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It's All Relative

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Family is a topic that often takes on added significance around this time of year, as during the holiday season, many interact with relatives successfully avoided—er, um, I mean, not visited due to other pressing obligations the rest of the year. Knowing one's family history is of vital importance medically speaking, and, on a psychological level, being aware of one's familial roots assuages the feeling of being cast adrift in the world. Additionally, this year, I experienced a special interest in ascertaining information on my family.

Experiencing a surfeit of love and a paucity of funds this holiday season, I embarked on a special Christmas gift project for my nephew, Charles. "The baby" (who is seventeen years old and a champion swimmer who towers over me) has recently displayed an interest in his family tree. Accordingly, I secured copies of photographs of various family members and pasted relevant information under each family member's respective photograph in a traditional (as opposed to digital) photo album. I experienced a surge of hubris over my ingenuity in devising a thoughtful, frugal present for my nephew, and was merrily contemplating his joy on Christmas Day as he viewed the pages I had painstakingly, lovingly prepared for him, until my moving day arrived. Being a strong as well as kind nephew, Charles had volunteered to assist me into moving into my new apartment. The box containing his Christmas present this year fell over as I was endeavoring to seal said box with masking tape. Charles, in a chivalrous effort not to witness his antediluvian aunt pull a muscle by bending over, retrieved the spilled contents off the floor. I very nearly obtained repossession of Charles' Christmas present, when a photo fell out of my mother holding Charles. "Hey, isn't that Cookie Monster (the sobriquet that my nephew and niece use to describe their beloved, late paternal grandmother)?" I responded in the affirmative and then, using the same (useless) tone I utilized when I baby-sat and Charles refused to adhere to his bedtime, "Now, let's place that album back in the box." Charles proceeded to give me the charming smile that has always eradicated any will I possess contrary to his for the past seventeen years, sat down and opened up the photo album.

"Wow, who is this?" Charles inquired, pointing to a photo of a boy of about five, holding a doll at arm's length, while bearing a wicked grin. "That's your father," I responded, attempting to quell the ire that still surfaces whenever I view the photo of my brother "kidnapping" my Mrs. Beasley doll. "I still counter that photo would serve as good evidence at trial." Charles gave me a quizzical look, and I hastened to add a quick, forced laugh. "Just kidding, Charles." Charles continued to pore over photos and my prepared captions. "I wish we had photos of my paternal grandfather's relatives," Charles stated after a few minutes. I explained to Charles that because I am utterly devoid of the knowledge of my father's original name, I have thus far been unable to locate information on my paternal grandfather and his relatives, despite my not inconsiderable efforts in that regard. In an effort to assuage the sense of the absence of knowledge concerning his paternal grandfather's family members, I mentioned to Charles that I know my father's father was German and that his family might be involved in the shipping industry. "Cool! I love the water, too. Maybe when we find them, we can hold the family reunion on a ship! Oh, wait, I forgot—my father gets seasick. He wouldn't be able to attend." I concurred with Charles that a family reunion on a ship is one of many nice sites for a family reunion.

I then proceeded to draw Charles' attention to a copy of my paternal grandmother's petition for naturalization papers that I secured via my visit to the National Archives at 201 Varick Street, Manhattan. I waxed eloquent concerning the literal plethora of family as well as national history available for free from this federal agency, such as the immediately aforementioned petition for naturalization, U.S. war records, federal court records (including those pertaining to organized crime, enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Act and patent infringement cases) and the federal census, some of which are available online through the National Archives website.

Not wishing to mar the happy moment for Charles, I refrained from citing the embarrassment our Nana Olive caused me, many decades after her demise, by rendering herself younger and younger on every official document bearing her name. I declined not to cite the looks of puzzlement on the faces of the staff members at the National Archives as I strenuously stated that the same individual allegedly born in 1891 was, indeed, the very same person who reportedly later stated she was born in 1895. (Fans of the sitcom The Golden Girls will surely comprehend why I inwardly regard my paternal grandmother as the original living embodiment of the character "Blanche Devereaux.") Depending on the year one's ancestor was naturalized, the National Archives may possess a photograph of said relative. While readers of this blog may not be descended from a grandmother who regarded official government documents as the ideal forum in which to reinvent herself, it is important to recall the era in which one's ancestors lived. Many surnames of arriving immigrants were anglicized, either by officials at Ellis Island, school staff or by the relevant immigrants themselves in a desire to assimilate into American society. Thus, availing oneself of the "Soundex" feature on a website such as ancestry.com (the library edition is available free of charge to NYPL patrons at NYPL branches) often proves advantageous, as does utilizing the "+/-" search enhancer regarding an ancestor's age (I needn't elaborate further upon that issue!). Additionally, many immigrants departed from ports that were not located in their respective nation of origin (i.e., many immigrants originating from Ireland often departed from Southampton, England).

In the quest to locate information regarding one's ancestors, it is vital to maintain an open mind and not rigidly adhere to family lore passed down through the generations. The information one possesses regarding one's family should be regarded as a guide, not irrefutable facts. For example, a maternal great-aunt always maintained that her grandparents on both sides hailed from Dublin, Ireland. A search of the U.S. Federal census of 1900 (due to the restrictions codified in the Privacy Act, the most recent U.S. census available to the public—other than information pertaining to oneself, is the 1930 U.S. census) that I conducted with my nephew, Charles, revealed that one of my maternal great-great-great grandmothers was born in Scotland, not Ireland. This example should serve to elucidate the importance of being of a flexible frame of mind while undertaking one's genealogical research.

In addition to the National Archives mentioned above, another literal treasure trove of free genealogical and historical information is the NYPL's Irma and Paul Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History & Genealogy (located in the NYPL's Stephen A. Schwarzman Building). Similiarly, the Dorot Jewish Division (also located in the Schwarzman Building) and the Jean Blackwell Hutson General Research and Reference Division of the NYPL's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture provide superb archives to assist one conducting genealogical research. The Schomburg Center, just to cite one resource, contains microfiche of back issues of local newspapers from locales such as Barbados and Jamaica. Old newpapers often contain regional death, birth and marriage announcements which may yield helpful information for researchers. Insofar as one's possibly living relatives are concerned, one may dispatch a letter to the Commissioner of Motor Vehicles of the state one believes one relative resides in, requesting that one's commuication be forwarded to one's relative. Additionally, the Salvation Army operates a family tracing service to locate one's living relatives. Please find enumerated below a list of informative web sites and books useful in genealogical research:

To find general genealogy books on the library shelves, look under Dewey decimal number 929.

Images of immigrants in digitalgallery.nypl.org and on Flickr

All blog posts about genealogy.

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