Writing about family history

Writing about family history

The pursuit to find my biological grandfather is a story on its own, and has taken me in unexpected directions. For example, I have become increasingly interested in my grandmother’s immigrant experience as well as the history of the social and medical systems’ response to the very real phenomenon of unwed mothers in the early 1900’s. Adoption per se was not the goal of many maternity homes and infant asylums. Instead, women were given skills so that they could rejoin society as productive people, and if in a stable home environment, take their babies with them.

I’ve also become interested in the history of the Hungarian community in Cleveland, and the very complicated Hungarian/Eastern European political history in the late 1800’s – early 1900’s. So many interests, so little time! With such diversions, I sometimes feel like I’ve made little progress. However, I have developed a list of resources, some already consulted, that are my plan of attack for gathering information. I thought I’d share these for others interested in exploring or writing about their family histories.

Primary sources – documents or artifacts that came into existence during the time of interest. For example, my dad pursued some promising leads and left a file filled with: photocopies of manifest of alien passengers for US Immigration at port of arrival; 1930 census; copies of petition for naturalization; death certificates (of men who could have been my dad’s dad and that he wrote to request); marriage certificates; city directories; employee directories of Cleveland companies and law firms — attorney was the profession of the father on my dad’s birth certificate; newspaper clippings. He researched sources at the Western Reserve Historical Society, the Cleveland Public Library, and the County Archives, looking for records of his biological father and this man’s mother.

Secondary sources I’ve used include relatives, particularly my aunts, and memories of conversations I had with my grandmother; family histories and trees composed by relatives here and in Hungary; ancestry.com and AncestryDNA results (for me, a sister, and one brother- wondering about and confirming the ethnicity of our biological grandfather), And Sin No More: social policy and Unwed Mothers in Cleveland 1855-1990, by Marian J. Morton; A PhD. dissertation written by Tamas Udvardy, a Hungarian scholar, about the Society of Social Mission, the order of nuns that cared for my father until my grandmother was able to take him home after she married; Images of Cleveland’s Buckeye Neighborhood, by John T. Sabol; Hungarian Americans and their Communities in Cleveland by Susan M. Papp; the Hungarian Cultural Center downtown Cleveland. Potential source is the Hungarian Genealogical Association. The featured picture is the facade of St. Ann’s, one infant asylum and maternity hospital in Cleveland at or around the time of my dad’s birth —not necessarily the place where my dad was born. I wanted to show this to give a flavor of the period.

What I’ve learned so far is that this finding a missing person business, especially one long dead, is time consuming, sometimes overwhelming, yet fascinating. I have often considered consulting with a private detective on the theory that one would know about tools unknown to me.

Unexpected boons include being in touch with relatives, close and far in distance and connection.

Next steps: legwork retracing my dad’s work with primary sources. As always, feel free to offer suggestions, and correct me in facts, assumptions, and deductions. Any missing piece is helpful.

Check out Literary Cleveland’s workshop on writing about your family history Saturday, February 4, 10 AM to noon, Lake Erie Inc. in Cleveland Heights. Register on LitCleveland’s website, http://www.litcleveland.org.


It’s a Family Affair, and a Clue?

When I spoke to an agent about my idea to write something – an essay, a memoir, a book – about my search for my father’s father, she told me – rather, warned me – that I’d have to be all in. She was correct, and because of practical reasons (a job for one) I have not been able to be all in; progress is slow, but it’s progress nonetheless.

I learned from an aunt that nuns of the Society of Social Mission helped my grandmother after my father was born by caring for him until she had the stability to do so herself. The Society has no presence in Cleveland any longer. It is somewhat connected to the Social Mission Sisters, another Hungarian based order with a facility in Buffalo. I called the Social Mission Sisters and they provided an address in Budapest to the Society of Social Mission.

Finding family by finding family is an interesting subtheme that is emerging as I plod along. I reached out to a cousin who lives on the other side of the country and who I’ve not been in touch with for some time. She at one point in her life learned Hungarian, originally under the tutelage of my grandmother. I asked for her help in translating a letter I wrote in English to Hungarian. I wanted to send send it to the Society of Social Mission in Budapest explaining my quest. I would like to know about their presence in Cleveland in the 1920’s – under what circumstances did they arrive and then eventually leave. Did they aid mothers and children, or did they serve others in need? I suspect that my grandmother learned of these sisters through either her church, or perhaps through her employers, a family in Cleveland Heights. I’ve posted a snippet of the letter sent – many thanks Anne! I am still awaiting a reply.


One of my sisters and I took a DNA test through AncestryDNA for our ethnicity estimates. Although we were pegged as being closely related by AncestryDNA, our results were ethnically the same but proportionately different. We also have similar result with an aunt, my father’s sister. I reached out to another family member who I am intermittently in contact with, my older brother, understanding that a male descendant would give a better idea of our biological grandfather’s ethnic makeup. Again, we have similar ethnic markers, but the biggest difference is that he has more Scandinavian and Iberian-peninsula in him than any of us. He also has a smidgen European Jewish.

Clues? Perhaps. I experience autoimmune issues most commonly associated with people with northern European ancestors. My biological grandfather’s last name was Ross, which could be an Americanization of a Hungarian name, but has made some of us wonder about a Jewish connection. It’s all conjecture but it’s evidence of something, something to be determined. Any pointers out there? Please feel free to share.

Sleight of Hand

While in the process of researching, I thought I’d share a memory.

When I was a child, my grandparents lived in Painesville, Ohio, on the other side of town. It’s now a long drive, longer then in the days before I-90. They lived in a large white house on Doan Avenue and had some property, enough for a vegetable garden  as well as a several fruit trees.

My family visited my grandparents on Sundays and holidays. My mother spent mornings of these visits getting us dressed and taming our cowlicks with a wet comb before we clambered into the car for the drive. Some weekends, when we stayed late or the weather was bad, we stayed the night. I slept in the extra single bed in my aunts’ room.  Always an early riser, one morning I woke to a silent house in a room still dimmed in sepia gray in early dawn. I heard dishes clinking below in the kitchen. I crept out of bed and tiptoed downstairs. There was my grandmother under the yellow light of a single light bulb standing by the sink. She wore a light cotton robe and was brushing her hair, stroking it from the roots to where it fell past her knees. I was dumbstruck. She always wore her hair up. I had no idea that she had so much hair.

My grandmother turned and saw me standing in the kitchen doorway. Smiling, she bundled her hair up and into a knot and secured it at the base of her head with a pin, in less than a second. It was magical – a sleight of hand. I believe I wondered — what else about my grandmother didn’t I know? Now I wonder what she choose not to reveal and why not? What could she not reveal for whatever reason? I am reminded of my mother’s efforts to replicate my grandmother’s recipes, without luck. My mom laughingly wondered if my grandmother left an ingredient or two out to preserve the propriety of her pastry recipes. She thought it more likely that when writing down the recipes, my grandmother had made her best guesses about measurements, and that for years, my grandmother had been creating nut rolls and noodles with a pinch of this, a handful of that, with another kind of sleight of hand. It was the same way she was able to root a plant in a jarful of water and nurture it until she transplanted it in the yard. My father inherited my grandmother’s green thumb, and when I had a house with a yard I demonstrated the same trait, transplanting perennials so successfully that they almost overtook my garden.

The photo with this post is of my grandmother with my older brother in her lap, sometime in the early ’60’s. Yes, she has her hair bundled up under that hat.



Where did my nose come from

My father late in his life when he was almost 80 told me and my 4 brothers and 2 sisters one by one that, in his words, he’s been adopted. In other words, he was illegitimate, born out of wedlock to the woman we all knew as Granma, but Granpa was not a biological relative. When my dad told me, everything fell into place – why we did not resemble our cousins at all, why my father was so repressive and strict when it came to our sexuality. And oh my goodness the bizarre autoimmune issues that have popped us as we’ve gotten older. My dad shared his birth certificate with us when he told us – his father’s name was William Ross, an attorney. He hid it away in a strong box to be rediscovered by me and my siblings after his death. He tried for some time to find his biological father and his efforts were interrupted by a decline caused by his Parkinson’s disease. So I am taking on his search, or quest. He was born November 26, 1924. Given the address on his birth certificate, 523 Eddy Rd. in Cleveland, I think he was born at the Florence Crittendon Maternity hospital. From what I’ve learned from an aunt, he stayed with Sisters of Social Service, a Catholic order of women founded in Hungary in 1923, until my Granma married my Granpa, who adopted my dad in 1927. My dad’s original birth certificate (it was amended to show my Granpa as his father at birth when he was adopted) has Hungary as the birthplace for both my Granma and Mr. Ross, and my Granma told my dad confined that William Ross was Hungarian. I am not so convinced. I received DNA results from AncenstryDNA, and the countries of origin of my ancestors are Ireland (46%), Eastern European (30%) and Italy/Greece – my mother was a mix of Irish and Scottish; I expected a higher proportion of me to be Eastern European. Next steps – persuading one of my brothers to submit a saliva sample to trace ethnicity of our male ancestors, find out what happened to the Sisters of Social Service in Cleveland (did they become the Sisters of Charity?) and pick up on a lead my dad had on his biological father’s whereabouts at one point in time in California.cropped-grandmaas-young-woman.jpgimg3001