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genealogy

A death in my family led to some unexpected findings.

Genealogy has become a hot button topic that many millennials have taken to eagerly. With new services like AncestryDNA or 23andMe, it’s easy to find out our racial makeup from just a small saliva sample.

However, exploring the deeper, individualized roots of our ancestry can prove especially challenging; even if we do know the names of our ancestors, records can be hard to track down due to misspellings, unknown dates or information buried deep in the files of cities a thousand miles away.

I attempted to trace my own genealogy many years ago, and, like many others, I hit a dead end almost immediately. Unmotivated, I put the search aside, deciding that my ancestors could go another generation without being discovered.

But when my grandmother passed away earlier this year, I found myself feeling the urge to pick up where I left off.

Although she left this world at the ripe age of 89 and we weren’t especially close, I couldn’t help but notice that her death still hit me like a ton of bricks. At first, I couldn’t figure out why.

This summer, my mom has been making weekly treks to my grandmother’s home on the south side of Chicago, and I tagged along occasionally to help sort through 60 years of home ownership and belongings. Spoiler alert: There is an unfathomable amount of stuff. With fall right around the corner, we’ve hardly made a dent.

I could see the frustration on my mom’s face as we sifted endlessly through the memorabilia and junk. Among the items discovered were 30 years worth of newspapers, a bag of old soap bits and a how-to guide on getting along with the in-laws. After weeks of returning home exhausted, I felt my mom was at her wit’s end until, one day, she walked through the door toting a big cardboard box and a smile on her face.

“You have to see these,” she told me, plopping the box on the floor and excitedly prying open the top. I loomed over the open box, and my jaw dropped.

It held photographs on top of photographs, faces buried beneath one another, at least three feet deep. They were tinted in warm sepia from the early 1900s and were all in their original frames.

Our Italian family, though on the small side, did not have a great grasp on our ancestry. We knew next to nothing before my grandma; we didn’t even know what Sicilian city we hailed from. So, all these newly-discovered relatives were like a familial goldmine for my mom and I. However, there was one problem: We had no idea who was who.

At the top of the stack sat a wedding photo, framing an unfamiliar family of 10. My mom set it on the table while I grabbed a pen and paper, quizzing her for names, but it was a total crapshoot; there was no way we could identify these people simply through guesswork.

Staring at these strangers’ faces in the photo, I started to realize why my grandma’s death was so emotional for me. She was the closest thing to our history, our ancestry, and now with her passing, I was even further away from the truth.

My eyes darted back and forth between the photograph and the look of longing on my mom’s face. Finally, I decided to do it; I would unlock the secrets of our family tree. Although my last unsuccessful attempt had been discouraging, this time I was bound and determined to find answers.

Ancestry.com had proven to be a great resource for building the digital tree, but if you don’t fork over money for the subscription, you can forget about finding anything. There’s the U.S. Government, which has a web archive for the Census Bureau, but that would require sifting aimlessly through thousands of handwritten pages.

Then, an accidental Google search landed me at my local library and, after exploring their resources curiously, I learned that it had access to the upgraded versions of several genealogy sites. Not just Ancestry.com, but dozens of family history services, including Fold3 (a collection of military draft cards) and digital archives from the Chicago Tribune — an informational gold mine. This is what our taxes pay for, folks.

Using my library login — that’s right, I did not even need to physically step into the library — I was able to discover and sort through thousands of online records. Names, baptisms, gravesites, census records — you name it, they had it. Not only did I find names for each and every person in the wedding photograph, but we discovered a family member who had died three years before the picture was taken. She was the oldest daughter and had died in 1923 at age 17.

Every name I searched brought up a slew of genealogy records and, with them, a wealth of stories. There was so much information that it was overwhelming. I showed my mom my findings, and we went through the records together. There was my grandma’s Uncle Joe who, in true Italian fashion, was arrested for attempting to rob a bank. Apparently, he tried to bribe the police officers and was eventually released on habeas corpus, but just days later, he was shot and killed in a deli. And we found my grandma’s Aunt Mary, who died at age 20 in Chicago’s Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium, six years before the first antibiotics were made available.

After sifting through many stories like these, we unexpectedly discovered the pièce de résistance: the marriage record of the bride and groom in the wedding photo, Angelina and Alfonso, who were born in Sicily. Although they were married in the U.S., the record was written entirely in Italian and, after some deciphering (of both the language and the handwriting), I realized that the document named both of their parents, allowing me to add four more people to our tree. It also listed the city from which they came: Santa Caterina, Sicily.

I couldn’t believe it; we actually had the name of a town. My mom was over the moon, and we quickly looked up the town to see if it still existed. It does, and, in fact, it’s smack dab in the middle of the island, like the center of a bullseye.

Everything has begun to fall into place in my genealogy search. However, with any new research lying entirely overseas, we may once again hit a roadblock; I’m confident that my search will hit many dead ends. But perhaps I could find one living person, just one family member, that we can one day meet to make this whole endeavor amount to something. Either way, the search continues.

I can see how excited my mom is at the prospect of finding family. That’s what this all comes down to, anyway: family. And if we don’t end up meeting anyone from our tree, we can at least revel in the stories of our ancestors, even if they only exist on paper. Still, I am hopeful that the passing of my grandma will inevitably lead to new connections and an ever-growing family tree.

Want to start your own ancestry journey? Visit these sites yourself, and be sure to ask your local library to see if they offer genealogy services.

 

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