Thursday, July 25, 2013

Thoughts on HBO's show Family Tree

I don't get HBO but my dad does, so whenever I've been going over there I've been checking out the Christopher Guest series Family Tree on HBO On Demand. If you haven't heard about it, it's a mockumentary format wry comedy about a man, played by Chris O'Dowd, who inherits a box of mementos from his late great-aunt and not knowing much about his family to begin with, finds a picture of someone he assumes is his great-grandfather. Investigating that mystery sets him off on finding out more and more about each of the crazy and colorful characters he learns about on his family tree.

I'm a genealogy buff - how could I not love it? But to be more specific:

  • Even if you're not a genealogy fan, if you are a Christopher Guest fan you should check this series out - it is classic Guest. It's a mockumentary in the vein of Guest films like Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman, with the usual wacky cast of characters and many of Guest's usual suspects, such as Bob Balaban and Fred Willard, popping up. It's funny in a wry, dry, deadpan sort of way.
  • Chris O'Dowd is great. You might know him as the police officer/love interest in the movie Bridesmaids, but I knew about him years before that from his role as an Irish IT nerd in the Britcom The IT Crowd. 
  • The specific genealogy bit that I love about this show is that yes, O'Dowd's character uses the Internet and yes, he takes a DNA test, but his genealogy journey is about photographs of unknown people and other family heirlooms and mementos that raise questions about who he is and where he came from. He goes to genealogy research centers but he also goes to cemeteries, he connects with cousins, he visits old homes of his relatives and talks to neighbors and old co-workers, anybody who might know the stories, anybody who might be a living resource. And I guess that's what I love the most about the genealogy aspect. He's not collecting ancestors. We all do that to an extent. I know I do. He wants to know the stories - he finds a picture of a great-grandfather he never knew but also wants to know what he did for a living and what others thought of him and funny stories about his days performing as the rearend of a two-person horse. And just as we all do, he's trying to connect himself to those stories - he's trying to find bits of himself and his personality and his journey in the ancestors he's discovering and learning about. And he finds cousins during his journey! I have found cousins, amazing cousins who are both great people and great resources - that's one of the best parts. Strangers won't care about your personal family tree finds. Friends and even some family members won't even care. But cousins, fellow researching cousins, will! There's really no point in finding the stories unless you also find people to share them with!
I haven't finished the season yet but I'm enjoying it so far. Have you watched Family Tree? What are your thoughts on the show? 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

"Who Do You Think You Are?" returns next week, y'all

I don't know about you, but after NBC failed to renew the family history program "Who Do You Think You Are?" I was definitely disappointed. For anyone who reads my blog regularly, you know that I cry at pretty much every episode. And that my genealogy passion gets reinvigorated after each viewing. Well, in case you didn't know, TLC picked up the show and new episodes air beginning next Tuesday, July 23, 2013.

Also in case you haven't heard, the Kelly Clarkson episode is available to download for free from iTunes. In it, she traces the journey of her Civil War soldier ancestor Isaiah Rose. As someone with my own Civil War ancestor, Charles Haase, I find those stories intriguing. Clarkson herself didn't really draw me in so much but in answer to your most pressing question, yes, I did tear up anyway during the episode. I blame it on the hormones and on being a new mother, but the trend continues. And while I didn't LOVE this first episode, it did whet my appetite for more stories. I always get a little jealous when I see people who don't know anything about their family history finding out all these new things. I just have to remind myself that even though I feel like I know everything about my family tree, I don't. Even though I've made a lot of those new exciting discoveries, there are still stories and people and hidden gems to find.

WDYTYA isn't a perfect show. It's basically an advertisement for I'll admit that. It's no secret. And while the celebrities involved do pretty much NONE of the research, they DO go beyond using to go to actual research repositories and visit actual historical and research locations, which is SO important in any genealogical pursuit. But no matter how you feel about that, you have to appreciate anything that makes genealogy more mainstream and brings it to people's attention - the more people who become interested in researching their family trees, the more personal family history knowledge and heirlooms and stories and records will be available for all of us!

So, July 23 on TLC - be there!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Independence Day discoveries: United Methodist Church cemetery, established 1859, in East Meadow, NY

I love cemeteries. If you read this blog regularly, you know this. If you're my father or siblings or fiance, you know this. I am very easily distracted by cemeteries, and the older, the better.

So two days ago, on a very hot, very humid Fourth of July, my fiance and I took our daughter for a walk around the neighborhood. We live in East Meadow in Nassau County on Long Island, not far from where my Raynor ancestors settled in Hempstead in the 1600s. But East Meadow is also an older settlement (though not colonial old) - my great grandmother, Amelia Ellen Berg, born in 1884, grew up in East Meadow, and her father, Theodore Peterson Berg, and his father, Peter Hansen Berg, both had farms in East Meadow. In fact, very cool fact, if you drive from my apartment to where my Raynor ancestors lived in Hempstead, you pass right by the house Amelia grew up in on Front Street. It's still standing, although it's a chiropractor's office or physical therapy place now or something.

It's not really a digression. The point is, I have deep roots in East Meadow as well, but I don't really know the town well and you don't really see much history around here. Except for the small patch of original Hempstead Plains still standing in nearby Eisenhower Park, there's really just a lot of 20th century housing and mini strip malls, like most of Long Island. So my fiance and I were walking down East Meadow Avenue, a pretty busy commercial-residential street. I was looking at the churches we were passing (I love old churches, too, bt dubs) and on the walk back, a sign caught my eye. It was a historical marker for the United Methodist Church cemetery, established in 1859. It's funny the things you notice when you're walking, not driving. Now, the current Methodist Church is in a modern 1950s building about a block or so north, but there was another church across the street that looked a lot smaller and a lot older, that probably once housed the Methodist Church until the congregation outgrew it. But I had never noticed a cemetery, and I *still* didn't see one. But we did see an apparently empty yard behind the church, so we decided to take a walk over. Now, it was super hot and sticky out, like I said, and my fiance had *just* told me he had to pee...see how easily I am distracted by even the possibility of a cemetery?

There was in fact a sign on a fence saying United Methodist Cemetery established 1859. Looking at the empty field I figured the graves had been moved. A lot of people buried in small graveyards around here have ended up in Greenfield Cemetery in Uniondale. But when I saw the gate wasn't locked and walked in, I discovered the church yard wasn't empty - all the headstones were lying flat! It was like I had entered the past - here was this tiny, old cemetery off a modern busy road right around the corner from where I lived and I never knew! And on Independece Day no less, when we think about the past, and our families, many of whom came here for the freedom we celebrate every July 4th. I'll have to go back to see if I recognize any of the names of the people bried there.

So always keep your eyes open - look around, especially around corners. History - our own history - is everywhere!

Dorothy Wright headstone in the United Methodist Church cemetery in East Meadow

Historical marker at the old United Methodist Church on East Meadow Avenue, East Meadow, NY

United Methodist Cemetery, established 1859, East Meadow, NY

A seemingly empty field is covered in headstones at the United Methodist Cemetery in East Meadow, NY

United Methodist Church Cemetery

Friday, July 5, 2013

PBS announces new genealogy show: "Genealogy Roadshow"

And the interest in genealogy television shows continues to expand...

Television will hop onto any bandwagon that seems to be gaining popularity or steam, which has been happening over the past few years in regards to genealogy. This then causes people in the general population who watch these shows and become intrigued to hop on the genealogy bandwagon. It's a vicious cycle. I don't mind. The more people even peripherally involved in genealogy, the more info (hopefully more good than bad) that circulates, the more we can all help each other fill in our trees.

 PBS is the latest to hop on the band wagon, premiering a new genealogy show, "Genealogy Roadshow," which will attempt to investigate ordinary, everyday people's unverified claims that connect them to a historical person or event. I think that's the draw for a lot of newbies, that they might discover they're connected to somebody or something famous. Seasoned genealogists, I think, tend to find the ordinary just as exciting as the extraordinary. Still, I wouldn't say, "No thank you, not interested," if it was possible to connect to something or somebody historically significant not just to me and my family but to the general public, too! :)

So, the show sounds interesting. I will definitely be checking it out. How about you?

Find the full press release here.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy Fourth of July!

Today is the Fourth of July. In America, this is our Independence Day.

On a side but related note, I am a European mutt. I have family from all over and then some, and I love tracing all those lines to their immigrant roots back to the motherland...and then some. But on a day like today, I think of all my Italian-American metro NY friends who are second generation Americans, whose grandparents were born in Europe. My best friend and fiance are both first generation Americans - their parents were born in Latin America. Even my daughter is a second generation American. My most recent immigrant ancestor generation wise is my great-grandfather, born in Ireland. Timewise, it's my great-great grandmother, who came over from Germany. They were both here before the turn of the 20th century. I have no ancestors who came through Ellis Island because they were all here already. In fact, a whole branch of my tree was here 150 years before the United States even won their independence from England. They've been here for more than 350 years. So I don't have any cultural traditions handed down to hold on to, because my family has been here for so long, but because my family has been here for so long, I am unequivocally American.

Oh, except for the fact that most of my colonial ancestors were AGAINST independence during the Revolutionary War...yep, them Raynors be Loyalists!

Oh well. They lost, but they stayed, so here I am, an American, wishing everyone a very happy and safe Fourth of July!!