Thursday, March 29, 2012

"Who Do You Think You Are?": Helen Hunt

Some of my thoughts on last week's Helen Hunt-centric episode of WDYTYA:

  • Funny that just as I wrote a blog entry saying I wanted to see some Western genealogy, this episode did a little bit of tracing Helen's San Francisco-based family, who took advantage of the 1849 Gold Rush to expand their business.
  • I kinda dug that portion of the show because Helen's ancestor became a successful and wealthy businessman who ended up investing in a bank (the eventual Wells Fargo) that is still around today. I could totally identify with this, as my great-great grandfather Rudolph Stutzmann became a successful and wealthy businessman (as an undertaker) who ended up a founding member and first president of a bank (Ridgewood Savings Bank) that is still around today. Loved it.
  • I really wanted to see more emotion on Helen's part, at least for the first three-quarters of the episode. When she was talking to the woman who had written a book on her own San Francisco-based genealogy and it turned out that their ancestors had been friends and business partners, I just loved it, and yet Helen was all, "meh." She really didn't seem like she wanted to be there and she really, really didn't seem excited about anything she was finding out (except that her ancestors were rich, and that kind of bothered me, too). But I was getting more excited than her, and it wasn't even my family they were talking about!
  • I loved the last part of the episode, when Helen traveled to Maine to learn about her great-grandmother Augusta Hunt. That was where Helen seemed to finally emotionally connect to a specific person in her tree and to her ancestry in general. The irony of Helen's great-grandmother fighting alcohol abuse and her future daughter-in-law being killed by a drunk driver really seemed to resonate with her, as well as finding out her great-grandmother was instrumental in the fight for women's suffrage and that she lived to be able to register to vote and be the first woman to cast a ballot in Maine. That was really cool.
  • I loved that Helen was able to read the keynote speech her great-grandmother wrote and gave at one of the meetings. I've read newspaper articles where my great-great grandfather Rudolph has been quoted, and more than vital records and obits and census records, these things are an actual voice from the past - these are words your ancestor spoke, these are thoughts they actually had, reaching out over the years, the decades, the centuries, to us today, a tiny glimpse into their personality, their psyche, their lives. I just love that.
Overall, I would say that I really wanted to throttle Helen for the first part of this episode for not realizing how immensely cool this all is, but by the end of the episode, it was probably my favorite one so far this season...and of course, I was crying. Well played, show.

Next up this week (tomorrow): Rita Wilson explores her Bulgarian roots, answering another thing on my wishlist, seeing more Eastern European genealogy. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Tombstone Tuesday: Rodney Dangerfield

Tombstone Tuesday always makes me think of my dad because a love of cemeteries and headstones is something we share. He said his dad also liked them, so that's right there is three generations of weirdos. I joke, but I really did not realize how strange my fascination with cemeteries was to other people until recently, because I could talk about them with my dad like it was normal. We'd even go on cemetery field trips together. Anyway, now Tombstone Tuesday always makes him think of me and he'll send me photos of some of his favorite headstones, some of them belonging to relatives, some of them not. Here's this week's offering: comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who died in 2004 and is buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. The inscription under his name always makes me laugh.

Most cemeteries could use a little humor. :)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

May the road rise up to meet you...

Today I'd like to take a moment to just remember my Irish family members, some of whom fled Ireland to escape the Great Hunger in the mid-1800s, many of whom emigrated years later, all of whom were well established in New York by the turn of the 20th century. St. Patrick's Day is an Irish holiday, but it's also a very New York-Irish holiday. I'm a bit of a mutt, but my biggest ancestry percentage, at 50 percent, is Irish - my paternal grandfather, Elmer Gorry, was 100 percent Irish, as is my maternal grandmother, Mary Cronin Raynor. Grandpa's great-great-great grandparents were both potato famine era Irish immigrants, settling in the Lower East Side of New York City: James Gorry from County Meath and Mary Corr, who came from County Cavan with her mother and two brothers. And Grandma's father, Timothy Cronin, came to Brooklyn from County Cork with his mom and brothers and sisters in th 1880s. When I was in third grade, we were talking in class about things that aren't real and one of my classmates mentioned leprechauns. I was hardly one to participate in class, but my hand immediately shot up so I could correct her - leprechauns ARE real, and I know for a fact, because my grandmother told me that her father told her he had seen one when he was a boy in Ireland.

To this day, I'm not sure he was joking...

And in between the Gorrys and Cronins, we had Tormeys and Horgans and Murphys and Prendergasts and Enrights who left Ireland for New York, and lets not forget all the Donnellys and Collins and Donoghues and Cullinanes who they also came from. I don't identify as much with my Irish side anymore, but I'm very proud to be of Irish descent. They are the hardest family for me to trace and I'll probably never be able to go back much further than my immigrant ancestors, but I always think of them anyway - whenever I think of me and my siblings with our Irish first names, or see my sister with her red hair, or when I misplace something and I know, I just know, that a leprechaun took it.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Friday, March 16, 2012

"Who Do You Think You Are?": Jerome Bettis

Like how I'm waiting a whole week to post about these episodes? Way to stay current...

I actually don't have that many thoughts about this episode of WDYTYA. Two things in particular struck me, one good and one bad: when Jerome Bettis discovered his great-grandfather had abandoned his wife and young children, and that's why his grandfather didn't know much about him or never really talked about him, it was a little heartbreaking. It started out like Kim Cattrall's search for her grandfather, which didn't have a happy ending. But then Bettis searched for his great-grandfather's early history and discovered that he had pressed charges against his (white) boss in the Jim Crow south and brought him to court and - poof! - like magic, the guy was no longer a scoundrel, he was a hero. That disturbed me a little, that Bettis so quickly and easily forgot or chose to ignore that this man, while yes, was brave in standing up for himself in his youth, grew up to be a man who completely abandoned his family. Bettis kept saying how proud he was of him and that kind of bothered me.

What didn't bother me was his great-grandfather's father's story of not only taking a giant railroad company to court for injuries he incurred on their property, but for the case going in his favor, despite the all-white jury. That was impressive - that he had the courage to embrace that David and Goliath fight, but also that he got a fair trial. Yes, there was a lot of racism and hate and segregation and ignorance and all that jazz, but people forget (like Bettis seemed to) that there were also a lot of people who believed in equality, and even if they didn't necessarily believe in equality, they believed in fairness and justice.

Anyway, this episode kind of made me realize that while the original series has been broadcasting in the UK for years, that after awhile, the episodes start to feel repetitive. Unless it's a celebrity you're particularly interested in or like, or there's a real unique angle, the nuts and bolts of everyone's family story are the same. Although I guess you don't really know what surprises or unique angles you're going to find until you already start looking.

 I'd like to see some diversity in the storytelling - except for Sarah Jessica Parker, we haven't really seen anybody trace their family west of the Mississippi River; if I'm correct we haven't really seen any Eastern European genealogy except for Lisa Kudrow. What about all those Canadian and Australian actors out there? I'd love to see some Canadian and Australian genealogy. And I know this would be much more work for the researchers and possibly not fiscally feasible given the number of staff and time restrictions, but what about branching out from the white/black divide to our Central/South American and Asian brothers and sisters? These are the things I think about when I'm at work...

There's no new episode tonight, so don't sit there looking for it...go out and get a head start on celebrating St. Patrick's Day! I am half Irish by blood, but as I always say, we're all Irish on St. Patrick's Day! ;)

Enjoy your weekend, everyone!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

"Who Do You Think You Are?": Reba McEntire

Though I didn't love this episode - for some reason, it felt really light on the whole "going on a journey to solve a family mystery/make a discovery" thing - two things stood out for me in the Reba McEntire episode last Friday of WDYTYA.

The first was the realization that just as it must be devastating for African-Americans to come face-to-face with the reality that they have ancestors who were slaves, it must not be a picnic for white Americans to realize they had ancestors who were slaveholders. My family has been here for hundreds of years but because they were concentrated in New York/New England, that hasn't ever been an issue for me (although its entirely possible that even in the north I had family who owned slaves - I just haven't found any records of it yet). But Reba seemed absolutely heartbroken when she came across that record for George Brasfield. So while I imagine it has to be harder to know your ancestors were slaves, it was interesting angle to see that it can be a struggle on both sides of it to come to terms with this shameful part of our history.

I also always find it interesting to see which ancestor a person ends up identifying with and Reba, as a mother, really seemed to struggle with the fact that the other George Brasfield, the first on her side of the family to come to America, came here as a 10 year old indentured servant. Since she couldn't imagine ever sending her son on a dangerous voyage across the ocean, knowing she would never see him again, she really needed to find out why that happened. There are all sorts of reasons we identify with certain ancestors, whether its because we are in a similar situation in life or we have similar personalities, but I also appreciate anybody who after undertaking this journey, needs to know not just the who, what, when, and where, but also the why, because without the why, the rest is kind of meaningless. But I actually identified with Reba and George Brasfield the Senior in this episode because I have a similar ancestral story, in that my first Raynor in this country, Edward, was only 10 years old when he came here in 1634. He was an orphan, but he had the advantage that at least he didn't come alone - he traveled here with his uncle and his cousins. But I still always wonder what it must have been like to be uprooted from your life at 10 to undertake a dangerous sea voyage to a completely unknown wilderness. That has always fascinated me.

So looking back at what I wrote, I guess it turns out that even when these episodes don't really speak to me...they still kinda do!