From Legend to Life Story: Unlocking our family secrets in time for the holidays

 

From Legend to Life Story: Unlocking our family secrets in time for the holidays
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From Legend to Life Story: Unlocking our family secrets in time for the holidays

Every family has an origin story. At holiday tables, the elder statesmen of the clan hand down the legend of people no longer here to defend, celebrate or laugh at the past. The stories invoke pride in shared history and explore repeating patterns of behavior both good and bad. After all, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

In every family there is a member that is inspired to find the truth in the mythology. I am the family historian. It started with my childhood attraction to basements filled with boxes of old family photos. Like a moth to flame, I hovered over the artifacts of a bygone era, entranced by the faces of strangers, searching for the features of the people I love. As I got older, I grew increasingly curious to unpack the mystery of what must have happened to inspire them to get on a boat from Eastern Europe and travel in steerage for 30 days to start fresh here in New York.

Like many Americans, my story begins with an immigrant’s journey through Ellis Island. From table whispers to my history classes, I learned that my people relocated from small town shtetl life to New York tenement housing because of religious persecution at the turn of the 20th century. This story is unspecial. Across the globe and religious affiliations, our people left with baggage from somewhere else and brought it to New York on a boat or a plane. It time travels through the generations via family dogma and DNA, informing how you relate to people and problems. Are you a social butterfly? Do you lash out in anger? Or bury it where no one can find it? Someone else probably did too.

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Recently, inspired by the new mythology revealed at my great uncle’s 95th birthday, I signed up for a 14-day free trial on ancestry.com. There, I found a treasure trove of records and photographs that connected me to a long lost cousin that helped connect the dots of the scattered stories I’d collected over time. For all the answers my new relation gave to my questions, it also created new mysteries to solve together. Both my lost cousin and I knew that my great great grandfather left Poland after his first wife, my great great grandmother was killed in a pogram. My side, descending from wife number one, believed he avenged the murder and fled to America to escape the consequences. My newfound cousin, a descendent of wife number two, told a different version of the story. As I begin my search for answers, I start to unpack the origin of anxiety and repression that run deep in my veins. We’re worried, but we’re still smiling.

If you’re looking to dig up a little dirt from your roots to wow your relatives this holiday season, the first step is to plant a tree. Once logged onto Ancestry.com, I sow the seeds, providing my name and birthday and that of my parents and four grandparents long deceased. Once I pressed submit, their software sifted through centuries of data, surfacing marriage licenses, census documentation and ship manifests to paint the picture of your family’s path to the present. Each morning, I awake to the sprout of a new leaf. A death certificate. A family tree that connects to a new cousin. I begin to wonder when my tree will intersect with the celebrity doppelgangers I’ve identified to play me in the movie of my life. Fran Lebowitz, are you my mother?

If you, like me, possess the boldness and intrigue to connect with strangers, I advise you to message the other soul searchers that cross branches with your clan. As I began messaging other relations who claim kinship to the same people, I unlocked unknown stories from a bygone era. They can sing like we can sing. Their photos possess the same soulful brown eyes that stare back at me from my mirror. What other gifts did these strangers bestow upon us?

In one week, I traced one line of my family’s footsteps as far back as 1803 in Mszczonów, Mazowieckie, Poland. From Google, I learned that this is a tiny town located outside of Warsaw. Wikipedia shared that this town once possessed a vibrant Jewish community – one that surely perished in the 1939 Nazi Germany invasion.

Over 120 years have passed since my first family members touched down in New York Harbor. Whether their virtues or vices trickled down to my naughty toddlers, remains to be seen in 2023. But as I watch them play with their cousins this holiday season, I feel nothing but gratitude for their gift of this beautiful life.

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