Book Review: ‘The Stranger in My Genes’ is a DNA discovery for CNBC anchor

StrangerInMyGenesA DNA test to satisfy a cousin’s curiosity about their shared family history forced journalist Bill Griffeth to figure out who he really was.

For many family historians, a DNA test is an enticing means to further their research, spanning generations and tracing genetic fingerprints that ancestors have left in their makeup across the continents.

For Griffeth, a CNBC anchor, it prompted a hunt for his real father across the United States. “The Stranger in My Genes” is Griffeth’s journey of self-discovery.

Griffeth grew up with the affection of his parents and much older siblings, his mother’s late-life son. Until 2012, he had no idea how much of an “oops baby” he really was.

The lines with his cousin should have intersected. Instead, they revealed that Bill had a different father than the man he had known and loved.

Fortunately for Griffeth, his nonagenarian mother was yet living and lucid. She didn’t want to discuss this secret, but reluctantly, she shared how Bill was the surprise outcome of a tryst that heretofore she had kept from everyone — in some ways, even from herself.

“Did Dad know?” he asked her.

“No,” she said. “And I really didn’t know myself until just now.”

At times reeling even as he stayed cool for viewers of “Closing Bell,” Griffeth grapples to fill in the empty spaces. Who was his biological father? Along the way, he takes readers on a figurative and literal journey through the family history he once thought was all there was to him, of New Englanders and Nebraskans.

Over the course of hundreds of years, it is likely that at some point along the way, the paper trail and the gene trail diverge for many of us. When the ancestor is far removed, genetic genealogy can reveal where on the globe our lines lead but not as much to whom. Fortunately for Griffeth, it was not too late to uncover origins papered over by the legal documentation of his life.

Just who was this man who sired Griffeth? Griffeth conceals the late man’s name with a pseudonym as he puts his reporter skills to work in investigating his life story.

For those enticed by genealogy and genetics, “The Stranger in My Genes,” published in 2016 by the New England Historical Society, is a swift read about the shake-up over Griffeth’s make-up.

Book Review: ‘I Shall Be Near To You’ brings Civil War history of female soldiering close

"I Shall Be Near To You," released in January 2014, is a fictionalized account of a female soldier based on hundreds of documented cases from the Civil War.

“I Shall Be Near To You,” released in January 2014, is a fictionalized account of a female soldier based on hundreds of documented cases from the Civil War.

Before “GI Jane,” before women fought bureaucracy and cultural norms to gain access to combat jobs in the United States Armed Forces, Rosetta Wakefield put on men’s clothes and marched to war.

Author Erin Lindsay McCabe turned to the more than 250 documented cases of cross-dressing women who fought alongside men during the Civil War for inspiration for “I Shall Be Near To You,” released in January 2014. Rosetta Wakefield was a real person, and around her McCabe clothed a Union soldier who bent gender roles in the pursuit of marital happiness. Wakefield decided that her place was at her husband’s side, even on the field of battle.

McCabe’s prose is a delight for someone who never found much excitement in accounts of troop movements and battle losses. The novel brings the Civil War to life in the earnest and honest voice of Rosetta, who takes the name Private Ross Stone. The troops march endlessly and eat salt pork, bathe seldom and play poker often. The novel follows our soldier from rural New York to the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, the single bloodiest day in American military history.

On the eve of battle, soldiers sit in the firelight, stitching their names into the lining of their jackets and writing letters home that they hope their comrades will never have to mail.

This account is a fast read rich in detail, especially a treat for family historians whose ancestors fought on either, or both, sides of the War Between the States.

Family heirlooms: Repair them or keep them as they are?

This silver cameo ring came from my maternal grandfather's family.

This silver cameo ring came from my maternal grandfather’s family.

Sometimes a family story can have a ring to it. Sometimes, a family heirloom is a ring.

My mother wore a silver cameo on her right ring finger all the days of my childhood. Not one for ornamentation, my mother’s fidelity to this piece of jewelry stood out. Who was the pale ivory figure against the brownish background in the ring’s signet? Before my mother, who wore it?

Her father, Raymond Ned Fink, kept a container of family treasures, and as a teen, my mother was allowed to choose the ring from it. It came to him through his mother’s side of the family, peopled by his own mother, Mary Leona Parker, and grandmother, May Viola (Putman) Parker. Who previously had worn the ring is not clear. My mother wore it always, and the meaning for her came from her father’s love and trust that she could have the heirloom.

Half a lifetime later, my mother took off the ring. Tiny hairline cracks had formed in the band. She worried that to continue to wear it would damage it.

Then came the day she gave it to me. This ring connects me to a woman farther up the tree, without whom perhaps I wouldn’t be here today.

Do I repair the ring? Do I ask a jeweler to undertake the task of making it strong and durable again? Or do I keep it safe, the cracks a testament to the hardworking women — my mother the most recent — who wore it? I’m undecided. It’s a precious gift even to have it.

10 ways genealogists are journalists

Girls coming through the alley. The smallest girl has been selling newspapers for two years. March 1909, Hartford, Conn. (Courtesy |  Library of Congress; Lewis Wickes Hines)

Girls coming through the alley. The smallest girl has been selling newspapers for two years. March 1909, Hartford, Conn. (Courtesy | Library of Congress; Lewis Wickes Hines)

If you’re a genealogist, you’re a journalist.

The same can’t be said in reverse, for most, though it can for me. I was drawn to journalism because I love history and I love language. In reporting, the two become one. Meantime, nothing makes history come alive like understanding your place in it. It’s the privilege of the genealogist to make connections that situate her genes in their place in time.

Journalist by day, genealogist by night. In my years of reporting on the personal and the public, I’ve seen more than a little overlap. Here are 10 examples.

  1. Sources can lie. It happens in reporting. Sometimes you know it and can’t prove it. Other times, you don’t even realize until later. That public servant who has no intention of seeking higher office? Her recent fundraising activity says otherwise. It happens in genealogy, too. That ancestor who spelled his name Emil? He went by Amiel in his early years. Changing the spelling of a name and fudging the year of birth are the white lies of family history. The date on the social security registry doesn’t match the date in the family Bible. And nearly everyone has heard the one about the American Indian ancestor, or the link to royalty, or how an ancestor almost boarded the Titanic. In genealogy as in journalism, trust but verify.
  2. Sometimes you start out thinking you’re reporting one story, and you find a much better one. Oftentimes, in fact. I was a cub reporter working on a story about several generations of a family who attended the same GED program. In the course of the interview, I was shocked at the realization that this family had been victim of a brutal robbery and beating, ending in the death of the family’s grandfather and a new normal for the surviving grandmother. It was a widely reported story, but the different last names meant I hadn’t made the connection. There they were, four generations living together, and the story that I came to report was such a sliver of the larger reality they faced, how they came together under duress and hung together in the aftermath, finding hope for the future in the great-granddaughter they were raising together. In reporting, as in researching your personal history, you have to be open to redirection. What you find could be far richer than that which you were seeking.
  3. Facts in a notebook are dead. You could keep reporting without end, but then, when would you write? There comes a time when any aspiring family history writer needs to stop researching and start writing. Prose on the page won’t happen until you start your story.
  4. Your earliest stories weren’t that good. Neither was your research. The lede was trite. The story was formulaic. Even the grammar wasn’t top-notch. And the first branches you filled in on the tree? With time and experience, you look back and realize you didn’t do as thorough a job as you intended. You’ve recorded the year of great-grandma’s marriage, and you haven’t the foggiest notion how you came to know it. There’s always room to amend and improve your work.
  5. Grammar matters. All it takes is a misplaced comma, a solecism (the correct “for all intents and purposes” becomes “for all intensive purposes”) for your reader to lose faith. If you can’t get the little stuff right, how can the reader trust you with the big stuff? Choose a style and stand by it. Don’t toggle. Just because you’re doing this for fun doesn’t mean you can dispense with what your English teacher taught you. A well constructed sentence, in newspaper or in family history, is a gift to yourself and your reader.
  6. You know just enough to get yourself into trouble. We’ve all heard the one about what happens when you ASSUME. In journalism, after you’ve blithely typed some detail about tax policy, electoral politics, road funding or what-have-you, without a source to verify it, your editor, your reader or your sources are happy to tell you how far from fact your little bit of knowledge has led you astray. This happens in family history, too. You think you know your grandmother’s maiden name. After you expend your energy barking up the wrong tree when it comes to her father’s surname, you are surprised to find her marriage to your grandfather was actually her second.
  7. You have to leave the office. You can Google all day, but the best stories happen when you venture out. Get out of your house. Go to your local Church of Latter-day Saints Family History Center and look at that census microfilm for yourself. Check out the local history room at your library. Take a detour on your next road trip to visit the cemetery your great-grandparents are buried in. Spend some time with a relative, really listening, and ask that person to show you the things that they consider important to the family story. Names and dates are the bones of a family history. You need to venture out to flesh them out. The joy is in the journey.
  8. Deviate from the plan. If you write out all your questions before the interview and stick to the script, you’ll squander serendipity. You’ll gloss over the interesting tidbit. You’ll write a story that fits the formula you started out imagining, and a much better tale will have slipped away. Don’t focus so narrowly on proving one thing that you miss the clues to another answer.
  9. Sometimes you’re a social darling. Other times, a social pariah. You’ll find this at any party: Someone thinks journalists are fascinating, and your madcap tales from the trenches bring guffaws and drink refills. Or there’s a lover of family history who wants to hear all about how you are a Catholic who can’t join the Huguenot Society even though your ancestors helped to found New Amsterdam because of a bit of persecution retribution. But more people think you, the journalist, are secretly quoting them. “Am I on the record?” And they imagine that one time that one guy was rude to them means you, by the transitive property of professions, are a jerk, too. Or your host politely nods when you launch into a family history anecdote while secretly dying inside. Again with this dead people business? Please, stop. In genealogy, as in journalism, know thy audience.
  10. This is a calling. Not everyone wants to delve the depths of their family history (and their spouse’s, their friends’, really anyone’s history mystery will do.) And not everyone thrills at asking questions of strangers, observing the world on the drive to work, spotting untold stories everywhere, finding satisfaction in pulling facts into form and making meaning out of memories. Genealogists and journalists don’t pursue their crafts for the big payday. Ask any 3 a.m. U.S. Census-combing family historian if genealogy is a calling. You’ll get a resounding yes. If you do this, you do it for the love.

How to label a large group shot: Emil DeRose and Julia Lezer’s 1919 wedding

Image

Wedding at Sacred Heart Church, South Bend, St. Joseph County, Indiana. As identified by the bride and groom’s daughter, Carolyn Louise (DeRose Fredericks Niblick) Hess, they are, back row, 1: unknown; 2: William Lezer, brother of the bride; 3: Mrs. Csardi, an immigrant friend; 4-9: unknown; 10: Emery Lizer, Alex Lezer’s brother and the bride’s uncle; next row, 11: unknown child; 12: groom’s stepfather; 13: groom’s mother; 14: groom, Emil Julius DeRose; 15: bride, Julia Ethel Lezer; 16: mother of the bride, Caroline Gymoti Lezer; 17: father of the bride, Alex Lezer; 18: 10-year younger sister of the bride, Theresa Lezer; 19: unknown, not of the Lezer family; 20: brother of the bride, Michael Lezer

Perhaps you have one, a family photo featuring so many faces you can hardly differentiate them. Carefully tracing a silhouette outline of the people in the photograph and numbering them can provide an easy thumbnail sketch for labeling who is who.

To complete the effect on the portrait above, I covered the photo with an 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of white copy paper, though tracing paper would be even easier. Taking care not to press hard, I sketched a rough outline of the heads and shoulders of the photograph subjects and numbered them. I scanned the sketch and used Fotor Photo Collage, a free online resource, to manipulate it. The site makes it easy to stitch the original photo and the silhouette together and save it as a new file. From there, the captioning is a cinch!

There are so many unanswered questions in this wedding portrait of Emil Julius DeRose and Julia Caroline Lezer, and I’m not talking just about the “who is this guy?” kind.

It was taken for their wedding on June 25, 1919. They married at Sacred Heart Church, South Bend, St. Joseph Co., Indiana. Their marriage license lists the alternate spelling Emiel DeRoose for Emil, as well as identifying Julia as a seamstress.

Two families, including the Hungarian Lezers, became one, but only for a short time. Emil and Julia divorced after the birth of their only daughter, Carolyn. The divorce was in 1923. The reasons are not entirely clear, though there are rumors of infidelity and a maid. On my to-do list is to obtain the divorce record from St. Joseph County to see what the historic record can tell us.  The Centers for Disease Control has a handy site that shows how to obtain vital records by state, so I know I need to go straight to the county for that information.

After the divorce, Carolyn had limited contact with her birth father, explaining the gaps in our knowledge about who stood in their wedding. We don’t know Emil’s parents names, yet, but I am on the trail! Carolyn did recall that Emil’s stepfather was present at the wedding, and she filled in all the labels she could. I plan to revisit the lovely St. Joseph County Library, where an online South Bend Tribute obituary index shows me exactly where on microfilm to find his obituary. I hope that will shed some light on his parents’ names. U.S. Census records are an obvious next step, as well.

The Lezers were a family of Hungarian immigrants. I find it interesting that Carolyn labeled Mrs. Csardi (she explained it sounds like Shard-ee) in the photo as their “immigrant friend.” I plan to look at U.S. Census records to see if that last name appears in their neighborhood.

The danger in these blog posts is that I may never post them, because I keep thinking up ways to further my research!

‘Her white hair touched the floor:’ On ancestor’s images, oral histories and family resemblance

ImageJane Elizabeth Clark Jones and her grandson, John Homer Jones

From 100 or more years ago, Jane Clark Jones looked back at me.

It’s the kind of email a genealogist pines for, the chance to look into the face of an ancestor for the first time, the attachment revealing a face lost from the Earth. It’s what you hope to find when you click on ancestors catalogued on Find A Grave, hoping someone has uploaded an image that will pull back the curtain and reveal your past. The attachment could be a scan of a tintype, an ambrotype, a daguerreotype.

A copy of the tintype of Jane Clark Jones, my three-greats grandmother, arrived thanks to her two greats-granddaughter, who is my first cousin once removed. She received it from her own mother, who shared poignant memories of Jane Clark Jones.

My grand-aunt, Lillie Lucille Jones Beach, had special memories of Jane Clark Jones. I recorded and transcribed an oral history conversation with Lucille in 2003.

“She raised my father,” Lucille told me. “My dad was about 18 months when his mother (Mary Mollie Bolt Jones) died.”

Jane Elizabeth Clark married John Alexander Hamilton Jones in 1866 in Haywood County, North Carolina. She gave birth to 10 children, and the last was my two-greats grandfather, John Wesley Jones. Jane was 48 and had raised 10 children when she took on the raising of her grandson and my great-grandfather, John Homer Jones.

If you look at a picture of Jane and John side-by-side, the family resemblance is undeniable. And he favored her both physically and emotionally.

“We used to go there (to visit Jane Jones, who lived with a daughter) every Sunday,” Lucille said. “We would race in the house, and the first one there would brush her hair. It was white. She could sit in the chair, and her hair would touch the floor.”

That white hair was evident in the tintype that came via the email, her locks parted on the side and pulled back into a bun of some kind. Lucille had the same kind of white hair herself. It’s the kind of hair that a woman who decides to let her hair do what it will hopes to discover with time.

As to the age of the tintype, it’s hard for me to know for sure, but the oval, hand-colored image, according to Bill Blanton’s guide to determining the age of ancestor’s photographs, suggests it was produced after 1856.  I’d guess quite a bit after, given Jane’s careworn face and shock-white hair.

Lucille’s older sister, Marie Jones Relyea, took part in an oral history conducted by my uncle in 1997.

“I remember her being the tiniest little shriveled up lady you ever want to see. Hard of hearing. Could hardly see….” Marie said. “I know that she was very, very old. And I knew that they revered her, the family revered her because she was so old. I can remember that.”

Jane Clark Jones died Jan. 21, 1931, in Walker County, Georgia. She is buried in White Cemetery in Walker County, on Lookout Mountain. If those dates are correct, that would have made her 82 at death, about double her life expectancy.

“I was about 7 years old when she died,” Lucille said.

“They cut down a pine tree, had it planed and made into her coffin. We took it to Chattanooga and had it lined, bought the handles. She said she didn’t want to be taken to the cemetery in a car, so we all walked behind a wagon carrying her coffin when she died.”

Marie too remembered the funeral of Jane Clark Jones.

“Dad built her coffin when I was just a little girl,” Marie said. “I remember we were living on Lookout Mountain when she died. And we went down, they had her lumber sawed and in the barn for that, you know. They did that in those days. It was cured and everything.”

As I research family, I collect dates, and sometimes images, but what I really want are the stories. And seeing Jane Clark Jones after hearing those stories makes her all the more real to me. It underscores my own need to step up the efforts to record oral histories.

Without that conversation, how would I ever know that Jane Clark preferred a horse-drawn hearse? That her white hair touched the floor?

Book Review: Family history how-to ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ goes beyond TV

wdytyaIn “Who Do You Think You Are: The Essential Guide to Tracing Your Family History,” genealogist to the president and others Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak takes readers on a genealogical journey, breaking down the basics of vital statistics, the U.S. census, family interviews and other types of research in a breezy way that makes facts and figures lively. Her tone is cheerful and reflects her love of the craft. She may walk among us, but you can tell she loves no place better than the stacks of the local history room at the library.

She shares her own journeys into the past, from the family reunions with cousins heretofore unknown, and those of others. Her story of tracking the true Annie Moore, first passenger to arrive at Ellis Island, is a don’t-miss.

Smolenyak (yes, she has two of the same last names, itself its own story) has incorporated personal history into her daily life, with framed pedigree charts and ancestors’ names ringing the walls of her dining room like a wallpaper border. Amid an extensive how-to for family historians, she shares inspiration about how to get the family history out of the computer and into the quotidian experience.

This is a great primer for experienced and would-be family historians. If you’ve considered researching or merely dabbled, her prose will make you want to dive deeper. If you’re an experienced researcher, you still can pick up useful hints.

For those who are drawn to the book because of the TLC television program, a center-section on glossy paper shares the genealogical journeys from the show of famous guests including Matthew Broderick. Some of the subjects of the TLC program of the same name and their own journeys into their families’ pasts are revealed. It’s a fast read that you’ll want to read a second time just to give those research tips a whirl, sticky tabs in hand to mark passages you’ll refer to again and again.

Book Review: ‘My Confederate Kinfolk, A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Discovers Her Roots’

ConfederateKinfolkThulani Davis inherited the writer’s gene and two photo albums from her grandmother Georgia Curry: one with photographs of white ancestors, the other with photographs of black ancestors.

Through the Library of Congress and in cotton fields across the South, through slave inventories and personal family letters, Davis retraces her family history, finding records of her slave and slaveholding ancestors to follow their steps from prior to the Civil War, through the conflict itself, into Reconstruction and beyond. The result is “My Confederate Kinfolk: A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Discovers Her Roots,” a family history novel that tells the stories behind the photographs.

Where Alex Haley’s “Roots” told the story of Kunta Kinte, Kizzy and Chicken George, Davis explores Chloe Curry, William Argyle Campbell and “Chloe’s White Child,” her own grandmother, Georgia Campbell. The names can get a bit confusing, but the family trees help the reader place the who’s who. Davis, a journalist, discovers the origin of her surname, of her hairline, of the writing tradition in her female forebears.

Davis’ research is thorough and her telling of the tale personal and touching. Through the lens of her own family, she reveals the tale of two Americas.

A must-read for lovers of history and family.

Ask Grandma before you ask Google to fill in genealogy blanks

I must confess it: I committed a genealogy sin. What does every newcomer to family history hear? Start with what you know and work backwards. I know this rule, but I transgressed. My penance was the thrill of discovery, followed by the chagrin of realizing that the generation to which I had leapt was, alas, not of my line.

I Googled. When my query about George Friedman in St. Joseph County, Indiana, turned up a match that placed him there in 1859, I was hooked.

This 1859 George Friedman had it all — land, public esteem, an origin in Bavaria, a slew of children. Thanks to free Google ebooks, I could read about him “History of St. Joseph County,” published by C.C. Chapman & Co. in 1880. Page 759 offered the kind of background that a researcher dreams about, information that goes beyond vital statistics and paints a picture of your ancestors. “Mr. Friedman and family are members of the Catholic Church; his educational advantages in Germany were good. He owns 90 acres of good land on sec. 9, worth about $60 per acre, and is a hard-working man.” Catholic, educationally advantaged, hardworking. Great details.

One problem: The George Friedman I had been searching arrived in the United States, in the Port of New York, in 1892. I know he’s my George Friedman, originally spelled Friedmann, because I’ve climbed the ladder to reach him, starting with the most recent generation and connecting each generation to the one that preceded it.

This 1859 George Friedman could be a relative of some kind. Separated by more than 30 years, the two George Friedmans did land in the same county, and they do share a name. It was not uncommon for immigrants to come to America and then bring relatives across the pond in waves to join them.

But alas, the older George Friedman is not in my direct line. I spent a good deal of energy tracking this other George in public documents before realizing he couldn’t be my guy.

You’ll get farther, faster, if you start your research by printing off one of the many ancestor or pedigree charts and family group sheets available for free online and filling in the blanks, starting with yourself. Ancentry.com offers free downloadable forms, and Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet can connect you with others. Write in your parents, their parents… go as far as you can, and if you are guessing, make sure to note that. If you know Grandpa’s age but not his birthday, you might note that you are estimating by using the word “circa” before the year. You always can amend your sheet with true dates once you have verified them, and circa or est. is a good flag so you don’t start to believe your guesstimates.

Vital statistics — birth, marriage, dates of death for loved ones you have lost — are the building blocks of a successful family tree. Start with those living around you and pepper them, gently, with questions. Plenty will feel pleased to share. I’ve never encountered a relative, no matter how distant, who wasn’t happy to hear the next generation taking an interest in the family history.

As easy as it is in the digital now to ask Google, you would best be served by asking Grandma.