Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A Case Study in Bureaucracy

The year was 1976. I was freshly graduated from high school and ready to become a wage earner. But first, I had to have a Social Security account. Easy, right? But wait! I had been born overseas as an Army brat, and more significantly, not on a base hospital. My dad was with the ASA and stationed at an old Luftwaffe base in Rothwesten, Germany. So my officially-stamped birth certificate reads “Geburstekunde.”

I did have the consular report of my birth (both of my parents were American citizens, so I could have been born on the moon – I was still an American citizen.) but it was a Xeroxed copy and not the original, so it was not accepted. We need your green card, they kept mailing me.

At the same time this was going on, I was a fledgling genealogist. I had sent for and received my great-grandfather’s death record, having obtained his death date from his headstone. He was buried in the same town where I grew up, in the same cemetery where my grandparents were buried, and now, where my dad is buried – three generations in the same cemetery!

My great-grandfather’s name? John Joseph Smith! His death record revealed little I didn’t know, having grown up around most of his ten children and hearing lots of tales of the family. However, there was one detail that stood out to me: he had a Social Security number! At that moment, I had an epiphany. If I had to jump through so many hoops to get an account, what did an Irish immigrant have to do?

I contacted my local SS Administration office – which just happened to be the same one he would have applied to. Fortunately, this was in the days before they realized that genealogists were cash cows, so I got a copy of the application he filled out without having to sell my soul.

Although this document didn’t yield a lot more information than I already had (yes, when I get to the other side, he and I are going to have a conversation!) it did contain two more important tidbits: his exact birth date and his mother’s maiden name, although badly misspelled.
John and Kate (Beggins) Smith had ten children, six of them girls, known as “The Aunts.” Fast forward several years to a funeral of one of The Aunts. The youngest, Aunt Agnes, handed my dad a half-sheet of paper and suggested I might be able to use it in my research. Now we have more significant detail: His county of birth in Ireland and the year he was admitted into citizenship. 

This made it possible to shepherd out his naturalization record from the gazillions of other John Smiths from Ireland who sought citizenship.

Fast forward a few more years to, where the data from a massive indexing project is being uploaded. The Smith headstone I had located at the Calvary Cemetery in Brockton that gave me the information on John’s three sisters, including Bridget (see “Dusting Off Memories,” 12 February 2017) finally paid off in a major way: the indexing program of the LDS Family History Library had just begun to upload large amounts of data from the work. Included? Bridget, the daughter of Pat Smith and Catherine Guickan, born in Ballinamore, Leitrim, Ireland. 

Had I not had that maiden name from John’s Social Security application and Bridget’s information from her headstone, the information would have been meaningless – just another Smith! But now I have a town/parish in Ireland in which to concentrate my search for the elusive Smith.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Dusting Off Memories

Ask our kids how many times a family vacation included a trip to at least one cemetery. One such trip took place long before the digital age, probably in the mid-1980s.

My great-grandmother’s sister Rose married John Ordway, so I was searching for her burial place to verify her husband’s information. I checked first with the local Catholic church to find out where the plot was, but they had had a fire that destroyed their records since the time the Ordways were buried. I knew from my dad that the Ordways were buried in Calvary Cemetery in Brockton, Massachusetts.  If you’ve ever been to New England, you know that some of the Catholic cemeteries can go on for blocks! So we just “pressed forward” and decided to take a quick drive around the perimeter just to see what we could see. Amazingly, we found it in just a few minutes!

With yellow legal pad in hand, I walked over to the stone and began recording the information while the hubs and the kids got some wiggles out. As I was writing, something caught my attention a few rows up and over from where I was standing. The headstone I was looking at said “Smith.” I paid no attention, because I knew exactly where John, Kate and most of their ten children were buried, and it was not at Calvary and not in Brockton. Again, I felt something catch my attention and again, I ignored it. If I started recording every Smith headstone, I’d probably still be in that cemetery, thirty years later! A third time, the stone somehow called to me. I heard no voice, felt no hands on my head, yet I could not avoid looking at that Smith headstone. Finally, with some degree of resignation, I walked over to the stone and wrote down the information.

In the plot were Catherine, Mary, and Bridget Smith and Margaret Dunn. I had no idea who they were. But when I mentioned the names to my dad, he knew immediately who they were – Catherine was John Smith’s mother and the three other women were his sisters. Catherine died in 1905 and the last of the sisters died in 1949, hence the reason my dad had never given them a thought in all the years I had been researching – he would have been fifteen when she died. But my mention of those names “dusted off” his memory.

I had no idea his mother and sisters ever came to the U.S.! Good thing I followed the impression to go over and record that Smith headstone.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

They Want to be Found!

Recently a set of circumstances has given me more time than usual to spend searching for ancestors. (Yay me!) I have had to marvel at how the information began to roll in as I dug a little deeper, and also just because I had done something.
The first example was being contacted by a cousin on my husband Howard’s side; the surname is Wressell, from Yorkshire, England. I thought that we had the research pretty well wrapped up on that line – but can we ever say that? When Carol contacted me, I ran the name through to see if I could help her with her part of the family. Quite by accident (not really), I found an article on Percy Wressell, who had fought with Canadian troops during WWI and been killed. 
The Winnipeg, Canada Tribune, 16 June 1917

Of course, that meant I had to determine where he fits in the family, and that research led to finding his mother, Mary Jane, as well as four siblings. The deeper I dug, the sadder the story became. Every record that listed an occupation for her was either as “servant” or “domestic.” You don’t need to have watched every season of “Downton Abbey” to know that female servants were not only the lowest rung of the social ladder in late 19th century England but also the most vulnerable.

The 1871 Northowram, Yorkshire, English Census

 In all of the vital, church and census records I found for Mary Jane or her five children, I found no reference to a husband/father; in fact, I located two baptismal records for two of the children where the space for the father’s name had a line through it and under the children’s names was written “privately baptized.”

West Yorkshire Church of England Baptismal record, 1879

 I found the eldest child, Walter, on a list of “Lunacy Patients Register” at age 17, and then a later record of his death in the same institution in 1913 at age 41. 

UK "Lunacy Patients Admissions Records," 1879

Mary Jane's daughter Amy died before she was two years of age. Mary Jane died, as listed in the “Nonconformist” records, at age 47 in 1892.

The website can be a great tool for researching ancestors, but it is a bit tricky, as it relies on the computer’s ability to read old newsprint. Further, if you have a name that is very common or is a noun in everyday use, there may be just too many hits to be able to narrow down. But another of Howard’s surnames is McTaggart, which is a much simpler name for which to search. In a typical migration pattern, the McTaggarts came from the British Isles to Canada and some filtered down into Michigan, where one of them, Louisa, married my Howard’s great-grandfather’s brother. The search for McTaggarts in revealed a notice in the Port Huron (MI) Times Herald that “A message received by Mr. and Mrs. David McTaggart Thursday evening told of the sad news of the death of Captain Harold Ross, killed in action…” 

Of course, I couldn’t just note that fact down and go on my way. It turns out that Captain Ross was the only child of Harold and Nellie Ross, and that Nellie Ross and Florence McTaggart were sisters from the Peter and Agnes (McCorkendale) Wright family of Ontario. Normally an officer is pretty easy to locate in one of several family history sites, but somehow, Capt. Ross has slipped through the cracks and it seems to be up to me to make sure he is not forgotten.

Another name easy to search is one from my side of the family: Alberghini. A broad search revealed that one of my Alberghinis from Renazzo, Italy married an Irish girl from Boston, Mae Nugent. She had seven siblings, including a little brother who died when he was only four years old.

Finally, the saddest story of all comes from my mother’s husband’s family, the Wheelers. His was a fairly prominent family in Newport, RI and one of the branches of the family was the Knowe family. The headline from 1943 read: Janet, Susan Knowe drown in Maryland.” According to the news article, the two girls, 8-and 4-years old were “wading on a sandbar while the mother was on the shore tending her 10-months-old baby.”

It is difficult to imagine the enormity of the pain suffered through so much sadness. I was contemplating this recently while attending our local LDS (Mormon) Atlanta Temple. As I pondered, I felt as if my spiritual eyes were opened, and I felt as never before the infinite depth and breadth of the Atonement of Jesus Christ and His healing power – and not just in this life, but for families throughout all eternity.

I will keep searching and finding them. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Ripples in a Pond

When I go to a cemetery, I just want to be able to photograph every headstone to post on the website This does a couple of things: it preserves the images of the stones, many of which are slowly wearing away and will one day be illegible. It also makes it possible for family researchers everywhere to find information for their family tree. Often, for people who lived more than one hundred years ago, that headstone may be the only record they left behind.

When I arrive at a cemetery that is clearly to big to photograph at one time, I try to focus on the older stones, as well as the military stones and those that memorialize little children, two groups that hold a special place in my heart.

I especially love New England's old cemeteries, and when I'm visiting my Mom in Rhode Island, I love to tag along with her on her visits as she works with the Rhode Island Historical Cemetery Commission.

On one such trip, we visited the Rockland Cemetery in Scituate, Rhode Island, up in the northeast corner of the state not too far from Connecticut. One of the headstones I "randomly" photographed was that of Alvin Leroy Church, who had been a member of a Coastal Artillery Regiment during WWI. I also have a cousin who has that surname in her family tree. That was in November of 2011.

Fast forward to last March, 2016. A woman contacted me through findagrave to ask about the Rockland Cemetery, as she found my name attached to the photograph and memorial on the website. Here's what she said:

"My mother has decided she would like to be buried with her parents in Rockland cemetery which also her infant sister, grandparents and aunts and uncles are buried rather than in the veterans cemetery with my father. I have been trying to reach someone to speak to but have not been successful. I was wondering if maybe you had some information that would help me to be able to speak with someone at the cemetery.  My mom is 88 yrs old and she is worried about not being able to be buried there. We would like to be able to put her mind at ease regarding this change in burial plans.  Thank you again for the photos , my mom was very happy to know that someone took the time to take them."

I checked with my Mom, gave the woman some suggestions, and forgot all about it. This afternoon I received this email:

"I would like to thank you and your mother for your help in granting my mother her wishes for her burial .  We did contact the funeral home and made her arrangements with them.  She did pass on July 9, 2016 and was buried with her parents at Rockland cemetery.  all the arrangements for her burial were made ahead and she was very happy that she was able to be buried with her parents.  thank you again for your help , it was very much appreciated. I don't think we would have been able to make this possible without you and your mom. we were lost at how to make these arrangements and getting in touch with Rockland cemetery. thank you again."

Ripples in a pond.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Grandma Dot and her Recipes

My maternal grandmother, Dorothy Mae (Irving) Wenz lived in Miami when I was growing up, so I didn’t know her as well as my Gramie Smith. We knew her as Grandma Dot. You could call her Dot – but don’t ever call her Dotty! I did get to know her better when I lived with her for a year after high school. Because I was a busy single adult (or at least I thought I was!), we didn’t share too many meals, but there are some dishes that I remember her for.

One I’ve already featured in a blog post: because of their significance in our family history. Grandma Dot made them pretty regularly.

Another is one I remember from school lunches as well as Grandma Dot’s: American Chop Suey. It’s a great combination of economic/food storage meal with its basic ingredients of canned tomatoes, ground beef and elbow macaroni; and comfort food – especially on a cold New England night! If you’re interested in the recipe and a little history of the name, Yankee Magazine has a great blog post on it here:

One of my favorites of hers was Lemonade Pudding, which you can make with pink or yellow lemonade or limeade. Great dessert for a hot summer’s night!
Grandma Dot’s Lime/Lemonade Pudding
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
¼ cup cold water
1 8-oz package cream cheese
½ cup boiling water
1 can frozen lime or lemonade concentrate
¼ cup sugar

Soften gelatin in cold water, let stand. Blend cream cheese with sugar, then gradually add milk, beating until smooth. Add boiling water to gelatin, then add to cream cheese mixture. Stir in thawed (but NOT diluted) concentrate. Pour into cups or mold and refrigerate until firm.

Grandma Dot and my Grampa Ted (Theodore Anthony Wenz) moved to Miami around 1958, so I only saw them about once a year, mostly during the summer when they came up for Wenz family reunions. It looks like this photo was taken in Florida, and I'm sure THAT dinner was delish!

Unfortunately, I can’t ask her, so I’ll just have to assume it was because she lived in Miami that she got good at making citrus preserves. This is one of her recipes. Yummy!

I asked my Mom what she remembered about Grandma Dot’s cuisine, and she added the fruitcake that was made with a spice cake recipe that had a nice, frothy sauce. That recipe is in my Great-Grandmother Wenz’s cookbook, which is a whole ‘nother blog post – because I’m the proud owner of that cookbook!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Family Recipes: The Italian Traditions

Recently I heard author Valery J. Frey discuss her new book “Preserving Family Recipes:
How to Save and Celebrate Your Food Traditions.” What really struck a chord with me was when she talked about a particular dish being like a time machine. How true that is! When we savor a mouthful of something we loved as a child, it can zap us straight back to our childhood.

Over the years, I’ve collected personal favorites, but I’ve noticed a mysterious phenomenon that occurs every time I’ve made them: no matter how scrupulously I follow the recipe, they never seem to taste quite as good as they did when the original cook (usually my grandmothers or my mother-in-law) made them. I’ve come to suspect that they added a secret, intangible ingredient: L-O-V-E.

I determined during that lecture to put together at least one blog post to highlight some family favorites both from my past as well as my children’s past. What a special exercise down memory lane, and it gave me great pleasure to know that these culinary memories were special to them as well.

My earliest memories of culinary delights are from my Gramie Smith, my father’s mother. Her parents, Onesto Guidetti and Adelcisa Tassinari, came from Italy in 1907, and she was an excellent cook. Bean soup, cabbage soup, goulash, and cherry pie, oh my! She also made great brownies, but imagine my shock when I learned that they came out of a box!

She and my Grampa Smith lived in Whitman, Massachusetts, the town where I grew up. As Gramie’s only female descendant (and still was until my cousin had a daughter about ten years ago), I got to spend most weekends at Gramie’s. One of my favorite memories was helping her make pies and she would let me play with the excess pie crust.

The goulash recipe has a conversational tone to it because I wrote to her (in the days of long-distance phone calls) to ask directions, and I got them!

Another traditional family dish was served every Easter, just before the ham. To me, they were known as “tootlings,” a delicious cheese-filled pasta cooked in chicken broth. After I moved away from New England, I always searched for them, but no one had ever heard of tootlings, until one day I spotted them in a bag in the deli section of a grocery store: Tortellini! But the ones we had in the chicken broth at Easter time were made by hand at an Italian delicatessen in Plymouth, and the plastic bag ones are just not the same.

Gramie’s Bean Soup
¼ pound of salt pork
2 onions, chopped
1 6-oz can tomato paste
1 quart water
1 can shell beans (I use navy beans)
1 cup elbow macaroni

Brown salt pork and onions. Remove salt pork. Add tomato paste, dilute & simmer. Add water, ½ can beans, ½ can mashed beans, macaroni. Simmer until cooked.

Her cabbage soup recipe used the same base, except the macaroni was replaced with rice, and the beans replaced with shredded cabbage. Then load the hot soup down with grated Parmesan cheese, and you've got the best winter comfort food anywhere!

As hard as I've tried, I can't find words to describe what my Gramie meant to me while she was on this earth; I wish I'd taken more time to record her history, but so thankful for what I still have that connects me to her. 

I’m proud of and love my Italian heritage!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Greater Love

John 15: 13 tells us that there is no greater love than the laying down of one's life for others. Of course, Christ was referring to Himself when He said this, but throughout history, many individuals have been willing to lay down their own life for the sake of another. A prime example of this is war, often when men and women have been called upon to defend their “religion, freedom, peace and families” (see Alma 46 in the Book of Mormon).

The Keillor and Smith families are replete with those willing to not only defend those freedoms, but who paid the “ultimate price” to do so. On this Memorial Day, I’d like to focus on a few who have something specific in common.

The first is Phil Justis, whose story was told in another post: His parents' headstone lists his name and dates, with the comment "Lies in France."

Another soldier in our family was John “Jackie” August Breder, of Egg Harbor City, New Jersey.

He served in the 96th “Deadeye” Division, participated in the invasion of Leyte Gulf, but died on 25 October 1944 in a Philippine Hospital of wounds received in battle. He is memorialized on a cenotaph in his family’s plot in the Egg Harbor City Cemetery and on the memorial wall of the Manila American Cemetery.

Many thanks to my friend Mark Maxwell for the photograph of Jackie Breder's marker in Egg Harbor City, NJ.

George Brandt, of Irvington, NJ, was in the Army Air Forces stationed in Italy. He was a crewmember on a B-25 Mitchell medium bomber that was flying a supply flight from Vincenzo Aerodrome into France on 19 Feb 1944, when the plane experienced engine problems and crashed into Lake Lesina, near Foggia, Italy with the loss of all hands.

George Brandt has a marker at the National Cemetery in Beverly, NJ, although I've found no record of his body being recovered. 

 Two Naval officers are also in this group. The first is Lt. (j.g.) Frederick Mueller, also of Egg Harbor City, NJ.

Thanks to the archives of Rutgers University for the high school graduation photograph of Lt. Mueller. 

He was stationed on the USS Franklin (CV-13) “Big Ben,” which was hit by a kamikaze plane on 19 Mar 1945. He was killed that day, along with over 700 other sailors. The story of the heroics of her crew, including two who earned the Congressional Medal of Honor that day, is worth reading:
Many thanks to my dear friend Sue VerHoef for the photograph of Lt. Mueller's name at Hawaii's "Punchbowl."

Finally, Lt. (j.g.) Jeremiah “Jerry” Philp, a Naval aviator aboard the USS Salamaua (CVE-96). He was killed attempting to make an emergency landing onboard when his wing tip clipped a gun emplacement and his plane went over the side. The surrender had been signed on the USS Missouri a mere five days earlier. We were able to acquire his service record that included recommendations from grade school teachers that attested to his fine character.

Jerry Phillp's yearbook from Wayne State University in Michigan

What do these five men have in common besides having died in WWII? Each of them, except for Jackie Breder, was the only child of his parents. Jackie was the only son, having three sisters.
Having been the mom of two sons in service with six deployments under her belt, I can’t even begin to imagine the sense of grief, pain and loss these parents felt. I don’t know the exact circumstances, but I feel that it’s telling that Lt. Mueller’s mother died the same year, and Sgt. Justis’ mother died two years after her son was killed.

How grateful we should be on this Memorial Day for the men and women and their parents, who have sacrificed so selflessly for this great nation.