Sunday, September 28, 2008

Valeria Murphy meets the Big Bad Wolf

A brick wall provides a very concrete image in a person’s mind. You can run into it, try to climb it, or you can huff and puff on it all day long, but the perceived strength of the immense structure overrides any attempt to conquer it. The wall keeps you from getting somewhere you want to go, possibly prohibiting you from achieving some goal that you’ve spent a lifetime trying to attain. From a distance, the brick wall keeps you from reaching your dreams.

The brave, patient person understands that the wall is never going to admit its weaknesses unless a perception changes. And for perception to change, perspective must change also. Our brave soul must walk up to the wall and study it from within three inches, and from there she sees the inconsistencies that lie between the bricks, the weaknesses in the mortar, and the plan develops to overcome the obstacle.

The lone figure standing at the base begins to scrape away the mortar around one brick of the monstrous wall with any object she can find, natural or man-made. After a few painstaking moments, the bonding material begins to crumble. A few more scrapes around the rectangular form cause the brick to wiggle. Human hands wrestle the brick out of the wall and the figure immediately basks in the stream of sunlight shining through from the other side of the wall. Progress is made.

One by one the bricks fall and a pathway leads to the other side. Once through, the view might be everything the person had hoped. Or, perhaps, another brick wall looms in the distance, twice as large as the first.

Enough of the corny imagery. It was tough for even me to write. Yet, there is a very good reason why a genealogist uses the term “brick wall” to describe a problem which she cannot seem to solve. Some researchers spend years and years scouring documents, traveling to distant lands, interviewing descendants, yet the answer to the essential question driving the research remains elusive. Until, of course, perception and perspective changes.

It just might be a random phone call, letter, or email that sparks the renewal of passion, the will to continue scraping. Or maybe the chance meeting of someone sharing a similar interest generates new enthusiasm. Genealogists often refer to serendipity to describe the implausible intersection of two events occurring at the same time.

Whatever the case, brick walls in genealogy can be overcome. A researcher simply needs to have the fortitude to get so close to the issues that surround the problem that she might just feel overwhelmed by the immensity of it. Then, she must find the determination to begin scraping away at the data that seems most insecure. Finally, she must willingly accept inspiration in any form that comes her way with renewed vigor. It may take months, years, or even most of a lifetime to reach the other side. Yet the journey is definitely worth the wait.

I’ve mentioned a few genealogical brick walls that I am currently sizing up in a previous blog. My great, great, great grandfather, Turner Dunnington Martin, is probably the most frustrating at this time. I haven’t changed perspective, and I need to. Yet there have been other brick walls that I have tackled and made significant progress. Understanding the events that shaped the early life of my husband’s grandmother, Valeria Murphy, is most notable.

To make a very long story short, no one in the Murphy family is truly confident about the chronology of Valeria’s childhood. Valeria, herself, didn’t remember, as she was too young. What we do know now is that Valeria traveled by ship with her Aunt Maria Gallo from their native Hungary in 1905 to be reunited with Valeria’s biological parents, Alojos and Wilma Kumery, in Chicago. Maria’s husband, Stephen, was also in Chicago. Shortly thereafter, in February 1906, Valeria’s brother, Joseph, was born. Then, in December 1908, a tuberculosis epidemic took the life of Valeria’s 26-year-old mother, Wilma.

The details of Valeria’s life after this tragic event are clouded and undocumented. However, we surmise that Maria (Mary) and Stephen Gallo became the guardians of Valeria and Joseph. We also believe that Valeria kept in contact with her biological father in Chicago for some period of time. Yet, there is no primary source to prove any of these direct and indirect relationships. A birth certificate does not exist in the United States for either Valeria (since she was born in Hungary) or Joseph (was not required in Illinois when he was born.) So many immigrants were dying of tuberculosis by December 1908 that obituaries were not written for most, and the death record for Wilma heeds no information about her children. There are no court records, wills, or adoption papers. For all intents and purposes, Valeria and Joseph became the children of Mary and Stephen Gallo beginning in 1908 and no one ever questioned their relationship.

Sorting out these details has been an interesting journey and the subject of a project I undertook as part of my Board for Certification of Genealogists portfolio. I hired a researcher in Valeria’s hometown in Hungary (now part of the Czech Republic) to do preliminary searches for birth records, but that became very complicated and expensive. I was left with an abundance of seemingly unrelated information to piece together to form my final opinions. The most compelling came from the 1930 Chicago census that lists Joseph as “nephew” living with the Gallo's, and then Joseph’s World War II army documents that states Valeria Murphy is his “sister.”

There are still many details to the story of Valeria Murphy’s childhood that still need to be discovered and sorted out, but I no longer feel it is a brick wall. I chose to take this project on as part of my BCG portfolio forcing my perception and perspective to change. I had to dig in, become overwhelmed with the situation, and look for weaknesses in the information. I was fortunate to have help from family members, and there were more than a few serendipitous moments along the way. Finding the primary sources that will “prove” my theories of this story may be on hold for a while, but rest assured, I will come back to it.

The moral of this story is that brick walls are made of sand and water. With time, patience, and a little bit of luck, the structure that once seemed so immense and impenetrable can be broken down.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Ponder Creek Estates

This weekend was filled with history-making events. First, over 60,000 people in the Louisville area are still without power due to Hurricane Ike's arrival last Sunday. I do not know of another city, so far inland, that has been affected by a hurricane as intensely as we here in Louisville. Also, my son, Kevin, tested for his red belt in taekwondo yesterday afternoon. This is a huge step as it positions him to compete with the advanced groupings in tournaments. More importantly, for his parents, his leadership skills will be highlighted as advanced belts are expected to help lower belts through the program. Taekwondo has been a way of life for my family for many years and we all appreciate its structure and discipline. Finally, this weekend was the first time I ventured out as a "professional" genealogist. Ponder Creek Estates, a beautiful retirement community in Louisville, was willing to compensate me to teach a five-session course on genealogy. With this jump in expectations, I was nervous.

My nerves showed in mostly unnoticeable ways. But I knew they were there. I felt them in my thoughts and actions as the day of the first class approached. I was overly prepared, as usual. I had spent weeks on this lesson plan ensuring to include time for questions and general conversations. In fact, the lesson was intended to spark the memories that lead to sharing life stories and a desire to preserve these stories for interested younger generations. I knew older folks appreciated time to tell their stories and someone to listen. This was the goal, and it worked far better than I had anticipated.

However, the success I experienced yesterday teaching the first of five classes at Ponder Creek Estates had more to do with an energetic, handsome and helpful young man than my lesson plan or teaching style. And while my teaching ego took a blow for a minute after this realization, the pride I feel for my son upon reflection is so much more satisfying than executing the most effective lesson plan.

When creating a lesson plan for my Algebra 1 class or a presentation for the Board of Trustees, I try to visualize every minute of the class. I always want to have some sort of balance of how much I teach and giving students time and opportunity to learn. These are two very different things. I concede-it’s a control issue. I have no problem allowing students to dictate their learning and rejoice when a student becomes enlightened. That time is intentional and built into my plan for every lesson.

Yesterday was not my Algebra 1 class, though. Nor was it the Board of Trustees. Yesterday’s class was a lovely group of residents at Ponder Creek Estates who signed up to learn more about genealogy research. These people didn’t know me at all, and I was nervous about that. I didn’t have the automatic respect a teacher typically collects after 16 years in the classroom. I couldn’t even fall back on my day-to-day title, Head of Middle School-a title that usually injects a bit of fear into most people I meet. Therefore, I had little control.
Instead, my new class of students only knew my name is Keira and that I was coming to talk to them about genealogy research. They didn’t know about my other degrees, titles, or accolades I have earned over the years. In fact, I’m not so sure they were impressed with anything until my secret weapon strolled into the room. When Kevin, my middle son who is almost 11, entered the room, heads turned, eyes lit up, and smiles broadened. Automatically, I relaxed too.

Kevin has previously shown interest in my genealogy escapades and has even volunteered to travel with me to libraries and courthouses to do research. He runs a mean microfilm reader. I decided to ask him to join me at Ponder Creek Estates yesterday for several reasons. First, I want to support his interest in genealogy research. Neither of his brothers have that same glimmer in their eyes. Second, Kevin is a great technical support for the computer, projector and screen that I brought to supplement my program. Most importantly, though, I felt the presence of my child would solidify a respect for me from the people in the audience. Genealogy is, after all, about families.

Kevin was the focus of several memorable moments during my hour-long presentation. As we entered the room for the first time about 15 minutes before the program was to begin, he immediately joined a woman putting together a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Kevin tended to the technical equipment like a professional producer, he collected the questionnaires to be copied, and respectfully “yes ma’m” and “yes sir’d” each and every one of the twelve members of the group. At the end of the class Kevin had me expertly packed up and ready to go without prompting. The twelve pair of eyes noticed his every move and the compliments flowed freely.

Kevin took a picture of me while teaching the class to help preserve the moment in my life. However, I feel it is more appropriate here to attach a recent picture of Kevin. He is the one who made this day special.

Two days ago I was nervous about tackling my first professional genealogy teaching job. My 16 years of teaching, however, certainly gave me the confidence to prepare well and practice often. I believe it would have been a successful class left at that. Now I am excited to begin working on the projects that this class has provided me. With basic information gained through a short initial questionnaire, I will be able to help the residents of Ponder Creek Estates fill in the missing pieces of their family trees. I look forward to my next class in mid-October.

But it truly was the last minute decision to bring Kevin that made the experience memorable for me and for the students. This 10 year old brought many of my lessons to life. Namely, we must share what is most important of ourselves with interested younger generations to preserve our life experiences, values, wisdom and life lessons. Kevin made history today, and I am so happy and proud to preserve this moment for him.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Ruthie's World War II Diaries~
A wife's devotion to the man she loves

After I finished writing my first ever blog and mustered up the strength to push the PUBLISH POST button, I did what every novice writer does. I prayed aloud that I had spell-checked the document before it hit cyberspace. Of course I went back to check it, not once, not twice, but three times, and made any necessary changes. I wanted my genealogy blog to be memorable, sentimental, informative, but most of all, error free.

Everyone who knows me learns about my passion for genealogy. I am a master of making a genealogical connection with almost any other topic. However, no one really thought I would take the giant leap into the World Wide Web. My husband enjoys my stories, my children tolerate them but have yet to truly appreciate them, and mostly they just rolls their eyes when the topic comes up for conversation outside the sanctity of our home. This blog was created for the purpose of sharing, and I fully intend to do just that.

I spread the new URL to family and friends over the course of the next few days. My father was one of the first to actually look at the blog and comment. The little boy in the first picture, now almost 70 years old, replied, "Nice site. But you know the Martin side has an interesting story to tell, too. Don't forget about the Martin side."

I was not surprised by this comment. I was actually prepared for it. Little did my father know that I had already begun to plan the second, third, and fourth postings on this blog. And yes, his mother's war diaries were going up next. You see, my dad is a very proud man. He is proud of his children and all of our accomplishments in life, his grandchildren, his sister, niece and nephew, too. But most of all, my dad is proud of his parents. They were both remarkable people.

There is truly not enough space on one blog to adequately express the joy surrounding Howard Garrison "Abe" Martin and his beautiful wife, Mary Ruth Osborne. I felt their love as a child, visiting my grandparents on their mountaintop home in Wheeling, West Virginia. Two of my earliest memories, ever, involve my paternal grandparents. In the first, my family is watching the dog, Sabre, chase airplanes around the yard. The dog would actually keep his eyes high in the sky and would run full-speed around a yard that contained many trees and outbuildings. The dog was crazy, but we all loved him. The next dog, Marty, was a great companion, but not quite as crazy as Sabre.

The other special memory I have of my grandparents was watching my grandmother make pancakes. She poured the batter in a special way that resembled whatever animal I wished it to be. The stories that we would then tell around the large dining room table were centered on which appendage of what animals my brother and I would feast on first.

My grandmother was only 68 when she passed away in 1980. Grandpa lived another 20 years, but devoted his life to his Ruthie.

One of the most powerful pieces of evidence of this love affair was the diary Ruth kept while Abe went away to the Army. It begins, "We're in the Army Now. 1941 March 29 Sat-Abe left today for Ft. Knox, Ky to report to First Armored Div. for active duty. Due there tomorrow. Stayed overnight in Charleston with Grace. I'll not join him until later or until arrangements can be made to move. Few days later-Abe wired to say he is being sent to Pine Camp, N.Y. with the 4th Armored Div. (24th Engrs.)"

The diary continues in my grandmother's hand to explain her life as a single mother of Gary (born Oct. 1938), moving to California, the birth of daughter Katharine Belle (Kitty) in 1943, and her longing for every word, any word, from Abe. While reading the opening pages it is hard not to anticipate the words entered on December 7, 1941. When the reader finally arrives there, my grandmother simply writes, "Pearl Harbor-how can we ever forget it!"

My dad did an amazing job of preserving his mother's diary in a bound volume, adding pictures of himself posing with each of his parents as a young boy. Probably the most memorable feature of this collection are the pages of letters that my grandfather wrote to my father during the war. It is so interesting to read the parallel accounts; my grandmother's fears of the reality of the war and the stories my grandfather recounted to make sense (and light?) of the situation for his young son. As it turns out, my grandfather was also a wonderful artist, drawing pictures with almost every letter. To make the situation even better, my grandfather, Major H.G. Martin, was the base censor. He read every letter that left the base, but may have made allowances for his own correspondence.

Abe returned to his family on 22 Jul 1945. "This is the big day! Abe walked in about seven-thirty this evening, surprising us almost to death. Gary was thrilled to see him as was I-but Kit is still a bit puzzled. It's wonderful having him home again. He left the Phillipines June 28."

There is so much more to tell about the lives of Howard Garrison (Abe) Martin and his wife, Ruth. My father and I are always searching for information on the life and death of Turner Dunnington Martin (my ggg-grandfather) who seemed to disappear off the face of the earth sometime around 1870 in Monongalia County, (now) West Virginia. Other members of the Martin family have served honorably in the various wars, and learning more about this service is equally important. On Ruth's side, her Osborne ancestors kept their family history a little more guarded, and it is my personal mission to unravel the mystery of her father's (George Clinton Osborne) early life in Smyth County, Virginia.

Dad, you are so very right. The Martins do have great stories to tell and I hope you understand I am very proud of them, too. Using this blog as a vehicle to publish and preserve these stories has been a dream of mine for a long time. Please continue to comment.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Charles Forkner letters to Gertrude Connell

Charles Forkner and my grandmother, Gertrude Connell, had a friendship as young people in Wayne County, Indiana. While going through boxes of her belongings recently, I uncovered an original photograph of Charles and six handwritten letters from Charles to my grandmother. In the letters, dated during the years 1932 and 1933, Charles describes his life in the Navy aboard the U.S.S. Whitney.

My hope was to find living relatives of Charles Forkner so that I might return the original photograph and copies of the letters. I hoped that his children might learn something new about their father's early military life.

A fairly straight-forward search followed and I learned Charles has two daughters living in California. Unfortunately, Charles passed away many years ago. I found several addresses for one of the daughters and wrote an introductory letter, then sent off a letter to each of the addresses. I figured she still lived at one of the residences or the letter would be forwarded appropriately.

I was excited to learn that the daughter was happy to discover this new information about her father and wished to learn more. I scanned all of the letters and the photograph, then sent off a package in short order.

We have now begun and very nice correspondence and are trying to determine the nature of Charles's and Gertrude's relationship. From the letters it is obvious they were fond of each other, but I would not classify them as love letters. I will do more research into the Forkner family of Wayne County, Indiana and also the social environment that the two might have enjoyed together.