My Mother, My Foundation

This past December as I pondered blogging again, I heard my mother’s voice in my head joking that it took me six months to write a tribute to my father after his death but it’s been over a year since hers – so “what was I waiting for?” (Maybe she’ll be pleased that her tribute is much longer than my father’s!)  At the same time, I saw a notice of another “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” challenge from Amy Johnson Crow. I participated in 2015’s version and was doing well until May, but I only completed 21 of the 52 weeks. That challenge not only forced me to organize my facts about many of my ancestors and relatives, but it also provided a creative writing challenge to find the right story to fit the prompt.

With these two thoughts in mind, I was happy to see that the Week 1 theme for 2022 is “Foundations” – my mother was the foundation of my life, so how appropriate to start of this new year of blogging with a tribute to her.

My mother died the day I was born; she told me all about it years later. ~ Donna

Childhood photos
Left: The Pater Family in 1937 Right: Joan and Anita Pater, circa 1939

Anita Jane Pater was born on December 28, 1935, the second child of Henry and Mae (Zawodny) Pater. Both of her parents were first generation Americans born in Philadelphia to Polish immigrants. Henry and Mae lived a few houses apart on Indiana Avenue in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia when they married in 1930. Their first child, Joan Delores, was born on August 30, 1932. 

By Anita’s own account, her childhood was not happy. Although the sisters were close, they had different personalities and interests and always fought with each other. While Henry earned a good wage at a hosiery factory, he had a habit of losing his paycheck at the racetrack, so the family struggled financially. Many things that Anita wanted, like piano or dance lessons, her parents could not afford. But the things that she loved most about childhood were going to school, going to the movies, and designing dresses. 

One of Anita’s first jobs was as an “elevator girl” at Strawbridge & Clothier’s, a large department store at 8th & Market in Philadelphia. The girls operated the large elevators for customers and the minimum age was 18. Anita, 17, lied about her age and got the job. She loved wearing the uniform, and she became friends with three other gals: Ruth, Rita, and Jane. Later she worked in administrative and bookkeeping positions, and years later became a bank teller.


Anita loved to dance! She attended neighborhood dances, mostly held in church and school gyms. Each dance focused on 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.

Dancing played a role in my parents’ marriage – and my existence – because it all started at a dance!  On Sunday, March 13, 1955, 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, James Albert Pointkouski, also liked neighborhood dances, 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.

Their first official date was to see a movie (neither remembered 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.”

“It’s Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White when you’re in love” ~ Pérez Prado

Left: Anita and Jimmy dating in 1955 Right: Still dancing in 1992

When Jim asked Anita out again, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to go. She didn’t know what to say, so 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.

Before their marriage, my father got a job with IBM, and in October, 1956 he had to attend a training class for a few weeks in Endicott, NY. The young newlyweds exchanged letters while they were apart. I’m grateful those letters were saved, because they show how much they loved each other.

March 13, 1955 was the most wonderful day of my life, just as you are the most wonderful person in my life. Jimmy love, I like to think that our love for each other is something special that no one else in this whole entire world could ever possibly share the same feelings. I have given so much of my love to you, that there is only the right amount left over for our children. Leaving very little for anyone or anything else, with the exception of God. I know it’s only because of Him that we have each other.

From Anita to Jim on 10-12-1956

I don’t ever remember anything that ever happened before March 13, 1955. Since then life has had its ups & downs but because of your warmth, companionship & devotion, I’ve never experienced a really sad day – you’ve always been my one lil’ ray of sunshine on which I’ve based all my hopes & plans for the future. …They taught me a long time ago, that the husband is the head of the house but the wife is the heart – and like the body, they must function together to sustain. Baby, that’s how I feel – like half of me is missing. I have your picture, your letters, your phone calls, but I don’t have you. 

From Jim to Anita on 10-17-1956 (the day she would die many years later)

Jimmy every night when I go to bed or in work I day dream. I make plans for our future. I think about our children. I can really picture them. They’re adorable. ~ Anita, 10/10/1956

Anita’s babies – whether in 1959. 1967, or 2019

Jim had been in the Navy Reserves since high school, and in February, 1957, he was called to active duty for two years. He spent part of that time at the naval base in Norfolk, VA, and he occasionally could travel home for leave. The couple had their first child, a stillborn daughter, in May, 1958. Anita experienced toxemia with the pregnancy, but they desperately wanted children so she was soon pregnant again. Their son, James Drew, was born in 1959. 

At the time of Drew’s birth, the family was renting a house on Knorr Street in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia. In 1960, they purchase a home, or rather a “pile of dirt” as my mother called it, that was still being built. It was on Kirby Drive in the “Far Northeast” part of the city that was still largely undeveloped. They would remain in that house until each had to move into a care facility decades later.

My parents tried to have another child for years, and my mother prayed that she would have a daughter. It took many years before her prayers were answered, and I arrived in 1967. Mom was once again very sick with toxemia, as she was with her other pregnancies. This time, she coded on the table after giving birth to me. Long before anyone wrote about “near death experiences,” she had one. Fortunately for me, it wasn’t her day to die.

A dancer and a lover of musicals!

In the early 1970s, my mother’s love for dancing and my father’s love of making people laugh collided when they became involved with the annual parents’ show at my brother’s high school, Archbishop Ryan. Many of the parents involved in the shows were quite talented, and they performed to a packed house for a weekend every November. Not only did the shows bring great joy to my parents, but they made some life-long friends from this experience.

In the late 70s, two things happened that had a big impact on Anita, and each event is the impetus of the two main areas in which my mother influenced my life: faith and health.

            “Christmas was a few short days away. I wasn’t prepared to celebrate this holy day. I wasn’t going to celebrate anything. I was going to die.” ~ Anita, 10/20/1989 about 1983

Anita always believed in God – despite her upbringing. When she was about four years old, her father told her that there was no Santa Claus. Then he told her there was once a God who created the world and everything in it, then He disappeared forever. My mother once wrote about this moment:

I felt such a sense of despair and helplessness. If there was no one to pray to, who could I turn to? Who would listen to my lonely cries? I thought God was supposed to help us – what would happen to me now? I walked out the back door and looked up at the darkening sky and saw one beautiful, shining star just starting to peek through. ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, I wish there is a God afar. I don’t care what my father says or thinks, I know you’ll take care of me because without God life stinks.’ I felt better after that. I made my decision that I would believe there is a God even if there wasn’t a Santa Claus.

undated writing by anita

As a child, my mom’s family did not go to church very often, but she was baptized Catholic at the age of three or four (with her older sister), likely at the prompting of her maternal grandfather with whom they lived at the time. My father, on the other hand, had been more of a regular church-goer in his youth. But once they had a family of their own, we only went sporadically despite the fact that my brother and I went to Catholic school.

Around 1977, a friend of my mother’s invited her to a Catholic Charismatic renewal prayer meeting – and it changed her life. She had a reawakening of her faith and rather quickly became more interested in prayer, the Bible, and Mass. I believe that it was her prayers that led my father, my brother, and myself to find our own personal relationships with God. My father and I found our way back to the faith within the next few years, and my parents and I both became active members of Our Lady of Calvary parish. This happened while my brother was in the Marine Corps, and when he returned home, we were a different family. Soon, mostly from our mother’s influence, he also rediscovered the faith.

My mother led many others to Christ with her testimony and was a woman of powerful prayer. Many people have told me that she helped or influenced them. My parents and several of their friends began a weekly rosary group that flourished for years, and she was always willing to pray with others.

Mom’s powerful faith is intertwined in the second way influenced me – how to take care of your body to be healthy.  She was definitely a survivor! I already mentioned how she died when I was born, but she came very close to death again in 1978 with an intestinal perforation and peritonitis. She had multiple surgeries and it took her many months to recover, but her faith helped her get through it.

In 1983, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and began chemotherapy. She felt even more sick from the treatment. But she believed that she would be well. When she refused to have another round of treatments, the doctor told her that she only had six months to live. Through prayer, a positive attitude, and a complete change of her diet and nutrition, the cancer eventually went into remission – and never returned for the rest of her life. It became a pivotal moment in my own life – not just because of how different my life would have been without her, but because I saw the positive – or negative – impact that food, supplements, and even your thoughts could have on your body.  I encouraged her to write about her healing about four years later. After describing the stress and fear caused by the diagnosis as well as her physical pain and fatigue, she wrote:

I accepted the bad experience I was going through and believed that good would come from it. One can’t help but marvel at God’s ability to work through us when we encounter a negative experience and make us stronger for it. There is nothing in our lives that God does not allow but it is never His will that we suffer. He allows it so good can come from it. I have found that giving praise and thanks for all things helps you understand how futile stress and worry are and I began to willingly accept trials and tribulations without struggle and more importantly without fear. Negativity is a destructive force that hampers spiritual growth and denies the pleasure of life Being open to God’s will brings us new life and joy. Time on earth is too short to waste.

Anita’s account of her healing from cancer written in 1989

I may be lucky enough to have you for about seventy-five years – all of which would be inestimably happy. ~ Jim to anita, 10/8/1956

Anita was a wonderful cook and loved entertaining friends. She also loved taking day trips to play the penny slot machines at the casinos in Atlantic City. Her other favorite hobbies were watching old movies, especially musicals, and seeing shows downtown. 

While she wasn’t as interested in her family’s history as I was, she was fascinated by some of the things I discovered along the way. She told me everything she remembered hearing from her parents, aunts, and uncles, and slowly I took those fragments of memories and found the facts. We even went out for a few meals with cousins she hadn’t seen in decades as well as cousins she’d never even met. 

One of her most favorite things was being a grandmother. She became a grandmother for the first time in 1995 with the birth of her first granddaughter, Natalie. Eventually she would have four grandchildren with the addition of Ava in 2005, Nicholas in 2007, and Luke in 2009.

Natalie, Ava, Nicholas, and Luke

Jim developed Parkinson’s that was manageable for over a decade, but in September, 2013, he moved into Wesley Enhanced Living retirement home in Philadelphia. Anita visited almost every day until his death on June 27, 2016. They had been married for sixty years.

I received a beautiful note on the day of her funeral from her parish priest. He wrote that he really got to know my parents due to illness; he used to visit my father in the nursing home and see my mother making her daily visits. He wrote:

I was seeing two people suffering individually and at the same time saw the ways they reached out to each other. They made marriage vows real – ‘I take you for better, for worse, in sickness and in health, I will love and honor you all the days of my life.’ We are blessed being a part of their lives.

Fr. James Kirk, 10/22/2020

In the years after Jim’s death, Anita suffered several transient ischemic attacks (TIAs). She always bounced back and continued to live at home until January of 2020 when she moved into assisted living at Riverview Estates in Riverton, NJ. After March, a difficult period of isolation began due to pandemic restrictions. But she continued to touch people with her faith – several of the caregivers admitted how much they loved conversations with her about faith or praying with her. Anita passed away from a stroke on October 17, 2020.

Anita was a wife, mother, grandmother, and friend. She was a dreamer and a survivor. She was a woman of strong faith. Thank you, Mom, for being the foundation of my life and of my faith – and for teaching me how to love.

The Light

When we remember Who we came from we will know why we are here. When we remember Who the light of the world is, we can let it shine from within. You can be the one who brings someone out of the darkness. You can be the one who shows the way. We need to show the people of this time that God is with us. We need to make them aware of His presence. Do you believe? If so, show others His light. Make a difference! Show them the true light of the world.The light of Jesus. How well do you know Him? How well do you know His word? How willing are you to let His light shine through you?

anita pointkouski 2/7/2014



2015: A Look Back

Here we go again – it’s time for my annual look in the rear view mirror before I step on the gas pedal to go full speed ahead towards new adventures! Before writing this, I reviewed my previous “Look Back” posts. In 2008, my first, I wrote: “I don’t keep a diary or a calendar, so looking back is usually a challenge and a memory exercise.” Fast forward seven years…I keep both a calendar and a daily journal, so suddenly looking back gave me a much more detailed view of the year. But it made it hard to see the forest through all of the trees and somehow made it much more difficult to write this year’s review.

2015 was a year of crazy weather - the photo on the left is the first day of spring and the one on the right is November!

2015 was a year of crazy weather – the photo on the left is the first day of spring and the one on the right is November!

As I reflected on the year, the image that came to mind was a roller coaster because it was a year of emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual highs and lows, thrills and agonies. This was manifested in multiple ways throughout the year. I experienced fear as my parents each suffered with illnesses and I endured my own physical pains, then relief when health returned. I enjoyed spending fun times with “distant” friends and family (those living far away, last seen long ago, or never met in person), but I felt derailed in my attempts to connect with close friends and family living nearby. Successful work projects rejuvenated me, but then came long periods of ennui. I felt frustration in the first half of the year when I was not able to speak to my far-away friend, followed by joy and inspiration from our long, frequent chats in the year’s second half. I was proud that I achieved some of my goals for the year, but deflated that I made no progress at all on others. Even the weather was more contrary than usual and joined in on the symbolic roller coaster ride with snowfall on the first day of spring and a 74-degree Christmas Eve.

Something to smile about

But after the roller coaster ride, the lows showed me how to improve and the highs kept me smiling. And there were many things to smile about.

The year started off with a bang as I jumped back into blogging regularly. I decided to accept the challenge of writing about “52 Ancestors” – one per week – and opted to ignite creativity by following the optional prompts. In addition, I started a series highlighting postcards from an immigrant’s trip back to Germany in 1912, and I was able to do a few other posts about ideas I had been toying with for a while. This all worked out beautifully – until May. I managed to write 38 posts in the first five months, and then one (other than this one) for the rest of the year. But, despite the “temporary” blogging pause (hopefully soon to end), I was able to tell a lot of good stories in the first half of the year.

As a result of one of those stories, I found a new cousin! Nearly every year I write about new cousins that I discover or who find my blog, and I’m always amazed that there are more to find. This year it was Carol from Canada and she’s my first “trifecta” cousin: from our Czech immigrants to Poland, we are simultaneously 4th cousins (Miller surname), 6th cousins (Jirsak surname), and 7th cousins (Jelinek surname)!

I also had luck in solving a big genealogical mystery – I received a document that provided the death date for my great-great grandfather Jan Miller as well as one that confirmed the birth dates of all of his children. Another great find was the 1831 marriage record of my 3rd great-grandparents, Gabriel Ostal and Rozalia Borzejewska, which revealed their parents’ names.

IMG_1175My travels took me to visit “cousins” Scott and Teresa in South Carolina for a wonderful week of fun sights, relaxing moments, and great conversation. After twenty years of correspondence musing over our possible cousin connection, we finally met. And, despite the fact that we still can’t figure out if we’re related, we decided that we’re family. I also took a short but enjoyable trip with friends to Connecticut where we had a lot of fun sailing and visiting the Mystic Seaport and Aquarium. Locally, I enjoyed beautiful weather and a lot of laughter on two day trips to Island Beach State Park and spent a few nice days enjoying Philadelphia’s museums and sights.

IMG_1302I rediscovered the importance of creativity in my life; I made art and I was inspired by art. I organized and hosted a conference for 400 people – that’s a new experience for me. For the first time in twenty-six years I saw a Broadway show (An American in Paris) – and ‘s wonderful! My other entertainment high was seeing two Shakespeare plays (The Winter’s Tale in Staunton, VA and The Taming of the Shrew in Philadelphia) as well as one about him (Equivocation).

Live performances this year were by the Indigo Girls, Dan Wilson, Plain White T’s, and Rob Thomas. Favorite albums this year were new releases from Rob Thomas (The Great Unknown) and Kelly Clarkson (Piece by Piece), and previous releases from Sara Bareilles (The Blessed Unrest) and Matt Nathanson (Some Mad Hope and Last of the Great Pretenders). I enjoyed listening to some new singles, too, such as Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” and Elle King’s “Ex’s & Oh’s”,

I saw more movies in the theater this year than I have in many years (only four, five if you count a special big screen showing of Charade!) but the one that I will remember the most is Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. What made it memorable was the fact that I saw it with the same best friend I saw Return of the Jedi with in 1983! I was surprised at how excited I was to see it, but the music, the myth, and the returning actors all made me feel like I was a kid again, and I loved every minute of it.

Everyone who knows me knows I love to read, but even I was surprised that my tally for the year was over 80 books. One of my new favorite authors I discovered this year was David Nicholls – I read three of his four novels (Us, One Day, The Understudy) in the first six weeks of the year, and despite the large number of books I read in the months that followed, his stories stayed with me at year’s end. Other favorite novels were by Arthur Phillips, Jojo Moyes, Kate Morton, and Liane Moriarity.

2015 was a year in which I learned it’s best not to put things off, especially if it involves your health, your creativity, or your relationships. Next year I plan to put that lesson into practice. Next year my goal, to borrow a phrase from Emily Saliers’ lyrics, is to “starve the emptiness and feed the hunger.”


I only metaphorically rode a roller coaster this year, but the one image of an actual event that sums up my year happened during an August day trip to the beach with my friend Terry. The wind suddenly uprooted our beach umbrella and the pole shot between us at what seemed like twenty knots. Somehow, as it flew past, I raised my non-dominant left arm and caught it (without, I might add, spilling the drink in my right hand). We both started laughing hysterically. Without assistance, the umbrella would soon make its way to northern New Jersey, but for the moment I held on with all my might and we just laughed. It sums up my year because, despite the figurative occasional gale force wind that threatened to knock me down and sweep me away, I held on…and even laughed.

Thanks for joining me for the ride…I look forward to seeing what we discover along the way next year.

Roots Un-Tech

"Records" from my archive...the early days of the search

“Records” from my archive…the early days of the search

This weekend many of my genealogy friends are attending the RootsTech 2015 conference in Salt Lake City. Unfortunately, I’m not there. I figured that February travel ought to include someplace warm… Little did I realize that the high tomorrow for Salt Lake City would be 54 degrees while we’re expecting a wind chill of 0 here on the East Coast. But hearing about all of the new technology and how it can relate to or help our genealogy research is in stark contrast, much like the weather this weekend between those two locations, to what genealogical research used to be.

In the last few weeks I’ve been organizing and de-cluttering my home office, and I found my notes from a non-credit genealogy course I once taught. From about 2000-2002, my friend Marie and I taught the basics of researching your family history in a 5-week class at a Philadelphia university. It wasn’t until I looked over those notes that I realized just how much genealogical research has changed in the last fifteen years – mostly due to computers, the internet, and digitization projects. Not to mention DNA testing!

The first week of the class we focused on Federal Census records (at the time, the latest year that was released was 1920 and none were online), and the first thing we “taught” was all about Soundex. Today, while newcomers to genealogy might hear about Soundex and understand it conceptually, there is no need to really use it anymore. When I first started my research back in 1989, figuring out the Soundex code for my surnames almost added to the thrill of the search because it appealed to the cryptogram and code-loving days of my childhood. Today, it really doesn’t matter that my name converted to P532 because we no longer have a 2-step manual search through various microfilms (yes, microfilm constituted high technology back then)-just a short wait after the click of a button to see the possibilities.

But besides the onslaught of the availability of online digitized records (which we sparingly covered in the last week of our class in 2000), I realized that much of what we taught still applies as much today as it did a decade ago – or two hundred years ago. Step #1 in researching your family history – then, now, and forever more – is gathering all of the information you already know from talking to relatives.

As evidenced by the photograph above, I used whatever means available at the time to capture that information. Yes, friends, that is a paper plate. And an envelope. You see, back in those beginning days of research, I’d constantly pepper my parents with questions. Once I’d find something, perhaps a fact or person they hadn’t mentioned, and I asked again, it would jog their memory to reveal more information that I’d hurriedly write down. My parents’ house is renowned for never having notepaper, or a pen, available when one needs it, so I’d reach for whatever would serve as paper.

Not as cool as Evernote, Family Tree Maker, or even Notepad – but it got the job done. Looking back on these relics of research (before I finally toss them in the recycle bin), one thing is certain – those little tidbits of information I wrote down were, eventually, all either proved or disproved by my research. They were clues, and the search – whether you are using a computer and the latest technological advances or not – begins with basic family information.

Don’t get me wrong – I am so happy with all of the technological advances that have happened since I started my research. But don’t forget about the how-to lessons that will never change no matter how much more easier technology makes our search:

  1. Write down everything you know.
  2. Talk to living relatives about everything they know.
  3. Remember that spellings can change and were flexible in the past.
  4. Remember that history is important to know and geographical boundaries change over time.
  5. Document your sources!

One other tip that people just getting started in genealogy in today’s age of technology just don’t quite fathom…not every record you need to trace your family can be found online. That doesn’t mean it can’t be found, it’s not not as easy as clicking a button. Happy Ancestor Hunting!

2014: A Look Back

Branagh as Macbeth in 2014

My Bucket List item – completed in 2014!

Even though I took the year off from blogging, my new year’s eve wouldn’t be the same without my look back at the past year.

Since this is a genealogy blog, first things first – genealogically speaking, it was a very good year. I met several new cousins and discovered some new ancestors. I even attended a conference – the Southern California Genealogical Society Genealogy Jamboree! One of my finds was the 1834 birth record of Jan Pater – I’ve known the approximate year and town name from his marriage record for years, but I had difficulty finding the little village – until earlier this year. Thanks to that find, I also found his 1833 marriage record of his parents, Hilary Pater and Agnieszka Kochanoska – my 4th great-grandparents. On another side of the family I finally located the marriage record of my 2nd great-grandparents (one of my 12 goals for 2012 – better late than never), Jan Kizeweter and Marianna Ostał. This was no easy feat for two reasons: they moved frequently and each of their several children was born in a different town, and, to make it more confusing, Jan would occasionally use his middle name for official records. But, now I know where each was born and their parents’ names, and records are available for both of those towns that go back a bit farther.

Besides finding more ancestors farther back, I also found some new information about my great-grandparents. In one case, I tracked down details on a sister of my great-grandfather after finding her husband’s death record. In the other instance, I found out that my other great-grandfather had a half-sister I didn’t know about thanks to some family postcards from the 1910’s.

With cousins Mary and Judy in California

With cousins Mary and Judy in California

But the best part about this year in terms of genealogy was that it was the Year of Cousins! I had the opportunity to meet many cousins! First I celebrated the birthday of my mom’s first cousin and met four of my second cousins for the very first time. On my trip to California, I met two of my mom’s second cousins and one of my dad’s first cousins. I had a wonderful time meeting all of them. I also tracked down some second cousins on my dad’s side and we can’t wait to meet.

The rest of my year was exciting in other ways, too. I made a new friend that brightened up the arctic blast of a winter we had in January and February by forcing me off of my sofa to explore my own hometown. We saw many wonderful things and shared many great conversations and that time together has created a cherished friendship.

I crossed off a Bucket List item this year! I wanted to see Kenneth Branagh perform Shakespeare live. I figured that one day far in the future I’d travel to England and see him – probably when he was old enough to play King Lear. But suddenly he was appearing in New York City for the very first time and I seized the opportunity to see him as Macbeth. Three good friends and I were mesmerized by a performance that could best be described as an “experience” rather than merely “seeing a show.” The tickets were expensive, but watching rival Scottish clans have a sword fight in the rain and mud just steps away from your seat? Priceless!

My travels this year didn’t take me out of the country, but the trips were still magical. I went to southern California specifically to meet my cousins and attend the Genealogy Jamboree conference with my old (and new!) friends. While there I also had fun looking through family photos, tasting at wineries, touring San Juan Capistrano, and hanging out on Laguna Beach. I spent a fun weekend walking around New York City and a week in southern Virginia where I hiked on the Appalachian Train and rode on the back of a Harley-Davidson.

Besides seeing Branagh in Macbeth, I saw a great production of The Comedy of Errors at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA. In my own city, I saw a fun play called Incorruptible and went to Mary Poppins with my mother and two nieces. I went to four concerts that were all absolutely amazing. First was an acoustic Rob Thomas concert with my genea-bestie Lisa Alzo in Atlantic City. Next was a fun time seeing Reilly and Maloney for about the fourth or fifth time (on possibly their last tour of the East Coast). In June, I saw the amazing singer-songwriter Dan Wilson of Semisonic fame on his Words and Music tour. It was so good, I’m seeing him again in February! Finally, in December I saw one of my absolute favorite bands: Sister Hazel. I’ve been a fan for almost 20 years and seeing them perform live was really special.

2014 was a year in which I fell in love, discovered fun things about my own hometown, watched someone I met become a saint, celebrated my father’s 80th birthday, spent a lot of money beautifying my house, had my first job interview in ten years, discovered that I remember how to play the guitar after a 25-year break, and learned that if you do something for 100 days it becomes a habit. Fortunately it was a good habit: I now write every day. Maybe I can work on other healthy habits next year!

I enjoyed several books by Deanna Raybourn, Jill McCorkle, Harriett Evans, and Kate Racculia as well as Liane Moriarity’s What Alice Forgot, Felix Palma’s Map of the Sky, and Charlie Lovett’s First Impressions. My television favorites were both old (Rome) and new (Outlander).  My soundtrack of the year would definitely include John Legend’s “All of Me”, O.A.R.’s “Peace”, One Republic’s “I Lived”, and Barenaked Ladies’ “Odds Are”.

McAfee Knob on the Appalachian Trail

McAfee Knob on the Appalachian Trail

The biggest lesson from this year is that having a positive attitude is one of the healthiest things I can do and goes a long way towards being happy. I can thank one friend in particular for helping me cultivate the habit of thinking positively. He also taught me that we are how we treat each other and nothing more. Be kind; it’s worth it!

I learned that I’m not too old to make new friends. But unfortunately I also didn’t do my best to maintain the friendships that have sustained me for, in some cases, 35 years of my life. Next year I definitely want to be a better friend, and I hope to be a better aunt as well and spent more time with the four people who mean the whole world to me.

I’ve spent some time this December reflecting on 2014’s gifts and challenges. I found some deep questions to help me reflect, and one asked “If you had to describe your 2014 in 3 words, what would they be?” My answer: smile, enjoy, hope. I did all three, and as I welcome a brave new year I pray that I can continue to smile at life, enjoy relationships and experiences, and hope that my dreams will come true. Thanks for sharing the ride with me!

2013: A Look Back

2013-clockThis blog has been unattended for so much of the year that a 2013 retrospective seems pointless. But, my life and my research were not as inactive as the blog, so there are still many things to remember about this year before launching into a new one. I’ve blown the dust off of the keyboard and will make a valiant effort to continue my yearly tradition of looking back before moving on.

Despite the lack of genealogy blogging, this year I’ve discovered more genealogically than in any of the almost 25 years I’ve been researching. There’s a lot to say about it if I ever get the time to write! I “met” many cousins this year both in person and virtually. Finding and meeting cousin Bob was actually one of my unfulfilled 2012 goals! His grandfather and my great-grandfather were half-brothers from the same mother. Not only is he a wonderful person to know, he gave me a ton of cool genealogy things. First, there were many photographs – including a photo of my great-grandfather and his siblings as children with their mother. I never thought I’d see what my great-great-grandmother looked like, so that was the best present of all. I also learned her death date. Cousin Bob also gave me two albums that belonged to my great aunt that are worthy of several blog posts.

Another cousin I found was Judy. We haven’t had the pleasure of meeting in person yet, but we’ve shared many emails. Judy’s grandmother and my great-grandmother were sisters. Besides some great photographs of that side of the family, she had a wealth of information from her aunt that confirmed the origins of my Miller family. There is also a wonderful first person account of immigrating to the United States which was a joy to read just weeks after discovering the record of this family immigrating. There is still much to sort out on this branch of the family – and much to write about.

Cousin Lunch!

Cousin Lunch!

But wait, there are more cousins! One on my Pater side found me and we hope to meet in 2014. From this same side my mother and I enjoyed a “cousin lunch” with my grandfather’s first cousin, her daughter, and granddaughter. We had a wonderful time and wondered what took us so long to get together. The last time my mother saw her second cousin and mom was only about 45 years ago!  To round out my list of cousins for the year was a more distant Polish relation who found me through this blog. Despite the “degree” of cousinhood, the story of how are two lines are related was fascinating and soap opera worthy.

Besides all of the cousin meetings, I has the great opportunity to research in Salt Lake City for a week in August.  I discovered many records – surprisingly, many were from the late 1700s in Poland which is a time period that often does not have records. I found records for many 5th and 6th great-grandparents. The very best part of the research trip was confirming the Czech origins of my Miller family in Poland.

The year 2013 was a great one for the availability of more online Polish records. I was able to view records dating back to the early 1800s for several ancestral towns and find my 2nd great-grandmother’s death record in 1900 in Warsaw. This online availability is unprecedented and certainly makes researching Polish records much easier than ever before.

Finally, the other new genealogical information came through DNA matches. I was able to confirm a 3rd cousin and 4th cousin DNA match!

As I said, it was a busy year for genealogical research for me as well as a busy year for life in general. In the “real world” of relatives, there were some family deaths. In January a very dear friend of the family died – Frank was not related to me, but always was and always will be in my heart as my uncle. Later in the year, my Uncle Ken passed away as well – fortunately I spoke to him about six weeks before he died after a long absence. Both uncles will be missed and I will always cherish the memories I have of them. My mother’s first cousin Sandy passed away this year as well. I hadn’t seen her in a long time but I remember her humor and creativity with fondness.

CIMG2857My nieces and nephews continued to grow into great kids. My oldest niece graduated high school and started college, while the younger one made her First Holy Communion. The boys started playing t-ball much to my delight.

2013 was a year in which I had lunch with a movie star, finally went to a Phillies game, toured some Finger Lakes wineries, put my father into a nursing home, said good-bye to the only boss I’ve had for the last decade when he retired, celebrated my aunt and uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary, and was furloughed from my government job for six days for the first time ever.

It was a very musical year in which I attended more live concerts than I ever did in my life. I saw amazing performances by Train, Gavin DeGraw, The Script, Matchbox Twenty, the Goo Goo Dolls, and Italian superstar Eros Ramazzotti. It was great! I also saw several theater performances including An Ideal HusbandJesus Christ Superstar (for the upteenth time), and two very different and equally enjoyable renditions of one of my favorite plays, Much Ado About Nothing. I also read a lot of great books (among them The Hangman’s Daughter series, The Bookman’s TaleWill in the World, and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore). May next year’s entertainment be as much fun!

It always feels like there was never enough time spent with family and friends. But we tried, and 2013 had many fun lunches, dinners, parties, happy hours, and visits. I met new family members, made new friends, and cherished all the “old” family and friends just a little bit more. I’ve ignored my readers, if any of you are left, as I’ve ignored this blog. I think I still have more to say, though, so if you’re still out there…2014 may involve more blogging as well as more writing, more researching, more learning, and – most especially – more living. Happy New Year!

Five Years

My Aunt Donna's blog is 5!

My Aunt Donna’s blog is 5!

Tomorrow is the 5th blogiversary of What’s Past is Prologue! If blog years are anything like dog years, that’s a really long time. I’m humbled every year that I’ve managed to entertain, inform, and help others since I started this blog to entertain, inform, and help myself. I’ve found cousins, I’ve made friends. In five years, this blog has been viewed over 182,500 times and readers have left 1,665 comments. In 2012, I had 45,320 visitors (an increase since the previous year) for an average of 124 per day. And to that there’s only one thing to say about those statistics – thank you for visiting!

My five top posts (as in most visited) in 2012 were written in previous years. The top two posts written in 2012 were:

My personal favorites over the last year were:

I hope you had some favorites, too. I was semi-successful at keeping up with regular posting barring the occasional vacation or unexpected hospital stay and I have plans to continue for many more years. And after FIVE YEARS I finally changed the theme ever-so-slightly – do you like the brand new look?

Thanks to all of my readers and all of the great friends I have made through this blog. Maybe I don’t write just for me anymore – I write for you, too!

2012: A Look Back

Another year has come and gone! That means it’s time for my annual look in the rear view mirror before I look forward to all that 2013 has to offer. In some ways, this was a tough year for my friends, my family, and myself. My father was in and out of the ER and nursing homes more times than I can remember and my mother was occasionally sick too. Several of their close friends are suffering from serious illnesses. My parents’ house was in a state of disrepair for months due to a leaky pipe. There were several deaths this year: two co-workers, the mother of one of my best friends, two of my college professors, and a distant cousin who frequently commented here on this blog. I had some relationship disappointments and ended the year with a rather unexpected major surgery. But, despite all of the bad stuff, I managed to maintain a positive outlook and be grateful for all of the good things in life. And there were many, many good things…

My great-grandmother!

My great-grandmother!

Genealogically speaking, I didn’t devote that much time to research but I managed to make some great finds with the little time I did spend on it! I continued to find Polish records online including my 5th great-grandparents’ marriage record from 1820. The release of the 1940 census was long-awaited, and even though it didn’t reveal anything I didn’t already know it was a lot of fun to find my parents and all of my other relatives. I was thrilled to receive my great-grandmother’s naturalization papers and see her photo. The biggest surprise of the year was learning that my 2nd great-grandmother, Elizabeth Smetana Miller, immigrated to the U.S. and lived here for over 20 years before her death in 1944. I think I’m still surprised by that discovery! I had the opportunity to meet my 2nd cousin Carl and his sons from the Bergmeister side. I also got to meet Bill, a “cousin of my cousin” who is descended from the sister-in-law of one of my dad’s uncles. Finally, a surprise phone call from my father’s 76-year-old cousin – one I didn’t know existed – allowed me to connect her via telephone with her 67-year-old half-sister to share memories of the father that neither knew well (one due to divorce, the other due to his death at a young age).

I had a few personal goals for the year, but I only made progress with three of them. They were: have a more positive outlook, cultivate my relationships with friends, and get back to exercising. My new outlook, old friends, and five months of regular exercise all helped considerably when I was faced with my first-ever hospital stay at the end of November for a colon resection. It’s funny how things work out that way…

My nieces and nephews

My nieces and nephews

Looking back over the year, I was rather successful at trying to have a good time. I had many fun lunches, happy hours, and dinners with several different friends. I even cooked a bunch of dinners at my house and I was amazed every time that somewhere along the line I learned to cook without realizing it. I spent several holidays over at my brother’s house and spent some good times with my nieces and nephews watching Star Wars, going to the beach, and just having fun being silly. I finally broke the bad record of previous years and made it to the beach not just one day, but three different days! I hope my beach is still there since Hurricane Sandy hit that part of my state really bad in October. I finally made it to a Phillies game, attended a special event at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, saw my favorite Gene Kelly movie on the “big screen” again, and “won” an online auction to have lunch with my newest celebrity crush (we’re still scheduling the big event). I surprised myself by taking 10 undergraduate college credits in a subject I despise during a 7-week period, and despite spending one week in Europe and one week in the hospital I somehow managed to get a 3.55 average.

My travel time was limited this year, but I did go to Georgia twice for work as well as two new places: San Antonio, TX and Phoenix, AZ. The only trip I took for personal travel was special: after about fourteen years of promises, I took my 17-year-old niece on her first trip to Rome, Italy. It was trip #5 for me, but that didn’t make it any less special. We both had a great time and I hope it was as memorable to my niece as it was to me.

The Pointkouski chicks learning to cook in Italy

The Pointkouski chicks learning to cook in Italy

I like to remember my “entertainment” favorites every year as well as personal events. The two television shows I fell in love with this year will always be among my favorites because they’re just that good: Firefly and Leverage. Yeah, I don’t know what took me so long to find them either. I went for long periods without taking the time to read anything, but then I managed to read about 33 books between Memorial Day weekend and the end of September and found a lot of great authors in the process (Chris Ewan, Mark Mills, Pam Jenoff, Michael Curtis Ford, Sarah Jio, Isabel Wolff, Karen White). I especially enjoyed John Scalzi’s Redshirts, Kate Morton’s Forgotten Garden, and Felix Palma’s The Map of Time. In the world of music, I loved Matchbox Twenty’s new album, North, especially “Sleeping at the Wheel”. I also really liked P!nk’s “Blow Me (One Last Kiss)”, One Republic’s “Feel Again”, Lifehouse’s “In Between the Raindrops”, Sara Bareilles’ “Gonna Get Over You”, and Train’s “Feels Good at First”.

2012 brought me back to Rome - those coins thrown in the Trevi really do work!

2012 brought me back to Rome – those coins thrown in the Trevi Fountain really do work!

Last year I said I was ending the year a lot happier, healthier, and content, so that’s how I started this year. Although spending the last month recovering from surgery has been a struggle to stay happy, healthy, and content, I think I’m on track to a much happier, healthier, and contented new year. And the world didn’t even end this month as “scheduled”! What’s on tap for next year? Well, there are more ancestors to find, cousins to meet, birthdays to celebrate, dinners to enjoy, friends to cherish, places to travel, books to read, people to meet, photographs to take, blog posts to create, music to play, exciting things to discover, and family to love. That, my friends, will make for a very good year!

Happy New Year to all of my family, friends, and faithful readers! I wish you peace, joy, love, and good health in 2013!

I Was a Teenage Car Thief

History:  gossip well told.  ~ Elbert Hubbard

Partners in crime: Nancy and I, probably up to no good, at National Honor Society induction during junior year (fall, 1983).

I was a teenage car thief.

Or so the story goes. That isn’t quite exactly true, but it seems to be how the story is told years later!

In my girls-only Catholic high school,my friend Nancy and I were probably known more for what we didn’t do than what we did. We didn’t smoke. We didn’t drink. We didn’t cut class, hike our uniform skirts halfway up our thighs, and we didn’t even wear makeup.

Nancy and I were good, polite, studious young ladies who got mostly straight A’s. Boring? Well, maybe to some, but we both also happened to have a great sense of humor and a mischievous streak, so we certainly weren’t bored. And, after all, the great thing about a devious mind in a goody-two-shoes body is that you rarely ever got blamed for your own mischievousness!

In junior year, we both had the good fortune to have Mrs. Campbell for history class (we called it “World Cultures”). Not only was Mrs. Campbell very smart (little did we know then that she was a future Jeopardy contestant) and an excellent teacher, but she was fun, too! Mrs. C had a sense of humor and a mischievous streak that rivaled ours in addition to a penchant for really bad puns. Let’s just say that Nancy and I learned a lot from her.

One day Mrs. Campbell broke off into an off-topic tangent about a student who attempted a  practical joke on her and failed. With a daring twinkle in her eye, she declared, “NO ONE has ever fooled me!”

Seated on the left side of the room, I immediately turned to Nancy a few rows to my right and raised my eyebrow. Nancy discreetly caught my gaze and nodded. The game was afoot! With a silent shared glance and only the faintest hint of a smirk, Nancy and I were thinking the same exact thing: “We’ll see about that, Mrs. C!”

After class, we wondered what joke we could play on her. We quickly realized it had to involve her car in some way, for the car had become a frequent detractor from our daily lesson plan. The Campbell’s bought a brand new car, and it was a complete lemon. Never in the history of American car production had a brand new car had so many mechanical failures. They were at their wits’ end in trying to get help from the dealership.

“We should steal it,” I said.

Nancy looked slightly shocked, yet amused, and gave me a questioning look.

“Well, not really steal it…just, you know – move it. If her car wasn’t where she parked it, she’d think it was stolen!”

Nancy smiled, “That’s perfect!”

Yes, perfect, until it dawned on us, both National Honor Society scholars, that neither of us could drive yet. Our friends who could drive thought we were absolutely insane and wanted nothing to do with our devious plans.

Time for Plan B! In the end, Plan B doesn’t sound like much at all – but, history is more about how things are remembered than what actually happened. Our classmate, Deena, worked in the main office during our class period. She would enter our room with a (forged) note for Mrs. Campbell that would tell her to call the dealership about her car – urgently! That’s right, kids, there were no cell phones in the mid-80’s!

This simple message was merely meant to invoke her ire – at the car, not us – and send her into a brief tizzy of humorous car-related stories which would have the side effect of getting us off the day’s lesson plan for the rest of the period until we revealed the joke.

See, we were not quite comedic geniuses yet, just lazy history students.

On the appointed day (my fuzzy memory thinks it was possibly April Fool’s Day) and the designated time, the note arrives. Mrs. C read it and looked quite distressed. She then did something we didn’t expect – she said she’d be right back and bolted out of the room!

When our note-delivery girl returned with the second note that said something to the effect of “just kidding”, Mrs. C still wasn’t back yet. Deena saw her in the hallway talking on the pay phone. Those who knew of our plan asked us what was going on: “Who’s she calling?” Others laughed and said, “You’re both dead!”

She couldn’t possibly be calling the dealership, could she? Maybe moving her car was a better idea after all.

She returned to the room, breathless – not from the short walk to the classroom, but from all the talking she had just quickly done on her call. She was about to explain what happened when she noticed that Deena standing in the front of the room. Deena handed her the second note while backing towards the classroom door and simultaneously trying to give a death-stare to Nancy and me on our different sides of the room.

That second or two while Mrs. Campbell read the note seemed longer than waiting for the bell to end Sr. Cherubim’s class.

Then… she laughed! And then said, “Oh my God, I have to call my husband!” and ran out of the room. She quickly returned and was dismayed that his line was busy. She explained that she called him about calling the car dealership because something else was wrong with the car. By the time she finally did get in touch with him – before our class was over – he had called not only the car dealership but also the Vice President of General Motors to discuss the lack of quality of their new vehicles and their poor customer service.

Fortunately, Mr. Campbell was as easy-going as his wife and they both actually laughed at our little prank. They thought the car dealership needed to be told off anyway, and we just prompted them to do it a little faster.

My memory has faded on the detail of how Nancy and I were identified as the perpetrators, but either we openly bragged about it or she immediately guessed from our sheepish grins. I think she actually admired us after that for our brave initiative. Mrs. C was so cool that by the end of junior year, Mr. and Mrs. Campbell agreed to chaperone four friends and me on a trip to Rome after we graduated – and she kept her word!

No cars were harmed or even touched in the prank, yet forevermore Mrs. Campbell called Nancy and I her car thieves. And that is how I got my class out of a history lesson one day and went down in Archbishop Ryan High School for Girls history as a teenage car thief.

How Mrs. Campbell signed my yearbook in senior year: Dear Donna, You have a great future as a car thief.

Our prank made it into our senior yearbook as a caption on a photo of Mrs. Campbell teaching class!

Left: Nancy and Mrs. C at our friend Mary’s graduation party, June 1985. Right: Mrs. C and me expressing our dissatisfaction with the hotel in Rome, July 1985.

[Written for the 122nd Carnival of Genealogy: School Humor]

Q is for Questions

Continuing the weekly Family History Through the Alphabet Series… Q is for Questions! My genealogical research would be nonexistent if I hadn’t asked questions. Euripides once said, “Question everything. Learn something. Answer nothing.” That, my friends, is sometimes what I think genealogy is like because we ask questions, find some answers, and end up with a lot more questions.

As a young teenager, I remember asking my maternal grandmother, who we called Nan, some simple questions. In retrospect, this marked the beginning of my future as a genealogist and family historian. I asked her questions about her parents: What were their names? Where were they born? When did they come here? What were they like? She told me some answers. They weren’t necessarily correct answers, but they were answers! 

After college I began researching my family. My Nan was no longer living, so my questions went right to my parents: When did your parents get married? Did they ever talk about their parents? When did your grandparents die? Where did they come from? I dutifully recorded their answers. Then I researched some records…and I found answers in spite of my parents’ answers, which led to more questions: Why didn’t you tell me you had great-grandparents in this country? Why didn’t you tell me about Aunt and Uncle so-and-so?

Their usual response: “Oh yeah, I forget about that!”

One would assume that genealogical records would provide concrete answers, yet inevitably the records led to tons of additional questions. Why isn’t she with the rest of the family on the census? Why can’t I find him on the passenger list? When did they immigrate? What was her maiden name?

Family history research is all about the questions – and finding some answers. But in some ways the questions are more important, because without them we would have no impetus for research, no reason for the quest. Answers are wonderful, but ironically every nugget of information leads to even more questions! I found you, now who were your parents?

Genealogy can be a greedy quest… Here’s to all the questions, and hopefully one day finding all the answers we can. I will close with one of my favorite quotes from poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The quote has absolutely nothing to do with genealogical research. But since it deals with questions, it is highly appropriate:

…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903
in Letters to a Young Poet

 [Written for the weekly Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge]

Please Mr. Postman

After writing about libraries this week I began to reminisce about the “olden days” of genealogical research. It wasn’t entirely a fond reminiscing either. There used to be a lot of waiting involved in research – mail a letter, wait for a response. Or send away for some records, wait for a response. Or even worse – wait for a day to make a research trip to the archives, and slowly scroll through microfilm to find your answer.

The internet changed all of that waiting for the most part, and it took away whatever patience I had left. Everything is instant now. If a question arises about a movie, historical event, a sports statistic, or just about anything, gone are the long debates over the correct answer.  Google it, declare the winner, and move on. Handwritten letters? Even email is too much anymore – we settle for text messages.

With genealogy, so many records are online and instantly accessible that when something is not online that waiting that used to seem normal now just seems long. Very long. I’ve grumbled about the waiting game before and I bring it up again because I’d have a lot of good fodder for new blog posts if only some of the genealogical “things” I’m waiting for would only arrive. I can’t remember waiting for this much information since the early days of my research. At the moment, I’m waiting for:

  • A naturalization file from USCIS  for my great-grandmother that I never thought to look for until recently. In it may be the solution to my biggest mystery – her birthplace. They did the index search quickly. But the record request? Not so much.
  • A visa file from USCIS for my great-grandmother’s sister-in-law that may provide clues as to the family left behind in Poland. Again, the index search was quick. What I want is there somewhere.
  • A death certificate from the State of New Jersey for someone who died in 1944.  The name of that someone is the same as one of my 2nd great-grandparents. The name is a bit common, but there were enough coincidental facts about this particular person that made me wonder if my 2nd great-grandmother did indeed immigrate to the U.S.  If I ever get that death certificate, I may actually know if it’s her or not.
  • My AncestryDNA results, the first genetic genealogy test I ever had. Lord only knows what that will reveal.

I wanted to send for some marriage license records from the City of Philadelphia and write to a potential cousin, but I don’t want to wait for even more mail to arrive. Genealogy-wise, each of these things will be rather exciting (except maybe that death certificate if it’s not the person I think it is). Each will probably give me something to write about here besides the Family History through the Alphabet challenge. But for now, I wait. And wait. It reminds me of the old days…but I’m too used to the new days to call them “good”!

Flying High

Flying high somewhere between Italy and Philadelphia, April 2006.

Sometimes when things become ordinary I forget how extraordinary they are – like flying on airplanes.  It is so easy to get anywhere in the world by simply buying a ticket. It’s so easy that I forget that flight is a relatively new phenomenon. It was only about a hundred years ago that commercial flight became available, and while that may seem like a very long time ago, in the grand history of the world it’s practically yesterday.

My immigrant ancestors spent two weeks on a ship to get to America in the early 1900s.  I often wonder what they would think about the fact that I can reach their homelands today in about 8 hours. While there have been many, many inventions since they lived and died, I can’t help but think that air flight might be the one that would amaze them the most.

Although flights became available in my grandparents’ youth, it was something that only the rich could afford. None of my grandparents ever flew on an airplane. My father took his first flight in his 20s – a very short hop to Birmingham, NY for training for his job.  Even though he traveled the world as a sailor in the U.S. Navy, that short flight remains his first and only.  My mother has only flown two roundtrips in her life, and the first was not until she was in her early 50s.

My brother and I got to experience the joy of flying a bit more often – and, despite the hassles of baggage, security lines and searches, screaming babies, and long periods of waiting and boredom, it is still a joy.  My brother first flew courtesy of the United States Marine Corps and has been on several trips on his own since then. My very first flight at the age of 18 was a doozy – a long, crowded, transatlantic charter – to Rome, Italy! I didn’t know any better at the time, but looking back with more wisdom that flight was horrendous with turbulence almost the entire time.  Having never flown before, I just thought it was a lot like riding a bus with the bumpiness and I was as happy as can be.

It would be seven years before my next flight, but since then I’ve had the good fortune to go on many.  My job occasionally requires me to travel by air – some years I’ve only traveled once or twice, but other years I’ve been on a dozen trips. I’ve also been very fortunate to fly for some of my vacations, so over the years I’ve become a rather experienced frequent flyer. But all that time up in the sky or waiting in airports makes me forget just how amazing it is to board an airplane, magically rise 5 or 6 miles up into the sky, and safely land far, far away from my home just hours later.

On one work trip, I sat and listened to the flight attendants go through the safety information for what felt like the thousandth time in my life.  After a long wait, I just wanted to get where I was going and the charm of being on a flight had long since worn off.  That is, until a child seated near me exclaimed, with all of the wide-eyed wonder only accessible to children, “Look, it’s a tiny table that opens up!” As he squealed with delight at the discovery of the tray table, I had to smile myself – yes, this flying thing and everything associated with it is pretty amazing, isn’t it?

While my trip to Rome was exciting because it was the first, and a vacation to California at age 25 was exciting just because it was a vacation to California, it was a flight when I was 28 years old that gave me a different kind of euphoria – it was my very first flight alone.  I was flying to Denver, Colorado to meet friends flying in from elsewhere. To this day, I remember waving good-bye to my father and walking through the security checkpoint – and at that moment, I felt a sense of exhilaration and broke out into a large smile. I was about to fly somewhere I had never been, I was all alone, and I thought it was the most wonderful feeling in the entire world!

As I said, my job has required me to take a fair amount of flights.  I’ve experienced some very long ones and the longest was a trip to Seoul, South Korea.  I think it took about fifteen hours, and I was very blessed that I was allowed to take First Class (a rarity in Government travel unless the flight exceeds fourteen hours!).  The shortest flight I’ve ever taken is a tie between either Norfolk or Boston – both are about 20 minutes in the air. However, one flight to Boston was so bumpy due to bad weather that it actually felt longer than the trip to Seoul! I also had a very short flight from somewhere in Florida to Pensacola, and an encounter with turbulence almost sent the world’s tiniest beverage cart flying down the aisle towards my center-of-the-back-row seat.

A U.S. Air Force C-130 military transport plane. Taken at Schriever AFB, Colorado Springs, CO in February, 2003 as my teammates board the plane.

My friend Leona and I aboard the C-130, February 2003.

The most unique flights I’ve ever taken were on military aircraft. I had the privilege of flying on an Air Force C-130 from Colorado to Nevada. The flight was equipped with standard military seating, also known as “tactical configuration” which is what they use to jump out of airplanes.  There was no need to worry about my seatback being in an upright position, because military seating does not mean the standard rows of seats in a commercial airline.  Instead, there are four rows of seats going down the plane lengthwise, and the seats are made out of webbing.  So, it is the equivalent of sitting in a lawn chair for the entire flight. But at least we didn’t have to jump out of the plane…

Another military flight was far different, though. I was in a leadership program with about 50 other civilians from around the country, and one week we had to fly to several locations in North Dakota, Alaska, and Tennessee.  Rather than attempt to get commercial flights for all of us, we had a jet at our disposal piloted by a flight crew of National Guardsmen.  Since we had the flight all to ourselves, they were the most enjoyable flights I ever took. And I even sat in the cockpit part of the way from North Dakota to Alaska! Now I know for a fact that pilots have the best view of all.

This was way, way better than flying on a C-130!

The pilot was cool, but he wouldn't let me fly the plane.... Taken somewhere between North Dakota and Alaska, April 2003.

The view is one of my favorite things about flying. I have seen many awesome things from the air, and they are no less impressive at that height.  In fact, they were likely more impressive as seen from up above than from on the ground.  My first and only view of the Grand Canyon so far was from a plane about 30,000 feet in the sky – and even at that distance, I could not believe how big and beautiful it is.  Similarly, I had never seen the Mississippi River before – except from the air. I did not realize how big it is – and if it looked big from that high up, it is definitely wider than I ever imagined.

Other awesome sights from the sky include the Norfolk Bay Bridge Tunnel where you get an incredible view of the disappearing road as it goes underwater – and then reappears.  I’ve seen a close up view of the skyscrapers of New York City, and I’ve even flown over Citizens Bank Park during a Phillies game.  The single most incredible sight was during that “private” flight to Alaska.  The pilot was granted permission to take the plane as close as possible to Mt. McKinley. It was a beautiful, clear day and the pilot announced that he was going to take us for a closer view. The friend next to me and I were leaning over in our seats to look out the window.  “Is that it?” he asked, pointing to one of the mountains. I didn’t know.  “Maybe,” I said, “it looks pretty big.”  We were looking down at some mountains trying to determine which one Mt. McKinley actually was when suddenly this massive mountain appeared next to the window at eye level.  In fact, we had to look up to see the top of it. We both said simultaneously, “Wow – that’s it!” I’ve seen many mountains from the air, but I have never seen anything quite as big as that one.

Mt. McKinley from the sky...awesome! Taken in April, 2003.

What’s my favorite view from the sky? I have two.  First, I love looking out and seeing a brilliant blue sky and a carpet of clouds. I know that everyone below those clouds is having a cloudy, dreary, and rainy day. But from my view, the sun is shining! It reminds me that life is all a matter of perspective, and sometimes from a 30,000 ft. view things don’t seem quite as bad.  Next, my favorite site is the view as the plane approaches home. It is fun to go away, and amazing to see beautiful sights from the sky. But I really feel like I’m flying high when I come home again.

My ancestors never got to experience the wonder of flight – but did they feel that same “coming home” feeling when they saw America for the first time?

Another Year of Blogging

Tomorrow will mark the 4th blogiversary of What’s Past is Prologue.  I don’t know what surprises me more – that I’ve been blogging for four years or that I still have some ideas left!

I didn’t post as often as I would have liked to this past year, but I still managed to garner 39,000 visitors! I’m very grateful to everyone that stopped by to read, look around, comment, and/or write to me with kind words.

Some of my top posts this year in terms of visits were ones written a while ago. This past year I had 9,700 hits on Philadelphia Marriage Records Online (June, 2008), 1,500 on Bavarian Main Street (June, 2009), and almost 1,400 on Fotomat…What’s That? (November, 2010). Some posts written this year that had the highest number of hits were Finding Polish Records Online from January with 1,060 hits and The WDYTYA Drinking Game from February with almost 800 and also was the most commented post with 30 comments. I have to say, that post was the most fun I had (on this blog) all year!

Besides the drinking game post, my favorites from the last year were:

Research Resources:

My Family Research:

Personal Reflection:

Once again, thanks to all of my faithful readers and friends.  When I started this endeavor, I had no idea where it would lead. But so far, I’ve really enjoyed the ride. I’ve made some great friends, learned how to write better, organized my research, and found many cousins.  As my one of my favorite actors once sung, “Who could ask for anything more?”

2011: A Look Back

In the nearly four years I’ve been blogging, I have written a retrospective on New Year’s Eve looking back at my personal year. What fun stuff did I do? What genealogical finds did I discover? What worked? What didn’t? I may be the only one that reads this particular post every year, but it has become a rather meaningful tradition in my life. Last year, I called 2010 a “year of transition”…I guess I have arrived at wherever I was going, because I end 2011 a lot happier, healthier, and content.

Genealogically speaking, I’ve connected with so many cousins over the last few years that I didn’t think there were any left to find.  But there were!  This year I made several new connections. On my mother’s maternal side, I was “found” by my second cousin Tricia and her mother Mary Jane. On my mother’s paternal side, I had fun talking to my first cousin twice removed – yes, my grandfather’s cousin! Although my grandfather would be 100 next year (if he hadn’t died at age 60), his cousin Ed is a robust 83 and even uses Facebook!  His granddaughter, my third cousin Catie, scanned some photos for me that I had never seen before including my grandfather’s brothers and my grandparents. Finally, I connected with a cousin on my father’s paternal side. While I know tons of cousins from his maternal side, I didn’t think I could find any from the Pointkouski side. Fortunately, my dad’s first cousin, Marilyn, found me!

While I didn’t write as many posts about my genealogy research as I would have liked, I did make quite a few discoveries. I found my Piątkowski 2nd great-grandparents’ marriage record from 1863 online and now I’m in hot pursuit of their birth records. Through my newly found cousin Marilyn, I discovered the married name of my grandfather’s missing sister! More to come on her soon…  I also found an obituary that filled in missing information on a branch of the family and discovered a reference to my 4th great-grandfather in a German newspaper from 1813!

One of my big projects this year was launching another blog! The Catholic Gene was born from the many friendships I had formed with other genealogists.  Though many of us had different ethnic backgrounds, we all shared the same Catholic faith.  I thought a blog would be a great way to collaborate and write about how our faith has intertwined with our family histories. Ten authors, four months, and sixty posts later, I’m proud of the result and I hope next year is even better.

Some of The Pointer Sisters at Jamboree!

I had fun at two genealogy conferences this year.  The first, the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree, was tons of fun.  It was great to hang out with many of my online friends – and we didn’t miss an opportunity for fun, that’s for sure. I think the hotel staff is still talking about the piñata incident…  In October, I met more friends and attended the conference for the Polish Genealogical Society of Connecticut and the Northeast in which I gave a presentation for the very first time. My second speaking opportunity came just two weeks later at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Speaking about genealogy was something I wanted to try for a while, and both presentations went well.

The highlight of my year was my trip to California with Lisa Alzo. In addition to going to Hollywood (okay, just to Burbank, but we did drive to Hollywood thanks to Denise Levenick) for Jamboree, we spent time in the San Francisco area with Kathryn Doyle and Steve Danko. Despite a chilly Golden Gate Bridge, a freezing Stinson Beach, and a rainy Napa Valley, we had the BEST TIME EVER! All that laughter was good medicine!

In some ways, my theme for the year was improvement. For example, my cooking improved considerably and I’ve added chili, roasted cauliflower, and pork chops to my repertoire. In the world of home improvement, I started off the year with a mostly new kitchen – including a much needed heated floor – and ended the year with a completely renovated bathroom – including a much needed expansion.  Work improved – I’m in the same job as last year with the same tasks and same people, but I enjoyed it more.  Some relationships improved, too, as I learned about forgiveness, trust, and having fun.

I spent time enjoying my parents’ company, and I also enjoyed watching my niece Natalie dance and my niece Ava read to me.  Nephew Nick likes to sing out loud, and nephew Luke gives the best hugs I’ve ever received.  2011 was the year of an earthquake and a hurricane two weeks apart, neither of which “did” anything but stir up the local news media.  The Philadelphia Phillies stirred up the entire city…only to fall short in the end.  Get ‘em next year, guys, I’ll be watching!

I kept myself entertained this year by catching up on older television shows: Mad Men, The Tudors, Big Bang Theory, and Castle. Train provided the soundtrack to my California trip with Save Me, San Francisco and Kelly Clarkson’s Stronger matched my mood.  The world lost a great singer I had always hoped to see live, Cesaria Evora.  I read a ton of books, but once again I failed to keep track of what I read.  I do remember Anne Fortier’s Juliet, Karen Harper’s Mistress Shakespeare, and Kate Morton’s The Distant Hours. Donald Miller reminded me to live a good story in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.

All in all, 2011 had its moments once I stopped to think about it. What does 2012 hold in store for me? I’m not sure, but I am certain about one thing – I’m back to enjoying the ride.  Here’s wishing all of my family, friends, and readers much happiness in the new year!

Mom’s Greatest One-Hit Wonders

Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.  ~ Voltaire

Growing up, I ate dinner with my entire family – mom and dad, my brother, and my maternal grandmother (Nan) – seated around the same table eating a home-cooked meal.  I didn’t realize there was any other definition of “dinner”. I went to a friend’s house once and learned that there was such a thing as canned ravioli.  Fascinated at first, I was quickly repulsed after a taste. It sure wasn’t what Mom or Nan made.

As much as food made with love played a role in my life, the comfort of a family dinner came more from the family than the dinner entrée itself.  All the food was great (well, except for liver…I don’t wish to discuss it to this day, nor smell it). Specific memories are few, perhaps because all of the food was great and we tend to remember extraordinary events more than the ordinary.  And even though she never seemed to measure anything, use a recipe, or do the same thing twice, certain foods I’d call Mom’s specialties because they were always so good.  The legendary chicken soup, for example.  She made it just like Nan – and I am still not successful in trying to duplicate it. Mom’s roast chicken, stuffing, and mashed potatoes were the best.  From my younger years, I also remember that Nan’s homemade noodles for the chicken soup and her “dumplings” were extraordinary.  If the cooking gene is passed on through mitochondrial DNA, I may have a fighting chance of becoming a good cook one day.

Thanksgiving at the Pointkouski’s in 1994 with some of Mom’s standard best cooking. L-R: Mom, Lou, Dad, Lou’s mom Marge, Mr. & Mrs. S.

I never knew I had it so good – Mom made some of the best food I ever ate. I’d usually watch her cook and occasionally attempt to figure out how something was being made, but there was one thing that always got in the way of writing down a recipe – Mom never did the same thing twice.  If I’d ask how much of an ingredient just went into the pot, she’d look at me as if I had asked a question in a foreign language.  She didn’t follow recipes – she just cooked. “You’ll understand one day when you have to cook,” she explained.

But there is another category of Mom’s cooking that is even more memorable than the everyday favorites she made – her one-hit wonders.  While not using recipes is great for creativity, it sometimes makes it difficult to repeat a good thing exactly the same way.  She might make the dish again, but sometimes it didn’t taste quite as good as the first time.  Three one-hit wonders stand out in my memory as those special creations whose exact recipes were never to be duplicated again.

First, the cream puff.  It was December, 1985, and I had just finished exams for my very first semester of college. It was a Tuesday evening, and I was looking forward to watching Moonlighting when Mom decided to make some pastries.  As a treat, for no apparent “reason”, Mom made cream puffs.  The pastries were light and fluffy; the cream was oh-so-creamy and rich.  Simply put, the joy I felt about successfully ending my first college semester, a fun episode of my favorite show, and the expectation of a Christmas holiday was delectably combined into a food – this cream puff.  I don’t remember why Mom made them, but I certainly remember how good they tasted.

Mom’s next one-hit wonder was rather different from a pastry.  I have no specific memory of when or why, but I was in my 20s or early 30s when she decided to make her own eggrolls.  Lots of vegetables and chicken or shrimp were chopped, rolled, and fried.  The “recipe” was simple – but no matter how many times we made them after this first time, they never seemed to taste the same and were merely good instead of achieving the greatness of that first batch of eggrolls.

Finally, my Mom usually made me a cake for my birthday.  My cake of choice is always chocolate with vanilla frosting.  The frosting was always confectioner’s sugar with butter and maybe some cream cheese.  Sometimes she used a boxed cake mix, but one year she made the cake from scratch and used cocoa powder I had brought home from London and gave her as a gift.  The result was the ultimate re-gifting – while all of her cakes were good, this cake was The Best Birthday Cake Ever.  I think my parents and I almost ate the whole cake in one sitting.  Again, we don’t really know why it tasted the way it did – far be it from Mom to pay attention to ingredients she was throwing in the bowl.  But I can still remember feeling a childlike delight at the result.

Eventually I moved out and learned that in order to eat, I’d have to cook.  And as it turned out, Mom was right – you don’t need recipes once you know your way around a kitchen.  I should have known – are mothers ever really wrong?  In the years since, I’ve managed to make a few meals that have become my own personal standards and I’ve had a few one-hit wonders of my own.  My cooking may not always be as good as Mom’s, but I won’t stop trying!  Fortunately I can still call her for advice when I’m in the middle of destroying making something for dinner.  It’s like having my own personal “lifeline” with Julia Child on the line – “So, how do you know when the fill-in-the-blank is done again?”  Her answer?  It’s always right.

Written for the 108th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Food!

The Date I Was Born

This week’s Saturday Night Genealogy Fun (SNGF) at Randy Seaver’s Genea-Musings is all about the Date You Were Born.  Suddenly I was on a trip down memory lane…not to the day of my birth, but to my freshman year of college when I had to write about the day of my birth.  What did I find out?  Read all about it below – but first I will answer Randy’s specific challenge.  He asks:

1) What day of the week were you born? Tell us how you found out.

I was born on a Wednesday.  I found this out when my parents told me!

2) What has happened in recorded history on your birth date (day and month)? Tell us how you found out, and list five events.

I was born on the 67th day of 1967 (that’s March 8).  On that day in history, there are a lot of events listed in Wikipedia.  None of them, however, are earth-shattering historical events that are talked about centuries later. It appears that my birth might be the most exciting thing that ever happened that day (ahem). Here are five of the more interesting other events that have occurred on March 8th:

  • 1775 – Thomas Paine’s “African Slavery in America,” the first article in the American colonies calling for the emancipation of slaves and the abolition of slavery, is published.
  • 1817 – The New York Stock Exchange is founded.
  • 1917 – International Women’s Day protests in St. Petersburg contributed to the February Revolution and ultimately led to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, ending the Romanov dynasty in Russia.
  • 1979 – Philips demonstrates the Compact Disc publicly for the first time.
  • 1983 – President Ronald Reagan calls the Soviet Union an “evil empire”.

3)  What famous people have been born on your birth date?  Tell us how you found out, and list five of them.

Using the same page in Wikipedia, I discovered these five others with my birthday:

  • 1495 – John of God, Portuguese-born friar and saint (d. 1550)
  • 1841 – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (d. 1935)
  • 1922 – Cyd Charisse, American actress and dancer (d. 2008)
  • 1959 – Aidan Quinn, American actor
  • 1945 – Micky Dolenz, American musician (The Monkees)

If we could get all of the musicians born on 3/8 together, we’d have an interesting group with members from The Monkees, The Eagles, Three Dog Night, Iron Maiden, and Keane.  One can only imagine what that would sound like…

As I said in the beginning, I wrote an essay about the date of my birth for an English composition class in my freshman year of college.  I found it in my files after seeing Randy’s challenge.  The date I submitted it was January 22, 1986 – almost exactly 25 years ago.  I was 19 years old and still had a lot to learn about writing, life, and myself.  But my teacher, Mrs. Bonnie Balcer, loved the essay and many others that I wrote.  She praised  my writing and encouraged me so much that I credit her for my decision to abandon the ill-conceived idea that I wanted to be a teacher, and instead I majored in English.  Twenty-five years later, I still have a lot to learn about writing, life, and myself.  But I’d like to thank Mrs. Balcer, wherever she is, for pointing me in the write direction.  (In looking for this essay, I also found one from my first semester of graduate school four years later. I wrote about my recent exploits in genealogical research. The title of that paper? What’s Past is Prologue.  Yes, I will have to reprint that essay here as well…)  This would have been a lot easier to reproduce here if it weren’t for the fact that back then I wrote on a typewriter

This is the Day the Lord Has Made…Me

Wednesday, March 8, 1967 was an ordinary day in the lives of many people.  No major headlines graced the front page of the New York Times, no scientific breakthroughs were made, and no events of great historical importance took place.  Despite the mundaneness of the day, it was one of great significance to my family and me; it was the day of my birth.  However, the world only celebrates one’s birthday if he is very famous, so the world continued its life as I began mine, neither of us concerned with the other.  Looking back on that day, there were many interesting occurrences besides my birth.

The pages of the New York Times were filled with news about Vietnam.  The North Vietmanese attacked an American zone for the second time in a week.  Senator Robert F. Kennedy suggested that, in order to see if North Vietnam was sincere about wanting to negotiate, the United States should end bomb raids.

In the United States, Washington, D.C. seemed far removed from the Vietnam crisis.  The big problem there was a dispute over where to house diplomats in the city. Those uninterested in that quarrel may have fancied the rumor that Press Secretary Henry Cabot Lodge might resign. People all over the U.S. may have been happy to see that Jimmy Hoffa was finally put into prison after ten years of escaping the sentence.

Besides all of these headlines, Roman Catholics of the world were told by the Vatican that only sacred music was permitted for use in Church.  Because I grew up alien to the pre-Vatican II days, it was interesting to see the Church still receiving the impact of Vatican II at the time of my birth.

Two stories particularly resembled issues of today. One concerned abortion, an issue on which people take sides today. But in 1967 there was no question – abortion was illegal unless the mother’s life was endangered. The New York State legislature rejected a bill that would make the law more lenient. Because of the 15 to 3 vote, the state was criticized as trying to “abort abortion”.

The second familiar issue was nuclear disarmament. The U.S. and Russia proposed a treaty to ban the spread of nuclear weapons, but India felt it discriminated against non-nuclear countries. India also wanted joint action against the proposal. In a modern world that is still trying to achieve disarmament, it is evident that the treaty never came to life.

Another fascinating section of the paper was the entertainment section. Because faithful viewers protested the cancellation of Gunsmoke, it was returned to the air. The TV listings for the prime time hours of the major networks resembled the daytime schedules of independent stations today. Popular shows were Lost in Space, Batman, Green Acres, Gomer Pyle, Perry Mason, and The Beverly Hillbillies.  Today’s hit, The Cosby Show, was far from Bill Cosby’s mind as he enjoyed fame with I Spy. One facet of 1967 television was exactly the same as today – the soap operas. Some were General Hospital, Days of Our Lives, and Guiding Light, all of which can be seen today.

Coke is another part of our culture that is still around today, and it was in the headlines in 1967 as in recent months. There wasn’t any talk of “New Coke,” “Old Coke,” or “Coke Classic” though. The news concerned the price, which was scheduled to go up from 10 cents to 15 cents a bottle. If Coke’s price doesn’t best reflect the economy, the price of gold does – a mere $35 an ounce.

As anyone can see, the world of 1967 is both different and similar to the world of 1986. Many changes have occurred in the past 19 years, although not all of the changes were good. The world still has little concern for me, as on that cold day in March, and at times I have little concern for it. We’ve both grown a lot, but I can’t say if we’ve both “grown up.” I’m glad I did.


Why, oh why didn’t someone give that newborn baby her weight in gold?

Meeting Great-Grandma

Playing Ancestral Roulette for Saturday Night Genealogical Fun (SNGF) this week got me thinking about great-grandmothers – that is, about meeting your great-grandmother.  When I was in high school, my friend told me how lucky I was that both of my grandmothers were still living – he never knew any of his grandparents since they died before he was born.  My own father only met one grandparent, his paternal grandfather, but he died when my dad was six years old.

Sometimes longevity, child-bearing, and luck kicks in and a child’s life overlaps with that of their great-grandparent’s.  I realized that we seem to have a streak running in my own family for four generations.  The overlap was too short for the child to remember the meeting, but one can only imagine how special it must have been for the great-grandmother to hold their grandchild’s child.  I’m not able to see if this streak goes back more than four generations as I do not have all of the death dates for all of my ancestors.  For now, it applies to four generations born in the United States:

  • My grandfather, Henry M. Pater, was 2 when his great-grandmother Francziska Anna Wojciechowska Pluta died in 1914 at the age of 74.
  • My mother, Anita Pater Pointkouski, was almost 3 when her great-grandmother Antonina Rozalia Pluta Pater died in 1938 at the age of 75.
  • I was 5 when my great-grandmother Elizabeth Miller Pater died in 1972 at the age of 80.  She died on my brother’s 13th birthday.
  • My niece was 2 when her great-grandmother Margaret Hermina Bergmeister Pointkouski died in 1998 at the age of 84.

Ava meeting Pearl, 2005.

I’m always impressed with family photographs of multiple generations.  I have no photographs of any of the above children with their great-grandmothers.  But I do have one of my younger niece.  Although she was born long after my grandmothers had died, she had one great-grandmother from her mother’s side (she died at the age of 89 when my niece was almost 2).  Although I wasn’t present when this photo was taken, I do have a fond memory of another time when these two ladies met.  My niece’s great-grandmother could not see very well, but she got close to my niece and talked softly to her.  My niece was smiling; her great-grandmother was beaming.  Although we were all to young to remember meeting our great-grandmothers, I often think of this woman’s smile as she held my baby niece.  And I know it’s the same smile, and the same love, that all the great-grandmothers before her gave to their great-grandchildren.

Did you meet your great-grandmother?

2010: A Look Back

For the past few years I’ve enjoyed taking time on December 31st to reflect on the previous year.   I look forward to the new year and always make big plans on what I hope to do, or learn, or accomplish.  But I always feel that before I can move on, I want to take one more look at the preceding twelve months and remember what I did, learned, and accomplished.  2010 was definitely a year of transition for me.  I am not yet entirely certain what it is that I am transitioning towards, but I know that it looks different from what I thought I knew.  I can also see how far I’ve come and how much I’ve changed within.

In my world of genealogy, it was a year of highs and lows much like my personal life.  The genealogy highlight of the year was attending the NGS conference in Salt Lake City –  spending hours researching in the library and meeting all of my blogging friends was wonderful!  Later in the year, I visited Ellis Island for the very first time with genealogist friends and we had a great weekend in New York City.  In my research, I found some success on my Piątkowski line by finding my great-grandfather’s birth record in Warsaw.  Polish birth records from the early 1800s helped me fill in the names of eight 4th greats and four 5th greats.

In February, What’s Past is Prologue was named as one of Family Tree Magazine’s Top 40 genealogy blogs, and later in the year it was nominated for 2011.  But, this blog became one of my “lows” because I just didn’t write often enough.  Sometimes it was a result of being busy with fun things in my personal life, but other times it was because I was at a “low” and just didn’t care enough about genealogy or anything else to put any words on paper.

In my family, my mother had a milestone birthday as she turned 75.  Earlier in the year we had an enjoyable lunch with two of our Zawodny cousins.  My nieces and nephews continued to grow (literally, as the oldest is now quite taller than me) and they brightened my days every day I spent some time with them.  My friendships changed this year when some of my closer friends were kept distant for various reasons and some of my newer friends got closer.  Through Facebook, I found an old friend – and didn’t realize how much I missed him until we were back talking and laughing like the old days.

My travels were limited this year, and it was my first year without a trip to Europe in quite a while.  Other than Salt Lake City and New York, I had a few work trips to unexotic and unsunny locations – but one included a first-time visit with Jasia that was so much fun!  Every year I promise myself that I’ll get to the beach more than once.  And I can’t believe this is the third year in a row where I admit I had only ONE beach day.  At least if I could only have one day there, this one was very memorable!

I kept myself entertained throughout the year with the usual assortment of fun dinners with friends as well as movies, books, and music.  Early in the year a new friend helped remind me of how much I enjoy movies as he introduced me to several I had missed over the years.  I’m a big reader, but this year I really seemed to read a lot – so much that I wish I had kept a list of all the books.  In fact, if I had spent all my reading time writing a book myself, it would have been finished in no time!  Sheri Fenley got me started on the Outlander novels by Diana Gabaldon –the first was written twenty years ago, and now there are 7 rather lengthy novels.  I blew through all seven quickly this summer – about 7,000 pages!  Other favorite discoveries were thriller authors Gayle Lynds and Christopher Reich, and Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts.  I tried to set the tone for my year in January by reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project and James Martin’s The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.  Both will be re-read soon so their messages can sink in a little better!

The soundtrack for the first half of my year was Dan Wilson’s Free Life.  Although it wasn’t realeased this year, his haunting melodies and lyrics soothed my spirit considerably.  Two albums that were released this year that got me moving and singing were Hanson’s Shout it Out and the Indigo Girls’ newest live album, Staring Down the Brilliant Dream.  Through a unique series of happy accidents, I attended an Indigo Girls concert in October, and it was the best concert I have ever attended.  Most of their songs have brilliant lyrics that are more poetic that anything I studied in my English literature classes.  I eagerly awaited new releases from two of my favorite groups, the Gin Blossoms and Sister Hazel.  Surprisingly, both albums disappointed me.  In a completely different end of the musical spectrum, I saw John Michael Talbot perform for the first time in about twenty years with my brother – listening to JMT and spending time with my brother both brought back some memories of the old days!

My “year of transition” brought me many new things.  I started the year ending a long-term relationship.  I took a chance and started a new one, which didn’t last, but despite the ending I wouldn’t change a thing.  At least I took a chance, I had fun while it lasted, and he introduced me to quite a few things that are now a part of my life even though he is not.  I’m ending the year enjoying satellite tv, Boddington’s and Palm beers, a mold-free basement, a heated kitchen for the first time in eight years, and my acne resurgence is under control.  Sometimes things don’t turn out the way you plan, but (to quote a Semisonic album), I’m feeling strangely fine.

Some people devise a “word” to guide them through the next year, almost as a mantra.  I’m too long-winded for one word, so I thought of a few phrases to remember next year to help me be the person I want to be.  Yesterday I wrote about my genealogical goals; I have an even longer list of personal goals that I’d like to accomplish – which, if I’m having enough fun, may actually prevent me from getting to any genealogy goals.  My vision for 2011:

reach out – create – don’t wait – breathe – don’t give up

Bring it on!

Counting down from ten it’s time
To make your annual prayer
Secret Santa in the sky
When will I get my share

Then you tell yourself
What you want to hear
Cause you have to believe
This will be my year

~ This Will Be My Year, Semisonic


Fotomat…What’s That?

The following article first appeared on July 25, 2009 for my The Humor of It…Through a Different Lens column for Shades of the Departed.   footnoteMaven has graciously allowed me to reprint my Humor of It articles here on What’s Past is Prologue.  I’m currently on hiatus writing this column for Shades, but I encourage you to visit the latest edition of the digital magazine (The Mourning Issue) for some excellent writing and photography!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Other than hearing the songs I listened to in high school on the “oldies” station, the one thing that truly makes me feel old is not being understood by children. It happened one day while out on a drive with my nieces. We passed a tiny shack on the side of the road that sold water ice, and they found it hysterical because it was so small.

“It looks like a Fotomat!” I exclaimed.

No recognition appeared on their faces. “A what?” asked the 13-year-old.

“You know, the little Fotomat huts…” But then I realized – no, she doesn’t know. By the time she was born, Fotomats were already a thing of the past – as extinct in the photographic world as daguerreotypes and box cameras. It was time for a history lesson.

“The Fotomat was a little shack, usually in a parking lot of a shopping center, and you would drive up to the window and drop off your film to get developed.” I explained this with the sincerity of a lesson on Ancient Rome or the Civil War.

Kodak Fotomat – 1960s courtesy of Roadside Pictures

“Film? Like a movie?” she asked. “What do you mean by ‘get developed’?”

This was going to be harder than I thought. “Ah, it was in your camera – like a memory card. Getting prints made was called getting it developed.”

Suddenly I was nostalgic for that little blue building with the yellow roof that sat in the middle of the parking lot of the supermarket. What I remember most about the Fotomat experience is the one thing lacking in today’s digital world – the anticipation. One of the best things about digital cameras for me is the ability to instantly see your shot on an LCD screen. Instant gratification! As great as this is, and as useful in photography, sometimes the things worth waiting for were better. Well, maybe not better – but different. And there’s something to be said for that anticipation!

I began taking photographs with my own camera at the age of 11, and since you couldn’t see them as you took them (unless you had a Polaroid, of course), it was always interesting to see how your photos “turned out”. Or in some cases, what was on that roll of film. In your family, did you ever find a roll of film in a drawer that appeared to be used, but no one ever knew what it was from? Well, all you had to do was drive up to the window at the Fotomat, drop it off, and wait a day. You’d get to see your pictures when you picked them up!

I was fascinated by these little huts. Did they actually develop the film in there? How? If you worked there, what did you do when there were no cars in line? And how do you fit a bathroom in there?

The first Fotomat drive-thru kiosk opened in the late 1960s in Point Loma, California. By 1980, there were 4,000 sites throughout the country. Customers could receive their prints in one day, but when the first film developers began to offer prints in one hour, Fotomat was doomed. It’s ironic, because today I would have assumed that the thing that killed it – 1-hour developing – would have made it viable. After all, in the 21st century people like to spend more time in their car than at home. They can buy and eat breakfast, visit the bank, pick up prescriptions, get lunch, buy some groceries, get the car washed, drop off their dry cleaning, and pick up dinner without ever leaving the car. So why wouldn’t Fotomats work today? Drop off your memory card and pick up your prints in an hour! I think it would work, but the shacks were too small – especially for film developing, which was a more complex process than printing digital photos today.

By the mid-1980’s, the familiar huts were gone. The one I used to use was torn down long ago, but in some cases the huts were recycled into other uses from selling snow cones to cigarettes. The most creative re-use I’ve found so far is as a chapel! Imagine that – a prayer shack!

Copyright 2008 Michael Poulin

After we stopped at the former Fotomat for water ice, my nieces learned all about what photography was like when I was growing up. I was proud at having done my duty passing down my memories of bygone things. The 13-year-old was going to tell her friends about the weird customs of their parents. “Okay,” she said, hoping I’d stop talking about the past. “I get it!”

The 4-year-old suddenly joined in the conversation. Nodding her head, she looked at me and asked matter-of-factly, “But why didn’t you just print the pictures at home?”

That would be a lesson for another day – let’s go take some photos instead!

Ten More Things I’m Thankful For on My Genealogical Quest

Two years ago (nearing the end of my very first year of blogging), I wrote “Things I’m Thankful For on My Genealogical Quest”.  Nothing has changed since then – I am still very thankful for each of those things that have been helpful to me as I research my family’s history!  You can read the specifics about what they are and why I’m thankful at the original post.  I’m still very thankful for those things for all the same reasons.  But, there is even more to be thankful of!  In the spirit of gratitude as we celebrate Thanksgiving, and in keeping with the genealogy theme of this blog, I’ve found Ten More Things I’m Thankful For on My Genealogical Quest:

1. – Genealogical records are now available on many different online sites, but the biggest of these – at the moment, anyway – is Ancestry.  I found many of my original discoveries at NARA, but thanks to digitization efforts and Ancestry’s interface, I can find them again and so many new discoveries easily and quickly.  The subscription costs more than I’d like to spend, but so far it’s been worth it to have easy access to so many records (and I could access the free version at the library if I wanted).

2.   Digital cameras – what does this have to do with genealogy, you ask?  Today’s digital cameras can do so many things.  Not only can I use it to photograph the family houses, cemeteries, towns, and workplaces – as well as all the new cousins I’ve met – but I can use the macro feature to photograph documents, microfilmed images, and even other photographs.  Don’t leave home without it!

3.    Genealogical Societies – Genealogical societies are one of the best sources for locality-specific or ethnicity-specific information.  I found a lot of unique record sources through the Polish Genealogical Society of America’s databases, resources, and publications.

4.    Genealogy Conferences – I attended my first one this year, and what fun it was!  Not only is a conference a great opportunity to increase your knowledge about a myriad of research-related topics, but it’s also a chance to make new friends that love genealogy as much as you do!

5.    Genealogy Blogs – While I included “the geneablogging community” in my last list, this time I mean the blogs themselves versus the bloggers.  I’ve learned so much from genealogy blogs!  Blogs are a wonderful and free resource for learning about research methods, records, online tools, and more.  Even a “personal” family history story can benefit you if you recognize a technique someone else used in their research that you hadn’t thought about.

6.    The COG – The COG, otherwise known as the Carnival of Genealogy, is the biweekly/monthly opportunity for genealogy bloggers to write posts on the same theme.  Everyone writing on the same topic?  What sounds like a recipe for boredom becomes a delicacy of creativity!  Especially in the hands of the COG-chef herself, Jasia, who organizes the entries and somehow keeps coming up with interesting topics after all these years.  I started blogging after reading other bloggers’ COG entries, and many of my fellow bloggers have said exactly the same thing.   I am thankful to participate in it, and I’m thankful to read all of the other entries.  And I can’t wait for the special 100th edition in December!

7.   Genea-friends who help me research – They shall remain nameless because they’d be embarrassed otherwise (you know who you are), but there are at least a half dozen genealogy bloggers that have helped me with research.  These tasks have included such things as traveling to a distant library to find some obscure book, looking up a record on microfilm, copying pages out of reference books, looking up an online record that I don’t have access to, and providing me with free translations of foreign-language records.  Do they do these things because they love research so much?  Well, that might be part of it – but they do it because they are my friends.  Some I have met in person, and some I am still waiting to meet.  But I love them all – not just because they do such nice things for me, but because they are simply wonderful people.  I am so grateful to have great friends!

8.   Genea-friends – The research they do belongs in a special category, but so does the friendship.  I met several friends this year that were previously just email addresses, Facebook friends, and bloggers.  Now they are dinner and travel companions and the nicest bunch of people I ever met.  And the funniest!  Here’s to more good times! [Photo above is from an actual genea-friend dinner this year.]

9.   The Immigrants Came Here – While I included this as a part of thanking my ancestors in the last list, I have to reiterate how grateful I am that eight individuals made the life-changing decision to leave their homelands forever and travel to the United States. Because of them, I am an American.  And for that, I am very thankful.  I am very proud of my ethnic heritage and I love learning about the countries from which they came.  But I love my country, and I am thankful for all of the blessings and freedoms that I have because of where my family moved.

10.   My parents – I’m very thankful for my parents and for the fact that they are still here to continue to tell me the stories about their parents and grandparents.  I’m taking notes so that their grandchildren will know those stories, too.  I love you, Mom & Dad – thanks for all you’ve given me!

~ Happy Thanksgiving! ~

A Killer Chair

You can’t deny laughter; when it comes, it plops down in your favorite chair and stays as long as it wants. ~ Stephen King

When it comes to family pictures, we rarely look at the “rest” of the photograph – that is, other objects appearing in the background with our smiling faces.  But sometimes when my family looks at photographs from our younger days, we’ll comment on a particular piece of furniture, or the wallpaper, or some appliance that brings back memories.  Just as unlabeled photos don’t tell the whole story to future photo viewers about who’s who in the picture, those objects in the background often have stories behind them that are not usually told.

One object that appears in our family photos over the last several years is a chair.  It looks like a nice chair: leather, wingback, regal-looking.   But, if you know the whole story, it’s more than a chair.  I’d describe it to my nieces and nephews as The Chair that Almost Killed Your Mother and Me.

My brother originally bought The Chair.  When he moved in with his then-fiancée, the chair moved with him.  But their condo was rather small, and their new house was in the process of being built.  Since I had just purchased a house, lived alone, and owned little furniture, I had some room to spare.  Could I hold the chair at my place until the house was ready?  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  After all, it was a nice chair and not ugly, and I had the space.

But what do I know?

My brother is tall, fit, and muscular, but he must have been busy that day, so he sends my future sister-in-law over to my house with the chair.  She’s 5’2″.  I’m taller, but probably weaker.  It was up to us ladies to get the chair settled into its temporary home.  Getting in the door wasn’t a problem, but it overwhelmed my living room and the other rooms on the first floor still had unpacked boxes.  But then I had an idea.  We’ll call this the Critical Error.  Where I really wanted the chair was up in the bedroom – we can get it upstairs, right?

Yeah, right.

In order to adequately describe the events that followed, I have to digress from the story with a description of the layout of my home.  The upstairs – a master bedroom, bathroom, hall, and some closets – used to be the attic of the house.  The former homeowner renovated and added a stairway in the best place possible, which wasn’t necessarily the most convenient place possible.  The stairs are narrow, and there is no banister on the “open” side.

Lacking all sense of reason, my future sister-in-law Alleah and I decide to carry the chair upstairs.  I grabbed the top end and backed up the stairs, while Alleah lifted the up the other end from the lower stairs.

This worked well…for about five steps.  The chair didn’t fit up the stairs.  Let’s ignore the fact that neither Alleah nor I owned or heard about a thing called a “tape measure”.  We were stuck.

I tried to maneuver around the stuck chair to help from the bottom end, but in the process I lost my grip.  In what would have scored a 10.0 in the Olympic Comedic Stupidity Event, I performed an amazing partially controlled falling leap over the side of the staircase, rolling over and landing on my back in the middle of the living room floor.  Even a Russian judge would have given me a high score for that spiral leap.  Even though it hurt, I was laughing hysterically.

Meanwhile, back on the stairs…the Killer Chair followed gravity in the proper downward direction.  Unfortunately, Alleah was in that direction still trying to hold on to the chair.  As I lay laughing, her own laughter at my predicament quickly turned into the realization that the Chair had pinned her to the wall at the bottom of the stairs.

Naturally, as I also realized this, it made me laugh even harder, still laying on the floor.  To this day, Alleah remembers that I had a photograph of Pope John Paul II on the stairway that, in her teary-eyed state of laughter, appeared to be staring at her mockingly from the safety of the wall.

Now, this was truly a crucial event in my sister-in-law’s life, for the Chair was attacking her in the region that would become the womb to my three future nieces and nephews.

If we had filmed this event, we’d have more hits on YouTube than Susan Boyle.

Eventually, I was able to move, but it took the strength of both of us to move the chair, and Alleah was still laughing too hard to be of any help to herself.

We swear The Chair did it on purpose in retaliation for being moved.

Well, needless to say, it never made it to my bedroom.  After regaining our composure, the chair was unceremoniously thrown down the stairs into my basement, where it remained until their house was ready for it.

When it had to be moved again, the move was wisely handled by my brother and her father.  We had enough of The Chair, with bruises and scars to prove it.

We find it rather ironic that today the kids have another name for The Chair: Daddy’s Prayer Chair, for it is where my brother spends his prayer time.  Little do they know the history behind the chair and the other names it has been called by their mother and their aunt.

What untold stories lurk in the background of your photographs?

A family portrait around The Chair, years after it tried to kill me and my sister-in-law. She was wisely keeping her distance from it by taking the photograph instead.