Choosing Family

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We’ve all heard the saying, “You can’t choose your family.” I said this very statement while discussing family outcasts in our family tree with a new-found cousin. Good, bad or ugly, it seems we are just born, raised, and no matter what, we are stuck with the family we have. Serendipity played quite a hand to me over this past week, as did the U.S. election, which made me undertake a full emotional review of what or whom family really is.

Over the last two months, I have been working with an AncestryDNA match of mine at 32cM who was listed as a 4th cousin. It was on my paternal side and because I am estranged from that side of the family, I haven’t really pursued my matches on that side. What made this person unique is that he was related to me and didn’t know his birth parents, he was chosen by his adoptive parents.

Using his DNA match results, I immediately found high matches to him, at 1st cousin range as well as an Aunt. I branched out on my tree and added these new family members. Scouring old newspapers and obituaries, I was able to pinpoint who I thought could be his mom.  As luck would have it, I found her. I also found a half-sister for my new-found cousin. I had worked day and night to piece together how they belonged to each other, and how they belonged on my tree. I spoke with his half sister over Skype and marveled at how familiar she looked to me and how much there was a family resemblance on that side.

What really struck me was how open this new sister’s heart was, as well as that of her new-found half-brother. They’ve now spoken to each other and need to figure out how to move forward in each other’s lives, as real blood family. He chose me, an unknown cousin, to help him find his mother, who made the very difficult choice of letting someone else be the family who raised him. Now, they’ve chosen to be part of each other’s lives and mine. As a genealogist, this is beyond thrilling and quite a highlight of my passionate work!

In the span of a week, I went from the elation of finding a person’s birth family to hitting rock bottom over the choice in the U.S. election outcome. I’ve remained professional and kept any discussion of politics off of my professional presence in social media for the entire election.

For most of my adult work life, I have sat side by side with a widely diverse group of colleagues. We’ve solved problems on the job together, celebrated weddings,  babies and birthdays, traveled together, encouraged each other through tough times, and socialized outside of work. When you spend that amount of time with people, you really get to know them, experience them, and appreciate them for who they are, where they come from, and what’s important and of value to them. You see how they treat others, who they associate with, what they stand up for, and what they stand against. If I could choose family, many people in this group would be leaves on my tree.

What I have witnessed on both sides of this moment in U.S. history is how the divide is so great, even real family can’t build a bridge. It’s during the most trying of times, that you see who’s got your back, and who doesn’t. I have chosen to be a safe haven for chosen family and other alienated members of society, and made the easy choice to let some blood family members go. If beyond the likes on a Facebook post, there’s no real connection, no dialogue, no attempt, no common values, and instead a chosen side with privilege and/or ignorance, I choose to be on the side of history that protects all members of our global family.

Virtual Gramma – Look Her In The iPAD!

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As a genealogist, I come across many family migration stories. Several generations ago, many people left everything and everyone behind for a new life; often to never communicate again.

Women sometimes left small children behind, men left entire families, with the intent to one day bring them over to reunite with him. There are many happy endings to these journeys; there are also relatives who were left behind posting in newspapers, searching for loved ones who they hoped made it to the promise land. The heartbreak that occurred would be insurmountable I imagine, regardless of how tough and brave our ancestors were.

If they did connect again, it was through the postal service and what we call “snail mail” now. And the letters traveled on ships and took what must have seemed a lifetime to reach home. And then traveled by plane. I’ll spare the history lesson right there; it took a long time by todays standards. I myself recall buying special air mail paper to correspond with friends who left for Europe after college.

Now for my own family’s migration story which I never could have foreseen. It’s been a year and a half since our small family including three pets (two cats and a dog) boarded a plane for Australia. This decision was a big one, especially in the sense of being an only child and taking the only grandchildren away from their Gramma in the States. She was devasted when my husband had a job offer in Pittsburgh, but this? We ripped her heart out, but we took it with us.

Gramma is with us virtually now. She’s on Facebook and I am a super poster with her and the rest of family and friends we left behind in mind. We FaceTime on a near daily basis. She joins us for breakfast, sometimes lunch, occasionally dinner (during daylight savings) because she’s sleeping on her side of the world. She joined us just today when I brought my eldest daughter to lunch. Good thing I have a great data plan on my iPhone! She is there with us at swim lessons, our hotel stay this past weekend, and we are there with her when she travels to Colorado to see her sister, and when she sings with the band on a night out. Gramma even gets captured in family photos while on the iPad.

PiperGramma

Things you hear around our house:

“Look her in the iPad when she’s talking to you!”

“Take Gramma with you upstairs to watch you play.”

“Don’t moon Gramma and Papa!”

“Talk to Gramma first and then you can play on the iPad!”

Gramma has watched them grow in height and vocabulary and she hears the ruckus of us trying to get them ready and out the door for school on time. She’s there for the yelling, the tears, the injuries (although she was spared of the head getting cracked open on a rock because we were FaceTimeing with her Colorado sister at the time!!) and the living room dancing, plays, and songs.

When we ask our kids which country they like best to live in, the lightning-fast response is the U.S.. Why? Because Gramma and Papa are there. They don’t mention other reasons like friends or places they miss (no offense folks!). And it’s not just because they are family and visited for 2 weeks last year. It’s because they are a constant in their lives and share stories every day. Maybe it’s also the care packages…

Technology is our lifeline and I don’t use that term lightly. It is the bridge between us and family in the States. Our own iPads and iPhones, and all of our Apple products really, are worth every pretty penny. In pennies-per-use and the family glue as a result, these devices pay for themselves again and again. The best thing is being there and we will see Gramma when we travel to the States next month!

No doubt you have your own virtual stories, so feel free to share!

Trans-forming the Family Tree

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You’ve finally gotten your 2nd, 3rd, maybe even 4th generation family tree completed, because everyone is currently living or you’ve been there for someone’s death, and ordered that massive canvas wall print to give as a gift to everyone during the holidays.

Then you get a Facebook friend request from someone who shares a family surname and you figure, oh it’s just a distant cousin by marriage. Then you click on the person’s page. There’s something very recognizable about the person’s picture, although you think she’s a celebrity, so why is she contacting you?

And then, it hits you like a ton of bricks, but oddly at the same time as if those bricks then become light bulbs, and everything made sense… Cousin Brian is now cousin Bree.

This is precisely how I and several other family members were introduced to our transgender (male to female) cousin.

The last time I saw my cousin as Brian, it was almost 2 years ago. Before that, I believe it was 1993 at a family reunion. The time in between was painted like this is my mind: Brian was a successful, intelligent, and dedicated businessman, had a wonderful family with 2 kids, and enjoyed time with friends. I always found him to be off the radar though, which I assumed was because he was tireless in his business as CEO and providing for his family. Our paths sometimes crossed through email and centered on our family’s history. We are second cousins; our grandmothers were sisters. He had started documenting the tree long before I had, and in collaboration with my mom. Once I got the genealogy bug, we stayed in touch on things as they related to our family.

We had such a nice visit 2 years ago when Brian was in my neck of the woods at a conference. My mom traveled up to see him too. It was a warm, fun visit, full of laughter. I remember when we parted; I wished I had known him better as I was growing up because I really enjoyed him as a person.

Today, it’s as if I’ve gained the relationship I had longed for then. Bree is the same sweet soul inside, and is absolutely on the radar now with a very active Facebook page and social life to fuel it. She’s also sold her former company and has more time to spend catching up now as well as documenting her physical transformation from male to female. We had a near 4-hour marathon conversation shortly after I accepted that friend request. I already love my new and improved cousin!

So now that the family has met Bree, either in person or virtually, there’s no difference to her being an important part of our family. This post is not to be filled with the particulars of our family journey or hers, but to create a discussion about how to respectfully address these new members on our trees. We need to because it is so relevant to genealogy, family history, and prevalent in our society.

If you don’t yet know of a transgender relative, it won’t be long before you’ll be making updates to your tree! Some prevalence data might surprise you.

http://www.gendercentre.org.au/resources/polare-archive/archived-articles/how-many-of-us-are-there.htm

As a genealogist, I want to get this right and respectfully handle the update or entry of a transgender family member on the tree. I’ve seen random bits of input from many in genealogy forums, however it’s from the genealogist’s perspective, not the transgender person.

I’ve never heard that sharing this deeply physiological and emotional information with the world is an easy one. Many transgender people just want to “blend in” and not draw attention. Some are visible advocates for the population. And often when the transition is complete, it’s not a mere name change update on the family tree putting down “aka”, or “formerly known as” and picking the opposite gender silhouette.

This process isn’t frivolous or a trend and there is a wealth of thought and emotion that are entwined with the transition process, which in itself has varying degrees.

Transgender people have to go to great lengths just “to be me”. Birth certificate, social security, drivers license, passports, taxes, all require significant documentation to be changed and some states/countries do not allow it. If you’ve been married and changed your name, you already know the cumbersome process, now multiply it by 100.

Once the name change is complete, it becomes a “dead name” in the transgender mind. Just as families may feel the experience is like death, in losing the person you once knew, it’s also a right of passage for this new and true being to emerge. On public trees, transgender people want to be seen as who they are, not who they were.

This poses great challenges to us genealogists, as future generations won’t have the paper trail to follow while using the new name. It also becomes confusing on a tree as those who were/are married may appear as if in a homosexual relationship which is now commonplace in society. If they had children, it would be as if the children had two moms or dads.

Another challenge to getting this right is the limitations of the major family tree software companies and organizations. There’s no transgender option to choose. I dare say, there may never be. Two major players in this space, Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org are Mormon-run. To get over this Granite Mountain sized hurdle, they would have to agree to accept transgender as an option.

Without delving further into the religious aspects of this, in the meantime we need to work around this to do our best to leave a breadcrumb trail in history from the person of today to the person who biologically arrived on this earth in the past. I don’t have the answers, but I’m hoping we can start the dialogue and gain ideas that truly transform the family tree.

Silhouettes with flag

Judging A Family Tree By Its Cover

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Out of my blog hiatus I come to tackle an important topic that I’ve seen on many message boards. My hiatus and this topic are closely entwined. Hopefully this reaches many people and changes their hearts about why people do DNA testing on Ancestry.com and then either don’t connect their results to a family tree, have very few people on their tree, or keep their trees private.

My hiatus was the outcome of getting a DNA test back on a family member that turned out to be half related to me. The detective in me focused every bit of spare time and effort to figuring out this mystery; I’m still in the midst of it.

I began with a shared DNA match to this family member and then viewed that person’s tree, created a mirror tree from that info, and made it a private tree. Then I found another match, added that branch to the mirror tree, and so on…. I currently have about 10 matches and their direct ancestor line created on this huge 1000+-person tree now. I’ve compared centimorgans across these matches and determined how people relate to each other. I’ve scoured obituaries to add as many living descendants as possible. This is in part, an effort to place my family member on the right leaf of this tree. Due to the highly sensitive nature of my work, I made the tree private and access by invitation only.

Of course as I found close matches, I was hungry to see their tree to confirm theories of shared common ancestors. More often than not, I was met with no tree attached to the DNA match result, a tree of just a few folks and they were showing as “Private”, and trees that were entirely made private. I’ve shared the frustration like most people on the message boards and Facebook pages. Why do the DNA test if you’re not willing to attach a tree or make it public so you can connect to relatives?

What I’ve learned throughout this 4-month hiatus is that people are taking the Ancestry DNA test for many reasons. Some have learned they were adopted and want to know who their long lost family members are. Some were never told the correct birth parent and their birth parent never knew they existed. Some people simply want to know their ethnicity and aren’t interested in their family tree. Some have taken the DNA test to help others who are on the hunt for family and either they relate to them or sadly they don’t; the result just sits there on Ancestry. Some don’t know how to connect their results to their tree yet, plain and simple. Some people want to have zero of their personal information floating in cyberspace. There are many reasons, both profound and simple, given the intricate nature of families.

I didn’t realize this blogging hiatus would become one of my greatest purposes as a professional genealogist. Because of this personal family pursuit, I’m getting close to finding a birth mother for one person, and on the trail to find two other birth fathers for matches. Sure, it’s a beautiful thing when we can collaborate and share what we know, but it’s important to realize and respect those who don’t share the same purpose. I encourage everyone when they see that lock on the tree or no tree at all, to contact that person in a gracious way and see what happens; try not to judge a family tree by its cover.

Turkey legs and it’s a small world

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Our recent family trip to Disney World was both an exciting adventure for our little ones as well as chaotic!!
Most parents who have been there (and judging by the parental faces I saw there) would agree!

Our first day in Magic Kingdom was full of fun and a quest for princesses. Following my husband’s and oldest daughter’s wild ride on Splash Mountain, we were meandering back toward the castle and grabbed turkey legs to munch on. It was something I had my heart set on before we even arrived but they were so hot to hold and hard to eat–not to mention greasy! On our way to find a place to sit and snack we briefly ran into Tiana from “Princess and the Frog”. She is an all time favorite of our daughter’s but even princesses need a break and that’s where she was headed. Oh no, no photopass pic or autograph for our books?! OK Tiana, when will you be back? 5pm, ok we need to wait an hour in line; can we hang that long?

We did on a nice covered bench near her “station” and proceeded to try and eat those turkey legs. An older couple sat down at the bench near us with their sleeping grandson in a stroller. After a short while the woman asked me if my turkey leg was good as she’d always wondered about how they tasted. I told her it was all of the aforementioned things above and was ok. She then went on to ask about the ages of our girls, talked about her grandson and then said they were from St. Petersburg.

I’ve always thought that there’s always a slim chance people you meet know people you know. So I asked and gave the name of the cousin I found doing my personal family tree research (also living in St. Pete’s). This was the same cousin (if you read my earlier posts) that I went out of my comfort zone and state to meet in person. The one I had a non-stop fun-filled weekend with at casino, church and beach! Yep, this woman knew who she was, in fact she was so excited to tell me how their sons were best friends growing up. She asked me to take a photo of them and email it to my cousin and say “Hi”. Done. Right, this was was what I was thinking….It’s a Small World. But oddly enough, we never got around to going on that ride this trip.

Have you ever had what seemed like a casual conversation (in this case turkey legs?!) which turned into something much more meaningful? Did you ever meet an unknown relative or friend of a friend this way? Please post a response if you care to share your story.

Celebrating Oktoberfest in my tree!

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My personal family tree is quite built out, extending in some cases tens of generations. However, as is the case in some families, I am actually estranged from my biological father’s family including him. It’s ok, I’ve moved on! That part of my tree for some time has lacked “shaky leaves” on ancestry.com or any potential leads as I knew very little about that side or any maiden names. What I could recall since childhood was the German name Eichler (my paternal grandmother’s maiden name I thought) which for me helped define my “mixed bag of ethnic make up” of being part-German. When asked about my ancestry, I would say “I am Irish, Scottish, French and German”, in the order of what I believe the percentage of that makeup is.
In my own tree research I tend to focus on the brick walls and uncovering interesting nuggets of historical significance or colorful stories. I haven’t tended to the other side of the tree so it in itself hit a brick wall. If it weren’t for my mom bringing to attention an Eichler obituary from back home, I might not have done anything until I had some spare time—that would be a while.
At first I couldn’t understand how the obit fit in, was she my grandmother’s sister or Aunt? My mom shared another surname Nash that I vaguely recalled hearing. Once I plugged those names in to my tree on ancestry.com, those shaky leaves started appearing. I kept checking and verifying each new discovery. Coupled with an online historical newspaper site I use frequently, I was able to piece together the Eichler history and what I found was amazing.
The first Eichler immigrant came from Neustadt, Prussia (where it’s wine not beer being celebrated!). This Eichler (my 3rd great grandfather) married a Barry from Ireland and started both a family and a family bakery in Utica, NY. With my penchant for pastries and cake (and celebration of wine), this explains a lot. {Quick historical note for family still in NY, the bakery was on Bleecker Street in the location where Chanatry’s eventually built their first grocery store.}
From the Eichler/Barry union came a son who married a Servatius. It was tracing the Servatius line back that I discovered additional immigrants from Prussia and Baden (Schrempf married Servatius). Familiar to my New York family (those old enough to remember ), the John J. Servatius Sons wallpaper and paint (hardware) store at 1036-38 Whitesboro St.Columbia Square was this family’s economic contribution to Utica.
So as I wrap up another October, it’s been quite exciting to learn about a previously unknown family tree branch and be able to honor all that is German (perhaps only 25% or so) in my DNA. I will raise my my glass of wein as I celebrate our own October fest of Halloween and candy!
What interesting discoveries have you made recently about your family?

Friend or foe?

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Today I am back at Duke University’s Bostock library to hopefully uncover information that will help fill in some leaves on the family tree and provide a general idea as to when my ancestors arrived.
After my unsuccessful last attempt at finding the microfiche which held the Binghamton City Directories, these helpful library folks tracked down the microform (totally different shape and size and material!) that held the 1857-1860 records I was looking for.
I got a quick goosebump chill as I headed down to where the microfilm readers are, anxious as to what I would find. I encountered this machine, the ST Viewscan and wondered if it would be my friend or foe today. I’ve never touched anything like this before and consider myself research challenged when it comes to more ancient technology ;-). I’m hoping to add the photo but the blog is not allowing it.
There was nothing too exciting in what I found other than potentially confirming a family member. However, I now know what they did for a living and know where they lived and potentially see how the Sullivan and Lynch families got together just from living on the same street. More to piece together now!