“Genealogical Generosity”

I have been doing research on my paternal grandmother’s line for a few days now, inspired by my reflections on her personality and background. As I have been searching, I found the names of her maternal grandparents, Eli and Caroline Alexandre, parents of her mother Flora. I knew that her mother had been born in San Francisco and found census records naming her parents. I also corresponded with the oldest synagogue in San Francisco. Despite most of the records having been destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and ensuing fire, the synagogue archivist also had a little information about the Alexandres.

I was able to determine that they had died in San Francisco, had been buried there, and later had been reinterred, along with many others, in Colma, California when the San Francisco cemetery was closed. I found them listed in a very helpful site, Find-A-Grave, but without photos of their monuments.

One wonderful aspect of crowd sourcing in genealogy is the ability to request favors from other genealogists. In this case, I left a request at Find-a-Grave for photos of these two stones. Within a week, lovely volunteers went to the Colma cemetery, took photos, and added them to the web site for me and others to see. While I do not have to reciprocate, I am waiting for the snow to melt to search for some stones in our local cemetery that others wish to have photographed.

Not only have a now been able to see the stones, I also have gained new information confirming that the Jewish line of my family came from Alsace-Lorraine, alternatively French, Prussian, French, German and French. While I do not yet know the maiden name of Caroline, I now have her birth year and birth town. Soon, I will ask French researchers to help me.

With so much disagreeable dialogue going on in this country, I am grateful that the genealogical community continues to be generous. I send thanks to those Colma volunteers.


“Family Secrets?”

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In 1930, my grandparents adopted a baby girl who they named Caroline. She grew up to be my beloved Aunt Cary. Apparently she wasn’t an infant, but the story that she was nine months old seems a little off based on the photo. At any rate she was several months old and joined her nearly nine year old sister, my mother to be.

She was adopted in New York State which has a permanent seal on adoption records. The story we heard was that she was the daughter of very smart young woman and a married man. I have no idea if that was the case, nor will I ever know given the permanent seal. This is fine with me, but it caused me to reflect on things we once thought would stay secret. We had no way of knowing all the ways that science would move ahead in the years to come.

When I was young, some infertility issues turned out to be caused by the father. In this case, the mother used sperm from a donor to have their child. It was assumed that the child would always think that she was the child of both parents, so this was never discussed. With the widespread use of DNA analysis, many people are now learning that their biological father is not the man they grew up with. Similarly, children conceived during an affair are finding out(as the father may be also learning) that their biological father is not the man they know as dad.

And I have just finished exploring what I was able to learn about my paternal grandmother, things she never expected me to know. I am sure she had her reasons for keeping her history private, and she had every expectation that it would stay that way.

What other family secrets will find their way out in the years to come? We have no way of predicting, but it is an issue many are dealing with even as I write.

“By George!”

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George was the last family dog of my childhood. He was the son of the cocker spaniel Cinder and the Labrador interloper. He was all black with a round spot of white on this chest. George was the all-time best family dog. He was most attached to the youngest of us four children, since she spent several years at home with him while we were at school.

George was famous around the neighborhood, ranging freely over great distances, including regularly crossing the busy highway between our home and our elementary school. George was not happy when all four of us were in school, and he would travel up to the kindergarten door and wait for my littlest sister. He was not the only dog who wound up at the school, but sometimes my mother would get a call to come get him.

George’s one bad habit was chasing cars. It started with just chasing school buses. He seemed to believe that the buses were taking us away from him and it was his job to get us back. But he branched out to cars after a while. He was ruthless about his pursuit of cars, and nothing we could do would rein him in. One terrible afternoon, he got hit by one. My mother and I put him on a blanket, dragged him to the car and took him to the vet. Despite looking near death, George rallied and returned home in a couple of days.

When I found this picture yesterday, I realized how closely George resembled the Australian Shepherds we have owned over the last twenty years. Same coat, same height, same weight. I knew they seemed right the first time I saw one. Now I know it was because they reminded me of George. He was a good dog.

“Ascending or Descending?”

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Reading a book on genealogy, I ran across an idea espoused by Bruce Feiler in The Secrets of Happy Families. He suggests that family narratives follow three paths. One is an ascending story line. We came from nothing and now we are prosperous. The second is a descending story line. We used to have it all and then we lost it. The third is a balance of the two. We have had our ups and downs as a family, but we have weathered it together.

I have spent the last couple of days doing more research on my paternal grandmother in hopes of understanding her a little more. I realized that she was a living embodiment of the descending story line which probably explains the bitter approach to life which I encountered with her. She never spoke to me about her history, nor did my father, but I have been able to learn a lot on-line.

She was raised in comfort in Paris by parents who were second generation cloth merchants. Her mother’s family had made a fortune in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. (They attended the same synagogue as Levi Strauss.) Her father’s family had done well in Europe. Her first husband was similarly well to do.

I am not sure who she thought my paternal grandfather was, but he was a Manitoba wholesale grocer, far from prosperous. Then, after only 12 years of marriage, he dropped dead in 1930, leaving her with two boys age 11 and 12. She made a bad investment of the life insurance and was left with little. She wrangled a scholarship for her sons for boarding school and left them there. She never lived with them again, at one point even going to Hollywood to “be in the pictures.”

Once her sons were grown, she depended on them for financial support the rest of her long life. She never thought they helped her out enough and complained about one to the other. But she did leave a legacy for my father and uncle. They actually proceeded to live out the ascending narrative, going from nothing to prosperity. A full arc over three generations.

“The Untold Story”

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My paternal grandmother was not a particularly nice person. In fact, my grandchildren ask me when I am talking about my grandmother,”Was that the nice one or the mean one?” When I did my first years of genealogical research, I started with my maternal line since my grandfather had already done quite a lot on it. Only later did I begin to search for more information about my grandmother.

She was a tough cookie to research since she lied about her age, her background and her early life. Nonetheless, when reams of information became available in recent years, I was able to learn a great deal about her, most of which I am certain she didn’t want known. So it was no surprise to me when my DNA profile confirmed what I had already discovered. I am 29% Eastern European Jewish. Not only had she never shared this, but she was anti-Semitic.

I also learned that she had been married and had four children before she met my grandfather. She left them behind and ran off with my grandfather, and I was recently able to find the court case which granted her husband a divorce in 1918, the same year my father was born. Her husband had actually hired a private investigator to prove my grandparents were living together “as man and wife.” I don’t think they ever married, since I have never found a marriage record for them.

She was an actress, both professionally and, as it turns out, in real life. My research adds to my history, but gives me no clue about her personality. What led her to marry an older man and have four children? What led her to run off with my grandfather? Why did she speak so negatively about Jews? Why was she so unpleasant? No amount of online research will be able to answer these questions. She will remain an enigma. It turns out genealogy can only take you so far.

“Third Time’s The Charm”


Now I am generally not a whiner about the weather, but it is getting a little old. Today, for the third time in as many weeks, we are being blanketed(pelted, annoyed, assaulted, dismayed, covered) by snow. The above picture is actually in color, though it appears black and white. That should give you a sense of the outlook from my living room. Unfortunately we had a warm day a couple of weeks ago which reminded us that spring was actually a possible reality. That trick is one of New England’s favorites. Lull them into complacency and then hit them with a return of winter.

When we lived in Oregon, I always wondered why spring supposedly started on March 22. By then, flowers were up, grass was green, and my winter coat(such as it was–it wouldn’t have lasted here)was hung in the closet. Now I understand the seasonal demarcation. It’s just a little odd to have daylight savings time and snow, although it does allow more hours to shovel!

I did have time to make a batch of granola this morning. Somehow the smell of oats, nuts and maple syrup gave my spirits a little lift. And, after all, before long, we will be complaining about the heat.

“Twice Bit”

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I loved and trusted dogs from an early age. Here I am saying hello to the wonderful St. Bernard that lived at Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood in Oregon. St. Bernards are lovely dogs, and they love to lie down most of all. We had one in our dog obedience class, and the instructor said they were one breed that never needed to be told to lie down more than once! Meanwhile, our dogs were  cavorting around the room.

But twice I was bitten by dogs. The first time was by a pair of black Labradors owned by Cyrus Walker, a neighbor. I had to pass the Walkers’ house on the walk home from school. Usually, but not predictably, the dogs were behind the hedge. But one afternoon, they ran out and charged me. While I froze, they circled me and then one bit me on the thigh. Fortunately, I had a dress on, so the bite was not deep. Still, I had been terrified. Regretfully, the only response I got at home was that I was bitten because they knew I was afraid. While I thought it was reasonable to be afraid of those dogs, I kept my mouth shut. I learned to circumvent the Walker’s yard by cutting through another, dogless, neighbor’s lawn.

The second bite was also from a Labrador named, ironically enough, Walker. Walker and my German Shepherd were about to go at it and I kicked out between them without thinking. Walker sunk his filthy, broken teeth into my shin. Surprised as I was that he had bitten me and not my dog, he slunk away. The doctor didn’t dare stitching up the hole because of the real risk of infection. I got a tetanus shot and instructions to keep it clean while it healed. I have a dent on that shin forty years later.

I never stopped loving and trusting dogs, despite my two experiences. I remain cautious, of course, but my deep affection of them remains. Two dog bites weren’t enough to change my belief that dogs are a wonderful addition to the world.