Monday, August 3, 2015

Who Do You Think You Are?: J.K. Rowling

I love it when a family story gets debunked and that is just what happened to J.K. Rowling in last night's episode of WDYTYA? Now that is not to say that I like to see any one's dreams dashed, but history should not be a fantasy.

For those of you who are not familiar with Rowling, who is called Jo amongst her friends and family, she is the famed author of the Harry Potter series of books.

In this episode she explored her mother's French ancestry, focusing initially on her great-grandfather, Louis Volant, who apparently is not to be confused with Louis Volant.

Rowling's family lore had her believing that her great-grandfather, like herself, had been the recipient of the esteemed Legion d'Honneur; France's National Order of the Legion of Honor award first establish by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. She comes to find out, though, that the Louis Volant who received the honor was not her Louis Volant. 

Who would have thunk that there could be two men with the same name? (This is the point at which hundreds of Harry Potter's drop me a comment to declare their shock and dismay at their inability to cast spells.)

Rowling did learn, however, that her Louis was decorated for his brave service in WWI. And she appeared to be more moved by that knowledge than by the disappointment that he had not received the Legion d'Honneur; as it should be.

She also learned that several generations of her foremother's were single parents, just as she had once been. One of those single mother's was Louis Volant's mother, Salome Schuch and as evidenced by the record of her great-grandfather's birth at the Paris Hospital Archives, Louis was illegitimate. As an illegitimate child he was given his mother's maiden name at birth. Later documents reveal Salome, the single Parisienne servant, eventually becomes a dress maker and marries Pierre Volant, who took on Louis as his own son.  However, it is still unclear if he was or was not the biological father of Louis. Now there was a time when genealogists would have shrugged and left the paternity a mystery but now with the ubiquity of DNA testing, we might be able to resolve that question for Rowling.

As I often say, life is a struggle! There is no shame in survival. Legitimate or not, recipient of a one award or another, the struggles of Rowling's ancestors is still something she should be quite proud of; as should you be of your forebearers.

Next week's episode of WDYTYA? on Sunday, August 9 at 9 p.m. on TLC focuses on the ancestry of actress Alfre Woodard.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Who Do You Think You Are?: Ginnifer Goodwin

It has been a while since I blogged. I've been busy with genealogy, though, and ushering relatives into the world of Ancestry DNA but I haven't really had the time to write.

The new season of Who Do You Think You Are? aired last night, though, and I like to write my reviews of these genealogy research vignettes while they are still fresh in my mind. And so, I am back on the blog...

...and maybe in time I will catch up on writing about my own summer family research. In time.

The first episode of this season of WDYTYA focused on the family history of actress Ginnifer Goodwin who played Margene Heffman in the HBO series Big Love. Ginnifer starts the episode by stating that she knew a great deal about 3 of her grandparents' heritage but nearly nothing about her paternal grandfather, John B. Goodwin. As the episode progresses we see there is a good reason for that; Grandpa John's relationship with his parents was undoubtedly painful.

In speaking with her father about his recollections of the Goodwin family, he expressed to Ginnifer that he wished he had asked his father more questions when he was alive.

This comment made me recall an informal family history interview I had with my maternal grandfather. My Grandpa Gardner's love for his children and grandchildren was palpable but he was not terribly forthcoming with information about his past or his family's past. Although many might argue with me on this, I believe that regardless of it being YOUR family history, someone's past is not necessarily any of your business and perhaps it was best for the Goodwins to wait until Grandpa John had passed to go rifling around in his childhood and upbringing.

By all means ask your loved ones while they are alive about their knowledge of family history but don't press them to stir up painful memories; that is simply unkind.

In any case, Ginnifer learned her great grandmother's real maiden name by obtaining a copy of her Grandpa John's SS-5; the application for a Social Security number. This program began in 1935 and although I have never used this type of resource in my research, it can obviously prove very useful to a researcher. It was evident to me, though, that Ginnifer's grandfather concealed his mother's maiden name on purpose. I suspect he did not want to revisit his relationship with his mother who could blame him.

The discovery of John Goodwin's mother's maiden name leads Ginnifer on journey through court records, divorce decrees, prison records, and hospital documents. Her grandpa John may have been better off on his own at age 11 then with his mother who suffered a series divorces from men who had more than mere run-ins with the law. John's biological father, Al Goodwin, was sent to federal prison for bootlegging. His mother and his step-father, Hugh Wyllie, were dealing narcotics at one point. And both John's mother, Nellie Haynes-Williams-Goodwin-Wyllie,  and his half sister, Pearl Williams, wound up hospitalized for addiction to morphine, a commonly prescribed painkiller at the time.

It was not a pleasant history to unravel but many are not. And whether any of us would like to explore them or not, a wealth of family histories are buried in court records. Don't be surprised, or disappointed, or ashamed to discover you have an ancestor or two who's suffering is documented in court records. Life is hard, people.

Next week's episode which airs on TLC on Sunday, August 2 at 9 pm, focuses on author J.K. Rowling's family history.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Summer Family Reunion of Sorts.

Every summer I go away for my birthday on a road trip. I insist that if one is not home for his/her birthday than it doesn't count. I will be 28 again...for the 13th time. I'm getting really good at being 28. Anyway...

This summer I was invited to stay with cousins in Minnesota. Cousins I met through genealogy research.

Many years ago I found a message board post regarding my great grandfather's sister; Florence V. Desjardins which lead me to Cousin Robert who in turn connected me to his brother, my Cousin Chris. We did not meet in person. All of our communication had been online. Then two years ago Cousin Chris's wife, Cousin Barb, came to New York for a business trip and she and I met. Now they have invited me to come visit.

I am excited!

Cousin Chris isn't much into genealogy but I plan to bring with me all the documents I have accumulated regarding our common ancestors; Great-Great Grandpa Damas Desjardins (a.k.a. Thomas Gardner) and Great-Great Grandma Malvina Ethier-Desjardins. I have neat things about them: Malvina's naturalization papers with a photo of her, Damas's obituary, etc.

I also have some documents regarding Cousin Chris's great grandparents: Their marriage record showing Florence needed her mother's consent to marry at age 16.

But my most favorite things: Newspaper articles!! Yeah apparently Chris's great grandpa and another of the Desjardins siblings got themselves into a lot of trouble in their youth. Breaking and entering, drunk driving, etc. Yeah - - that sounds like family.

The most important thing I want to share with Cousin Chris is that although our own immediate families are not what one would consider tight, there was a time when they were. After my Great Grandfather Albert died his wife went to live with Chris's great grandma Florence. And after Florence passed, my great grandma, Mamie, continued to live with her husband's brother-in-law who was Chris's great grandfather, Elbert. By the way, Elbert was my Grandpa Clarence's favorite uncle.

I have letters written by Great Grandma Mamie that tell a great deal about Chris's great grandparents. So although there has been quite a bit of distance and estrangement down the diverging lines for all sorts of reasons, there was a time when our family was close - - and there can be again. Although I have yet to even stand near, no less hug, my Cousin Chris, I feel like this is a bit of a family reunion. And I am deeply looking forward to it.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Some Genealogical Mysteries

Back in March I started a new job. Once a month for half a day I am the genealogy librarian at a public library. I have four 1 hour one-on-one sessions with library patrons who sign up in advance.

So far it has been a wonderful experience really but I think some of these genealogy television programs have given people the impression that a genealogist clicks a few buttons and all your family mysteries can be solved lickety-split. Au contraire mon frère! That is not the case, my brother.

If you are just starting your genealogy research, I can show you tons of things; websites, resources. I can give you pointers on how to read census records, or ship manifests. And I might quickly be able to find your relatives in those kinds of records BUT those shows you see, Genealogy Roadshow, Finding Your Roots, Who Do You Think You Are?, they have lots of lead time and many genealogists at work behind the scenes. Me? I'm just me; learning about your family for the first time.

If you have done in depth research on your own and you can't unpuzzle the mysteries then I probably can't either in a one hour session.

And sadly, some genealogical mysteries will forever remain unsolved.

Say it ain't so, April!
No, it's true!

Records do not extend back to the beginning of man. In fact, most people would be lucky to get through the 1800s. We just weren't that big on record keeping until the mid 1800s. And not all records remain intact. Unbelieveable, I know, but shit disappears. Where are my tax returns from last year...hmm. But I digress.

Some genealogical mysteries are just part of they mysteries of life.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Finally a Match!

For those of you who regularly read this blog you may know of Cousin Mary over at Threading Needles in a Haystack. She and I are 6th cousins once removed. My father and Cousin Mary have the same 5th great-grandparents; Jacob Raynor and Rebecca Raynor-Raynor. Jacob is a solid brickwall and although I grumble about him frequently, pretty convinced he was an alien dropped here from a far-off solar system, he is how Mary and I met. We connected through a shared record on probably 10 years ago now.

When I initially took my AncestryDNA test, a year or two ago, it said it could match with relatively good confidence genetic matches up to 6th cousins. I had hoped Mary and I would match, but we did not. That is not to say that we are not related. Oh we are but due to the recombinant nature of DNA she and I do not share the same sequence of DNA proteins from Jacob or Rebecca.

Since I took my test I have had several of my close relatives also take the test. It helps to both widen and deepen the pool from which to discover connections. So far, my dad, my sister, half-sister, two uncles, and two second cousins have taken the AncestryDNA test. Today the results came in for my Uncle Thomas and for the first time the results show that Cousin Mary and Uncle Thomas have a DNA match!


Now really all that does is scientifically confirm what Cousin Mary and I already knew. We're cousins! But oh, it's exciting to see one's research confirmed.


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Who Do You Think You Are?: Groban, Harmon, and Hayes

Although I have not had the time to write my review for these last three episodes of WDYTYA? until now, I have been watching them as soon as they aired on Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on TLC; March 15, March 22, and March 29, 2015 respectively.  I hate cramming 3 reviews into one post but to do so means the highlights really rise to the surface.

Episode 2 of this season, Season 6, featured the family history of musician Josh Groban. (God, my mother loves him.) With the help of several genealogists, Josh tracked down his German ancestry. He learns that his 8th great-grandfather, Johann Zimmermann, was not only a religious leader, but also a music teacher & astronomer. In fact, he was such a well known astronomer in his time that Issac Newton referred to him in his own writings. Impressive!

But Josh's ancestor's astronomical sighting of Haley's Comet in 1682 lead him to predict cataclysmic doom which put him at odds with the church and thus forced him to head to the New World. Sadly, he never reached these new shores because he dies at sea. Sort of an anticlimactic ending for him.

What I loved most about this episode was Josh's reaction to learning of his ancestor's musical ability. I find that people love to credit their talents to genetics but the more and more I research family histories, the more inclined I am to believe that environment dictates talent so much more than genetics.

On her journey, actress Angie Harmon uncovered the life story of her 5th great grandfather, Michael Harman, who came America as indentured servant in the 1770s and went on to fight in the American Revolution. That means that, like myself, Angie could join the Daughters of the American Revolution. I hope that she does because Angie was so enamored by this man. In fact, she was so in love with him that it felt that some significant part of his story was left out. I mean I am sure tons get edited out of these episodes, and I do understand what it is like to deeply connect with an ancestor, but she was just SO in love with Great-Great-Great-Great-Great Grandpa Michael Harman, it seemed a little - - much. That being said though, it kind of was my favorite aspect of this episode. You really can build significant bonds with your ancestors even though you have never met them, never will, probably will never even get to see a picture of them. It's a magical thing this genealogy research; the way it connects you to history and people.

Episode 4 featured one of my favorite actors, Sean Hayes. He played Jack on Will and Grace, the ever flamboyant gay neighbor. Sean's research lead him through a history of estrangement between his forefathers and their sons. Well, technically, those sons were also Sean's forefathers, hmm, but again, I digress. This is a type of family story is one that I am quite familiar with researching.
Estranged from his own father, Sean traveled to Chicago to learn the sad details of his paternal grandfather’s life. Not only did his grandfather die very young, at the age of 40, he also suffered an obvious decline into poverty. He didn't "die in the gutter" though, as Sean had been told but he was living in a flop house and died destitute.
Sean then follows the Hayes ancestral line back to Ireland, where court records show deep roots of estrangement and many relatives' brushes with the law. Through his research Sean comes to more deeply understanding his own broken relationship with his father. What I truly admire and appreciate is Sean's ability to not place blame.

Next week's episode features actor/director Tony Goldwyn. Tony is the grandson of media mogul Samuel Goldwyn which lends this episode to potential be quite dramatic.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Who Do You Think You Are?: Julie Chen

Quite honestly, I didn't know who Julie Chen was but it didn't matter to me. I was so excited for the start of a new season of Who Do You Think You Are? that it could have been about an inanimate object, I would have tuned in to see it. Not surprisingly, though, Julie Chen and her ancestry is a whole hell of a lot more interesting than say a rock.

Chen is an American television personality and has been the host of the reality show Big Brother since it debuted in July of 2000. Obviously, it is not a show I watch. She is also a host on The Talk and an anchor on The Early Show. Again, I obviously don't watch morning television.

A few aspects of her upbringing struck me as intriguing right away. One, she was born and raised in Bayside, Queens. I had friends that grew up there and are around her age. maybe they knew each other...

And she is of Chinese descent and I have distant cousins who are also of Chinese ancestry and I know next to nothing about Chinese genealogical research. So I was captivated by this episode.

Not knowing a language other than English has impeded my genealogy research in European and even Canadian records. Reading Chinese seems even more challenging to me than trying to read French or German or even Czech. And Chinese naming patterns are entirely foreign to me. Julie, even though she is able to speak Chinese and knew some written Chinese, had various translators with her throughout her journey through China.

Julie first visited the National Library of Singapore where she met with Jason Lim, a historian from the University of Wollongong. Julie had seen her grandfather's English language obituary but there was more detail revealed in the Chinese language newspaper. There it described her grandfather as  having an "improper" childhood without an explanation as to what about it was "improper." This description perplexed and stayed with Julie through most of the episode. I could relate to that feeling of having to unpuzzle that description.

It was later revealed that her great-grandfather was appointed by the Emperor to oversee the Imperial Examination of young scholars. That position ended when the Dynasty abolished the exam, forcing Julie's grandfather to enter the workforce at just  13 years old in order to help support the family.

She learn the grandfather she never knew but had thought had always been so privileged actually made his own way in this world. I liked that this episode that further research into the lives of our ancestor can correct our sometimes improper and inform our always incomplete vision of the lives our ancestors led.

It was worth the watch and you can check it out online at