My Father, the Comedienne

The word prompt for the 6th Edition of the Smile for the Camera Carnival is Funny Bone: Show us that picture that never fails to bring a smile to your face! An amusing incident, a funny face, an unusual situation.  Well, I’d say that this photo combines an amusing incident, some funny faces, and a rather unusual situation…

Frank and Jim, 1977

Frank and Jim, 1977

No, they are not really ugly women.  And they’re not transvestites either!  They are the two guys who tickled my funny bone throughout my childhood: my dad and his buddy, Frank.

Jim and Frank were not only comedians (or should I say comediennes?), but also dancers.  They got their start in “show business” because of their wives, Anita and Lillian.  Both women were active in the “Mother’s Association” of Archbishop Ryan High School for Boys1.  Every year, the moms would “put on a show”, and many of the dads joined in.  While my mom and her friend stuck to dancing, my dad and Frank were funny guys, so they became the principal comedy directors of the shows.

The guys’ comedy routines didn’t always involve dressing up as women, but some did.  This kept me, as a child, alternating between laughing hysterically and embarrassed to death.  For example, one of their first cross-dressing comedic stunts involved them playing the “Tinettes” – back-up singer/dancers in an Ike and Tina Turner number, “Proud Mary”.  Since the costumes were designed and purchased by the performers, there was much discussion concerning what they would wear.  I remember tagging along with the two couples to the local K-Mart.  Both men grew quite excited to find a display of inexpensive silver sandals that would go perfect with their shiny silver dresses.  You’ve never truly been embarrassed until your dad (or your husband, looking at things from my mom’s point of view now), takes off his shoes in the middle of the aisle at K-Mart to try on ladies’ shoes.

Their performances were anything but embarrassing though – they were really good!  The pair made a terrific Elton John and Kiki Dee (with Frank showing some leg as Kiki), as well as the Tin Man and Scarecrow in a funny Wizard of Oz skit.  Once, the two performed a great tap-jazz routine (as men, not women!) with the show’s choreographer, who – many years later – would become my eldest niece’s maternal grandmother.  Neither man knew how to dance before these shows – at least not the “performing on stage” kind of dancing.  The choreographer was an excellent dance teacher, and the ladies performed all sorts of amazing dances from tap to jazz and even a routine on roller skates!  As I look back now, I realize that 31 years ago my parents were the age I am now, and I am amazed by the wonderful shows they put together!

Back to the funny guys as shown above…their final performance in these shows was their pièce de résistance.  I don’t remember how it came about, but the plan was for them to perform a ballet.  It could have been a slapstick routine full of pratfalls, but unless you’re as talented as Ray Bolger, there’s a chance that it wouldn’t “work”.  Instead, the men decided to dress in women’s costumes – tutu included – and perform a straight ballet (no pun intended).  That is, an actual ballet that two women would perform, with all of the technically correct dance steps, without cracking so much as a smile.  They practiced for what seemed like forever; they were determined to get it right.  I still have my father’s typewritten instructions to himself to help him memorize the steps.  The music?  Why, a serious ballet with a comic twist requires one piece of music: The Nutcracker Suite.

The night was November 19, 1977 and the show was called “Musical Moments” that year.  After intermission, it was the third number.  The auditorium was dark; the crowd restless.  Anticipation was in the air, at least from where I sat with my aunt and my mother, who was not performing that year.  The curtains opened, and the music began…the audience became quiet, subdued by the classical music.  Then, the dancers appeared on stage, each starting from opposite ends of the stage.  We held our breath…there were some seconds of polite silence – did the audience think they were unattractive women?  Suddenly someone in the audience yelled, “Oh my gosh, they’re men!”  The entire auditorium erupted into laughter…and the men continued their dance, straight-faced, hitting all of their marks and dancing a saut de chat that would make any female ballet dancer envious.  They tickled some funny bones that night!  And some of us are still laughing about it.

[1] I would later go to Archbishop Ryan High School for Girls.  The two schools shared the library, the chapel, and the auditorium.  We were separated by gates, shark-infested waters, and some don’t mess with me nuns and friars.  We used to joke that they’d have to rename the school Archbishop Ryan High School for People if it ever went co-ed.  It did become co-ed (shortening the name after the words High School) three years after I left; it is one of the largest Catholic high schools in the country although the student population isn’t nearly as high as the combined population when I was there.  My graduating class of just girls totaled 525; the boys’ school had a similar number that year.  The school’s auditorium holds around 2,000 people.  On my first day of high school I was nervous, but we all had to report to the auditorium first.  Since I had spent so much time there while I was still in grade school and my parents were practicing for the shows, it put me at ease.

[Written for the 6th Edition of the Smile for the Camera Carnival: Funny Bone.]


Family Heirlooms or the Lack Thereof

I’ve always been impressed with other folks’ family heirlooms – what I like to refer to as “genealogical memorabilia”.  My family doesn’t have very many.  For years my brother and I didn’t even know we had family.  We secretly wondered if our parents were part of the witness protection program.  Other kids had cool stuff from their great-greats.  Old diaries that told all the family secrets?  None here.  Letters between family members with stories of the old days?  Nope.  Official documents?  Not any they left behind – I had to find them through public records.  Obituaries? Not even one.  Wills?  Zilch – there’s nothing to leave behind!  Photographs?  Some, but not a large number.  Even when it comes to tombstones there are only four ancestors that have one out of the fifteen direct ancestors who died in this country!

You hear a lot these days about the “carbon footprint” we leave behind.  But what about our “genealogical footprint”?  Other than having children, what we “leave behind” our ourselves will either become treasured memorabilia or simply trash.  There’s a debate over if the abondoned love letters found in a trash can should be published if the owner believed they were trash.  Although I hate generalizations, it seems to boil down to two types of people: the pack-rats and the throw-outs.  Children of throw-outs usually become pack-rats, and vice versa.

I come from a long line of thrower-outers.  Gone are my father’s baseball cards from the 1940s, the original one-sheet movie posters he obtained while working at a movie theater in the late 40s and early 50s, and my mother’s collection of autographed glossy photos from the film stars of that same period.  My grandmothers didn’t think anyone would want such clutter, and truth be told my own parents probably would have thrown them out later as well.  My maternal grandmother also felt the need to throw out her mother’s china and crystal brought over from Poland in 1903 – who wants old stuff when you can have new?

But, I can live without these things.  They would certainly be nice to have, but I’ve collected enough of my own junk treasure over the years.  What I miss not having the most are the more personal relics from my parents and their ancestors.  I have so few.  A handwritten note from my grandfather to grandmother nine months before they married.  A note from my almost-8-year-old father to his mother who was recovering in the hospital after the birth of his baby sister.  These are the things I long for – personal memorabilia, not collectors’ items.  These things tell me more about the people than any other type of remembrance.

I decided to reduce my own footprint, or rather, clutter, after college.  I had saved every letter and card I received since high school (no email back then, kids).  I saved those that were funny, noted some important event, or were otherwise significant to me.  As I sorted through old Christmas cards to throw them out, one took my breath away.  I realized it was the last Christmas card my grandmother gave me before she died the following year.  While it may not mean much to future generations, it’s now in my own personal box of genealogical memorabilia.

It took me a long time to realize that my memories are more significant than any item.  I pray that these are never taken from me, but in order to make my memories meaningful to future generations I have to write them down.  Just as we should back-up our data on the computer, we need to back-up our own life story so we can leave it behind.

Make your memores, your family stories, your legacy, your genealogical footprint.  Make your life story your heirloom!

Local History: A Saint Played Here Before Me

This week I visited the local hospital when my father went to the ER (it’s okay, he’s fine now!).  It seems as though I visit there about once a year for one parent or the other, except I’ve been there three times since Christmas and once was for myself!  Fortunately, it’s very close to my parents’ house.  As I walked towards the entrance to the ER, I noticed the old building that is seemingly out of place with the rest of the hospital.  Ever since then I can’t stop thinking about the history that is all around us – history which we are often unaware.

The neighborhood in which I grew up, the section of Philadelphia called the Far Northeast, was not developed until the 1950s and 60s, but it has a rich history that goes far beyond the current housing developments and shopping centers.  It’s unfortunate that we never learned about this local history in school, like why so many things had “Indian” names or why streets had funny names or who the people were whose names were on the public schools.  Even though my ancestors are not connected to that corner of Philadelphia, I am, and I’m fascinated by what was there before me.

My parents bought their brand new house in 1961; I arrived six years later.  Frankford Hospital’s Torresdale Division was built when I was a child.  I don’t recall what the corner looked like before then, but I remember sledding on a hill that is now a parking garage needed as the hospital expanded.  But two remnants of the entire area’s past remain standing on the hospital’s grounds: the old house and a chapel.  Both belonged to the Drexel family.

The grounds were purchased in 1870 as a summer home for Francis A. Drexel, his wife, and three young daughters.  The Drexel’s were very wealthy; Francis’ father, an immigrant from Austria, made a fortune in the banking industry.  The family lived in the city on Locust Street, but packed up for the summer to escape the city heat and spend time in “the country”.  This farmland area had only been incorporated into the city of Philadelphia in 1854; prior to that, the land consisted of small villages whose names are known today as neighborhood’s names.  In 1870 when the Drexel family first came to their summer home, the area, though officially part of the city, was country-like with a lot of open space, trees, creeks, hills, farms, and very few homes.  This whole Torresdale area of the city would remain mostly “open space” until the 1950s.

The Drexel family name is remembered today for two main reasons:  Francis’ brother Anthony founded Drexel University in Philadelphia, and Francis’ daughter Katherine is a saint.  Katherine’s story is admirable no matter what religion you believe in.  In today’s language, we’d say she “had it all” because of her family’s wealth.  But she gave up all of the worldly things she could have had for a much worthier cause.

Katherine’s mother, Hannah, died only weeks after giving birth to her.  When Francis re-married to Emma Bouvier (a relative of Jackie Kennedy), Emma became step-mother to Katherine and her sister Elizabeth.  Francis and Emma had a third daughter together, Louise.

When Katherine was a young woman, the family vacationed out west.  She was appalled at the poverty endured by Native Americans.  Likewise, she saw much suffering and poverty among African-Americans in the south.  Many “rich” women like Katherine would have simply donated large sums of money to help these poor people.  But Katherine wanted to do more; she wanted to serve these people.  At the age of 33, she decided to become a nun.  She would go on to found a religious order of sisters called the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, whose mission was to serve and educate the poor, specifically native and African-Americans.

Katherine became “Mother Katherine” as she led this order of missionary sisters in their mission, and she used much of her own personal inheritance to fund schools and convents.  Katherine died in 1955 at the age of 96.  She became “St. Katherine Drexel” in 2000 – only the second American-born saint.

Back to her early life and what she has to do with my old neighborhood…  When the Drexel’s first bought their summer estate, which has been reported to equal anywhere from 90-300 acres of Northeast Philadelphia, Katherine was 11 years old.  A chapel was built directly behind the mansion, and even today it is an impressive sight on the hill.  When Katherine founded her religious order, she housed novices on the grounds until their convent was built in nearby Bensalem.   The chapel, and the entire family estate, was called St. Michael’s.  Today, their old home is used as an office building.  The chapel was desanctified for secular use and is now used as a “wellness center”.  I once got a view inside as a teenager, and it was impressive even though it was no longer a chapel at the time.

The history of my neighborhood is much older than Katherine Drexel and her family.  But, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight one “era” of the neighborhood.  Long before the housing boom, my street was part of the Drexel grounds.  It’s somehow nice to know that a saint enjoyed summers riding horses with her sisters on what became my house, block, church, school, and neighborhood.  Maybe that’s why I always felt blessed to be there.

For more information:

[I hope to provide more posts on Northeast Philadelphia, other Philadelphia neighborhoods, and the small town in New Jersey where I now live.  All of these areas have a rich history that few seem to either know or care about today.  I’m afraid written history doesn’t go back as far as in Europe, but I should at least be able to find information about the area at least back to the 1600s!]

My Musical Genealogy

Thanks, Tim, for reminding me what a freak of nature unique individual I am. You see, I’m probably one of the few people in the modern world that can’t name ten formative albums from my teen years.

After trying to participate in this meme, I finally have to admit what others have been telling me for years…I was a strange kid.  I have eclectic musical tastes today, and it started as early as I can remember.  If you would have asked 8-year-old Donna what songs rocked her boat, she would have probably answered: Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock”, Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood”, Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock”, Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”, and the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night”.  There’s really nothing wrong with the list, per se, unless you know that I was 8 years old in 1974 – other than Elton’s 1972 song, the rest are a bit before my time.  And even Crocodile Rock isn’t “current” for the 70s, but instead is a nostalgic look back to the good old days of rock ‘n roll.  I wasn’t alive for those “good old days”, but the music attracted me from an early age.

Of course, my list of favorites would have had Shaun Cassidy at the top, and may have even included the Bay City Rollers.  But in terms of long-term influence on my psyche, those wouldn’t make my list today.  I remember listening to 45s all the time (note: if you’re reading my blog and you don’t know what a 45 is, go ask your mother.  If she doesn’t know, are you sure you’re old enough to be reading my blog?).  The songs weren’t very good, and they aren’t any I’d listen to today except for a laugh.  Prominent in my memory: Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died” and Bo Donaldson’s “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero”.  The one 45 I remember buying that you’d not only hear on the radio today but also not mind hearing is The Four Seasons’ “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)”.  But only two albums resonate from those early days: the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night and Paul McCartney and Wings’ Band on the Run.  I still listen to both today and enjoy them!

As a teenager, my musical tastes got even stranger, at least by popular standards.  Most high schoolers in the early 1980s were listening to Madonna; my friends and I were listening to songs about The Madonna.  We liked what would be called “religious” music.  Some I won’t admit to enjoying, but some of the albums I still love and will gladly tell all.  One is the original 1970 U.S. recording of Jesus Christ Superstar. Some folks won’t consider this as religious music, and I don’t either, but it’s not the “Superfreak” that my classmates were listening to.  Another is John Michael Talbot’s The Lord’s Supper.  Talbot also recorded The Painter with his brother Terry, and that was played over and over as well.  I listened to the radio more during my teen years than I listened to albums…and again my musical tastes showed a fascination for a time in which I did not live.  I was hooked on the “oldies” of the 50s and 60s, especially Motown.  I was not alone in this endeavor…my friend Kathy and I knew the words to the Temptations and Sam Cooke way more than Duran Duran.

In my 20s, I discovered the popular music that was being played during the 70s when I was a kid, and I enjoyed Bill Joel and James Taylor, as well as something that actually both current and “hip” – U2’s The Joshua Tree.  In my 30s, the Gin Blossoms’ Congratulations, I’m Sorry was played – on cd, not vinyl – over and over and over  again.  At 35, I widened my musical tastes when I met Italian pop star Eros Ramazzotti for the first time via Stilelibero, which was then two years old.  Now my music collection  isn’t complete without a little Eros.

I feel like I’m admitting to a heinous crime when I say that I thought Madonna’s music was crap back when she was a superstar (except for “Crazy for You” which brings me back to 1985 in seconds), I didn’t listen to Bon Jovi until just a couple of years ago, and I hate metal. Yes, I have eclectic tastes.  My iPod has Benny Goodman, Celine Dion, Hawaiian singer Keali’i Reichel, Semisonic, Sister Hazel, and Linkin Park.  I never got into “convention” and if everyone was doing it, I probably wouldn’t be interested in doing it until several years later. So, just as my ancestry is a mix, so are the albums that “formed” me.  And I can guarantee that no one else will share my list!

Note: What’s Past is Prologue will return to its normally scheduled genealogical articles tomorrow!

Don’t Be a What?

I was about seven years old when I first realized that not all families speak the same language.  I was on the back of a bicycle driven by a girl who lived up the street.  The “driver” would stand up to pedal while the “rider” sat on the seat and held on to the driver’s waist.  As we drove down the street, I started laughing.  “What’s so funny?” she asked.

“Your dupa is right in my face!”

“My what?” she asked, looking over her shoulder.

“You know,” I said, pointing to her butt, “Your dupa!”

We came to a stop.  She turned around, looking bewildered.  “You mean my heiney?”

Now it was my turn to be perplexed.  “What’s a heiney?”

Truly a lesson for the ages – language, which either brings cultures together or separates them, learned by two children as they argued over the “correct” word for their buttocks.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Dupa and many of the other “odd” words I heard growing up came from my grandmother, who lived with us.  Although she was a first generation American who was born in Philadelphia, she learned Polish as a child from her immigrant parents.  Her husband, also U.S.-born to Polish parents, did the same, and they used Polish to communicate in front of their own children when they didn’t want them to understand what they were saying.

This explains why several Polish words crept from my grandmother’s vocabulary to ours, such as dupa.  The Polish-English dictionary defines it as:  dupa [“doo-pa”], ass (vulg.).  Because it’s a vulgar term, its true meaning leans more towards a derogatory term about how someone behaves rather than a person’s rear anatomy.  But my brother and I used it as kids for the latter term, and fortunately we did not live in a neighborhood with others who spoke Polish!

We adopted some other normal Polish words like zupa [“zoo-pa”], the Polish word for soup, and shmata [shmah-tah], which is a Yiddish word for rag that my grandmother used to refer to a “housedress”.  We also frequently used the Polish word dudek [“doo-dek”], which means fool or dummy. We pronounced it as “duh-dek” instead of the correct pronunciation.

Another word in use by my grandmother was plut. I can’t find this in the Polish dictionary, but it likely comes from the word plutokracja, meaning plutocracy or of the wealthy.  As “plut” was applied to someone with no sense of humor or someone who looked down on others, usually in reference to the expression on their faces, it seems that this might be where she coined the term.

My grandmother also had a cascade of nicknames.  My mom was always “Chick” and my aunt was “Jub” or “Jubie”.  My brother didn’t have a moniker, but sometimes she called me “Dora”.  Now my mother is the only one still living from her immediate family, and there’s no one left to call her Chick (and she is glad about that!).  Of course, it should be taken into context…my grandmother had a nickname, too, given by my grandfather.  She was called “Killer” – and she loved it!

From my father’s side of the family, his Bavarian aunt told the story that her mother used to call the father “Zeff”, a nickname for his proper name, Joseph.  My aunt, who is eight years younger than my father, called him “Brub”, which was as close as she could get to “Brother” at a young age.  Even today, my 3-year-old niece calls her same-age cousin “Bibbias”. Even though she can properly say “Olivia” now, she still insists on calling “Bibs” by her nickname.

Our family language and propensity towards nicknames expanded considerably when I was 14 years old.  I became friends with Louie; he became my adopted brother and one of the family.  Consequently, the word “dudek” took on a new life.  I can’t remember if he was familiar with the term or not – he also had Polish grandparents.  But, if he hadn’t heard it before, he certainly adopted it.  In addition to that term, there was one other that my grandmother used, origin unknown: gazeutch.  It’s hard to explain, but you’ll understand with examples.  It’s a very flexible word and can be an adverb, as in “Don’t get all gazeutch about it” or as a noun with “You’re acting gazeutch.”

For four years – and even continuing today, everyone was a dudek and we were usually gazeutched as a result.

We also called our then-favorite poison, Mt. Dew, swill.  Louie had a habit of re-naming most of the adults in our lives with nicknames; he was the king of names.  The adults who frequented our church were Bluegown, Dead Dog, Hubachi, the Russian Empress, Mad Dog (no relation to Dead Dog), and Abendego. Even our much beloved pastor was “the Wiz”, and I think he’d have probably laughed in secret had he known then.  Lou’s father was known throughout the neighborhood as “C.L.” – short for “Communist Leader”.  My father became “What the hell” since it was usually the first three words he uttered upon seeing us.  “What the hell is this mess?”  “What the hell is all the noise down there?”  You get the idea.

So, when someone is being a dudek and has you all gazeutch, don’t act like a plut – just share some swill and just remember that he’s probably just a dupa because he doesn’t speak your family’s language.

[Written for the 54th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: The Family Language]

Home: A Place in the Heart

This edition of Smile for the Camera: A Carnival of Images celebrates home.  Home is something very personal, and I didn’t think I could capture it in one image.  Words also proved inadequate to the task, for home involves feelings and emotion as much as a physical place.  Here is my rendition, in both images and words, of my personal celebration of HOME.

[This post was written for the 3rd edition of Smile for the Camera: A Carnival of Images.]

Cats Ruled This Family

“All of the animals except for man know that the principle business of life is to enjoy it.” ~Samuel Butler

“Thousands of years ago, cats were worshipped as gods. Cats have never forgotten this.” ~Anonymous

Donna and LouCI love animals – sometimes even more than people! Pets have the ability to become part of the family as if they were not only human, but actually related to us.

As a child, I always wanted a dog. But my family opted for a more low-maintenance pet that didn’t require daily walks, and this is how we became “cat people”. When I was six years old, we got our first cat – a black and white kitten I named Lucy. Shortly thereafter, following a proper anatomical exam, the kitty was re-christened Lou C.

Lou C was a good cat; not a friendly one, but kind. Looking back on his life now, I realize that the poor thing had a six-year-old (me) who always wanted to pick him up, carry him around, or dress him up, and a teenager (my brother) whose friends probably tormented him when my mother and I weren’t looking. No wonder he always wore a look of resignation like a wise old man who just wanted to be left alone!

LouC and kitten Tigger

When Lou C was about 3 or 4, we brought home an orange tiger-striped kitten I named Tigger. I honestly don’t remember how or why we got a second pet, but poor Tigger was like that oddball relative that you take care of with some embarrassment because you’re afraid that others might realize he’s related to you. I think Tigger was “mentally challenged” and/or brain-damaged, perhaps from running full-speed straight into our glass patio door as a kitten. He looked a little stunned afterwards, and he was a little “slow” forevermore. One oddity about Tigger…as any cat-owner knows, cats are meticulously clean. Except for Tigger, the dirtiest (or perhaps just the laziest) cat I ever met.

TiggerI can only imagine what Lou C, a cat whose cleanliness rivaled Felix Unger of The Odd Couple fame, thought of this young, dumb, sloppy addition to the family. They co-habited mostly peacefully. But they really were close to the Odd Couple characters with Tigger’s sloppiness and Lou C’s fastidiousness. Lou C even had high class tastes; he loved shrimp, but turned his nose up at good old cat food.

Lou CLou C was a cat true to all of the cat-stereotypes – he merely tolerated our presence in his home. All of us, that is, except for the one person in the house who disliked him immensely – my grandmother. Or at least she claimed to loathe him – I could never really tell. But I have a vivid memory that sums up her relationship with Lou C. After my grandmother lost her leg around the age of 72, she learned to walk with a prosthesis and a cane. As she would make her way down the stairway to the living room, Lou C would magically appear from his eternal hiding place, start to purr (!), and wrap himself around her legs – both real and prosthetic – meowing his undying love. At the same time, she would be cursing in Polish and trying to push him down the steps with her cane. If only we had video cameras back then, the pair would be a YouTube legend today.

When Lou C was about 10 he became ill, and one day while I was at high school both cats “went away”. It was hard for my parents, but harder on me. We didn’t speak for a while.

About six years later, perhaps still feeling the guilt trip I laid on her, my mother and I adopted another kitten from a vet’s office where my friend worked. Abandoned, flea-ridden, with ears too big for his body, he looked a little pathetic. Because of the ears, I wanted to call him Yoda, but my mother named him Stanley.

Young Stanley

Stanley grew out of his big ears and became a lovable cat. The only person to whom he showed any overt affection was my (our) mother. He’d sit in her lap in the mornings – something no Pointkouski cat ever willingly did before. Stan had a few memorable quirks… First, if my mother went out for an extended number of hours, he’d basically have a fit. He’d race at lightening speed up and down the three floors of our home over and over until he was panting and exhausted. Upon her return, he’d do the same, and then she’d be ignored for hours so she got the “message” that he was displeased.

Next, if anyone visited our house who was either allergic to cats, afraid of cats, or disliked cats, he’d become their new best friend. He’d jump on their laps (he never did this on any other occasion to anyone) or plant himself right by their side. If you were a cat-lover, you were ignored. I wonder how he knew.

Mature StanleyAn interesting feat is that Stanley would play fetch like a dog. Not with a stick, but with a small piece of bakery-tissue paper tied up into a ball-like shape. This was a “mousie”, and if he was in the mood he’d retrieve it when I threw it and bring it back to me for more.

I’ve been told that EVERY DAY, fifteen minutes before I was due to return home from work or grad school, Stanley would sit in the window, look down the street, and wait. As my car turned the corner on to the street, he’d return, satisfied, to his sleeping spot and ignore me after I walked in the front door. But he would occasionally show how much he cared by sharing part of the sofa with me while I watched tv.

Unfortunately, Stanley also developed an illness when he was 10. His death was hard on all of us; it still brings tears to my eyes nine years later.

Pets are, despite their quirks, part of the family. We had a few others over the years, like P.D. the rabbit and Georgia the cockatiel (in between cats). But the 3 cats lived with us the longest and felt more like “family” – becoming personalities as real as the fickle old uncle who feigns dislike of everyone, the “few watts short” cousin always needing help, or the grandfather with the gruff exterior but the heart of gold. These “personalities” living with us may not be human, but they are family. Hopefully my ancestors had furry or feathery family members, too – they certainly add to the family dynamic!

[This post was written for the Golden Jubilee Edition – the 50th! – Carnival of Genealogy: Family Pets. I’d like to thank Jasia for these creative topics. They may not have much to do with the how-to’s of genealogy, but writing about my cats or my cars is something I never would have done otherwise…but SHOULD have done because it brought me great joy.]

Connecting Through Literature

One of the best ways to connect with others is to have something in common, and frequently it’s a common “favorite” like a book or a movie. It’s fun to talk about a favorite thing with someone who is equally enthusiastic!

A few weeks ago I visited my 12-year-old niece. She’s never too revealing about anything that happens in school – the conversation usually begins with “What are you learning about this week?” with the answer of “Oh, nothing…” But occasionally she’ll talk, as was the case on this visit. As I read over her shoulder, I asked about the story she was writing. It was a school project related to a book they were reading as a class. She handed it to me – “It’s about this millionaire who dies, and one of the people in his will will inherit everything…but he was murdered and it’s a mystery to find out who did it.” Uh, how did he know who killed him when he wrote his will? “I don’t know! We’re not finished the book yet!”

I was happy that she was happy reading. She’s a fantastic student at the top of her class, but she’s not as enthusiastic about reading as I was at that age. Fortunately, she has way more friends and more physical hobbies like dance and soccer. But something was nagging me about this book…it sounded familiar. Nah, it can’t be…

As a kid, I used to buy books stacks at a time when we could afford it. Of those hundreds, I eventually saved ones that I really liked and gave away the others. By adulthood, I had about 14 of my old books – not counting a shelf full of Robert Heinlein novels that straddle the “young adult” and “adult” fiction categories. I looked at my bookshelf, and found what sounded a lot like my niece’s book. After a quick call to confirm the title, it was the same book!

The Westing GameThe Westing Game by Ellen Raskin won the Newberry Medal in 1979, and I probably read it shortly thereafter — the same age my niece is now. As I paged through it, I couldn’t remember anything about it at all, but the fact that I still had it meant that I must have really liked it. The book isn’t just a mystery, but a “puzzle mystery” where the reader tries to solve it by finding various clues scattered throughout the novel. Consider it my early prep work for my future as a genealogist!

Finding that minor connection with my niece was nice, and it led me to wonder – how many of our present likes (or dislikes) are similar to those of our ancestors? My niece is now reading what is called a “modern classic” on the cover of the latest printing, which puts it into the realm of the old days when her old aunt was a kid. As a former English major, I have read and loved many classics that go back a lot further than 1979! My ancestors didn’t leave any records or diaries of the books they enjoyed, but maybe, just maybe, I re-discovered one of their favorites many years later.

Will your descendants know what your favorites were as a child or an adult? I didn’t even remember my own old favorite until I was reminded by a 12-year-old!

Bring Your Inner Child to Work

What Do You Want to Be?

Gunslinger Drew, 1961“What do you want to be when you grow up?” How many times did you hear that question as a child? It’s a universal conversation starter between adults and children. Why do we “grown-ups” ask it? Maybe we miss that sense of possibility. We grow up, get older, find jobs, pay bills, but along the way we sometimes forget that childlike sense of wonder and the irrepressible hope. I can be whatever I want to be! I can do anything! It doesn’t matter if we want to be a fairy princess or a space cowboy – kids believe that anything can happen. With a little encouragement from parents, that sense of hopefulness can breed confidence.

It Runs in the Family

Many of our ancestors likely didn’t have much of a choice of what they wanted to be when they grew up. My families tended to pass on occupations like an inheritance, at least in the “old country” before immigrating to the U.S. The Echerer family had seven generations of shoemakers in Bavaria. The mason’s sons were masons or carpenters, a related trade. Similarly, the miller’s sons were millers, flour merchants, or bakers. Farmers begat farmers. The Pater family were all weavers because that was the main factory in the town. Once those families came to the U.S., either times or circumstances changed the occupations, and sons no longer automatically did what their fathers did.

I Wanted to Be What?

What we do as adults to make a living and what we wanted to be as children are different things. I found a hint of my old dreams on the back of a copybook, circa 1977. I was ten years old, and after my name I added several descriptive “titles”. My list described who I wanted to be: Cryptanalysist [sic], Photographer, Stamp Collector, Pro Skateboarder, Softball Player, etc, Tape Recording Expert, Detective, Guitar Player, and Many More Things. So how did my dreams fare?

  • I get to be a detective and a cryptanalyst with every genealogical record I find and decipher! I didn’t have genealogy in mind at the time (although I became interested around that time with the television mini-series Roots), but it certain fulfills each of those “likes”. With genealogy, I get to follow clues and solve mysteries, and decipher different “codes” in the form of foreign languages and bad handwriting.
  • While I am not a professional photographer, I still have a big interest in photography. I take pride in my compositions, especially my travel shots, and I blush at the compliments.
  • Stamp Collector? I moved on to collecting ancestors! But I still have my old stamp collection, and I’ve collected other sorts of things along the way…movie memorabilia, shot glasses, books. I think my interest in stamps was a combined interest in history, geography/travel, and “Is this worth any money?”
  • I did not realize I ever had an athletic interest in anything. I did enjoy the skateboard, back in the days before helmets, knee pads, and board big enough to put both feet on. As for softball, my desire far exceeded my talent, but at least I had a dream!
  • My wish to be a tape recording expert changed with the technology, which explains why I’m now so interested in video, audio, computers, and any way to combine all three. I don’t get enough time to dabble in it, but I’ve had more fun making videos than few other things I’ve created.
  • I can still play the guitar, sort of. Years ago I even played in public as part of a group that fortunately had other more talented players to drown me out.

Take Your Child to Work

Tomorrow is “Take Your Children to Work Day” in the United States. My niece can’t accompany me this year, but we had a great time together a few years ago. The most amazing thing out of that day was that we adult workers most likely did not inspire her one bit to join our workforce…but she (and the other children) inspired us to see what we do with a child’s eyes. “Wow, that’s so cool!” It is? Face it, something as simple as a copy machine is exciting when you think about it. It’s all a matter of perspective, like the child who shared a flight with me who exclaimed excitedly, “Look, they have little tables you can pull down!” Hey, the kid’s right – that is cool, but we’re used to it and it’s become mundane to us boring, old adults.

If you’re taking your child, niece or nephew, grandchild, or someone else’s child to your workplace tomorrow, here is what you can give them: the freedom to dream big. Let them think they can be whatever they want to be – why spoil a dream when reality comes soon enough? Confident and hopeful children become confident and hopeful adults!

What the children you take to work can give you and your co-workers: the ability to see your job through a child’s eyes of wonder. And if your job still doesn’t inspire you after a different look, then maybe it’s time to consider other possibilities for your work. Dream big!

What do you want to be when you grow up?

National Library Week: A Tribute

This week is National Library Week, and librarian-blogger Lori Thornton of Smoky Mountain Family Historian has challenged bloggers to write a tribute this week.  But I can’t decide among my favorites – libraries were always important to me because I love books.  Here are some of my “favorite” libraries, whether legendary, fictional, or very real:

The Library I Wish We Could All See

If there is one library whose mere name fires up one’s imagination, it is The Library of Alexandria, also known as The Great Library.  Founded around 300 BC, supposedly by Demetrius, a student of Aristotle, the library aimed to hold copies of all of the manuscripts in the known world.  It may have come close to that goal since it is reported to have had nearly 750,000 scrolls in its collection.  Their acquisition methods were suspect, but successful.  The great mystery surrounding the Library is that scholars are not sure how or when it was destroyed.  It was most likely a series of fires and plunderings over the years,  including rampages by the likes of Julius Caesar and invading Muslim armies.  Its legacy was not its lost collection, but the very idea of a house of knowledge where anyone can come to learn new things.

The Library with a Collection That Made Me Giddy

I’ve been to many libraries, but the one that was the coolest is the British Library in London.  It wasn’t so much their vast collection, but the works they have on display in their museum.  There I was able to stand in front of many marvelous works including illuminated manuscripts, a Gutenberg Bible, a First Folio, and – my personal favorite – Leonardo da Vinci’s workbook.  Simply amazing!  Visitors to their website can turn some of these famous pages online.

The “First” Libary

Did you know that Benjamin Franklin started the first library in the United States?  Well, he may have, but it depends on who you talk to.  Since I’m from Philadelphia, we say that our own Ben Franklin (after moving here from Boston) began the first public lending library in 1731.  Called The Library Company of Philadelphia, members paid money to belong with the rationale that combined and shared resources could produce a far greater collection than any one man of moderate means.  In a time when few people could afford their own collection of books, Franklin and company came up with a brilliant idea.  Franklin’s library is still in existence today as a research library, and his idea inspired free public libraries all over.

My First Library

When I was a child, my local branch of the system of Philadelphia Free Libraries was hardly older than me.  It was built in 1969 in the up-and-coming Northeast section of the city.  I probably found it a few years later when I began to read at age 5.  This particular branch was small, but it was close to my house.  I haven’t researched this, but it may well be one of the only public buildings in the US that is named after a Roman Catholic saint.  Shortly after opening, the library was named the Katherine Drexel Branch in honor of the famous local heiress (1858-1955).  I mean really local – our neighborhood is ground that once belonged to the Drexel family.   Katherine gave up her life of comfort to found a religious order of sisters that cared primarily for African Americans and Native Americans in the poorest parts of the US.  Mother Katherine was canonized a saint in 2000.  I think she’d be as proud about having a public library named after her as she would be about any other buildings!

The Library That Helped Me Graduate

The Free Library of Philadelphia, to which my first library belonged, is “headquartered” in downtown Philadelphia at 19th and Vine Streets.  Throughout high school and college, if you really needed to do some serious research for term papers, this was the place to go! Outside of Washington, DC, you don’t usually see buildings built quite like this one.  Shouldn’t all libraries be this huge and imposing?  This particular site of the library was built in 1926, but the Free Library of Philadelphia was officially established at other quarters in 1891.

Free Library of Philadelphia

My Favorite Fictional Library

Who wouldn’t want to visit the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, an old library of precious but forgotten titles.  Only a select few know about this library and can read these “lost” books.  If you love books, you’ll want to read The Shadow of the Wind, a 2001 novel by Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

The One, The Only…The Genealogical Library

There may be many genealogical libraries, but The One that has an impact on every genealogist is the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.  I’ve never been there in person, but without their holdings and the ability to borrow the films at local family history centers, my genealogical research would have never taken off.  Thank you!

If you like books, chances are you’ve been to a few libraries in your lifetime as well.  Which libraries are your favorites?  Be sure to go hug a librarian this week for National Library Week!

All in the Family

“You look just like your mother.” I heard this frequently growing up, and it wasn’t too hard to believe given that we both wore glasses and had similar hair color. And we’re both attractive (hey, I didn’t inherit modesty…) But then someone else would comment, “Oh, you look so much like your father.” Hmm… which is it? Because last I looked, Mom and Dad don’t look anything alike!

I’ve become fascinated with family resemblances, especially since my brother started having children of his own. While I’m extremely flattered by all of my co-workers who insist my eldest niece looks just like me, I’m starting to see her mother’s face every time I look at her. My younger niece also looks like her mother, except she has beautiful blue eyes (as opposed to her mother’s beautiful hazel-green eyes). The only person with blue eyes on either side of the family is my father, and we’re all amazed that the recessive gene finally broke through. My little nephew, however, is a clone of my brother, who in turn looked like our father – except my nephew also got his Pop-Pop’s blue eyes over his father’s brown ones.

As children grow up, and even as we age as adults, our looks change, so it is possible that one day we look more like one parent and the next day the other. But some traits are constant. My brown eyes? They’re from Mom, courtesy of the Zawodny brown trumping the Pater gray, but the shape comes from the Pater’s. My curly hair? Thanks, Dad, courtesy of the Bergmeister’s. I won’t assign any blame for the nearsightedness or other health issues. But what about those other traits – the non-physical elements that make us who we are? Is it possible to draw a personality family tree?

My parents each had many talents that I inherited, and many I did not. I owe my sense of humor to my father – to this day I can’t mention him to a school friend without the person commenting, “Your dad is so funny!” Well, I’m not quite that hysterical, but my odd, dry sense of humor – and the desire to make others laugh – definitely comes from Dad (but my laugh itself comes from my maternal grandmother’s one big, loud HA!). Mom has some wonderful talents including cooking, sewing, and dancing. Sadly, I inherited none of them! But, I did inherit her creativity. I apply it in different ways than she did, but it’s all Mom. And even though I am still learning to cook and not nearly as wonderful as she is or my grandmother was, at least I have their fine taste for good, home-cooked meals made with love. I may not be able to dance like either of my parents, but I sure do love movie musicals thanks to them!

When my eldest niece was about 3 years old, her grandfather – not my father, but her other grandfather, who had known me since I was a child – declared that she gave him “the Donna look”. It’s hard to describe, but it’s a slightly-condescending-what-are-you-kidding-me? look. Ten years later, she’s still giving The Look, and every time she tries it on me, I burst out laughing. I invented that look, so it doesn’t have its desired effect. Or did I invent it? It isn’t too difficult to imagine my grandmother getting punished for using “the look”! Maybe that is where I first learned it! Let’s just say that stubbornness runs in the family.

My youngest niece is now almost 3 years old, and she has a rather devious look that I also recognize quite well. Something interesting and creative will always be happening wherever she goes… Isn’t that the same smirk I see in the photo of my great-great-aunt? I can just imagine her beating up on her younger brother, my great-grandfather, the way little Ava pounces on hers. If deviousness is a trait, we have it and wear it proudly.

Many other interests and personality traits of mine lead me to believe I was adopted… I was recently pleasantly surprised to learn that my maternal grandfather was a voracious reader – so am I! But did he like Shakespeare or science fiction? I sure hope so, because no one else in the family does. Am I the only traveler? Well, maybe I inherited that gene from my immigrant ancestors, for wasn’t their immigration really an extreme form of travel? It’s ironic I now visit their homelands for pleasure. But there is one interest or trait that I definitely did not inherit…my love for genealogy. You see, no one else in the family is interested in that!

[Photo Collage of Pointkouski Babies from Donna’s personal collection. Top row – Natalie in 1995, Donna in 1967, and Ava in 2006. Also known as two sisters with their aunt in the middle. Bottom row – James in 1935, Nicholas James in 2007, and James Drew in 1959. Also known as Nicky in between his grandfather and father. The boys actually look much more alike than these photos show, but I’m pressed for time to meet the carnival deadline. Trust me – no DNA test needed to prove the physical traits in these three handsome men!]

[This post was written for the 46th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Family Traits!]

My Big, Old, Fast Favorite Car

Tracing our family’s “car genealogy” has been more difficult than tracing our family’s history, mostly because there are few photographs of our cars and few documents that were saved. The one stunning truth of this latest Carnival of Genealogy endeavor is that despite my love for photography since I was a youth, and despite my love for my parents’ car (later “my” car), I don’t have a single photograph of My Beloved. Perhaps that is why The Car has taken on mythical proportions in my memory. My parents and I can’t even get our memories in alignment on what it was! Well, it was definitely a Ford Torino. Or was it the Gran Torino? Was it a 1976? Hmm, maybe it was a ’74… Based on our collective memories and searching the internet for photos, let’s call it a 1974-76 Ford Gran Torino. (Yes, the Starsky and Hutch car, only not red with a white stripe.)

My parents bought the behemoth used, probably around 1978. At the time, I was only eleven years old, so I wouldn’t drive it for some time. My brother was 19, so he did drive it – and probably added a dent or two along the way. But, it was my mother’s car, and as such it was my primary means of transportation for a large part of my youth, teen years, and young adulthood. I finally got my license when I was 18 (when I could afford the insurance), and my mother insists that I “stole” it at that point. I thought we shared it, but Mom knows best.

Torino 1

The Torino is a legend, a chrome-bumpered baby-blue 4-wheeled Millennium Falcon — in other words, not too pretty on the outside, but oh could that baby move! Of course, it had been pretty on the outside up until my brother and I drove it. Unfortunately, the passenger side ran into one too many poles. Trim occasionally dropped off as you rode down the road. And in Philadelphia, rust was inevitable. But, that was just a disguise. All of the damage was on the right side of the car, so if I stopped at a red light in the left lane, I’d see someone to my right either give me a pitiful look or simply laugh outright. Sadly, I never got to see the look on their faces after the light turned green and I put several blocks between us in seconds. Ah, the days of the V-8 and affordable gas!

Besides the Torino’s speed, it was known for being big. Really big. Seriously big. My friend Rob christened it “The Anitaboat” long before I was licensed to drive it. “Anita” as the name of our chauffeur (that would be my mother), and “boat” because of its gargantuan size. The best thing about it was that you could fit at least 8 people quite comfortably – even more with a bunch of skinny teenagers. And, it was comfy, the equivalent of driving a sofa down the highway. Because of the lack of good shock absorbers, it was as bouncey as a sofa, too! In college, we had to relocate the staff and belongings of the yearbook office to another building that was not nearby. After trying to work out logistics, we simply drove over in my Torino, loaded up at least six people and tons of boxes, and drove to our new hideout to unload.

Torino 2

As we aged together and I drove farther distances to grad school and friends’ houses, my parents worried that The Car wouldn’t last. I disagreed, but one night in 1991 they did the unthinkable…they bought another car. To – deep breathreplace My Torino. I was working at the supermarket that night, and I remember the call with the so-called “good” news. This new interloper, this cheap young thing vying for my attention, was a sporty-looking 1987 Dodge Charger. “We’ll drive it up,” they said, “so you can drive your new car home!” “NO!” (I think the store manager came running over to see what happened down in my corner of the store.) “Please just let me drive The Torino home. One. Last. Time.” They did.

By then, it really wasn’t much to look at. The passenger side was dented and otherwise abused, and missing all of its trim. Rust was prevalent. The entire dashboard, including dashboard lights, the speedometer, and the fuel gauge, hadn’t worked for a few years after the car was hit from behind (no damage to the exterior…the car was a tank in disguise). But, despite its looks and brokenness, I loved that car. I’m not sure why – was it the memories? Was it because it had grown up with me and been a part of my life for so long? Even today, so many years later, I talk about The Torino like it was some spiffy, shiny classic vehicle that we should have kept. In reality, it went to the junkyard a couple of years after my parents’ friends’ son bought it from us.

Sure, I remember so many other cars from my life:

  • My Dad’s dark blue 1968 Oldsmobile (I think that’s what it was). A big armrest came down in the front seat that was just the right size for my child-size self to sit on. (Yes, no seat belts until I was a teen. No bike helmets either – it’s a wonder we all lived to adulthood.) On May 19, 1974, the Philadelphia Flyers won the Stanley Cup, and the city went mad. We loaded into this car with my girlfriend and drove around, clogging up the streets, everyone honking like it was New Year’s or some war was over.
  • My Mom’s light blue Ford LTD (early 70’s? I was just a kid, so it’s hard to pinpoint a year). This car was even bigger than The Torino…if possible…and you could fit about twelve kids in the back seat. At least that’s how I remember it.
  • My Aunt Joan’s maroon late-1960-something Ford Falcon. I thought this car was the coolest-looking car ever. Of course, at the time it was probably just an old piece of junk that was all she could afford, but to my young eyes it was the most exotic-looking vehicle I had ever seen, and I wanted one “when I grew up.”
  • Rob’s borrowed station wagon, whose roof began to leak as we drove through a car wash, desperately trying to catch the incoming water in Coke cans and laughing until we cried.
  • Fr. George’s stick-shift Honda Accord – how many teenagers can fit in the back?
  • Mary Frances’ tiny Ford Escort that helped me get my driver’s license (what, you thought I’d attempt that in My Beloved Tank?) and took us down to South Street.
  • Kathy’s Toyota Celica, with Louie sticking up through the sun-roof pretending to be the Pope.
  • My brother’s blue late-80-something Camaro, and feeling grown-up when he trusted me enough to let me drive it (under pain of death if anything happened to it).
  • The Italian cab in 1985 with Sandy when we began to laugh too hard to remember how to say “Please, slow down, dear God!” in Italian.
  • Scott’s tiny, white, foreign 2-seater convertible – the first second time I ever got to ride with the wind in my hair. (How could I have forgotten Lynn taking me for a ride in not only a ’68 Mustang convertible, but also a cool ’57 Chevy. Yes, now that was actually bigger than The Torino!)
  • Frank’s beat-up Ford F-250 pick-up that’s older than my sister-in-law but still works just fine today.

But none of these compares to My Torino. It wasn’t the first car I owned, nor the first car I bought all by myself. But in my memory, it’s larger than life. I’ve been looking to replace my sporty 2001 car with something new for about a year now. I’ve test-driven two of the “top” cars and neither made me “want” them. My problem would be solved if I could only find a 1976 blue Gran Torino…

I don’t have any video of all the good times I had in The Car, whether with my parents or my friends or both, but the intro to That 70’s Show always reminded me of those times…

[This post was written for the 45th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Cars as stars! What car played a starring roll in your family history and what roll did it play?.]

Family By Choice, Not Genes

They say that you choose your friends but not your family. But in some cases, friends choose each other to become family. Such is the case with “Father George.” Usually you only see priests in genealogy pages if they were a beloved uncle or brother. In this case, I refer to Fr. George as my adopted grandfather. Whether I adopted him or he adopted me is questionable! This week marked the 19th anniversary of his death. Because the parish he founded, Our Lady of Calvary in Philadelphia, is celebrating its 50th Jubilee this year, his life was celebrated in full that evening. Here is my tribute to my adopted “grandfather,” a great man who served God, country, and all men and women.

Father George Wierzalis
The Reverend Monsignor George S. Wierzalis preferred to be called “Father George” – he was a self-effacing man who eschewed fancy titles. He was born on April 16, 1910 in Shenandoah, PA. Feeling called to the priesthood early in life, he studied at a Polish seminary, Ss. Cyril and Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake, Michigan, and was ordained on May 30, 1936. He served as a young priest in several churches in Philadelphia and the surrounding area. During World War II he served as a chaplain with the Army and Army Air Corps. He served for over two years in the Pacific Theater, and he was one of twelve Catholic chaplains (58 chaplains in total) who assisted on Iwo Jima. Because of his service there, he earned the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. The devastating loss of lives on Iwo Jima greatly affected Fr. George, and he never liked to talk about his time as a chaplain.

After other assignments as a hospital chaplain and a pastor, Fr. George was asked to become pastor of a brand new parish in Philadelphia in 1958 – Our Lady of Calvary. The “far northeast” area of the city of Philadelphia was still undeveloped in 1958 and looked much more like farmland than a cityscape. As more Philadelphians began to move north out of the congested city streets, entire neighborhoods were developed. Our Lady of Calvary parish, or OLC, filled the needs of many Catholics who moved into this “new” area. As a pastor in the 1960s and 1970s, Fr. George was a forward-thinker and instituted ideas that are modern by today’s standards. He believed that every child deserved a good education, and OLC was the only Catholic school for many years that did not charge tuition, depending rather on the generosity of the parents based on their own financial conditions.

Fr. George was a very imposing figure to the school children – probably because he still walked with a military bearing, straight and tall. Younger children assumed he was God Himself! But he was far from stern, as I learned when I began to work at the rectory as a teenager. Fr. George treated “his girls” in the rectory and “his boys” working as sacristans very well, and he was always concerned with how we were doing in school and in life. How many other priests would get visited by teenagers on their way to proms, just so they could show off their pretty dresses and fancy tuxedos? He would smile, laugh, and send us on our way. He’d often pass us envelopes with “book money” for school, asking that we kept it confidential so other kids wouldn’t feel left out. I don’t think there were any kids to be left out though, because years later I found out that he bestowed these gifts to many of us.

Fr. George died on January 31, 1989, but his presence is still strong both in the church he founded and in the people whose lives he touched. I wish that I had known him as an adult rather than as a teenager, because there are many things that I would like to ask him now. But the one lesson he taught me was – don’t take yourself too seriously. Know that you are where God wants you to be – Love God, live your life, and have fun doing it. Thanks, Father George!

Finding Cousins in Bavaria

I come from a rather small family, and I didn’t even know my own first cousins until about six years ago. Once they reached adulthood, my parents kept in touch with very few of their own cousins, but they did remember a lot of names. Because our surnames are not too common, I was able to use their memories to seek out my second cousins over the years, both by email and regular mail. In every case, I offer to share my research and I beg for copies of any photos they have. Results have been mixed. Most folks are friendly, but they aren’t really interested in the genealogy details. And as for photos, no luck yet except for copies of photos already in my possession.

At the farthest extreme, one second cousin insisted that I was wrong about some facts and stopped all contact. At the opposite end of the spectrum, another became a good friend and gave me one our great-grandfather’s Bavarian beer steins for Christmas (to date, one of my bests Christmas presents ever).

One of the best connections I’ve made was more distant, both in degree and location, when I connected with my 3rd and 4th Bergmeister cousins in Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Bavaria, Germany.

C. Bergmeister bldg

On my first visit to Pfaffenhofen in 1998, I was awestruck to find a building in the hauptplatz with the name “C. Bergmeister” on it. It’s a bakery! My great-grandfather Joseph Bergmeister was a baker! But wait…who was “C”? At that point in my research, I didn’t know. Attempts to communicate in the bakery were disastrous; my German is pitiful and their English-speaking associates must have been off that day.

After more research at home, I learned that C. Bergmeister was Castulus Bergmeister (1845-1912), son of Jakob Bergmeister (1805-1870). I descend from Jakob also, but from his son Joseph (1843-c.1885), which would make Castulus the uncle of my great-grandfather, Joseph (1873-1927), son of Joseph. Since Joseph (Jr) was married in Pfaffenhofen, worked as a baker, and his uncle owned a bakery there, chances are he worked for family – a family still running the bakery 108 years after he left Germany for the US.

Through the internet and some German-speaking friends, I contacted the bakery owners, and their son Hans replied in English. We exchanged emails occasionally, but when I knew I’d be “in the neighborhood” on a trip to Europe in 2006, I asked if I could visit. The next thing I knew, Bavarian hospitality was in full swing. No, we won’t recommend a hotel because you’re staying with us. No, we won’t give you directions, because we’re picking you up at the airport. Even though they weren’t even sure how I was related, they opened their homes and hearts to me. And as to how we would communicate, well, we’d figure that out when I arrive…

With some nervous trepidation on both sides, we finally met. Before dinner on my first evening there, I brought out my pedigree chart. Moments later, their chart was produced. Heads leaned over the dining table as we scrutinized each other’s data, and we simultaneously pointed to the common ancestor, Jakob. “We never knew any Bergmeister’s went to the US!” We both gained information – my research ended two generations back from Jakob with his grandfather Paul, who was born approximately in 1724 and died in 1784. Hans went back one generation more than I did! His chart named Paul’s father as Martin Bergmeister (1689-1752). This was a surprise since I thought my research in the Bergmeister’s original home village of Puch ended when the old records did.

By week’s end, my cousins’ English became far better than my German will ever be. I had many great experiences: dining with the extended family, visiting the cemetery and church, and spending an afternoon searching through boxes and boxes of unmarked photos in hopes of seeing a familiar face. It was the kind of genealogical magic I only dreamed of when I started out on this journey.

I didn’t want to show photos of my cousins without their permission, but you can see live images of the main square (hauptplatz) with Pfaffenhofen’s webcam, or you can take a virtual visit of the Bergmeister Bäckerei — serving the best pretzels in Bavaria since 1868!

[Submitted for the 40th Carnival of Genealogy: Living Relative Connections]