Being Traditional in an Untraditional Family

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes — our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around.  ~ Gilbert K. Chesterton


My family has a tradition for the holidays that seems to be unique among all of the wonderful and varied customs that society has come to label as “Tradition”.  You see, our tradition is — we’re rather untraditional.  For me, one who greatly values customs, ritual, patterns – TRADITION – this fact was rather hard to accept.  After all, traditions are passed down through the generations.  So, where did I get my love for all things traditional when my own family really doesn’t have any traditions?  Or, is our very “untraditionalness” [sic] a tradition in and of itself?

I can’t say we’ve never done the same thing twice, because we have.  But, nothing we’ve ever done is so set in stone in the traditional sense that it meets the definition of “tradition”.  I think those of us who value traditions find comfort in them.  With traditions, we know what to expect.  There is no fear of the unknown, no fear of change.  Traditions or rituals are comforting to me for these reasons.  I was always a tradition-oriented person.  But I don’t know why, because one would think that a person develops a love of traditions from experiencing them.  In my case, that’s not true.  It’s not that my family didn’t care for traditions, they just didn’t care about them enough to adopt or preserve them.  Which left me longing for traditions!  I was jealous of families in old movies that celebrated the holidays with special foods, events, or items passed down from generation to generation.  In my family’s case, we may have adopted some customs for a few years, but it was never so dependent, so essential to the holiday that gave it the required “tradition” label.  So my memories of the holiday traditions of my family seem a little schizophrenic!

For Thanksgiving, we had a tradition of the big meal with all of the great Thanksgiving foods like roasted turkey, Mom’s stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn, biscuts, etc.  I suppose that this feels like the most “traditional” of any holiday meal to me.  But, we were not so strict about where we celebrate, or when.  For two years, we celebrated by going downtown to see a show instead of our usual meal, which we probably had, with all of the trimmings, on another day of the week instead.  Some years my brother didn’t join us, other years one of his friends or one of mine did.  One year, my parents, their friends, and my priest-friend’s mother celebrated Thanksgiving in his rectory, because it was his first holiday as a priest and he was “on call”.  Some years we ate at my brother and sister-in-law’s house, and one year at her parents’ house.  For the last few years, I have had the meal at my house.  And every other year, my oldest niece celebrates with her mother’s family, so we usually have two Thanksgiving meals so we are all together at some point.  While the food may be familiar, the locale is most decidedly not.

Christmas is the holiday most associated with traditions, but once again my family never really decided on any one thing to “adopt” forever and ever.  Meal menus changed every few years.  Sometimes gifts were exchanged on Christmas Eve, and sometimes on Christmas Day.  For several years, we’d have a Christmas movie marathon. (But not the “usual” Christmas movies like It’s a Wonderful Life – we watched Holiday Inn, Miracle on 34th Street, and Christmas in Connecticut.)  Sometimes the tree was up and the house was decorated, and sometimes it wasn’t.  For several years, my parents’ street adhered to strict decoration requirements, and the street looks fabulous as everyone had the same lights and design.  But, none of these things stayed for more than a few years.

What always stays the same?  The reason for all of the celebrating – the religious meaning of Christmas.  We’d always attend Mass, but there was no tradition as to whether it would be the Vigil, the Midnight Mass, or on Christmas Day.  Going to church was the important part, not when.

I’ve developed a few traditions on my own over the years – certain songs must be listened to, ornaments are collected as I travel, and the holiday season must be celebrated with family and friends who are like family to me.

So, we don’t do the Seven Fishes, or Wigilia, or gather around the piano to sing carols while chesnuts pop in the fire place, or bake tons of cookies every year.  All of those traditions sound like a lot of fun, but I have fun anyway in spite of not celebrating in traditional ways.  The holidays used to make me sad – perhaps I put too much stock in fancy traditions and what I did not have.  But by remembering what I have every year, and remembering the Love that makes it all possible, the Christmas holidays are truly joyous.  That is my tradition!

[Written for the 61st edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Traditions!]


8 Things About Me*

*that you probably don’t need to know…

It’s meme time again, and this one’s an all about me meme.  I’ve been tagged by Thomas once again!  The Rules:

1. Each player starts with eight random fact/habits about themselves.

2. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.

3. A the end of your blog post, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their name.

4. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged and to read your blog.

Here are 8 things you probably have no reason to know about me, but I hope you’re amused, fascinated, and/or generally not horrified by the “real” me:

  • 1. I hate tomatoes. I love pizza, and I eat tomato sauce on pasta.  Just no tomatoes, please.  Don’t even get me started on the horrors of ketchup.
  • 2. I once spent a lovely afternoon riding around with the German Army (Bundeswehr) on a tank, somewhere in the middle of a German wilderness that I did not know existed.  I have photos to prove it!
  • 3. My most unusual destination for a work/business trip has been the DMZ in Korea.
  • 4. I once had tea with Betsy Blair in her home (surely you remember the movie Marty).  The moment was captured on my camera, and the photographer was Stephen Frears.  He knows how to direct films really well, but he was mystified by how to operate my camera.
  • 5. I hate loud noise.
  • 6. Like Jasia, I’ve taken tap lessons.
  • 7. I absolutely adore palm trees.
  • 8. I successfully completed the United States Marine Corps obstacle course in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.  But I didn’t quite complete it the way the recruits are required to do.  It wasn’t done in the allotted time, and I had the help of others literally pushing and pulling me through it.  But, we did it, and it was truly a team effort.  And I couldn’t lift my arms for a week.

As for tagging…when we do this as a “tag four” game, it’s nearly impossible to find four bloggers that haven’t already been tagged.  I officially give up with finding eight un-tagged individuals.  If you haven’t played yet, please do!

While I’m playing tag, I’ll double-post and answer Randy’s game from Saturday night.  The rules:
* Grab the book nearest you. Right now.
* Turn to page 56.
* Find the fifth sentence.
* Post that sentence along with these instructions in a note to your blog (or a comment to this blog).

My answer:

And yet some diligent little cell of the brain, resolutely doing guard duty while the others were resting, must have been listening.

Source: Finney, Jack.  “The Woodrow Wilson Dime.” 3 by Finney. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987. 56.

Things I’m Thankful For on My Genealogical Quest

As the country celebrates Thanksgiving this week, we’re more aware than usual of how much we value our family and friends.  With regard to genealogy, I decided to write about the things I am thankful for on my genealogical journey.

logoflp1. The Library – Back in the days before the internet (No, Virginia, it did not always exist!), it was the library that allowed me to learn about genealogy – how to get started, where to go, what was available, etc.  The rest is history!

2. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) – I haven’t been to my regional branch in years, but visits there were essential in the early days of my research. Besinarades, you had to visit – no records were available online anywhere!  I’m glad that NARA exists and has safeguarded these documents that have helped so many of us find our roots.  I have fond memories of soundex codes and cranking microfilm machines.  Once I even visited the National Archives in Washington, DC.  If you’re ever in the neighborhood, it is truly impressive and well worth the visit.

familysearch3. The LDS – millions of records filmed and stored away in some NORAD-like cave, just waiting for people like me to find some obscure town in Europe to research?  Who knew?  I still don’t fully understand the “why” of what they do, but I don’t need to.  I am so grateful that I can read old German and Polish records in the comfort of New Jersey.

priest_collar4. Catholic priests – I’m thankful for all of the priests that took the time to pull out their old record books to help me.  One local priest thanked me for the opportunity to look through the old books, because it reminded him of his role in the continuity of the Church when he saw the notations of those who served in the parish years before he was born.  A priest in Poland invited me and my translator into the rectory as he tried to find a record in a book from the 1820’s.  And it was my friend Fr. Lou that helped me start the journey overseas – it was a baptismal record he found that finally confirmed a town name in Germany as my immigrant’s point of origin.

rootsweb5. Rootsweb mailing lists – Before everyone had a web site and a blog, mailing lists and message boards were a way to learn from each other.

1step6. Steve Morse – Mr. Morse’s code enabled me to finally find some of my more elusive immgrants!  The man is a genius.  Thanks to his “one step” searches, I continually have more reasons to thank him.

hands7. Helpful strangers – In addition to the priests and list members above, I think all genealogists have – at one time or another – been helped by the kindness of strangers.  Here’s a thank you to all of those librarians, cemetery record-keepers, funeral homes, and residents of towns foreign to me that took a moment to help!

facebook-gene8. The genea-blogging community – I wasn’t sure about all this blogging business, but who would not be encouraged by such a warm welcome from a bunch of strangers?  I now call them friends, and I learn something new about genealogy every week from them.

9. My ancestors – Many people wonder why genealogists spend so much time digging up the past.  I hope that by finding the name of some ancestor from centuries ago, a name literally not spoken on this earth in years, I can bring some form of honor or respect to their names.  They can be remembered.  Thanks also to my great-grandparents for making that long journey from your homes that has allowed me to call the United States of America my home!

easter08110. My nieces and nephews – You are too young to show any interest in Aunt Donna’s papers, charts, and books right now, but I hope that some day you’ll take all of my work and pass it on.  Thank you for making my personal history full of fun, love, and laughter!

Forensic Photography: Alas, Poor Nicolaus!

Researchers in Poland this week confirmed that the skeletal remains found in a Frombork cathedral are indeed those of Nicolaus Copernicus.  There are many amazing things about this story.  Copernicus has been dead for 465 years, yet genetic researchers were able to confirm the remains through DNA testing, comparing DNA found in the bones to DNA retrieved from hairs found in a book that the astronomer owned.  They were not sure that the remains were his because his grave in the cathedral was unmarked.  But what I found even more remarkable about this story was the fact that researchers used the skull to create a computer-generated reconstruction of what he may have looked like – hence the title of this post.  The image looks a lot like paintings that exist of him.  There are many articles about this discovery; this one includes the reconstructed photo.

Does anyone else find it fascinating that a 16th Century skeleton can lead to DNA verification as well as an image of what he looked like?  One dissenting view, found on the blog to Discover magazine, wonders why it is considered acceptable to do this.  The article states:

While exercises like this are of historical interest, to me they’ve always raised the question as to when a set of remains becomes fair game for mucking about. If you were to dig up poor great aunt Edna, extract her skull, and sent it off to a lab in Sweden, you might be looked upon as being disrespectful or worse. But, digging about to find the remains of Copernicus is apparently completely OK, and was actually ordered by the local Catholic bishop. So when does this happen? Is there something like the copyright system where the right to be outraged by disturbance of a grave expires after a certain number of years? Is it more like radioactivity of the soul, where the connection to something sacred fades with an e-folding time?

I wasn’t quite as cynical when I heard the news, but the author does make a good point.  When is it acceptable to move/mess with someone’s remains?  But, I have to admit, all I could think about is what would happen if we just happened to have access to the bones of our ancestors…you know, those pesky ones that we don’t have any photos of?  It also made me think of these poor fellows:

Former residents of Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Bavaria, Germany.

Former residents of Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Bavaria, Germany.

These skulls were in an outdoor alcove of the cemetery church in Pfaffenhofen, called St. Andreas.  I’m still not sure why they’re on the shelf instead of in the ground!

Learn Geography to Help Your Genealogy

Geography Awareness Week (November 16-22, 2008) is drawing to a close.  I was delighted to learn about it from Lisa, who had several posts at 100 Years in America related to her ancestors’ countries.  Inspired, Jessica also took up the cause and made us all more aware of our own geographical incompetence!  Their posts made me realize how much I enjoy geography.  As a traveler, I love to pour over maps and figure out where I want to go, or even to figure out where I was (maps were useless in Venice, so I was only able to see where we were in retrospect).  Fortunately, I inherited my sense of direction from my father; my mother actually got lost five blocks from our house when I was a child – I thought for sure we’d never make it home.  As citizens of this earth, it’s fun to learn about all of the wonders of it.  But as genealogists, it’s absolutely vital to develop a sense of historical geographical awareness.  By this I mean a knowledge of a place’s name or boundary changes throughout its history.  Without this knowledge, we might never actually find our ancestors!

This sense of historical geography awareness, which Lisa so eloquently called going back in time, helps us track the genealogy of a place.  I’ve noted many times on this blog how important it was to learn about Polish history in order to accurately determine where to obtain vital records for my ancestors, for Poland was ruled by the Russian Empire, Prussia or the German Empire, and Austria for over a century.  Parts of the country belonged to other countries as well as Poland expanded, shrunk, or disappeared altogether. Researchers who find evidence that their ancestor was born in Danzig, Prussia, need to know that the town today is Gdańsk, Poland.

Most European countries have had similar boundary changes in their histories as well.  Why, I was delighted when a commenter informed me that the origins of my Bergmeister family may be found in Bozen.  Bozen is a town in an area known as Südtirol, once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and/or Austria.  But I knew the town by its current name, Bolzano, which has been Italian since the end of World War I.  I finally found my Italian roots!  Who knew?

It’s important to remember that not only countries shift borders or change names, but also states and towns.  For example, the city of Philadelphia did not have its current borders until 1854; the original city limits were much smaller, and the city expanded over time.  Learning these changes throughout the years in which your ancestor lived there is a must, because you won’t know where to look for records.  Simply looking at a map is a must – if you can’t find an ancestor in a census but the state line is only five miles from where they lived, perhaps you should try the neighboring state!

I gained a greater sense of historical geography awareness in researching my Pater family.  When my 2nd great-grandfather Joseph Pater arrived in the U.S. from Poland, he went to Philadelphia.  When I found the passenger arrival records for his wife and daughters, I was surprised to see that they listed their destination as joining Joseph in “Eden, PA”.  Uh, where?  I couldn’t find a town called Eden nearby, and I had never heard of it.  I would have discounted the find entirely based on this, but the names and ages were a perfect fit.  With a little investigation into the geography of my corner of Pennsylvania, I discovered that the Borough of Eden had existed only for a few years before the name was changed to Penndel, a town I knew.  The Pater’s lived there for at least eight years, likely working in the local textile mill, before moving back into the nearby city of Philadelphia.  So remember, kids, learn your geography if you want help with your genealogy!

I’d like to close with a question to my readers: when recording your ancestral information, whether you use computer programs or just on paper, do you record the town/state or province/country as it exists today, or as it existed at the time of the event?  Do I record my great-grandparents’ birth country as Germany, but their ancestors birth country as The Kingdom of Bavaria – even though it’s the same town?  Do I record my Polish ancestors’ life events as taking place in the Russian Empire, or in Poland – even if it didn’t officially exist?  I’m curious how others deal with changing names or boundaries, so please let me know in the comments!

Science Fiction for Genealogists

One of the great loves of my life has been science fiction.  After just one sentence, I can guarantee that about a quarter to a third of you readers are nodding your head in agreement, or saying, “I knew I liked her for a reason!”  But the rest of you probably groaned – that is, assuming you didn’t skip the post totally based on the title alone.  To all of you groaners – this post’s for you!

Many people dislike science fiction (sf) because their image of it consists of spaceships, aliens, and other planets.  But sf is much more than just those topics, and its range is so broad that there is truly something for everyone – even genealogists.  One category of science fiction that is sure to please genealogists is time travel.  Fantastic?  Unrealistic?  Yes, that’s why it’s called fiction.  But, boy, is it fun! Don’t we travel back in time every time we search through old documents to find our ancestors?  Or look at old photographs trying to imagine what life was really like back then?  When I read some sf authors, especially Jack Finney, I feel as though I am walking through the doors of the Virtual Dime Museum or entering the past by stepping into a Shades of the Departed photograph.  Here are my picks for the best science fiction stories for genealogists.

The Love Letter ~ by Jack Finney

This is my favorite short story by Jack Finney, whose most famous work is the novel Time and Again about travel to 19th Century New York.  Finney’s love and respect for the past permeates this story as well, which was written in 1959 and takes place in 1962.  A young man named Jake buys an antique desk, one that is full of pigeonholes and little drawers.  One night he examines his find more closely and finds a hidden compartment behind one of the drawers.  There he finds some old writing paper, envelopes, and a bottle of ink.  But there is also a letter – a love letter.

The letter is dated 1882 and a young woman, Helen, laments her impending marriage by writing with longing to her “Dearest”, who exists only in her mind.  “I speak with you in my mind and heart: would you existed outside of them!”

Touched by this woman’s words from so long ago, Jake is moved to write in response.

The night is a strange time when you’re alone in it, the rest of the world asleep.  If I’d found that letter in the daytime I’d have smiled and shown it to a few friends, then forgotten it.  But alone here now, window partly open, a cool late-at-night freshness stirring the quiet air, it was impossible to think of the girl who had written this letter as a very old lady or maybe long since dead.  As I read her words, she seemed real and alive to me, sitting, or so I pictured her, pen in hand…  And my heart went out to her as I stared down at her secret hopeless appeal against the world and time she lived in.

Jake writes a short note telling Helen that she’s a girl he could like.  “Do the best you can,” he writes, “in the time and place you are.”  Feeling satisfied with his late-night amusement, he suddenly feels moved to mail the letter.  He finds a vintage stamp from his childhood collection, and walks to an old post office that had been there since Helen’s time – he even stops at the old house that Helen wrote from, though in the present is suffers from neglect and age.  He mails the letter, “feeling foolish but at the same time secretly pleased.”

About a week later, Jake is working at his desk late at night when he thinks of Helen.  He realizes that there are two other desk drawers – do they have hidden compartments as well?  Finney writes that “the night is a strange time” and even though the city of New York had changed considerably over the decades, there are still “little islands – isolated remnants of the way things once were” and “the boundary between here and then wavers.”  Remarkably, Jake finds another letter in the second drawer – addressed to him!  By using the stationary, ink, stamps, and post office of Helen’s time, he feels that it crossed that boundary between “here and then”.  Helen is desparate to know who he is, and how he knew of her thoughts.

Jake responds again in the same way, but this time he tells her that he is writing from 1962.  He tells her he has fallen in love with her, but he can’t explain what was happening.  He realizes there is one drawer left that he has not opened, and because he already discovered the contents of the first two, that can not be changed.  Since he hasn’t opened the third drawer, there is one more chance for Helen to speak to him.

Mailing the letter in the same way, he nervously waits a week.  Opening the final hidden compartment, he finds no letter – but a photograph of Helen.  Across the bottom, she writes “I will never forget.”

A long time later, Jake realizes there was one final way for Helen to communicate with him over time.  Frankly, any genealogist would have figured this out sooner, but Jake apparently wasn’t into genealogy back in 1962!  I won’t spoil the ending and Helen’s final message to Jake, but it is a sweet ending to a bittersweet and magical love story.

What does “The Love Letter” have to do with genealogy?  At the end, Jake uses records we use daily to receive his final message.  But I chose this story because of the interaction between the past and the present.  As genealogists, we “travel” to the past, at least in our minds, when we do our research.  I’m sure many of us would like the persons we research to reach out from the past to communicate with us!  “The Love Letter” may not seem very science fiction-like, but if you have ever wondered about the past after seeing a document, photograph, or antique, you will enjoy this trip.

Second Chance ~ by Jack Finney

Most of Finney’s short stories involve some blurring of the lines between the past and the present, which is the attraction for genealogists.  Another good example of this is his story “Second Chance”.  A young man in 1956 has a penchant for “classic” cars, and he spends most of his time restoring a 1923 Jordan Playboy that was nearly demolished in an accident in which its occupants were killed.  He takes great care to restore the car by using original materials instead of replacing old parts with newer, modern ones.  He finally finishes and takes the car out for a drive.  He takes an old road into town, one that had been there before the highway was built, and he amuses himself by singing old songs from the 1920s and enjoying the ride.  He begins to think he is in the 1920s…

But my car and I–the way I felt about it, anyway–were almost rejected that night, by the time I live in.  And so there in my Jordan, just as it was the year it was new, with nothing about me from another time, the old ’23 tags on my car, moving along a highway whose very oil spots belonged to that year–well, I think that for a few moments, all the chains hanging slack, we were free on the surface of Time.  And that moving along that old highway through the summer evening, we simply drifted — into the time my Jordan belonged in.

When he reaches town he realizes that he had somehow driven back in time, and he parks the car to marvel at the old sights.  But his car is stolen, and he nearly gets killed as the thief races by him.  After walking around town that night, he finds himself back in his own time in the morning – without his cherished car.

Time passes, and the young man falls in love.  It just so happens that the girl’s father enjoys old cars, too.  In fact, he has a 1923 Jordan Playboy!  The narrator realizes it is the car he restored once before, and after hearing the father’s tale he realizes that his trip back in time saved that man’s life.  By changing the past without even realizing it, he made it possible to meet the woman he now loved.

“Second Chance” is an easy-going story with a nice twist at the end.  While it doesn’t seem like “science fiction”, any story with some sort of time travel is automatically part of the genre.  Finney’s sort of time travel rarely involves machines, but instead is brought about by desire and love for the past.  If the lines between the past and the present were truly flexible, I’m sure many a genealogist would jump at the chance to take a peak!

Unto the Fourth Generation ~ Isaac Asimov

One of the undisputed kings of the science fiction genre is Isaac Asimov.  Indeed, while he is most known for science fiction literature, Asimov should be remembered as one of the most prolific writers of all time, and the most eclectic.  He wrote every day, and the end result was hundreds of books ranging from sf to humor and mysteries to non-fiction works on science, religion, and history.  His science fiction covered all sub-genres like alien worlds and robots, with an occasional journey into time travel.  If traditional sf subjects don’t turn you off, by all means read the story that I consider to be Asimov’s best – “Nightfall”.  But, for my genealogist-audience, I wish to highlight a more unusual work in the Asimov canon – “Unto the Fourth Generation”.

Sam Marten is making his way across New York City for an important work appointment.  But with every move he makes, he encounters some variation of the same surname.  It appears in signs, trucks, businesses, and the address directory of the building he enters. Lewkowitz, Lafkowitz, Lefkowicz.  They don’t sound right, he thinks, but he doesn’t know why.  All of these coincidental encounters with the strange name makes him restless; his work meeting does not go well. He now feels haunted by these sightings of the variations of this unknown name. Sam walks, running at times, seemingly guided by unknown hands, to a park.

And there on a bench was an old man; the only man in the desolate park.  He wore a dark felt cap, with a visor shading his eyes.  From underneath it, tufts of gray hair protruded.  His grizzled beard reached the uppermost button of his rough jacket.  His old trousers were patched, and a strip of burlap was wrapped about each worn and shapeless shoe.

Marten stopped.  It was difficult to breathe.  He could only say one word and he used it to ask his question: “Levkovich?”

The old man rises and greets Sam Marten by name.  He has been looking for him.  Marten intuitively knows this old man is named Phinehas Levkovich, and he asks why they are there.  The man answers, “because I prayed.”  The old man’s daughter left for America with her family.  He grew old, and after his sons died he longed to see if his daughter had any sons “in whom [his] soul might yet live and not die.”  The man is given two hours to find the first son born of his daughter’s line in America.  “My daughter’s daughter’s daughter’s son, have I found you, then, amidst the splendor of the city?”

Sam asks his great-great grandfather for his blessing, one to be passed on to his future sons.  The old man says he can go in peace now that he has laid eyes on him, and he disappears.  Suddenly, “there was an instant of renewing motion” and Sam finds himself back where the story begins earlier in the day.  “Somehow he knew that all would be well with him.  Somehow, as never before, he knew…”

One of the more interesting aspects of this story is how it came about.  Asimov’s editor remarked that he had been seeing various signs with the name, and he asked if Isaac could write a story about it.  When it was published in April 1959 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the main character was not affected by the “meeting” with his ancestor.  Afterwards, a fan was talking to Asimov when his editor asked her what she thought of the story.  Her opinion was that the meeting should have affected Sam in some way.  When the story was re-published in one of Asimov’s story collections, the ending had changed.  And the fan? Years later she became Asimov’s wife, Janet!

“Unto the Fourth Generation” is a rather unusual story, but one that a genealogist might like.  Did the meeting really take place since the great-great grandfather had died years before?  Why did Sam go back in time a few hours to the beginning of his day?  Does it matter?  What matters is his sudden feeling of confidence and well-being.  Have you ever suddenly felt a calming come over you?  Or feel loved?  Perhaps we’re being blessed by our great-great grandfather.  The story works because of the emotion showed by both the old man and his descendant, and the meaningfulness of their meeting.

Who’s Your Grandaddy? ~ The Grandfather Paradox

Time travel stories can get a little confusing, and there is actually an issue known in the genre of science fiction as the “Grandfather Paradox”.  If a time traveler goes back in time and accidentally kills his own grandfather (or any other ancestor) before children are born, wouldn’t the time traveler cease to exist because he never would have been born?  There are two short stories by one of the masters of science fiction, Robert A. Heinlein, that seem to get around this paradox.  I’m reluctant to write about them, however.  Even though I love Heinlein’s work, these two stories give me a headache!

The first is called “All You Zombies” and was written in 1959. A “temporal agent” goes back in time to recruit a young writer.  The agent plays the role of a bartender, and the writer tells his life story.  The agent/bartender convinces the writer that if he could go into the past, he could change many of the troubled events he described. He goes back to the time of his birth, but…things get a little complicated.  It seems as though his past was more troubled than he originally thought.  Can you be your own ancestor?  Let’s just say that the plot is complicated and includes a sex change operation.  It also has a fair amount of humor, given the hilarity of the situation the main character finds himself (herself?) in.  Many years before this story, Heinlein used a similar theme in “By His Bootstraps,” published in 1941. Let the lesson be “beware of time travelers” because it could be your future self tricking you!

A story called “Dear Charles” by Murray Leinster, written in 1953, also touches on the theme, but without the confusing paradox.  In the 34th Century, Charles receives a letter that was written in the 20th Century by his own 52nd great-grandfather!  Charles’ ancestor explains that a series of unfortuanate events are about to unfold, but he urges him not to try to stop them.  The ancestor is about to appear, through a time machine from the past, and he will take Charles’ fiance Ginny back with him.  As it turns out, Ginny is actually Charles’ 52nd great-grandmother!

And then I smashed Professor Hadley’s time-transporter. I stamped on it, while Joe gazed stupidly at Ginny. I had reason to smash the device. Naturally! If anybody else traveled in time, they might not be as smart as I am, or their descendants might not be as dumb as you, Charles. Something might get messed up. Somebody might marry the wrong person somewhere in the next fourteen centuries, and Ginny might not get born. I wouldn’t risk that!

This story is more light-hearted, and it is told entirely in the form of the letter that the ancestor sends to Charles.  I think we’d all like to receive a personal letter from an ancestor, but I doubt anyone would be happy to find out that their betrothed is actually their own ancestor!

That’s a quick peek into the world of science fiction from a genealogist’s perspective!  My goal was to “convert” someone who didn’t think they liked science fiction at all into someone who is willing to take a closer look, perhaps at one of the authors I mentioned.  Please let me know if I accomplished my goal!  And for my fellow science fiction fans out there – and I know there are several genea-bloggers who belong to that group – please add some of your own ideas in the comments!  What sf stories do you think a genealogist would love?


  • Asimov, Isaac.  “Unto the Fourth Generation.”  The Complete Stories, Volume I. New York: Doubleday, 1990.  575-581.
  • Finney, Jack. “Second Chance.” About Time: 12 Short Stories.  New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1998. 183-202.
  • Finney, Jack.  “The Love Letter.”  Tales in Time.  Edited by Peter Crowther.  Clarkston, GA: White Wolf Publishing, 1997. 41-55.
  • Heinlein, Robert A.  “–All You Zombies–.” Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, March, 1959. Available online at <;
  • Leinster, Murray.  “Dear Charles.” A Logic Named Joe.  Baen Publishing, June 2005.  Available online at <;

Honoring Veterans Today and Always

vetsday08Today is Veterans Day in the United States, a day set aside to remember and honor all veterans.  I have many relatives and friends who have served in the U.S. military.  On this day, I’d like to honor my father (USN), my brother (USMC), Frank (USN), Frank’s Dad (USN), Uncle Ken (USN), cousins BG Mike (USA) and Suzanne (USAF), friends Bob (USMC), Rick (USMC), Joe (USA), Tim (USA), and Tim’s son Danny (USA), chaplains Ron (USAF), Chappy (USAF), Ralph (USA), and Sherrill (USA), and numerous bosses and co-workers over the years including active duty military and many veterans now working for the DoD as civilians.

To all of you, and especially to all active military personnel currently in harm’s way (you’re in our thoughts and prayers), I have one thing to say:

T H A N K    Y O U !

Armistice Day and Polish Independence

Veterans Day is celebrated tomorrow in the United States.  The holiday was first established by President Wilson as Armistice Day on November 11, 1919.  The holiday originally celebrated the end of the “War to End All Wars” which formally ended at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918.  To those of us generations removed from this war, it is difficult to realize its impact on the world.  It is estimated that nearly 20 million people died globally as a result.  At war’s end, four European empires disappeared: Russian, Ottoman, German, and Austro-Hungarian.

Tomorrow has additional significance in Poland because it is celebrated as Independence Day – at the end of the war in 1918, Poland re-appeared on the map of Europe and became a country again for the first time in 123 years.  Józef Piłsudski became the leader of the new Poland.

I can only wonder how World War I affected my ancestors.  As far as I know, none of my ancestors served in the military during the war, although my one Polish great-grandfather volunteered to fight for Poland in Haller’s Army.  But all of my great-grandparents living in America had only immigrated ten or twenty years prior to the war – surely they had relatives and friends living near the battlefields in Europe.  My German great-grandparents were not naturalized citizens, so they had to register with the U.S. government as “enemy aliens”.  I am sure that there must have been ethnic tensions during the war where neighbors wondered about which “side” of the war German immigrants were on.  Even though my great-grandfather had American sons that would go on to serve in the U.S. military, I wonder if he had conflicted feelings about the war – his own cousins and nephews were fighting in the German military.  It would be interesting to know how he felt about the war’s end – the economic hardships that his former country was about to endure would set the stage for an even greater and tragic war.

For my three Polish great-grandfathers, there must have been great rejoicing after the war, for Poland was once again a country.  Though they were Polish, neither they nor their fathers or grandfathers were born in Poland, but instead in Russian-occupied Poland. I’d like to wish a Happy Independence Day to all of my Polish friends tomorrow!

As we know, the Great War was not the war to end all wars.  After World War II, Armistice Day was changed to Veterans Day and is a holiday to honor all veterans.  Tomorrow I’ll have a special message for all of my family members and friends who are veterans.

Here are posts from genealogy blogs this past week that are related to World War I research:

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!

The word prompt for the 7th Edition of the Smile for the Camera carnival is Oh, Baby! The only hard thing about this topic was choosing which photos of my babies!  Well, not my babies, my NAN: Nieces and Nephew.  The acronym also conveniently fits their names as well – Natalie, Ava, and Nicholas.  That works until April/May, when the as-yet-unnamed next nephew arrives!  I can’t wait to see him, but until then I can’t get enough of my other NAN.  Here they are as babies, and I think you’ll agree with the proud aunt that they’re as cute as can be.


[Submitted for the 7th Edition of Smile for the Camera: Oh, Baby!]

Honor Our American Heroes

hoahAs Veterans Day approaches, I want to highlight a special effort to honor veterans, who are truly our heroes.  Since the organization is run by a friend of mine, Dan Gomez, I have confidence in the integrity of the project since he is a man of integrity himself. The group is called OPERATION H.O.A.H. and is found on the web at  “HOAH” stands for “Honor Our American Heroes.”  HOAH also sounds a lot like the various services’ exclamations: the Army’s “Hooah“, the Marine’s “Oorah” and the Navy’s “Hooyah.” [You’ve never jumped high until you’ve been in the presence of a few hundred young soldiers all bellowing “Hooah” at the same time!]

The mission of OPERATION H.O.A.H. is two-fold: to honor or acknowledge each and every “American Hero” with a commemorative coin, and to raise donations for “Hero-oriented organizations.”  The coins have a beautiful design!  One side honors all military personnel past, present, and future with the emblems of each service – Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard – as well as the American flag and the text of the Pledge of Allegiance to remind us of the key principles from which this nation was formed.  The reverse side offers an acknowledgement of each military member’s courage and sacrifice with a blue star to represent our deployed heroes, a purple heart to represent our injured heroes, and the missing soldier symbol to represent our fallen heroes.

The coins can be purchased for $15, with $5 from each going to the charity of your choice.  Some of the charities associated with the project are: Helping Unite Gold Star Survivors, Gold Star Wives of America, Operation Never Forget, Silver Star Families Visit Site, and Homes for Heroes.  For more information on these charities, links are provided on the “Purchase” and “Charities” sections of the site.

The site’s creator, Dan Gomez, is my friend. He created this project as a way to honor his own hero, his father, who immigrated from Mexico and served as an U.S. Army medic in World War II.  Read more about Dan’s inspiration in this article published in the Hilltop Times on 10/16/08.

If you have a hero in your family, why not show them how much they mean to you by giving them a commemorative coin?  Let’s show these brave men and women how grateful we are for their service to this country, and also donate some money to worthwhile charities that support our veterans.

Click here for more information on Operation H.O.A.H.

Fact or Fiction? Only Research Will Tell!

The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.  ~ John F. Kennedy

In the current issue (December 2008) of Discovering Family History magazine, I have an article entitled “Fact or Fiction?  Top Genealogical Myths.”  I define a “genealogical myth” as a dramatic family history story that is often untrue, and if we fall into the trap of believing in it, it may bring our research to a halt. I’m not going to reprint the article here as I’m sure my editors would like you all to purchase a copy of the magazine while it’s on the newstands, but I would like to briefly list the myths included.

  • The “Name was Changed at Ellis Island” Myth – in which the immigrant’s “ethnic name is changed upon arrival in America!
  • The “Our Family Hid from the Census” Myth – which is why they’re nowhere to be found in the records!
  • The “Stowaway” Myth – in which the brave immigrant traveled to America “illegally” and unnoticed by authorities!
  • The “Name’s Not Spelled That Way” Myth – in which the family surname absolutely, positively was never spelled any other way!
  • The “If They’re Not in the SSDI, They Don’t Have a Social Security Number” Myth  – in which we take the various SSDI online databases as gospel!
  • The “Famous Ancestor” Myth – in which you are descended from royalty, outlaws, or some other famous figure because Grandpa said so!
  • The “There Were No Records Back Then” Myth – in which you have no hope of finding any ancestors because either all the records were destroyed or they just didn’t keep any!

That’s a sneak peak, but there are several other good genealogical myths like the story of the three brothers that came to America and settled in different areas, or the story about the family inheritance that’s waiting to be found.  In my own personal genealogical quest I had to deal with three of the myths listed above.  The stories were persistent, but, to quote JFK, unrealistic.  A good, determined  researcher will find the truth.  And trust me, there really were some stowaways!  But not all of us are lucky enough to have one in our family tree.  If you do have one, good research will help you prove it!

Wandering Research: The Grand Duchess, Suffrage, and Sainthood

Last week I was researching my politics article when I stumbled upon an interesting article.  Because three of my four sets of great-grandparents came from the area of Poland ruled by the Russian Empire, I googled various topics regarding the Russian Empire and the voting process.  One article from the New York Times was so interesting that I had to devote a post to it.  How could you pass on a lead-in headline such as this:

THE CZAR’S SISTER-IN-LAW A WOMAN SUFFRAGE LEADER; She’s the Widow of Grand Duke Sergius — Nicholas Sent Her to a Nunnery, But She Turned the Nuns Into Suffragists and He Had to Surrender.

The article, dated Sunday, September 17, 1911, details the women’s suffrage movement in Russia.  Read the entire article here. It begins, “Backward as Russia is in many ways, it is feeling the force of the feminist movement.”  Czar Nicholas II’s sister-in-law was the Grand Duchess Elizabeth.  According to this article, which reads more like the National Enquirer than today’s New York Times, she was very unhappy in her marriage to Grand Duke Sergei and turned to feminism.  After his assassination, she became involved in the suffragist movement.  When the Czar questioned this, she openly stated her belief that men and women should have equal political rights, and this equality should be obtained through peaceful diplomacy and influence.  The Czar promptly sent her off to a nunnery (again, according to this article), where she found kindred souls who also supported the suffrage movement.

The article is funny, though it was not written to be.  It also details the Russian suffrage movement in the universities, the Polish influence from the “poetess” (as she is referred to, although she was actually a novelist) Madame Orzesykowa [sic – should be Orzeszykowa], and another nun, Sister Veronica, who led the movement from a monastery in Ekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains. Of course, this was written in 1911.  Russian women did get the right to vote in 1918…a full two years before American women despite the fact that the New York Times highlights just how “backward” Russia is in the first sentence of the article!

Needless to say, I became interested in the Grand Duchess, but her biography on Wikipedia tells a slightly different tale than this sensational article.  In fact, her involvement in the suffragist movement isn’t even mentioned.  Rather than an unhappy marriage to the Duke, she appeared to love him a great deal.  After his murder, she entered a convent – it didn’t mention a Czar-forced trip to the nunnery – and became known for her charitable works.  After her death she was canonized in the Russian Orthodox church for her saintly life. Sadly, Elizabeth was also murdered, apparently under Lenin’s orders.  Her life story is quite fascinating, as is her ancestry.  She may have become a Russian princess, but she was half German and half British by birth.  In fact, her grandmother is Queen Victoria!

I can’t help but wonder if the “press” slant of the article is that the Czar sent her to a nunnery to repent for her feminist views because that was easier for the world to understand than the fact that a woman of royal standing would give up all of the world’s riches in order to serve the poor. Politics may be slightly different today (at least women can vote), but I fear there’s not much difference between the news outlets of 1911 and today.

You never know what fascinating lives you will uncover as you research topics related to either genealogy or history!  They never told us in school that research could be interesting!

Polish History and Culture Challenge Results

Poster designed by footnoteMaven!

Poster designed by footnoteMaven!

During the month of October, which was Polish-American Heritage Month, I presented a challenge to all genea-bloggers, regardless of their ancestry, to learn more about the history and culture of Poland and write about it on their blogs.  I’m happy to say that a few folks did just that!  The following bloggers participated in this challenge:

Alwierz at the Polish-American Genealogy Research Blog writes about Polish genealogy every day!  But specifically for this challenge, Al turned his focus on the histories of his ancestors’ hometowns in Poland.  Al says, “I’ve researched and attempted to translate the histories of the area and parishes within the Kujawy area of Poland, specifically within Powiat Aleksandrow. Polish history is very rich and proud, so I had tried to translate these histories with the utmost respect. I had used two online translation tools, Google Translator and Poltran, along with my Polish – English English – Polish (Langenscheidt’s Pocket Dictionary). Any errors with any of the translations are my fault and will be corrected as they are pointed out.”  His articles for this challenge are:

This was a fascinating look at the Kujawy area in Poland.  Thanks, Al!

Jasia at Creative Gene also wrote a series of posts.  Her series focused on the crafts of Poland.  The slide shows and photographs in Jasia’s posts are beautiful, and really show the best of Polish art.  Her series about her Polish art collections are:

Aren’t they beautiful?  Thanks, Jasia!

Next, Sheri Fenley, The Educated Genealogist, learned how to polka.  Well, she tried to learn how to Polka!  Who knew it would be so hard?  Disappointed, but still wanting to participate in the challenge, Sheri instead offers a wonderful look at the polka in The Problem with Polka!  A-one, and a-two, and a dziękuję to Sheri!

Lisa, at 100 Years in America, writes about the connections and friendship between Poland and Hungary in Two Good Friends: The Pole and the Hungarian.  What a beautiful proverb!  Thanks for participating, Lisa, and for your friendship!

The footnoteMaven has presented us with the fascinating life story of a little-known Pole who was quite famous in her day.  Read all about Madame Helena Modjeska in Today I am an Honorary Pole! We’re grateful for this glimpse into her life, and you’re welcome to be an honorary Pole any day.  In fact, in appreciation you shall be called footnoteMavenska for today!  Thanks so much.

Finally, I offered a hodge-podge of various posts here at What’s Past is Prologue as follows:

I hope my readers enjoyed this challenge and the wonderful posts from those that participated.  Thanks to all!  Or rather, to say it in Polish, dziękuję!

Politics Then and Now

As I pondered over this topic for the Carnival of Genealogy and mused about the election in the next few days, I couldn’t help but wonder how my immigrant ancestors felt about the American electoral process.  Did they vote?  What was the voting process like in their homelands?  The records don’t exist to tell me the answers to the first question, but I was able to uncover some interesting facts about the electoral process in the countries from which they came.

My German great-grandparents never voted in a U.S. election because my great-grandfather was not naturalized.  But, he may have had the chance to vote in Germany.  Joseph Bergmeister was born in 1873, only two years after the unification of Germany as a nation.  Prior to that, German states were independent of one another, and my ancestors came from the Kingdom of Bavaria.  In the new, unified Germany, called the German Empire, the country was ruled by a Kaiser or Emperor.  The Kaiser was not an elected position!  But, men were able to vote for the Reichstag or the Imperial Assembly, which was a weak representative body.  (Note: women did not get the right to vote in Germany until 1918.)


Flag of the German Empire, 1871-1918. Source: Wikipedia

The problem with the Reichstag was that it could not initiate laws, but only pass, amend, or reject bills initiated by the Kaiser-appointed Chancellor.  In the beginning days of the German Empire, the Reichstag more or less was agreeable with the Kaiser’s wishes.  But, as it seems with any democratic body, they became less compliant over time.  Disagreeing with the Kaiser prompted rumors of threats that the Reichstag would be replaced with members who were in agreement with the Kaiser or, worse still, the democratic body would be eliminated completely as well as universal male suffrage.

The environment from which my great-grandfather came was a semi-constitutional monarchy, but at least the men had some say in the government.  From 1888 through to its abolishment with World War I in 1918, the argument over the best form of government continued.

I was unable to determine the voting age during this time.  If it was 18 or 20 years old, then my great-grandfather would have been eligible to vote in the 9th election of 1893.  Elections followed every five years, so his last vote – and perhaps his first if the voting age was 21, was in the election of 1898 since he left for the U.S. in 1900.  I can only imagine what he thought about the more democratic process in his new country in which men had the right to vote for the leader of the country!  As I said, he never got the chance to vote in America because he did not become a citizen.

For my Polish ancestors, their homeland’s political process was even more muddled because the country of Poland did not officially exist during my great-grandparents’ lives.  My remaining three great-grandfathers, Ludwig Pater, Jan Piontkowski, and Jozef Zawodny, all came from the area of Poland that was “confiscated” or partitioned by the Russian Empire.  It was the largest country in the world in the early 19th Century.


Flag of the Russian Empire, 1721-1917. Source: Wikipedia

Similar to the German Empire, the Russian Empire was led by the Tsar, or Emperor.  Prior to 1906, the tsar’s power was unlimited.  After 1906, the tsar’s power was more limited although the country was far from having a constitutional government.  Under the Tsar, the legislative power was called the Imperial Assembly of 196 members.  Half were appointed by the Tsar, and half were elected by the men of the Empire.  (Note: women received the right to vote in Russia and Poland in 1918.)  It appears that six members were elected by Poland of the 96 elected members.

Russia’s lower body of government was called the Duma of the Empire or the Imperial Duma, consisting of 442 members.  Reading about the Duma was more confusing than when I first learned about the U.S. electoral college in grade school!  The Duma appeared to have more members allowed for the wealthier classes, and less allowed for the working class or peasants.  But it does appear that even the peasants had a vote in this system, much to my surprise.  The effect of that vote was likely minimal, but the large population of the Polish cities of Warsaw and Lodz meant that Poland was represented to some extent.

Again, it would be interesting to know what my Polish great-grandfathers thought of the electoral process in the United States.  They were each naturalized in 1923, 1925, and 1926.  One, Jan Piontkowski, could have voted in the 35th Presidential election, while the other two were eligible to vote in the next election in 1928.  I don’t know if any of them did vote, but my mother remembers her one grandfather talking about Franklin D. Roosevelt and he likely voted for him.  Each of their wives would have been eligible to vote as well since women in the U.S. could vote as of 1920, and they became citizens through marriage to their naturalized husbands.

My father was first eligible to vote in the 1956 election; although my mother is not much younger, because of when her birthday fell she would not be able to vote until the 1960 election (for President, that is).  Both were big supporters of John F. Kennedy.  Growing up, Kennedy reigned large in our house even though he had been dead for years before I was born.  My mother would never feel the same level of support for any other candidate!  The democratic nature of  my family would change as the party’s values began to change in the 1970s.  I dislike having only two main parties from which to choose, and I prefer the “Independent” label since neither party meets my personal values completely.

I received something my parents did not: the right to vote at the age of 18.  I was just shy of 18 in time for the 1984 election, so my first chance was in 1988.  Since I did not feel strongly about either candidate or politics in general, I neither registered nor voted.  While it is embarrassing to admit, I finally registered this year.  I suddenly felt guilty for squandering an opportunity that so many of my ancestors never had.  Next week, I will proudly vote for a U.S. President for the first time in my life.  I hope my ancestors are proud that I finally will take part in the process!

[Written for the 59th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Politics and Our Ancestors.]