Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Defining Family

I have lots of thoughts floating around in my mind regarding this topic of defining family so if this post comes across as scattered, it is.

2018 was in general an exhausting year. My plans to have a warm sunny Christmas vacation with Cousin Kelly were thwarted a bit by the occurrence of significant passings in my family.

Our trip to Miami began on December 22. That evening I received the call that my father's cousin Brian had passed away after a brief but heartbreaking battle with cancer. 

Cousin Brian was only 51. Yesterday would have been his 52 birthday. He was the youngest of my father's first cousins and really the first of this very large group of first cousins to pass away from an illness like this. 

Some, including myself, would argue that mental illness is what took my father's other cousin, Richard, back in 1995. However, Richard took his own life, he didn't wither away in a hospice bed like Brian. But I digress...

The youngest great grandchild of Charles Henry & Anna Marie Sauer-Henry, Brian was a quiet, gentle soul. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in early October. And it was a fast moving aggressive cancer. When he was asked by his siblings about announcing his diagnosis and inviting family to visit, I was deeply touched by his request to see me. It had been years since I had really seen Brian but he was very much my family and his passing brings me to tears daily still.

Years ago I had requested Brian to take an Ancestry DNA test because he would have the y-chromosome for my father's mother's line; the Henrys. A very private man, Brian consented to take the test. Among those of my father's cousins who have taken the test, I match closest to Brian. DNA defines us as family, no doubt.

On our way from Miami to Key West on December 26, I received a call from my father that my Grandma Mary, my step-grandmother, had passed away on my dad's birthday after a rather long, exhausting, decline that I cannot attribute to anything other than old age. 

Over the past few years her organs had slowly stopped functioning. Others in our household would say that it was really just the last few months but she had been living with us for the last 4 years. First it was a fall that put her in a wheelchair and into the back bedroom of our house. It was not long after that she needed to be put on a colostomy bag. Another year or so later, after a series of infections, she received a foley catheter. When moved back into the hospital for the last time before hospice, they discovered she was not actually swallowing. Her alimentary canal was not moving the food fully through her. Slowly, her organs were failing.

Grandma Mary was, again, my step grandmother. We had no biological connection. I didn't need her to take a DNA test to know that. But I lived with her everyday for the last few years of her life. She had been my grandmother for the last 30 years since my father remarried in 1989. My mother disowned me when I was in my mid-twenties so it feels Grandma Mary had been my family longer than my own mother. DNA does not defines us as family though.

Last night the first episode of season five of Finding Your Roots aired on PBS. The episode was subtitled Grandparents and Other Strangers. It featured comedian Andy Samberg and author George R. R. Martin. The pair of guest has similar stories really, although they were kind of polar opposites.


Samberg, who knew his mother had been adopted, set out on a journey to discover his biological heritage whereas Martin, whose family had held great disdain for his grandfather for abandoning the family, uncovered an NPE; a Non-Paternity Event. Unbeknownst to Martin his grandfather, the abandoner, was not his biological grandfather. 

Samberg's story was remarkable in that not only did the program determine who his biological maternal grandparents were, his mother met her previously unknown half-brothers and received photographic evidence of her biological parents' association.

The two guests stories underscored this genealogical matter weighing on me for much of the last half of 2018; how do we define family. 

I don't have an answer. I just spend an awful lot of time thinking about it lately.

Because you spit in a tube and match some stranger half-way across the country, you're family? 
I would say, YES! 

But what if you spit in that tube and find out all the people around you, the ones who have known and loved you your whole life, are not biologically your family as in the case of Martin (and so many others I have encountered this year), are you no longer family? 
I would say, NO, you are still family even though you have no common ancestors. 

Which brings up other philosophical contemplations for me; like, does the definition of family change over time? And if it does, does that change relate to physical proximity? Is it impacted by death? If I define my dead people as my family and all my biological connections as well as those who I "live with" how big is this family unit? 

Fundamentally who do I personally define as my family?

...And can each of the living ones get me a discounted phone plan or gym membership? I don't think I am making the most of my family discount potential.

Things that keep me up at night.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Family Photos in an Antique Shop

This past week I attended some training for work up in Syracuse, New York. On the way back a colleague and I stopped for a late lunch in Ithaca, NY; a town she really loved visiting before. I had been through it once or twice but never really spent much time there so I was open to wandering around a bit. 

We stopped into the DeWitt Mall which is an odd assortment of little shops in what appears to be a re-purposed parochial school. My colleague and I wandered independently for a bit. There was a little antique shop that had several shelves of items for sale out in the hallway between stores. As I passed the shelves I saw some little eyes peeping over the edge of a box. 

It was a portrait of a handsome woman, Mrs. Elizabeth Neu Wagner, as noted on the back of the photo. Many of the photos in the box appeared to be from the same family album but none of them were labeled well; not like this one at least. This had a brief genealogy on it. In a small neat print, much like my own, the label reads: 


PROJECT! I had great fun this past year helping a patron at my part time job put a family heirloom back in the right hands. Why not see if I could get this photo to an appropriate family member. 

As soon as I got home last night I sat down and searched for those names on And in less than 10 minutes I had found an Ancestry member who had a robust tree naming all those individuals indicated on the photo with the proper connections between them. The tree had many photos including one of Frederick A. Wagner and Barbara Wagner-Woodams. But the tree did not have a photo of this woman, Elizabeth. Now it will because I contacted the Ancestry member who made that tree and in less than 20 minutes heard back from her. Elizabeth is her husband's 3x great grandmother.

A little poking around and I learned Elizabeth was born in Bavaria, Germany in 1832; no known date of death. She was married to Frederick Wagner. She arrived in the U.S. in about 1855-1860; so probably before she was married...maybe. She has at least 6 children with Frederick; some if not all were born in New Jersey.

It appears as though her great granddaughter Barbara was the last family member to own the photo, at least that is what I assume from the labeling. 

Barbara Ann Wagner-Woodams was born on January 15, 1929 to Alfred Walter Wagner and Barbara Althea Lounsberry in Bradley Beach, New Jersey according to her U.S. Social Security Applications & Claims indexed information on She married William John Woodams on January 12, 1951. She passed away on December 3, 2000. Her husband was from Ithaca, NY. William outlived his wife by 11 years. He died September 14, 2011 and I suspect he passed in Ithaca and that this antique shop purchased a family album in an estate sale or auction or something of that nature.

I am sure there are more Wagner Family photos in that antique shop but they were all mixed in together with thousands of other photos. Some were obviously taken from the same family album though; those could have been images from an album that also contained this woman's photo. Who knows. It would be quite a task to comb through them all. The descendant I tracked down lives in Oregon. I don't think he will be in Ithaca any time soon. Hmm. I wonder if any of the other family photos will make there way into the hands of the right family. Well, I know this one will.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Wagner.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

An NPE in the Tree

It has been one long, crazy summer. Life has been filled with all sorts of adventure; so much so that I just have not had the time to write. My days have been filled with countless revisions of my tenure portfolio, massive amounts of travel packing and unpacking, 3 or 4 jobs (I can't keep track), and lots of genealogical digging.

Shortly after I returned home from my trip to my ancestral homeland in Newfoundland with Uncle Thomas in July, I was contacted through by a man who stated he had a DNA match with me. Well, he actually has a match with a relative of mine for whom I manage their DNA test. Three or 4 emails into our exchange, (again, I can't keep track), I called him. It was obvious this man had done a lot of research before taking a DNA test and didn't quite understand the results he was seeing. 

It was not long into our conversation, maybe 3 or 4 minutes, I asked him, "Jack (I'll call him Jack), do you think you're adopted." To which he responded, "I didn't think so until this morning."

It was at that instant that I was fully invested. (By the way, he isn't adopted but...)

What Jack is experiencing is what many are referring to as an NPE; a Non-Paternity Experience. And I have seen it before with others I have worked with one-on-one doing genealogy research. His life is going along just fine, he takes a DNA test with no real serious expectations, just wants to see a pie chart of his ethnicity, further his research, and maybe meet a cousin or two (or 3 or 4 - hee hee), and BAM!  He discovers that the man he knows to be his father is not his biological parent. His mother is his biological mother; we found people who he matches on that side of his family tree. Sadly though, his mother has passed away and so he has no one in his own immediate family to ask about these results. 

This initialism, NPE, is a term not just used for people who discover their father is not their biological parent but for those who discover they are adoptees as well. It is also sometimes called a false paternal event or misattributed paternity. These are all terms I just don't like but I haven't come up with anything better yet. In any case, I read somewhere that in one specific yDNA study the rate of NPE was about 10%. In other words, 1 in every 10 men who contributed to that specific yDNA study experienced an NPE; 1 in 10. That's a lot. NPEs are not at all uncommon but each one is unique and each deserves sensitivity and intense research. 

Back to Jack. Since our initial contact we have communicated nearly every day. We've dug through records, translated foreign records, contacted lots of other people he matches, combed through family photos, talked about centimorgans, sketched out diagrams of potential connections, shot down a handful of theories, found biological connections to his mother, and have arrived at a short list of potential biological fathers. We don't have the answer yet, but we will. 

Jack has a tenacity that I respect and admire. It's not ferocious, it's a patient, respectful, relentlessness that is going to bring to light exactly where he comes from. Where for some people this might completely unhinge their entire sense of self, for Jack it doesn't seem that way. He seems confident, accepting, and again, completely respectful of the other lives this discovery might impact. For others though, these revelations often stir up family secrets that are scandalous and perhaps even dark and painful; like infidelity and rape. Painful discoveries occur so often because of these simple DNA test that there are actually support groups for people who experience these discoveries.

It's my hope that people would go into these DNA tests with their eyes wide open to the fact they may learn things they were not expecting and may not want to know. Jack wants the people who take these tests to participate in their DNA findings; provide information to the people you match to. "Don't just take the test and leave," he says. It's my prayer that everyone is like Jack and has the courage to approach their matches for insight; ask them all to share what they know! Do so with respect, sensitivity, and persistent patience. Those matches, those are your cousins; they are your family. So when someone comes to you in the midst of an NPE, remember, if they match you, you are their family. Be kind.

Yeah. It's been an incredibly wonderful, enlightening, long, crazy summer.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Cousins in Unlikely Places: Part 2

Uncle Thomas and I got to visit with the Pumpkin House host, Charlie, at his own newly acquired property just down the road; the property that once belonged to John Earle. 

I have to say, Charlie seemed just as excited as we were to have us this close to our Earle Family history. He was eager to take me on a walk down his beach, to marvel with me at the fact that this was probably the beach my great grandfather, Abe Earle, played on as a child.

The two small red structures near the center of the image are Charlie's stages. The white house on the left is his home on Farmers Arm Road, Durrell, Twillingate, Newfoundland

Charlie was also eager to show Uncle Thomas around his stage. A stage is a kind of shed along the water where fisherman would have unloaded and cleaned the fish they caught.

While Uncle Thomas and Charlie poked around the old structure, I stood outside on the beach chatting with Charlie's friend, Sylvain. Our conversation went a little like this.

"So do you live here year round?"
"No, I live in Montreal."
"Oh, that's where my mom's side is from. My father's side is from here in Twillingate but my mom's side has deep roots in Montreal."
"I have ancestors who were early settlers in Montreal. What's the family name?"
"It would have been Desjardins." 

And he froze. This very blank expression came across his face and he slowly said, "My mother's maiden name is Desjardins."

I stared at him what must have been a whole minute. "Get the fuck out. Are you kidding me?"

Shortly there after the four of us ventured into Charlie's actual house where Sylvain and I scrolled through our phones looking at our respective family trees. Sure enough he and I have my 9th great grandfather in common; Claude Jourdain Desjardins Charbonnier.

I don't know much about Claude except that he was born in France in in 1636 and 30 years later married Marguerite Lardon Cardillon in Montreal. Marguerite was a Filles du roi, one of the "King's Daughters." Not really royalty she had the support of the royalty. She was one of many women sent to the New French settlement between marry and help settle the area.

 I know that AND that I still have a cousins in Montreal.
Cousin Sylvain, me, and Cousin (by Association) Charlie
on Farmers Arm Road, Durrell, Twillingate, Newfoundland
June 21, 2018

Monday, July 9, 2018

Cousins in Unlikely Places: Part 1

This past June I traveled to Newfoundland with my Uncle Thomas. This was his first visit to our ancestral homeland; my second. I had been to the town of Twillingate once before in 2014 with Cousin Kelly and Cousin Peter. Twillingate is the town where my great grandfather, Abram Thomas Earle, was born in January 1891. This location was on Uncle Tom's bucket list and so when I was determining where I wanted to go for my birthday vacation this year and my usual travel companions were unable to accompany me, I invited Uncle Tom to go with me.

Uncle Thomas has a strong affinity for his grandfather, Abe. So much so that he named his boat "Twillingate" after his boatsman grandfather's birthplace.

In Newfoundland there are not many chain hotels in the small towns; not even in the small towns that are touristy. Most people stay in B & Bs. In advance of our travels, I used AirBnB to reserve places for my uncle and I. That's good because we could get multi-bedroom locations for nearly the same price as hotel rooms in which we would have to share a room. 

In my search on AirBnB, I came across a place called The Pumpkin House located on Farmers Arm Road in Twillingate. The funny thing is that according to the birth registration for Great Grandpa Abe, he was born on Farmers Arm; a section of the Durrell side of Twillingate.

Pumpkin House - image taken from
So there we were in the bright and bonnie abodes of The Pumpkin House owned and operated by Nancy and her son Charlie. Turns out Charlie recently purchased a house of his own just a few doors down from Pumpkin House. On his deed it shows a survey conducted by Thomas Peyton who was once the local magistrate. Thomas Peyton was also the father of Edgar Peyton; the brother-in-law of my great grandfather and thus my uncle's great uncle. Family connections were happening. 

More stunning though was the fact that the property Charlie owns was once owned by John Earle. Yup an Earle! The deed, which can also be viewed in the Peyton Family Papers held in the Special Collection of Memorial University in St. John's Newfoundland, shows the property of both John and Thomas Earle side by side on Farmers Arm; now Farmers Arm Road. The deed indicates the land was once owned by the Late William Earle who, one would assume is the father of John & Thomas, the aforementioned land owners.

Land Survey conducted by Thomas Peyton of land once owned by William, Thomas, and John Earle of Farmers Arm, Durrell, Twillingate, Newfoundland in 1894.
I haven't pieced all the family connections together just yet but my gut tells me that my great grandfather was born on Charlie's land or that of Charlie's neighbor; Daphne Earle who now owns the land that belong to her grandfather-in-law, Thomas Earle. 

Oh but wait, it gets even better...

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Tombstones in Templenoe, Ireland

Cousin Kelly is the most Irish of all my family members; well, at least amongst all the family AncestryDNA results I manage. She comes in at a whopping 75% Irish. So I was a little disappointed that she was not able to accompany Cousin Pete and I on our recent trip to Ireland. 

However, I researched her maternal line, as well as our shared line, as much as I could before making the trip. It wasn't really a research trip. Cousin Peter and I did not plan on spending hours in cemeteries or archives, we didn't contact any research facilities in advance of our travels, etc. We simply planned to drive through the areas we knew our Irish ancestors were from. If we saw a church or cemetery, maybe we'd poke around to see if there were any surnames we identify with among the stones. So I jotted down that Cousin Kelly's great-great grandfather was baptized in Templenoe; a town on the Ring of Kerry. 

The Ring of Kerry is a highly traveled route by tourists; which means there are an awful lot of tour buses along it. Driving in Ireland was very stressful for this American driver who has been back and forth across the U.S. several times. In Ireland, like the rest of the United Kingdom, drivers sit in the right front seat and they drive on the left side of the road. Every time I got in the car - I mean EVERY time without fail - I reached over my left shoulder to grab a seat belt that wasn't there. I just could not get used to being on the other side of the car and the other side of the road but I digress. 

While on the Ring of Kerry, we did note when we reached the town of Templenoe. In fact, as soon as we entered town I saw a sign pointing to the "Old Templenoe Cemetery." Cousin Peter and I figured, "ah, what the heck? Let's go look around."

It is a relatively small cemetery right on the water. Beautiful. With big old Celtic cross markers, all carved up with intricate Celtic knot patterns. Beautiful. And right smack dab in the middle there is a ruins of a church built around 1450 - you know, just like 40 years or so before Columbus reached the Western Hemisphere. 

Photo by John (Paul) Hallissey taken from
Cousin Peter and I got out and trampled about the cemetery, apologizing to the graves below. "Sorry. Pardone me. Excuse me. So sorry." Until we got all the way around and saw the gravesite of the Morley Family.

The Morley Family Plot
 Daniel Morley is Cousin Kelly's great-great grandfather. It seems to me as though the first burial in the plot was for Cousin Kelly's great-great grandmother; Abbey Meara-Morley who died in July 1885 at the age of 40. I suspect she dies in childbirth or shortly there after but have not been able to confirm that. I just see that she had a child the same year that she died. I also suspect that her maiden name was actually O'Meara and that she is the daughter of Timothy O'Meara and Julia Fogarty-O'Meara. I am still working on sorting out this family but it seems to me they want to be found.

You see, it never happens like this. I never by chance happen upon a cemetery and just wander up onto the right grave marker. I mean, more often then not I seek out a cemetery. I obtain all the possible information that I can in advance of my visit. I traipse up and down rows and rows of headstones to find no headstone at all. But here they are. And with a stone that reveals details I did not have before and a plot that groups together family members I would have otherwise have been unsure were connected.

I am convinced some ancestors just want to be found.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

In the House Where He Lived

I have some patrons who bring me extremely interesting research. In my last post I wrote about Jack and his quest to find out more about the uncle he is named after who died in WWII. This past week Jack returned to my desk with an object he said I would not believe; and he was right.

Jack brought in a deep shadowbox frame; about 18"x 18" and 4 inches deep. Contained in it was a round ornate circular silver frame. At the center of which was a 3 inch circular photo of a couple in their mid to late 50s, maybe very early 60s. Curved around the top of the photo it said 1878-1903; beneath it said 2 May. Around the couple's photo were 1 inch round photos of 5 younger people; presumably their children. This was a silver wedding anniversary frame; silver in color and material, as well as in the fact that it is a 25th anniversary commemorative frame.

Jack proceeded to tell me how this was in the home his parents bought in 1969 in Flushing, Queens, NY. Jack surprisingly knew the name of the previous homeowner. Do you know the name of the person who owned the house you grew up in? I sure as heck don't.

Even though their was no indication on the object as to who was in the photos, Jack believed it belonged to the former homeowner and wanted to get it back to the family. The former homeowner's name was George Washington Anger. I guess that is a pretty hard name to forget.

A search for George quickly resulted in finding his WWI draft registration card. The card confirmed that George lived in Flushing and it provided his date of birth which made subsequent searches much easier.

From there we back up through the U.S. Federal Census records, 1940 to 1930 to 1920 etc, to find George living with his parents at the address Jack had grown up at. Sure enough, George was 1 of 5 children of August and Caroline Anger.

1900 Census

Turning our interest to the parents, we found their marriage record in the New York, New York Marriage Index as, wouldn't you have it, 2 May 1878. This frame was theirs and those photos were these people we had seen in all these records.

Jack then asked if we could find any living family members. I always tell my patrons that it is easier to find the dead than it is to find the living. We took a shot though and searched the public family trees on We found someone who appeared to be the great-great grandson of August and Caroline. Using my personal account I was able to email the tree owner through Ancestry. I could see this Ancestry user was an active researcher because he had had an account since 2012 and had last logged in 2 days before.

We simply sent a note saying I was a genealogy librarian working with a patron who had an object that might be of interest to him if he was indeed related to this couple.

Today Jack and I received a reply to that email saying that yes, those are his great-great grandparents and that he would be delighted to know what we have in store for him.

I know that it is Jack's wish to see this object back in the hands of a family member who will love and cherish it as much as he has all these years - these strangers whose house he once lived in.