tool I enjoyed using for genealogy was Facebook. After many years of keeping my genealogical activities off of Facebook, I finally joined a couple of geographic and surname groups and have enjoyed them immensely. 

14. I taught a friend how to Find Italian vital records free online at Antenati

17. A new genealogy/history book I enjoyed was On Doing Local History by Carol Kammen

19. A geneadventure I enjoyed was exploring the newly released Irish Catholic parish records through the National Library of Ireland. 

Monday, November 30, 2015

Family History Gifts: Oral History

I've been giving a lot of thought to how to give thoughtful, budget-conscious Christmas gifts to the 52 members of my maternal family this year. With a family like that (and a budget like mine), it can be quite the conundrum. I had aspirations of using the products of my garden to make everyone something homemade and herbal-y, but my experiments in making herbal vinegars turned out a little lackluster.

Finally, just before Thanksgiving, I realized that my best bet, as usual, was family history.

I have recordings of several interviews with my late grandparents, and my idea is to burn them onto CDs and slap a bow on the jewel case. Awesome present, reasonable price!

Despite having 50 blank CDs in my living room, my plan is currently more aspirational than anything else.

The Plan
1. Edit the interviews
2. Burn the CDs
3. Design an attractive and informative insert
4. Bows

1. The Interviews
Interview 1, with Grandma, is actually fully complete, edited and ready to be shared. Because I e-mailed it to everyone several years ago. So Interview 1, on its own, does not a present make.

The recording of Interview 2, with Grandpa, begins with several minutes of unrelated conversation in the background. While I don't think any of my relatives has entirely forgotten how drunk my cousin was at that wedding in 2009, I'd like to edit out the gentle scolding she got from cutting, if only as a courtesy. I am confident that this simple cutting is something I can manage, I just haven't exactly learned how to do it yet. (The cousin in question will get the unedited version. I think she'd love to hear herself taking with Grandma again, no matter the subject matter.)

Interview 3, with both of my grandparents, was recorded close to a decade ago, on my college laptop. That laptop was so loud that everyone from my roommate to my professors commented on it sounding like "a rocket." What I did not realize at the time was that the dull roar of that exceptionally loud fan would become part of the recording. (Duh!) I am not at all confident that I (or anytime) can fix the sound quality on this one. If I can't, I have to figure out whether it's worth sharing anyway. (I think the answer is yes, but will have to listen to it again to make sure it's not more frustratingly to listen to than rewarding.) A sample track is currently with my musician cousins, who will hopefully tell me if there's anything that can be done.

2. The CDs
I purchased these Verbatim CDs from Amazon. (Archival Gold CDs for everyone were unfortunately not in the budget, although they're the gold standard of CD preservation.) I had to do some investigating to remind myself what the CD specs referred to. They are labeled as "700 MB 52x 80 minute." But what on Earth does that mean?


  • 52x refers to the speed at which the CDs can be written.
  • 700 MB refers to the amount of data that they can hold.
  • 80 minutes refers to the length of recorded audio that they can play. 


Since the recordings that I have take up far less than 700 MB of space, but run far longer than 80 minutes, I was a little confused. Would one CD hold all three of the interviews I want to burn, or would I need 3 or more CDs for each gift? I had to do a little more research to find out, and eventually learned that it depends on the format in which the tracks are burned. Audio files are much larger, and will take up more space. The CDs can hold 80 minutes worth of audio files. Data files (e.g. MP3s) are much smaller, and so 700 MB of data may hold far more audio. However, data files may be incompatible with some CD players, especially older ones. They will play on computers but some people may not be able to play them on their home or car stereo systems.

I chose to keep these gifts compact and burn the files as MP3s, so that I only needed to use one CD per recipient. All of my relatives have computers, so even if some of them cannot listen to the CD elsewhere, they will still have access to the files.

3. The Insert
I have a brand new printer, but it doesn't print in color. Even though I really wanted to get the color printer so I could print nice color inserts for these CDs, I don't usually have any need to print in color. I knew that this one project couldn't justify spending the extra hundred dollars or so that it would cost. I'm googling "attractive black and white design" to try to figure out how to make these inserts a little more eye-catching than just black text on white, but graphic design is not where my skills lie. If it happens that I am able to put together something that I'm proud of, I will post a follow up.

4. The Bows
I'm just going to buy some bows.


How are you incorporating your family history into your gift-giving this holiday season?


Disclosure: This post contains Amazon.com affiliate links. This means that if you choose to make a purchase from Amazon after clicking one of these links, I will receive a small portion of your purchase price as a commission. The price you pay doesn't change! I personally make a point of starting my Amazon shopping through the affiliate links of bloggers and friends whenever possible, so that large corporations are not the only beneficiaries of my purchases, and encourage others to do the same, regardless of whether they use my affiliate links or another blogger's. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Labeling Photographs: Memory and Mourning

Have you ever wondered why some of your inherited family photographs are impeccably labelled, and others are unfortunate blank canvases?

My maternal grandfather recently passed away, and I inherited a handful of photographs. Not the real old kind, just a few pictures from my parents' wedding through approximately my 8th grade graduation. Almost all were unlabeled, and the ones my grandmother had labeled were vague or incomplete. "Gail's wedding" or "July 16, 1997."

Luckily, I was able to identify the people and places in almost all of them, and could give at least an educated guess as to approximate dates. So when I got home from my mom's house the other night, I set right to labeling the pictures.

I found myself being more specific than usual, with places in particular. I realized that the impending sale of my grandparents' home, the home where my mother grew up and where my cousins and I spent so much of our childhood, was driving me. Scribbling the street address, over and over, on the backs of 4x6 prints, somehow made me feel like I was doing my part to keep the memory of Grandma and Grandpa's house alive. (I was there only days earlier. The race to "keep memories alive" can be premature or even irrational.)

But this influenced my labeling throughout the collection. I added street addresses to pictures taken in my current house, in my parents' house, anywhere I recognized. I was aiming for consistency, yes, but I was also imagining a future where we've moved out of the home we love and have only pictures to remember it by. A future where I've passed away and my children struggle to remember the address of the apartment in NYC where we spent the first years of our marriage. Or where my kids - who will only ever know the apartment my in-laws downsized to - can't picture them living in the big house in the suburbs where my husband spent his happy childhood. Will addresses on the back of photographs change any of that? Not by much. They can't bring back a grandfather, unsell a house, or give my son any real memories of the apartment where he spent the first 10 weeks of his life. But they can make me feel like I tried.

I wonder what my kids, my descendants, the strangers who find my albums in a thrift store will think when they see how well-labelled some - but not all - of my pictures are. I can't imagine that they will even begin to follow my thought processes.

Have you ever though about what motivated the people creating the records you use?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Family History through Song: Abbatte i manine

My grandfather, Frank Gatto, passed away on October 7, 2015. He was 88. My son was 17 months old. I'll be forever grateful that they had the chance to know each other.

Grandpa was a bit of a one-trick pony when it came to babies. He sang the same Italian clapping song, to every baby, every time he saw them.

These days, whenever my son sees a picture of his "Pop," he starts clapping his hands. I love that there's such a physical way for my not-quite-verbal toddler to tell us he remembers. (Of course, I had to run out of the wake in tears the first time he did it at the funeral home.)

As far as we could tell, the song was mostly nonsense. After spending 8 years studying Italian and a semester abroad, I could pick out a few words here or there, but couldn't make sense of the whole thing. Neither could any of my other relatives, no matter how much Italian they'd studied. (Grandpa was the last native speaker in our family, but spoke a Brooklyn-ized dialect.) Grandpa translated the lyrics as "Clap your hands/Daddy's coming home/He's going to bring you candy."

As best I could pick out, Grandpa's song went like this:

Abbate i manine
Cadame ne tata
Annuzhe a lica bette
A do e da li da!

Clearly, that translates to:

Clap your little hands
Something Something [papa?]
Something Something Something
Something Something Something

But in the past month, as we've spent a lot of time clapping hands in memory of Grandpa, I finally googled, and learned that there are apparently dozens of variations on this song sung in Italy. They typically mean pretty much what Grandpa claimed: "Clap your hands/Daddy's coming home/He's bringing candy/And [Baby's name] is going to eat it all!"

The last line, where you sub in the child's name, appeared consistently in the versions I found online but is missing from Grandpa's. This may explain why the last line of Grandpa's song sounds so particularly nonsensical.

The online version that I liked the best came from Yahoo Answers user Antony96, who says that he is from Bari (as is my family) and gives the lyrics to the song he knows as:

abbatte i manine
ka vène papé
annushe i bonbon
è tutte è tutte è tutte ( u nome d'a menénne) l'ò mangé!!

It's the closest version I've found to my grandfather's version. The second line starts with "ka," which isn't, to my knowledge, an Italian word, but which is what I always heard when Grandpa sang. Same goes for "annushe," a word I'm not familiar with but which my grandfather clearly sang. It is, somehow, incredibly validating to know that all these years, we were wrong when we thought Grandpa was making up or mangling the words.

A few of my cousins have talked about trying to learn how the song "really" goes, but I will proudly sing it the way I always knew it, and I will teach it to any future kids and grandkids I have that way, too.

Grandpa wasn't singing nonsense, he was singing dialect.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The death certificate of Mary King O'Hara: examining the document that changed everything

My 2x great-grandmother, Mary King, died on 5 November 1949 at the White Nursing Home in Brooklyn. This seems to have been a type of long-term care facility, and yet her "usual residence" is given as 505 Sixth Street, the Brooklyn row house where she had lived for many years. (A bit of newspaper searching yielded very little information about the facility, besides the fact that it was advertised as "Cheerful rooms, home atmosphere, excellent food and care. Licensed." That was a classified ad that ran frequently, maybe daily, in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle during the 1940s.) The Department of Health won't release the cause of death to anyone who can't prove that they have a reason to need it and the right to have it, so I cannot glean any information about her last days from her final illness.

NYC Department of Health, death certificate, vital record, New York City, 1949 death certificate, New York City death certificate
Death Certificate of Mary King O'Hara. 5 November 1949. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. 
The informant on this death certificate is my great-grandfather, Mary's son John J. O'Hara. He lived in the same building; he had rented an apartment from his parents, the owners, until the building was sold in 1946, and now both mother and son were presumably tenants of some other landlord. The O'Hara family had spent several years in Ireland when John was a boy, and it seems safe to say he would have met his parents' Irish relatives. He could have known the grandparents he named on this certificate. All in all, John is not the least reliable informant a death certificate could have.

Which is why it really gums up the works when the grandparents he names are not the ones I expected.

One piece of information, though, makes me wonder whether John was a truly reliable source, or whether he might instead have been confusing dates. Or was it that he had an excellent reason to get them right? Mary's date of birth is given as 3 December 1875. Her husband, also named John, had died 3 years earlier on 3 December 1946. Did John Jr. provide a date that was familiar for the wrong reason, giving his father's date of death rather than his mother's date of birth? Or was it a date he was sure to get right, forever in his mind after having lost his father on his mother's birthday just a few years ago?

Beyond the issue of her parents' names, the only slightly surprising piece of information on here is Mary's middle name, which I hadn't known, although she was routinely "Mary E." on records.


Friday, September 11, 2015

September 11, 2001

[A version of this post originally appeared on September 11, 2011.]

I've struggled with whether to blog about my memories of September 11, 2001, as suggested at Geneabloggers. It seems trite, somehow, a superficial way to treat the scariest, most vividly horrific day of my life. But I've been thinking about that day all weekend, and I want to write about it. So I'll write, and I think I may even hit "publish" when I'm done.

The night of September 11, 2001, and the afternoon of the next day, I wrote down my experiences, because I thought I'd want to remember them. I didn't realize at the time that I wouldn't be able to forget if I tried. I've never had to refer back to what I wrote when writing or telling someone how I experienced the day. The memories are too vivid, and too detailed. This will be long, I must warn you. I've tried to edit it before, and I can only revisit the memories in minute detail. They don't make any sense to me when I try to cover just the important points.

I was a sophomore in HS, in Chemistry class, when an announcement was made over the PA system. The assistant principal got on, and announced that the principal was going to make an announcement. Then the principal came on, and announced that two planes had been "purposefully" flown into the Twin Towers. My first reaction was a flash forward, to some time in the future, as I told my yet-unborn children how their grandfather had been killed the day the World Trade Center was bombed.

I specifically remember thinking "bombed," though I knew quite well that the announcement had not said that the towers had been bombed. But what word does the English language have for when you fly passenger planes into skyscrapers full of people? "Bombing" was how we conceived of terrorism at the time. It wasn't immediate that we were actually able to settle on using the word "attack" to describe what had happened that day. If you read other people's accounts of their memories, they are often full of terrified phone calls telling them to turn on the TV because "something happened in New York!" And so I thought "bombed," though I knew the word was inaccurate. But mostly, I just thought my dad was dead.

But only for a split second. Immediately thereafter, I went into what I suppose you would call "denial." It was simply inconceivable that my dad could be dead. I wouldn't be able to handle that. He just couldn't be. And so, I went about my day. "If anything's really wrong," I thought, "they'd tell me." (By "really wrong," I, in my adolescent self-centeredness, thought only of things that would affect my own life.) I had two close friends in that class who, I later found out, didn't know what at all to do with me. They knew my dad worked in the Twin Towers, but I was not at all acknowledging  the fact. I simply did my chem lab. I burned my finger on some hot glass. But I didn't talk about my dad. (My sister, a floor below me, I would later learn, was crying and leaving class repeatedly to call my mom. I, meanwhile, was acting as if everything would be okay, because, well, it just had to be.)

When my first of two periods of Chemistry was over, an unusually large number of people were called down to the office. I took comfort in the fact that Laura and I weren't among them. If anything were really wrong, they'd be calling us down to the office. All those kids who got called down, those must be the kids whose parents were injured or killed. Our dad must have been okay. It didn't occur to me that it might be hours, if not days, before some people were accounted for, and that there was no way that anyone had heard from or about my father  - or anyone else's - yet.

During our second period of Chemistry, there was another announcement: a plane had hit the Pentagon. And another: all after-school activities were cancelled. And then, after that period - we were called down to the office. I went to my locker first. I took the long way to get there. I just didn't want to hear what they might be about to tell me. I ran into a friend. She said she'd been looking for me, she wanted to talk to me. I - not at all realizing the scope of what was happening, not realizing that it must be first on everyone's mind, not just my own - thought she was going to tell me what the drama with her boyfriend at the football game Friday night had been about. Instead, she asked how I was. "I don't know," I answered. "I'm going to find out." How I was depended entirely on what they told me in the office  - and again, at this point, I assumed that "they" (the office staff? my mother? the  authorities?) would know whether Dad was okay.

Outside the office was a large crowd of students. One gave me a pinky-swear that my dad would be okay. I thought that was inane, but didn't say so. Another told me that my sister had been crying, really hard. I don't remember who that was, and I'm glad, because it made me think that Dad was dead and Laura had already been told. (She was probably just trying to let me know that my sister needed me.) Another told me to go talk to the woman wearing the red sweater. I went to talk to her. All she told me - this was supposed to be the big moment of truth - was that Virginia Ward was coming to pick me up. "I don't know who that is." But that was the name she had. A friend suggested that it might be Virginia R*****. She was the only Virginia we knew. Of course it was her. But I wasn't thinking clearly.

She came to pick us up, and then we had to go get my youngest sister at elementary school. Virginia asked me to come inside with her, since I was the oldest. In the front hall - there was a desk set up, anticipating the high demand for pulling kids out of school - a teacher told us that the kids hadn't been told yet. Virginia told me that I'd have to tell Anna, because she should hear it from family. I was lost. I felt like just a kid myself. I didn't know what was going on. How could this be my job?

As Anna left her classroom, she put her chair on her desk, just like everyone always had to do in elementary school. I seemed like such a normal, everyday, childhood movement. I couldn't believe it could coexist with what I was about to tell her. As we walked down the hall, she asked "Why are we getting picked up?" and I had to tell her. "A plane hit Daddy's office building." She reached out and held my hand. And then Virginia added, reassuringly, "But the plane hit very high up, and your Daddy's office was very low down, so I'm sure he'll be okay," or something to that effect. I only remember the beginning of the sentence, because it was new information to me. I hadn't known where the plane had hit, or remembered what floor Dad's office was on, and I hadn't thought to ask.

When we got to the house, there were lots of cars outside, and all I could think of was the scene in Cheaper by the Dozen where (spoiler alert) the kids come home after school, and they know something's wrong because of all the cars lined up outside the house, and it turns out that their father has died of a heart attack. If there are lots of cars outside, then Dad must be dead!

We went inside, where a number of my aunts and one uncle were, with my mom. Everyone was crying, and everyone hugged us. I saw Mom crying; it was to be expected. I saw several of her sisters crying; to be expected. But then I saw my dad's sister's crying face, and I knew he was dead. And then someone said something along the lines of "there's nothing we can do but wait," and I realized for the first time that no one knew anything yet. They were all just as clueless as I was. We were all waiting for news.

I remember seeing a tower fall for the first time as I walked into the TV room to greet my uncle, but I had no conscious awareness of what I was seeing. My mom went upstairs, and Virginia came over and whispered to me that maybe I should go up and check on her. This seemed uncharacteristic of me (you'll recall that I've already mentioned my adolescent self-centeredness), but I did it anyway. Mom said she just wanted to shower. I came back down. Virginia left, but soon returned with several pizzas and a few bottles of soda before leaving us to wait and watch with family. No one was hungry.

Most of my detailed recollection ends here. All the waiting was kind of a blur. I don't really know what we did with ourselves, and what I do remember, I don't remember in order. My aunt arrived, bringing with her my cousin Grace, who was not quite 2 at the time. She was, for me, literally a saving Grace. She prattled happily in baby talk, and let us occupy ourselves with something other than the news and the worry. We colored. She was just learning her colors, and that day, everything was "lello." I thought that was ironic. Or symbolic. Something. I noticed, as we stood around coloring, the outfit I was wearing - new clothes, because it was the beginning of the school year. I had on a green three-quarter sleeve shirt, with light blue jeans and a black belt. I made a mental note not to ever wear that exact outfit again - whether out of respect or superstition, I'm not quite sure, but I know I never did it.

At one point, Grace and I were alone in the play room, coloring. The phone rang. There was a bit of a commotion. I couldn't tell whether it was a good commotion or a bad commotion, and I couldn't make out anyone's words. I was terrified. For a minute, I couldn't bring myself to go into the other room. I wanted to stay where I was, pretend I hadn't heard anything, and not have to hear whatever they had learned. I forced myself to pick Grace up and go into the living room, where my mom said, "That was Lester's wife Leann. Dad and Lester are walking uptown together."

We didn't have any details - Dad and all of his friends had been trying to get in touch with their wives, but the cell phone service was overcome by demand, and most of them couldn't get through. When Lester finally reached his wife, I guess, she was given a list of numbers to call to let everyone's family know that they were alive. My family is probably not the only one that thinks fondly and gratefully of Leann, though most of us have never met her. On such a terrible day, she was the one tasked with the telling of good news, and we who received that good news have never forgotten her.

It occurs to me now that I had spent the entire day assuming any news would be bad news. It's not a hard assumption to make, when planes are crashing and buildings are falling. It's only in retrospect that I'm able to see that on that day, no news was almost always worse. For my family, and I'm sure for many others, the phone ringing was heart-stopping, but it brought good news. It was when the phone didn't ring, undoubtedly, that the worst news slowly dawned.

The rest of our afternoon became about logistics. Locating Dad, and other relatives at work in the city, and trying to get them home. No one could drive into the city, Dad's car was stuck in a parking garage near Ground Zero (though we had yet to hear the phrase) and mass transit was suspended. Who could get the closest to a bridge or tunnel, to pick them up as soon as they got onto the New Jersey side? How could we organize it? We got one phone call from Dad, from a restaurant he had stopped at, but after that he was difficult to reach.

We played soccer on the front lawn at one point. We might have watched a movie? My aunt brought my cousin by after picking her up from school, "because of Uncle Kevin." I hadn't even been sure that I would be picked up from school, and Uncle Kevin was my dad. I was only beginning to comprehend how much bigger this was than just how it affected me.

People were stopping by the house, some of them not even knowing that Dad had been in the World Trade Center. The best man at his wedding happened to be in town - I was reminded that it was my parents' anniversary. A coworker of his, who had mercifully taken a vacation day, dropped something off. Neighbors, friends, everyone wanted to see how we were.

Late that afternoon, two of my friends came by the front door. I stood on the step and talked to them for a while. They asked about my dad; they told me how school had gone after I left. They told me that Samantha D*** had been crying in gym class. "Why?" I asked. They looked at me like I was crazy. "Because of your dad." I was still so focused on how I was being affected that I wasn't aware of what the attack meant to other people, those who knew my family and those who didn't, those who were in the towers and those who weren't.

Then we saw someone walking up the road, his shoes in his hand. I assumed it was some dumb teenager. Who else would carry his shoes in his hand for no good reason? "Who is that?" I asked. My friend faltered. "I . . . I think it's your dad." It hadn't occurred to me that he would be walking home, and so it hadn't registered that it could be him. I stayed on the step, unsure of what to do. Should I run to him, or run inside to tell everyone else that he's home?

Suddenly, my mom burst out of the side gate, somehow having seen him coming from the backyard. She was followed by my sisters, my grandmother, and everyone else at my house. I'm still not sure why, but I stayed put for a minute, until my aunt came to the door and urged me to join them, at which point I did. We had our reunion near the top of our next door neighbor's driveway.

There's more, of course: the church service that night; doing my math homework before bed, since I was pretty sure my new math teacher was so strict she wouldn't find even a national and personal tragedy to be a reasonable excuse for not handing in your homework; crying on the soccer field the first day that after school activities returned, as the physical exertion finally caused my emotions to overflow; the dreams I had in the weeks after, where I watched my dad die in various televised scenarios; gathering at my grandmother's on Friday, with a "God Bless Kevin" cake, so that everyone who had worried about my dad could see him. My experience of September 11 extended well past the hours of the actual day. There are things that happened months or even years later that I consider part of my memories of that day.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Trust, but verify; or There goes 1/16 of my family tree

(Protip: Just jump straight to "verify." We can "trust but verify" on Cold War relations and Iranian nuclear deals, but not genealogy!)

I received the death certificate of my 2x great-grandmother, Mary King O'Hara, a couple weeks ago. I had wanted it for years, but had always put off jumping through the Department of Health's hoops. Big mistake.



A relative interested in genealogy had sent me Mary's presumptive birth record years ago, and I took it at face value. It was, of course, a real birth record, for a real person named Mary King, but it no longer seems likely that she was the correct Mary King. There goes 1/16 of my family tree!

Lesson learned. Always verify the research of those who have gone before you. (I always knew that I should check this particular piece of information, but took it as a "starting point" until I could do the research myself. Nothing lost but time, I suppose.) (Also, don't take online trees as gospel, either, because mine is out there and it's (at least) 6.25% wrong.)

I had for years operated under the assumption that Mary King's parents were Michael King and Bridget Hopkins, and that she was born in Claremorris, Co. Mayo, Ireland, but her death certificate puts her parents as Patrick King and Bridget Fadden. I'd like to confirm that with a birth certificate that matches, of course, but right now, I don't know where to look. I've contacted the relative who sent the first birth record to see why he thought that that Mary King was our Mary King. If it was, for example, because Mary (whom he knew as a child) had talked about her childhood in Claremorris, then at least that's a place to start. If it was just because the dates matched on an index search, then I have all of Ireland to search. I'm waiting to hear back from him.

I have Mary's death notice, and it does not include a place of birth.

Mary was born in the 1870s (3 December 1875, according to her death certificate), and the civil registration indexes available for free online in this time period do not include mother's maiden name. Otherwise, this could be a pretty easy search. Other than browsing the registers of every Catholic parish in Ireland at the National Library, I'm not sure how to find Mary's actual birth place and birth record and confirm her parents. I might have to stoop so low as to subscribe to RootsIreland, despite my serious misgivings about the service they offer.


What are your best suggestions for locating an Irish town of origin? 


Monday, August 17, 2015

Ordering Vital Records from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene

I was missing the death record of just one of my American great-great-grandparents (Brazil being a nut I have yet to crack). Mary King O'Hara died in Brooklyn in 1949, which meant I had to order her death certificate from the New York City Department of Health (DOH). She survived the latest of my 2x great-grandparents, and so was the only one whose death record was not held by the NYC Municipal Archives. In New York City, the Archives holds death records until 1948, and the DOH holds death records from 1949 to the present.

Being more than 50 years old, a death record from 1949 should be considered a public record, available to anyone. My understanding, however, is that the DOH has simply stopped retiring vital records to the Archives, and treats all the vital records that they hold, of whatever age, as equally confidential. So these records can be challenging to access. They can be ordered online, but only by certain family members, and in this case, I didn't qualify.

If you cannot order your record online, you can go in person to 125 Worth St. in Manhattan, or you can order through the mail. I chose the latter, which means filling out an application, having it notarized, and mailing it along with the $15 fee, a self-addressed stamped envelope, and a copy of your photo ID. (It was the notarizing that had held me back all these years. It seemed like such a hassle!) Then, you wait - the DOH helpfully provides regularly updated information on processing times.

I got my SASE back on my birthday, and was super excited to receive an awesome birthday present. I was disappointed.

My application was rejected because I hadn't provided the parents' names or the decedent's social security number, and because my ID was not expired but soon to expire. I know that this is the case because my drivers license, like most, is valid through my birthday, so it was still valid on the day the rejection arrived. If they'd just filled my order instead of filling out a form to reject my application, I could have had the certificate before my ID expired!

I couldn't fill in the parents' names because I didn't know them. In fact, finding those pieces of information was my primary motivation behind ordering this record. I hadn't even bothered to see if I could find a Social Security Number because the form actually said "Social Security Number (if available)." And yet leaving that field blank was indicated as being one of the reasons my application was rejected.

Not knowing the parents' names, and not even knowing if a 1940s housewife would have had a SSN, I was afraid that this certificate would remain unavailable to me. I decided to take a chance. First, I had to wait for my renewed license to arrive, and then I filled out the application again. For each field where I didn't have the answer, instead of leaving it blank, I wrote "unknown."

A month later, I received Mary King O'Hara's death certificate.

It feels a bit like they were just looking for reasons to turn me down.

Learn from my experience: Don't try to order records if your photo ID is expiring in the next 60 days. And write whatever you need to to avoid leaving any blank fields, even when the form explicitly states that the information is not required. Don't give the Department of Health any excuse to deny your application!