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  • Writer's pictureDonna Norman Carbone

The Legacy of Story: Building a Family Tree

I’m not sure whether my curiosity for nostalgia originated from my mother’s side or my father’s. I listened to the tales of lives of those I both knew and only knew of from my maternal grandparents, my paternal grandmother and great-grandparents. I had the great fortune of knowing most of my great grandparents, a distinct honor not bestowed upon many, I know. This, in part, is due to my parents becoming parents at such a young age. I was an oops baby, the one that set my family’s journey in motion. Perhaps that’s where the curiosity originated. I could listen for hours to any of my grandparents telling me stories of old. “Back in the day,” as they almost always began.

Angela, my maternal grandmother, always told me stories of relationships–who got along with whom and didn’t (those were usually more fun). She wove a tale of two Italian immigrant families (of the generation before her own) like those represented in movies like Moonstruck and The Godfather (though, I never heard of any authentic mafia connections). But the relationships were loud, volatile, and full of a peculiar kind of love– tough love, old school love. Families were extended, even in their homes; Italians don’t move far away from one another and there was always room at the kitchen table for more and enough food to feed everyone.

Carmen, my grandfather, told me different kinds of stories. His were mostly war stories. He seemed fixed on his time in the army during World War II where his troop had been deployed to Guadalcanal. He talked of brotherhood and isolation. Of fear and pride. All of the seemingly opposite things that were one in his eyes. He showed me medals and photographs. I learned words like bivouac and rations. I read his letters to my grandmother, the one thing, he said, that kept him alive. I have the tiny, government issued bible that he kept in his pocket throughout the war. I cherish antiquity.

Evelyn, my maternal grandmother, whose birth name had been Mary, went by her middle name (I don’t think I ever learned why. It always fascinated me that my great grandparents would give her one name, but then call her another). She told of tangled webs. We were a mutt of a family: descendants coming from France, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark and Germany. The ancestors from these countries apparently didn’t stay close like my Italian side. We had people, it seemed, from all around the world whether by birth or by travel. In fact, after my grandfather’s death, my grandmother set out to visit as many countries as she could, and she brought me back a little doll from each place. My love for travel is surely born of hers.

History is something else I learned from Evelyn’s tales. She showed me documents she kept, like my great-grandfather’s visa to the U.S. with a different last name. Instead of my maiden name, Norman, I discovered it had been Johansen, but he couldn’t fit his entire name on the card, so he dropped his last and kept one of his middle names as his last. She also told me this grandfather had two wives, two families; the concept fascinated me. In her soft voice, she drew me in and told me a secret that we are related to Paul Revere. I wore that fact proudly when we celebrated the bicentennial at school in the 6th grade.

So many stories stuck with me over the years, and inside me I yearned to know more. To understand. And, one day, to tell stories of my own.

In the eighth grade, we did a unit on lineage. We explored our family crests and were given a directive to create our own family tree. I interviewed my grandparents who shared names and more photos, so I could

put a face to their names. The photos led them to more remembering, more sharing, and I took it all in.

Some years later, Uncle Dick, my father’s brother, began asking me if I’d worked any more on our family tree. He always lived in different state, so I’d see him only occasionally, but every time I did, he’d ask. It seemed we shared a love of nostalgia and lineage. In the back of my mind, I always knew I would explore further, dig deeper, but finding the time was the issue–not to mention finding the means.

The means presenting itself to me when a pop-up came across my computer screen for I decided to give the light (read: free) version a try. It allowed me to recreate my paper version of a tree in a neat, logically organized web, but to go deeper, I would need to join.

I decided to join when my Uncle Dick, Aunt Kathy, and cousins Johnny & Jan decided to host a family reunion. They set a date for the summer of 2014. That was enough motivation to begin my search.

Hundreds of hours later, I’d come up with a pretty comprehensive version of the Norman & Brush (my grandmother’s maiden name) sides of the family. The thing about Ancestry is it opens up a world of search engines that the layperson wouldn’t even know existed. I found access to census reports, birth & death certificates, burial information, military records, travel logs, etc. that I never would have even thought to look for on my own. That is the positive. The negative is the eventual, unavoidable dead-ends that one encounters. It’s important to check one piece of data against another to find the most accurate information, checking and cross checking became both my friend and my enemy. Patience was definitely a virtue.

The surprises I encountered along my journey were many. First and foremost was the opportunity to talk to people in my family that I hadn’t spoken to in a very long time. I learned that shared knowledge is the best knowledge, coming at one project from many different angles allows you to see the full picture.

Gathering photographs and identifying the people in them was key. It was important to show the photographs to many people because while some relatives knew certain people in the photographs, others recognized different people. I actually made a key to remember them all because, sadly some of my descendants will not always be here to ask.

Ultimately, I uncovered eight generations of our family, 83 descendants of my great grandparents on my dad’s maternal side and a span of 155 years from the oldest to the youngest. I also came up with other statistics like the most common birth month & day, the most common names, etc.

I learned that I am, in fact, related to Paul Revere. I learned that IF my great grandfather did have another family, I couldn’t find them (but I’ll continue to search). I also found out that my great grandmother is a half sister to her siblings (something few knew). I discovered this because her mother’s name on her birth certificate is different than the wife of my great-great grandfather, so this means he had an affair and conceived a child that would be raised by he and his wife OR he was married to two women at the same time. I also uncovered, or actually he found me via, a relative who lives with his family just a few towns away from me; previously, we didn’t know of each other. His father’s name is Fred Blizzard because he was born in a blizzard (another one of many fun facts I learned).

Taking the tree from computer format to paper was difficult enough, transferring it to something share-able and displayable took collaboration with my sister, the artist of the family. We were offered 3 sheets of lattice as a base with stands on the backs of them to erect them on a flat surface. My sister came up with the idea to make a six foot tree to attach to the lattice and paint for our canvas. Then we copied photos of each family member along with birth (death) dates and names on leaves we proceeded to cut out. We began at the top with my great grandparents and proceeded downward, hanging the leaves to the tree with curtain hooks, in delineating each of the offspring of Augusta and Christian Bruch.

I also put together a basic tree in a booklet format. On one page, I included statistics and fun facts. Displayed at the center of the tree, it gave everyone at the reunion a good overview of the work that had been done. The tree itself was a good talking point for relatives to reconnect (or in some cases connect for the first time). In addition, a video was taken of the entire event with various interviews. Document. Document. Document.

Oh the stories you could uncover, simply by researching your own family.

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