Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dances with Skeletons

If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance."
                                    -George Bernard Shaw

 There are so many skeletons in my ethnic family closet, they are having a dance-off to the Charleston, disco, polkas, waltzes and even hip-hop.  And I am delighted by their moves.

I do genealogy.  My inner nerd is not so inner I’m afraid. I am not sure it was hidden in the first place.  I have spent hours in dusty library stacks, blinded by microfilm readers, sloshing through graveyards both here and abroad, and on-line for hours to uncover generations upon generations of Polish and Irish relatives.  Some have lived glorious lives.  Some have died homeless and had to be identified in morgues.  It is my gift to succeeding generations as both a personal history lesson and a warning.  Someday, maybe my great-great grandchildren will appreciate the efforts.

My sister and I started on this journey some 20 years ago now.  It began with us looking at an address book of my late mother.  We could not identify many of the people in that book nor their relationships to our relatively small immediate family.  We had wonderful help though.  Our aunt had a near encyclopedic memory of her large Polish family, even down to the many permutations of their ethnic surnames and even the strange nicknames they picked up along the way.  We had “Cookie” and “Junie”, “Stanley” became “Charlie," and the best story was how a very Polish surname became “Burke”.  It seemed in the Irish-controlled railroad industry of the early 1900’s, only Irish were hired.  My Polish grandfather and his brother were American-born and spoke English without accents. They also were both blond-haired and blue-eyed.  Overnight they became the “Burke Brothers," assumed new identities,gained employment and fed their families.    Their obituaries  reflected both names.  I admire their survival techniques. Without such guile, I am not sure I would be writing this today.

It's hard to tell the saints from the sinners in this vast ethnic cast of characters. Their stories could spin either way.

Ironically my Irish side were not that creative even though they arrived in the United States early in the 1870’s.  My mother often talked of “The Tombs” in New York City. "The Tombs” was the colloquial name for the Manhattan Detention Center  known for its deplorable conditions.  Little did I know that she had at least second hand experience.  I have spent hours in the NYC Municipal Archives and finally found the reason for her stories.  My great-grandfather spent many years as a guest of the NYC municipal government for petty crimes.  This side of the family had a different approach to feeding its family it seems. My great grandfather was not the only one, unfortunately.  There are very personal reasons why a fourth cousin writes gangster and espionage books. I wish that he would write that thinly-veiled roman a clef he spoke to me about sometime ago.  Or perhaps he has?

More of the cast include prominent government figures in Poland right up to the presidency, people who perished at the hands of the German occupation of Poland, Irish Jesuits priests who founded missions in Kansas,  famine victims, attorney generals and so on.  All in all, my family’s story is a very personal companion to the dry history often found in books. I delight in telling these stories to my girls. Someday I am hoping to organize it better than the messy binders in my home office. If I am really ambitious, I hope to digitalize everything.  I better live to a ripe old age because I know that will take me a lifetime.

So dance skeletons.  You don’t scare me.  Just pick a good tune from any generation. Maybe Trent Reznor's new haunting version of Led Zeppelin's "The Immigrant Song?" I am not sure how one dances to heavy metal except head banging.  I am doing that aplenty anyway lately. Just be assured that someone is listening, watching and soon will have some digital notes. You are not truly dead if you live in the thoughts of the living.

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