Sunday, October 14, 2012

My Mother the Genealogist

Up until several years ago I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about my family genealogy. Family stories were often interesting and of course I liked to know my specific relationship to relatives that I’d actually met. But I was happy to leave researching, compiling, and recording to others.

My mother, Karen Elizabeth Hietanen Shanower, was one of those others. In the early 1970s she began seriously researching both her own family tree and my father’s. We lived near Washington, DC, so things like US Census records were close.  Some days when my dad was at work and my sister and I were in school, my mother would travel into the city to do genealogical research.

Back then I had little concept of how research libraries worked. But I’ve since had experience looking up entries in catalogs, submitting call numbers, and waiting for books and other written records to be delivered to the call desk, then either consulting the index or going through the laborious task of visually scanning pages. These time-consuming methods of research are a lot of work. (But I find the process kind of fun when I’m interested in the subject I’m researching. I never know when the next surprising and valuable nugget will turn up.) Today, gathering much of the same material my mother found back then simply takes an internet search, winnowing through results, then a few computer commands to copy and paste it into a word processing document and backing that up. But personal computers and the internet weren’t available to my mother in the 1970s.

For a while all things genealogical seemed to interest her. One time she went to hear an author speak about his forthcoming book that incorporated family research. Afterward she told my sister and me how this author had incorporated family stories passed down through generations into a book, which my mom had put on request from the public library. It seemed like a year or two passed before the book was finally published. But when it was, Alex Haley’s Roots was a sensational best-seller and adapted into the first tv mini-series. To me Roots seemed a little old-hat, since it felt like I’d known about it forever.

I remember my mom trying to explain to my sister and me the ranking of cousins. On the big chalkboard on the family room wall my mom would write the names of relatives into a grid. She’d patiently explain how and why so-and-so was a certain number cousin, so many times removed. At eight years old I didn’t get it. Eventually, however, I was able to understand the concept. Now it’s hard for me to understand how I couldn’t grasp it at one point.

My mother, sister, and I would play a game. One person would think of a relative, then recite the chain of relationship leading to that relative. The challenge was for the others to guess the relative the speaker was thinking of. For instance, my mother might say, “Your father’s brother’s mother’s father’s wife.” My sister and I would each try to be the first to call out, “Grandma Dell!”

One Christmas—must have been about 1972—we were visiting relatives in Ohio, where both my parents were born and grew up. My mother interviewed her maternal grandfather, Mattias Vihtori Stuuri (1888-1981), about immigrating to the USA from Finland when he was a child. This was one of the few times I was present when my mother was actually doing genealogical work. Usually I might only hear about results, which were fine, but not of great interest to me then. But hearing Paappa* Stuuri relate facts about his family’s trip from Europe to North America stuck with me—mostly, I think, because I rarely saw Paappa Stuuri interact with others.

Mattias Vihtori Stuuri (1888-1981), my great grandfather, is seated at left in this photo from the early 1940s. My mother, Karen Elizabeth Hietanen Shanower, is the child standing center. My great aunt Adela Mirjam Stuuri Bixler (1918-2003), also mentioned in this post,  is standing on the right.
I rarely interacted with Paappa Stuuri myself. He didn’t talk much and my impression is that he was hard of hearing. When I knew him he usually sat in his accustomed chair on the enclosed porch of the house at 503 Independence Street in Fairport Harbor, Ohio, the house where several generations of the Stuuri family had lived for decades. He’d just sit there silently. Whenever my family arrived on a visit, his eyes would light up for a moment, he’d smile, and he’d let out an "ohhh," perhaps chuckle, and say a few words of greeting in his high, rough voice. Then we’d go on into the house to see the rest of the relatives.

In 1976 my sister and I stayed a week in that house with my great aunt and uncle, Adela Mirjam Stuuri Bixler and Alvin Ahlstrom Bixler. Their youngest child, my cousin Jim Bixler, was still living there, too. One day I was searching for a library book I was reading, one of Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll titles. I passed by the door to the porch and spotted my book—open in Paappa Stuuri’s hands. He was more than just casually glancing through the book, he was reading it! I was a little annoyed that someone had usurped the book I was reading, but I was also struck by the fact that this old man originally from Finland was reading a children’s book by a Finnish author.

Through the years my mom’s interest in genealogical research has waxed and waned. In the summer of 1978, my mother, sister, and I stopped in Pennsylvania where my mom did some research into the Lancaster County Shanowers. But after that I don’t remember her doing much with genealogy. Maybe I was simply unaware of it after I moved out of my parents’ home. In the 1990s other members of the family began to contact my mom for assistance with their own research, but I don’t think she ever plunged back into it to the depth she’d gone in the 1970s.

Her research has proven valuable to later family researchers. For instance, she had determined the place in Finland where her father’s family branch originated. In pre-internet days my mom hadn’t had the time or resources to follow where that information pointed. But in the 1990s when a US cousin researching the Hietanen branch of the family contacted my mom, she was able to guide him in the right direction. He forged ahead, made contact with Finland, and uncovered a wealth of information on our ancestors there. He credits my mom with providing the foundation for his success.

After I became fascinated with family genealogy a few years ago, my mother, I think, was a little relieved. Finally she had someone to turn all her research over to. She wouldn’t have to store all those papers and books anymore. I got them all. Well, a lot of it, at least. She held on to most of her old family photographs.

But I was grateful for everything that she gave me. I began entering all the information into the online family tree. It was fascinating to study some of the process she’d gone through to gather information. She’d kept neat graphs detailing which relatives she’d contacted, when they’d replied, and when she’d followed up. Different types of pencil and pen are used on the same pages, making it clear that at certain points she was filling in information later. Some of her questions have still not been answered. Her research into the McNaughton branch is exhausting to look at. She copied down McNaughton names and dates from record after record, even including variants such as McNorton. She had no way to be sure whether these were related or not.

About two weeks ago, when I wrote a blog post here about my McNaughton forebears, I didn’t have much more information about them than my mother had gathered back in the 1970s. At the end of that post I noted that some details of info I’d gathered myself seemed questionable. Writing that post spurred me to look again at the McNaughtons. I found more information. Turns out I was right to be suspicious—some of my information was wrong. But I’ve now revised it and have discovered a slew of relatives I hadn’t known about before as well as a consistent scenario for their movement from Scotland to Ohio. I’ll save that for another blog post.

Among the research my mom gave me I found the notes from her interview with Paappa Stuuri. I’d only had vague memories of the answers he’d given her back then. But now, decades later, here they were written down in front of me. I’ve recorded them on the online family tree so that the rest of the family can see them if they’re interested, so that any other interested researchers can access them, and so that they’ll be preserved for future generations. And, yes, I perform regular back-ups of the family tree to a couple external drives.

My mom is still interested in her family history. A few years ago she was excited to learn from one of her uncles that he’d found an archive of family letters from the 1940s. The letters contain some family history as well as being of immense sentimental value. I haven’t seen the letters, but I dearly want to make copies and computer scans to preserve them. One of these days.

* Paappa – Finnish word for grandfather, pronounced “boppa.”

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