Lessons Learned from WDYTYA

Genealogy hit prime time television last month with NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? I haven’t been writing about it here, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been watching!  At first, many genealogists were dismayed that the show didn’t highlight more of the “how to” of genealogy.  But, that’s not its purpose.  First and foremost, the show is meant to entertain.  But hopefully non-genealogists will get interested in tracing their family’s history after seeing some of the amazing discoveries that the stars made about their own families.

We are now just past the midway point of the show’s schedule. In just four episodes the show has highlighted various record sources and periods of history, and each story has had a powerful emotional impact.  Despite the fact that WDYTYA doesn’t highlight actual research techniques, there are still many lessons to be learned for those already involved in genealogical research.  Or at least reminders of things we’ve already learned but occasionally forget.   Here is what I have learned so far:

Episode #1 – Sarah Jessica Parker

In SJP’s search for more information on her mother’s family, researchers uncovered her 3rd great-grandfather’s obituary that also cited his father’s year of death.  But the information was later proved wrong with additional research.  Lesson:  Don’t trust everything you read in the newspapers; try to find primary sources for vital information. How many of us have been led down the wrong path by following a family story or second-hand information?  Try to verify information using primary sources if possible, which means a record created at the time of the event.

Episode #2 – Emmitt Smith

Emmitt’s story about his ancestors born into slavery was powerful.  He not only learned about his fourth great-grandmother, Mariah Puryear, who was born a slave, but he was shocked to discover that her father was likely her owner.  Lesson: We may learn things about our ancestors that we won’t make us proud.  Upon learning this information, Emmitt had a great response: the man is his ancestor, but he is not like that man.   Lesson: If you uncover something distasteful about an ancestor – and who among us has not – you might want to consider you have become something better. We should also remember that the “black sheep” ancestor also has ancestors, and some of those may be worthy of admiration.  Genea-blogger footnoteMaven provides the proper perspective with this insightful quote:

It is the wise Family Historian who understands that we can no more take credit for the accomplishments of our ancestors, than we can take blame for their failures.

Our knowledge of them is merely insight into ourselves. You can not change history, take care not to misrepresent it.

Episode #3 – Lisa Kudrow

Lisa Kudrow’s episode was an emotional tear-jerker as she learned about the death of her great-grandmother by the Nazis.  However, the lesson I learned from this episode came from an event that struck me as humorous.  At the Polish State Archives in Gdynia, a document reveals that Lisa’s presumed-dead cousin had a child in Gdynia.  Lisa became so excited at the prospect of finding a descendent.  She asks what records they could look to find the family – census records, tax records, surely there is something?  Archivist Krzysztof Dzieciolowski smiles and plops a large telephone book on the desk.  Lesson: Don’t overlook the obvious when searching for relatives! Occasionally research can be as simple as looking in the phone book!

Episode #4 – Matthew Broderick

Broderick wanted more information on his father’s family, and he discovered war heroes from World War I and the Civil War.  It was interesting that his grandfather was described as “ill-tempered” and the family didn’t talk much about the past.  Perhaps his grandfather’s ill temper came from his experience fighting in the Great War – he was a battlefield hero, but never talked about it.  Broderick also discovered that his 2nd great-grandfather died in battle during the Civil War.  Until the research for this episode, Broderick’s ancestor was buried in an unmarked grave.   Lesson: Just as we can uncover things we’d rather not know, we also can learn about great deeds.  It becomes our responsibility to honor our ancestors by remembering them.

I look forward to the remaining episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? What other lessons shall we learn?


It All Started at a Dance

We’re fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance. ~Japanese Proverb

It all started at a dance. The day was Sunday, March 13, 1955. The place was the gymnasium at St. Boniface Church in Philadelphia. The event was insignificant to most of the world, but highly significant to my life – it was the night my parents met for the first time.

My mother, Anita, loved to dance. She briefly took dance lessons as a child and loved tap and ballet, but her parents could not afford the classes. Instead, she settled for neighborhood dances, mostly held in church and school gyms. Each dance “specialized” in a particular age group from pre-teen to older teens, to almost-adult and beyond. My mother and her girlfriends practiced dancing on the sidewalk in front of their houses, and an older woman who lived nearby showed them some steps.

On the evening in question, my mother was 19 years old. She had “outgrown” the fun dances at St. Matt’s, so she and some girlfriends decided to try the Sunday night dance at St. Boniface. It was her first and only visit there.

My father, Jim, also frequented neighborhood dances in his teen years, and St. Boniface was close to where he lived at the time. The boys danced as a way to meet girls, and they learned by watching others dance. He was 20 years old, lived with his parents, and made $1 per hour hanging garage doors for a company two doors away from his home.

Neither remembers what music was played that night, but a live band performed. When Jim asked Anita to dance, he remembers being glad he had his “little black book” and a pen with him. He asked for her phone number; she gave it to him.

Anita and Jim in 1955

Anita and Jim in 1955

Their first official date was to see a movie (neither can remember which one). Afterward, they went to the Mayfair Diner. During their meal, Jim proclaimed that he really wanted to get married. Surprised that a young guy would want marriage, my mother asked why. “Well,” he said, “it sure would be nice to have someone cook dinner and iron my shirts.” My mother replied, “You don’t need a wife, you need a maid.”

When Jim asked Anita out again, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to go. She didn’t know what to say, so she did what nearly everyone has done at some point to avoid rejecting a date – she lied. She pretended she was too sick to go out. That night, he sent her two dozen roses as a get well wish, which made her feel even more guilty about lying. They did go out again, and again, and they were married a little more than one year later on April 7, 1956.

It all began at a dance, and dancing stayed a part of their lives in some way or another. When they were a young married couple, they occasionally went to the nightclubs in Philadelphia and southern New Jersey. But besides social dancing, dance became a bigger part of their lives in another way – show business!

In 1973, my brother began high school and the school had a parents’ association that put on shows as a fundraiser. My parents became involved with the shows. The mothers would perform various types of chorus line numbers from jazz to tap. Once, they even performed a number on roller skates! My father’s comedic dance routines have already been mentioned in other posts, but he also became an accomplished serious dancer as well and appeared in some jazz and tap numbers.

Rehearsal for a dance number, circa 1974-5

The choreographer for these shows, Miss Kay, was a dance teacher and ballroom dancer. She had a tremendous talent for teaching dance, and my mother marveled about how she took a bunch of mothers aged from mid-30s through 50s who knew little about dancing and was able to create entertaining numbers in which they all looked like stars.

Mom performing in a tap number to Elton John's "Honky Cat", 1973

My mother was so impressed with Miss Kay’s teaching abilities that I suddenly was enrolled in a tap dance class with other girls my age (around 7-8). Either I was not talented, or not interested, or Miss Kay finally met her match…I quit after a few classes. Oddly enough, I returned to Miss Kay’s classroom with my mother – about twenty years later! At this time, Miss Kay wasn’t just my parents’ friend, she had become my brother’s mother-in-law. The second time around I did learn a few things about tap dancing, but I’ll never be Ann Miller!

My mother’s love of dance was passed on to me, but for me it was a love of watching dancing, especially Gene Kelly movies. But I long to dance… I once  had great fun taking a swing dance class, and I’d love to learn ballroom dancing. The real dancer in the family is my niece, the granddaughter of both my mother and Miss Kay. She has their talent (and her mother’s dancing talent), and is so good that she could easily make a career of it if she wishes.

My parents weren’t pros, but they loved dancing for the fun of it.  And if they hadn’t enjoyed dancing so much, they might have never met! May their dance continue for many more years!

Anita and Jim dancing in 1993

[Submitted for the 92nd Carnival of Genealogy: Dance!]

“This happened in the town of Mszczonów”

This edition of the Carnival of Central & Eastern European Genealogy highlights “The Village of my Ancestor”.  Several of my ancestors came from very small villages in Poland.  In fact, my great-grandmother Rozalia Kizeweter Piątkowski was born in Mała Wieś, which translates into English as “small village.”  Eighteen villages in Poland bear this name, so  hers is also called Mała Wieś Promna because it is located in Promna borough. The village was so small, that according to Słownik Geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego there were only 7 houses and 71 inhabitants in 1827 (that’s a lot of people per house!).

But, there’s not much to write about such a tiny village, so instead I’d like to introduce you to another village of another ancestor, Antonina Rozalia Pluta Pater, who was born on 11 June 1863 in Mszczonów.  The title of this post was my first introduction to the name of the town, which came from the birth record of Antonina.  The record begins, as all vital records did at that time, with the words “This happened in the town of  Mszczonów…”

Mszczonów is located nearly in the center of Poland in  Żyrardów County and the Masovian Voivodeship.  As of 2004, the town had 6,310 inhabitants and could be described as a small city rather than a village.  Mszczonów has a very old history.  It was first mentioned in a document written in 1245 by Duke Konrad I, but it is believed that a settlement existed in the area from the mid-twelfth century.   A local church was established by 1324.  In 1377, Mszczonów was declared a city by Ziemowit III, Duke of Mazovia.

The area was heavily forested and was directly on a trade route that went north to south through Poland.  Initially this location attacted residents, but in the 16th century the entire town became the property of the Radziejowski family, owners of adjacent Radziejowice.  Under the family’s control, the town was not developed.  Other factors that stagnated development of the town were the wars with Sweden from 1655-1657 and the partitioning of Poland that began in 1795.  Because of the wars, the population was reduced and the lack of craftsmen reduced trade with neighboring towns.  The situation changed during the partition years of 1795-1918, when Mszczonów fell under Russian rule.  Slowly the town’s population grew, and by the early nineteenth century the town was one of the largest in Mazovia.

This is the time that my ancestors lived in Mszczonów.  My 2nd great-grandmother was Antonina Rozalia Pluta Pater, born on 11 June 1863.  Her father, Ludwik Pluta, was a 19-year-old shoemaker whose father and grandfather were also shoemakers from Mszczonów.  Antonina’s mother, Franziszka Wojciechowski, was also 19 and the daughter of another shoemaker from the town.  Both Antonina and her mother would eventually leave Mszczonów to immigrate to the United States.   The records for Mszczonów held by the LDS only go back to 1808, which is not far enough back to find the birth record for Ludwik and Franziska’s grandparents who were all born around 1795-1800.  The Polish National Archives may have older records (availability can be checked online, but the site is down for service as of this writing).

Here are some photos from my visit to Mszczonów in 2001:

St. John the Baptist church in Mszczonów

A plaque on the church listing the names of the pastors from 1658-1982. Rev. Filipowicz baptized Antonina's father in 1843.

[ Submitted for the 27th edition of the Carnival of Central & Eastern European Genealogy: The Village of My Ancestor ]

The Number You Have Reached

Telephone, n. An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.” ~ Ambrose Bierce

The telephone was born in 1876.  Despite some minor modifications, the technology generally remained unchanged for more than a century.  Then, without warning, phones became…different.  Nothing makes you feel older than realizing a technological change that occurred in your own lifetime.  Suddenly you can “remember when” and people ten or twenty years younger than you cannot.

In last week’s “Memory Monday” about our address book, I mentioned telephone exchanges – the first two letters of a word that was used for the number-equivalent (Pennsylvania 6-5000 was PE6-5000, or 736-5000).  But I was surprised at how many other things related to telephones that are different today.

For example, I recently watched a movie made in the late 1980’s.  Since I was in college at that time, I wouldn’t necessarily consider a movie from that time period to qualify as a “classic” film, but one aspect of the movie made it seem more outdated than things in films from the 1950’s.  In the movie, the main character was trying to navigate across the country to meet a deadline, and he continually had to call and check-in as he met obstacles along the way that delayed him.  Because cell phones weren’t prevalent back then, he kept stopping at pay phones and phone booths to make the calls.  Today I couldn’t find a phone booth if I tried!

Donna on the telephone, 1979

When I was in 3rd grade (1975-76), the telephone company – for there was only one, and her name was Ma Bell – sponsored a contest for students to design the phone of the future!  We had to draw a picture of it and briefly describe its features.  The majority of our designs focused on one of two ideas: a phone that you could carry with you, and a “video-phone” that allowed you to see who you were talking to and vice versa.  I can’t remember who won or what the prize was, but we had fun designing these future phones.  Imagine taking a phone with you in the car!  It was pure science fiction.  It is amazing how far we have come in such a short time with mobile phones and video-teleconferencing over the internet.

But it didn’t happen overnight.  Take, for example, my very first “mobile” phone in the late 1980’s.  I didn’t really want or need one, but my mother was fascinated by the concept of being able to call me and discover my whereabouts wherever I was.  Thank God GPS tracking came into being well into my adulthood.  So, she invested in a mobile phone.  Well, the word mobile is relative.  It could be carried with you, but definitely not in your pocket.  The phone was in a very large carrying case (around 8”x10”x4”), weighed at least 5 pounds, and the receiver was connected to the heavy base with a cord.  I felt like a Secret Agent with a spy phone, but an agent that was too low on the totem pole to get the good Bond-esque equipment. But it worked, and it was a novel idea at the time.

That first mobile phone seems as ancient today as rotary phones did in my childhood.  My very first paying job was working in the church rectory answering phones and the door in the evenings.  In the beginning, 1981, the rectory had a rotary phone.  I don’t remember if we ever had one at my house, but I had to have used one before since I knew how it worked.  What I wouldn’t give to have one installed in my house and ask my 14-year-old niece to dial a number for me…her exasperation at the slow dialing pace would be priceless!  The phone also had a cord, so she would find it unbelievable that I had to get out of my chair to answer it (I won’t even attempt to explain life without a tv remote to her).

Funny! They still make toy rotary phones! This is my nephew Luke, Christmas 2009, wondering what the heck it is.

I guess even the fact that I had a job answering the phone would be a quaint idea today thanks to answering machines.  In my childhood, an “answering machine” would be defined as someone other than the person you were calling writing down a message.  The only machine-voice I remember hearing on the telephone was when you would call the official number at the phone company to hear the correct time or the weather.  I wonder if they still have these lines operational now that the internet has taken command and control as our sole information source.

One technological improvement that took some fun out of the telephone was Caller ID.  The suspense is now gone – we know who is calling before we answer the phone.  And someone knows when we are calling.  This feature has taken away a fun pastime of our youth – making prank phone calls.  I never made such calls myself, but my brother and his friends made some hilarious calls to unsuspecting strangers.  Today, they would be busted thanks to Caller ID.  So would scores of lovelorn souls who would get up enough nerve to call the boy or girl of their dreams only to hang up when the Dreamboat actually answered – or Dreamboat’s father.

I’m not that old but I remember when you got a busy signal because there was no call waiting, all phones were “landlines”, and there was no need for a “Do Not Call” list.  But I’m young enough to remember my parents talking about changes in their own lives that involved the telephone.  The biggest change?  Neither had a telephone in their house while growing up.  My father remembers that the only telephone in the neighborhood belonged to the corner drugstore.  When it rang, the owner would send him or another boy to run to the house of the call’s recipient.  The boys would sometimes get a nickel as a tip, but the calls were often “important” news such as a death in the family, so it wasn’t a fun task to report the news of a call waiting.

You are at least my age or older if you remember:

  • calling the phone company for the correct time or the weather
  • rotary phones
  • pay phones and phone booths
  • telephone exchanges
  • phones with cords
  • Ma Bell
  • “mobile” phones that you couldn’t fit in your pocket
  • no “answering machines”
  • busy signals instead of call waiting
  • no need for a “Do Not Call” list
  • all phones were “landlines”

You are probably older than me if you remember:

  • party lines
  • talking into a receiver while holding the earpiece up to your ear
  • asking the operator to dial the number
  • not having a phone in the house
  • phone numbers with less than seven digits

You are probably younger than me if you’re scratching your head wondering what all of these things are.  To find out, Google the terms on your G3 mobile device and text the answers to your blog or Facebook.  Or you can actually pick up the phone (please, not while driving) and call one of your old relatives to find out!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

[ I borrowed the “Memory Monday” concept from Greta, and I believe that today she will also post a telephone-related memory.  Read about the Texas Telephone Call here! ]

[ I guess I am getting old, because after I wrote this I realized I already used some of these memories in a post from 2008 called When Times Change! ]

Surname Saturday: MCGEEHAN

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day this week, I have chosen to highlight an Irish surname.  The only problem with that is that I personally have no Irish ancestry.  But my niece does from her mother’s paternal side!

Surname – MCGEEHAN

Meaning/Origin – The name MCGEEHAN is an anglicized form of Gaelic Mac Gaoithín or ‘son of Gaoithín’, a personal name derived from the diminutive of gaoth which means ‘clever’ or ‘wise’. (Source: Dictionary of American Family Names, Oxford University Press)

Countries of Origin – The surname MCGEEHAN is Irish.  According to the World Names Profiler, Ireland has the highest frequency per million residents with this name at  49.37 per million.  The United Kingdom comes in second at 10.9, and the United States is third at 6.9.

Spelling Variations –  Other variations of McGeehan include Mageean, Mageehan, McGehan, Mac Gaoithín, MacGeehan, MacGeehin, MacGeehon, and McGeehon.

Surname Maps – The following map illustrates the frequency of the MCGEEHAN surname in Ireland in 1848-64.  The numbers on the map show the number of McGeehan households in the county found in the Primary Valuation property survey of 1848-64 (known as Griffith’s Valuation).  The surname name is found mostly in Northern Ireland.

Distribution of the McGeehan surname in Ireland, 1848-64.

SOURCE: Irish Ancestors database, http://www.irishtimes.com/ancestor/surname/, accessed March 13, 2010.

My Family -As I said above, I have no Irish ancestry.  However, my niece’s 2nd great-grandmother was named Nellie McGeehan (1890-1920).  Her father was Edward McGeehan, who was born in 1858 in Pennsylvania – likely in Philadelphia.  Edward’s parents were born in Ireland.

My Research Challenges – Right now the challenge with finding Edward McGeehan’s birth record is the fact that there was no civil registration required in Pennsylvania until 1860, two years after his birth.  More information about Edward’s parents may be obtained from his death record, which I have not yet found.  Census records have conflicting information, but Edward may have been a Philadelphia police officer.  His daughter Nellie married William Lee.  Unfortunately Nellie died at the age of 30, leaving behind a 10-year-old daughter, Catherine Lee.

Surname Message Boards – Ancestry has a McGeehan message board as does GenForum.


Links to posts about Irish Surnames and families I am researching for others can be found here.

This post is #8 of an ongoing series about surnames.  To see all posts in the series, click here.

A Tribute to Maria

This month’s Carnival of Genealogy celebrates women’s history month with a chance to pay a special tribute to a woman on our family tree – and her timeline in history.  This is the story of my great-grandmother, Maria Echerer Bergmeister.

Timeline for Maria Echerer Bergmeister


February 27 – Maria Echerer is born to Karl and Margarethe Echerer in Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Bavaria, Germany.  She is the couple’s first-born child.


August 22 – A sister, Magdalena, is born.


June 25 – Maria’s paternal grandmother, Magdalena Nigg Echerer, dies.


June 28 – A brother, Karl, is born.


February 07 – A sister, Teresia, is born.


February 20 – A sister, Cristina, is born.


October 04 – Maria’s mother, Margarethe Fischer Echerer, dies at the age of 50.  Maria is 20 years old at the time of her mother’s death.


November 02 – Maria marries Josef Bergmeister in Pfaffenhofen.  Karl Echerer witnesses the marriage (either her father or brother).


February 27 – On Maria’s 23rd birthday, her first child is born, a daughter, also named Maria.  The family is living in house #331 in Pfaffenhofen.


May 03 – Maria’s husband, Josef, sails on the SS Arargonia from Antwerp, Belgium.  He arrives in Philadelphia, PA, USA on May 18.  Once he arrives, he lives with his sister and brother-in-law, Hilaury and Max Thuman, at 1033 Jefferson Street.


June 13 – Maria and daughter Maria sails on the SS Kensington from Antwerp, Belgium.  They arrive in New York, NY, USA on June 27.  Husband Josef is living at 1500 N. Warnock St. in Philadelphia.


April 16 – A son, Joseph Maximilian, is born.  He is baptized at St. Peter’s and his godparents are his aunt and uncle, Hilaury and Max Thuman.


May 07 – A son, Maximilian Julius, is born.  He is baptized at St. Peter’s and his godparents are his aunt and uncle, Hilaury and Max Thuman.


June 16 – A son, Julius Carl, is born. He is baptized at St. Peter’s and his godparents are his aunt and uncle, Hilaury Thuman and Julius Goetz (Josef and Hilaury’s half-brother).


July 17 – A son, Charles, is born.  Charles was premature and only lived for 15 hours.


November 05 – A daughter, Laura, is born.  Laura was premature and died the same day.


April 11 – A daughter, Margaret Hermina, is born (my grandmother).  She is baptized at St. Peter’s and her godparents are her aunt and uncle, Hilaury Thuman and Herman Goetz (Josef and Hilaury’s half-brother).


February 05 – Maria dies from myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) with bronchial asthma as a contributing factor.  She is buried at Holy Redeemer Cemetery on February 8.

Maria Echerer Bergmeister 1875-1919

The ancestor I chose for my tribute is my great-grandmother, Maria Echerer Bergmeister.  She may seem like an odd choice, because of all the female ancestors I have traced, she has the shortest lifespan.  But I recently celebrated my 43rd birthday, and I realized she died just weeks before what would have been her 44th birthday.  She was so young – too young to die.  But in her short lifetime, she accomplished so much more than I have.  I don’t know much about her except from what I have learned from public records, but I do know she did three major things in her life for which there is no comparison in my own.  First, she got married.  Second, she left behind her homeland – a town her ancestors had lived for centuries – to live in a new country with her husband.  Finally, she had five children (and two others who died as infants).  Even though Maria died at a young age, today she has over 100 descendants.

I know a great deal about Maria’s ancestry in Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm.  Her father, Karl Echerer, was a shoemaker turned bricklayer.  His father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and second great-grandfather were all shoemakers in the town of Pfaffenhofen.  Perhaps the shoemaker trade was not as needed in the mid- to late 1800s as it was in earlier centuries, because Karl was the first Echerer son to find a new occupation.  Rather than follow in his father’s footsteps (no pun intended), he took on the profession of his maternal grandfather, Karl Nigg, who was a carpenter and descended from two generations of master masons.  The house in which Maria Echerer was born, #214, had been in her father’s mother’s family since 1784 – nearly one hundred years.

Maria’s mother, Margarethe Fischer, came from a small town near Pfaffenhofen called Langenbruck and she was the daughter of a farmer.  Although she was only 27 years old when she married Karl Echerer, she was already a widow.  Her first husband had been Bartholomew Kufer from Raitbach.  I have not learned the circumstances of his death, and it is unknown if she had any children from this marriage.

Through researching church records in Pfaffenhofen, I found the baptismal records for three sisters and a brother.  I have not researched further to determine if all of Maria’s siblings lived to adulthood; however, it appears that her brother Karl marries in June, 1897.  More research is needed to learn more about Karl, who presumably stayed in Pfaffenhofen when his sister immigrated.

The Bergmeister Bakery today, Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm

It is likely that Maria met Josef Bergmeister in her hometown of Pfaffenhofen.  He was born north of there in the town of Vohburg a.d. Donau, but his family was from a small town close to Pfaffenhofen called Puch.  Josef’s ancestors were millers, and the sons became either millers or related trades.  His father, also named Josef, was a flour merchant.  Josef became a baker, and it is likely that he came to Pfaffenhofen to work for his uncle, Castulus Bergmeister, who operated a bakery in the center of town.  Descendents of Castulus still run the same bakery today.

Based on the dates of the records, it appears that Maria was pregnant at the time of her marriage to Josef.  Their daughter Maria was born close to four months after the wedding – on Maria’s 23rd birthday.

Little is known about the family’s life in Pfaffenhofen or what prompted them to immigrate to the United States.  Josef had a sister, Hilaury, who immigrated to Philadelphia in 1893, and he makes the move first to meet her and her husband.  At the time he left Germany, his daughter was only 2 years old.

Maria and her daughter remained in Germany for more than a year before taking the journey to America.  Their port of departure, Antwerp, was 460 miles from Pfaffenhofen.  In researching Maria’s life, her personal memories, thoughts, and feelings are unknown – she left behind no letters or journals.  But I admire her courage.  She had not seen her husband in over a year, and she traveled a very long way, alone with a 3-year-old.

Once reunited, the couple re-started their family in earnest.  Their first son was born a little more than nine months after the reunion.  After two more sons over the next five years, Maria suffered the lost of two infants through premature births.  My grandmother, Margaret – perhaps named after Maria’s mother – was nearly premature herself.  According to the older siblings, they did not think Margaret would survive because she was so tiny.  Fortunately, especially for me, she did survive.  Sadly, she would never really get to know her own mother.

Maria's two daughters, Maria and Margaret. The photo was taken around 1919 - the year their mother died.

According to Josef and Maria’s oldest daughter, Maria was a strong-willed personality who took charge of the family – and her husband.  The children remember Maria chastising her husband, who was physically much taller; he always listened.  Maria called her husband “Sepp” – the German nickname for “Josef”.

When Maria died, her oldest daughter was weeks away from turning 21 years old.  The Bergmeister sons were 16, 14, and 11.  Young Margaret was not quite 6.  Maria’s husband Josef was greatly troubled by her death.  Josef did not take care of his own health afterwards, and he died eight years later – also very young.  The children remained close throughout their lives – bonded together in the loss of their parents.

Maria did not live a long life and I do not know much about her.  But what little I was able to discover is worthy of admiration.  She was a woman of great courage to leave her homeland and her family for a new country in which she did not know the language.  What I admire the most about her is something you can not find “recorded” in any document, but I think it is evident from the memories and character of her children.  That trait is the love she had for her husband and family.  What could be a finer legacy?  Thanks, Maria, for your courage and your love.

[ Written for the 91st Carnival of Genealogy: Tribute to Women ]

Why Photographs Should Come with ID Tags

Genealogists frequently stress the importance of labeling photographs so that future generations know who’s who.  This is true even for our own photographs that we take today.  But while we may forget who are friends were twenty years later, would we forget a relative?  I can now tell you that yes, it’s possible, especially if the photograph in question was taken before you were born.

This past weekend I started a “Bergmeister Family” group on Facebook for all of my cousins.  I asked if anyone had wedding photos of my grandmother’s siblings.  When my cousin posted this photograph of her grandparents, I nearly fell out of my chair.  This is the lovely wedding photo of Joseph Bergmeister and Helen Pardus from 1924:

Joseph Bergmeister and Helen Pardus, 1924

Why was this so surprising?  Because I own a copy of this photo!  In fact, I’ve posted this photo on this very blog.  And in that post, the photo was not identified as my dad’s uncle and his wife, but as my mom’s aunt and her husband!

I called my mother.  “I thought you said that was your Aunt Helen!  It’s Dad’s Aunt Helen and Uncle Joe!”  Without seeing the photo over the phone, she wasn’t sure what to say.  But she did say, “That’s funny, I don’t ever remember seeing a photo of my Aunt Helen.”  Perhaps she identified “Aunt Helen” and I assumed it was her aunt instead of my dad’s.  Whatever the case, I have had this couple misidentified for years!

Sometimes identification of individuals in a photo is tricky.  But my humorous story proves that sometimes you may be wrong even when a relative helps with the identification.  The funniest part of this story is that the photo was previously posted in June, 2009 as the Tiernan-Zawodny wedding.  Several of the Bergmeister-Pardus grandchildren have visited this blog, but they would not have found the photo of their grandparents since it was listed under the “Zawodny” label, so they didn’t notice the error.  What’s even funnier is that I sent the photo to my mother’s cousin who should have recognized – or rather not recognized – the faces.  Even though he is around my mother’s age and, like her, was born well after this photo, he is a blood relative to both the Tiernan’s and the Zawodny’s since one brother-sister combination married another (his parents).  But even he didn’t set me straight.

Sometimes it pays to trust your instinct…I often looked at this photo and had two thoughts.  First, the woman – or rather the woman I thought she was – looked nothing like my grandmother and her sisters.  Of course not, because she’s not related to them!  And second, the man – who I thought I was not related to – looked rather familiar.  Of course he does, because he looks very much like my great-grandfather (his father) and my father (his nephew)!

I didn’t realize I had a “photo mystery” on my hands, but it’s nice to finally find out the truth about this couple!  Now I have to, uh, amend my post about the alleged Tiernan-Zawodny wedding!

The Address Book

“There’s nothing that makes you so aware of the improvisation of human existence as a song unfinished. Or an old address book.” ~ Carson McCullers

If you use the term “address book” today, people immediately think of that “thing” in their email program that stores email addresses.  Or maybe they think of that other “thing” on their cell phone that stores phone numbers and names.  I’m young enough to use the latest technology, but I straddle the gap between “now” and the seemingly old-fashioned generation of our parents.  So I’m also old enough to remember when an address book used to be a real bound book full of people’s home addresses and phone numbers.

The address book was actually a great source of humor in our house.  Not when we first began to use it  – what’s so funny about a book of full of phone numbers?  But the humor came later.  Much later.  You see, we started a family address book when I was young – and although we updated some of the information over the years, we never really updated the entire book.  Fast forward to 20 or 25 years later, when my mother would retrieve the book to find a phone number.  As she paged through the book, a particular name would catch her eye.  “Who’s Julie?  Or Ralph?” she’d ask.

“Julie or Ralph? I have no idea,” I replied.

“They’re right here – in the book,” my mother would insist, as if being in the book would mean I automatically knew everything about the person, akin to your “permanent record” in Catholic school.

“Well,” I said, “whoever they are or were, I don’t know them now.”

“Jim!”  My mother would now yell to my father.  “Who’s Julie at 632-2713? Or Ralph listed under ‘H’?”

Naturally, my father would have no idea either.  In those cases of Unknown Individuals Listed in The Book, we had to assume that someone entered our home while we were out, found the address book in the kitchen hutch, and entered Julie and Ralph’s names and numbers as a joke.

I suggested calling Julie or Ralph to find out who they were.  “We can’t do that!” my mother replied.

“Why not?  Someone in this house knew who they were at some point!”  But we never called the mysterious strangers listed in “the book” – none of us were curious enough to find out who they really were.  Because if we found out, one of us would have to admit to forgetting who these people were.

But we knew most of the entries since we did enter the information ourselves.  Sometimes my mother would ask about someone and I wouldn’t recognize the name, and her reply would be, “Well, this is your handwriting here.”

“Let me see,” I’d say and review the mystery name.  “Mom, look at the handwriting – it looks like I wrote this in when I was 10 years old!”

“And you don’t remember who it is?”

“Sure I do – a girl from 5th grade that I haven’t talked to in 25 years!”

“Well,” my mother would say resolutely, “I guess we can cross it out.”

Many entries would get crossed out over the years, but we still kept the same book.  After all, it still had empty pages to fill so it was perfectly usable.  My mother wasn’t always the questioner either – sometimes I would look through the book and ask her if a number was still needed.

“Mom, Dr. Roman’s been dead for at least ten years – maybe this one can go.”

“Why?  The doctor that took over still has the same phone number.”  She had a point.  Of course, we knew the number by heart after calling it over the years, so there really was no need to write it down in an address book because we never needed to look it up.  Contrast that scenario with the present, when we never actually dial a number because they’re programmed in the “speed dial,” which makes it difficult to remember even the most frequently called numbers.

Sometimes entries were crossed out because the person had died.  It always felt rude to cross the name out in the book, as if by leaving the entry as-is you could still call the person to chat.  It seemed better just to leave it there, and for many years we did – a reminder of old friends.

Many of the older entries in the book had “old time” phone number exchanges in which letters were used for the first two numbers.  In my neighborhood, the phone numbers began with either 632- or 637-, but instead of “63” we’d say “NE” which was phone-code-speak for “Neptune”.  I’d always laugh when my father would recite a phone number as “Neptune 7-1234” or “Mayfair 4-9876”.  It amused me because it seemed so old-fashioned, a la Glenn Miller’s “Pennsylvania 6-5000.”  But now that we don’t use those exchanges anymore I miss them!  Today there are so many phone numbers that you have to dial the entire 10-digit number including the area code just to call within the city of Philadelphia.

My grandfather, Henry Pater, in the 1950 Philadelphia City Directory. His telephone exchange was "FIdelity".

As its name implies, the address book also contained addresses.  These were primarily used for Christmas cards, birthday cards, or invitations as well as the occasional letter.  The striking thing about this is that the addresses and phone numbers never needed to be updated.  My parents’ friends lived in the same houses throughout my entire childhood – and they all still live in those houses and have the same phone numbers today.  My own address book (yes, I still keep an actual book) has many scratched out addresses and arrows drawn to new entries as friends move or marry.

The entries all take up much more space now as well.  We no longer have a single phone number, but a number for home, cell, work, work cell, as well as email addresses for home and work.  The ways to reach someone seem endless, yet it is rare today to talk to someone on the phone when they aren’t busy doing something else at the same time.  The irony is that there are many ways to reach out, but you never actually make the connection.

One day when I was in my mid 30’s, we decided that “the book” was ridiculous since 85% of the entries were for businesses that no longer existed, people who had died, or friends we “unfriended” years ago.  Not to mention the papers and business cards stuffed inside of it that either my parents or I were too lazy to record in the book.  So I did something I never dreamed possible – I gave my mother a new address book.  It seemed a shame to throw the old one out unceremoniously after all the years it had spent living in our kitchen hutch, but, in the end, that’s what we did – only after the “good” numbers and addresses were dutifully transferred.

Too bad that old book couldn’t speak to us.  If it could give some final words before departing our lives, we would have finally found out who Julie and Ralph were!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

[Join me next week for another telephone-related memory on Memory Monday!]

More on Telephone Exchange Names:

The Walk Home

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” ~ Robert Frost

If you had the opportunity to walk to and from school as a child, chances are you remember that walk quite well.  My house was located rather close to the church and school – just about a quarter mile away.  As a young child, my mother drove me to school.  But as I grew older, I was allowed to walk all by myself.  Since the school was within a reasonable walking distance to all of our homes, we walked home for lunch, then walked back for the rest of the day.  The walk was seven minutes at a reasonable pace (longer when my legs were shorter), four times a day.

The satellite view of my walk home from Point "A" - my grade school - to Point "B" - the Pointkouski home. Courtesy of Google Maps (street names removed).

Even in high school (a slightly longer walk at one mile), I still walked back and forth to the grade school to either hang out, help out, go to church, or work at the rectory.  The distance may have been close, but during those years I must have walked the equivalent of hundreds of miles repeating that simple quarter mile.

The walk wasn’t especially scenic – just a bunch of other houses of various shapes and sizes.  Despite the relative simplicity of the walk, or perhaps because of it, my mind is occasionally flooded with fleeting memories of that walk home.  We always remember the important events in life, but how often do we take time to remember the mundane,  everyday, ordinary things that are part of our lives?

The bag was dropped along the fence, but that's a lot of fence! (The building in the foreground was not there back then, but the fence was.)

I have two favorite memories of walking home during winter.  The first was when I was around 12 years old and in 6th grade.  Back then I only wore eyeglasses for looking at “the board” in school (I was tall and always seated in the back of the room) and for watching television.  One cold day I must have fumbled with my eyeglass case – in part because some girls in my class passed by and teased me about something or other.  I remember dropping it, then quickly picking up my belongings and running the rest of the way home.  Later that night, I put on my glasses to watch tv , and a lens was missing!  I remembered where I dropped them, so my father decided to walk back to school with me to find the missing (and costly) lens.

By now, it was after dinner and very dark outside.  It started snowing as we walked to school.  “Where did you drop them?” my father asked.  I replied, “Somewhere along the fence!”  It was true – that’s where I dropped my school bag.  But the fence was about the length of a football field…or two!  My father patiently shined a flashlight as we searched and searched in the falling snow, but the lens was never found.  We laugh about it to this day!

Years later, my friends Louie and Joe walked me home after evening Mass on another snowy, winter night.  For some reason we were quite exuberant that night, and we did something out of the ordinary as we walked the quiet, deserted streets – we sang at the top of our lungs.  I don’t remember the song, but we had quite a ball singing our out-of-tune melodies walking arm in arm through the falling snow.

Snow wasn’t the only weather-related walk home that made an impression on my memory.  One summer day I was walking home, probably from helping out at the summer day camp, when it started to rain.  Not just any rain, but a summer torrent as if God turned on a fire hydrant.  About half-way home I ran into my neighbor from across the street – he was walking home from the bus stop after work.  We began running together.  After about a block, we both stopped and started laughing…we were soaking wet.  Realizing it was futile to try to outrun the rain, we just laughed at the situation and strolled the rest of the way home.

My favorite season of the year for the walk home was spring.  I don’t have any specific memories, but when I think of “the walk home” I remember spring, when everyone’s windows were open to let in the fresh, warm air.  What I remember were the sounds I’d hear as I walked: dishes and silverware clattering as dinner tables were set, voices talking or yelling, children playing, babies crying, and televisions or radios broadcasting.  Sounds of families, sounds of home, sounds of life.

As I searched my memories, I realized that most of my remembrances were of the walk home from school or church, not the walk there.  Home!  My mother was always there – and my grandmother, too.  Dinner was always in process – and we always ate together as a family as soon as Dad got home from work.  It was always warm – especially in the winter when my glasses would fog up going from cold to warmth.  The cat was always waiting for me,  although he wouldn’t dare show it.

There is a saying which says you can’t go home again, but I think you can.  One day this spring when I visit my parents, I’m taking a walk up to my old school – just so I can walk home again and remember how wonderful that feels.

Do you remember your walk home from school?

[For this post I am taking the lead of Greta’s Genealogy Bog and her wonderful “Memory Mondays”.  Greta, thanks for the inspiration to share my own memories!]