Okay, easy. The bank , your boss, and Social Security always ask you that.
How about your mother’s mother’s maiden name?
Now, how did your mother and grandmother meet their respective spouses (your father and grandfather)? Where all did they live? What did they do in the war?
Things getting a bit blurry?
These are questions I never thought to ask, and stories no one in the family thought to share with me. Maybe by the time I came around, my parents and grandparents had told and heard the stories to each other’s satiated satisfaction. Still, it’d be nice to know where I came from.
As it turned out, the baby of the family grew up a curious journalist, and now, as one of the few remaining living persons in the family, I’m finding out who I am.
I jumped at the invitation from the Tri-City Genealogical Society to trace my ancestry. I gave Margie Stein Beldin a family pedigree (listing names, dates of births and deaths of my relatives) and off she went, down the unbeaten path of my past.
Margie has come back with a lot of great stuff. Here are some highlights, things I never knew about my family, the stuff that makes me, me.
My grandmother–on Mom’s side–was Lillian Selina Van Cortlandt. Van Cortlandt is one of the most prominent, politically influential families in New York, going back to the Revolution. They were like the Kennedys of their time. There are parks, golf courses, streets, and a motel in the Bronx named after Van Cortlandts, including Stephan Van Cortlandt, in the 1670-1680s the first native-born mayor of New york City.
There’s Pierre Van Cortlandt, New York’s first Lieutenant Governor, and State Senator and Congressman Philip Van Cortlandt.
There’s the grandson of Jacobus Van Cortlandt, John Jay, one of the founding fathers. He signed the Declaration of Independence, and later President Washington appointed him Chief Justice (I could have gotten into law school dropping that name).
The family mansion, Van Cortlandt Manor, still stands. The family sold it in the 1950s to a guy named Rockefeller. The estate is now a living museum, a national historic landmark and a popular tourist attraction.
How funky is this? I’m a Van Cortlandt!
The funny thing is, when I called my 84-year-old mother (her father is a Van Cortlandt) with the news she said in her nonchalant way, “Oh yes. The Van Cortlandt name is very important.” We went on for an hour exchanging info; Mom said she wanted to name me Cortlandt (!!). She hadn’t heard the Declaration of Independence story and I think she ended the phone conversation so she could go Google all the Van Cortlandt images.
The lesson here is don’t wait until it’s too late to ask about your family’s history. I wish I had asked my dad what went through his mind when he learned at 18 that his father was actually his stepfather. Did my grandmother (on my dad’s side) know her father was adopted? If she did, she never let on.
Based on birth and marriage certificates, military records and such, I’ve been able to put pieces together, but it’s too late to ask why certain things occurred. Was it the war? Desperate times of the Depression? Adultery?
If I may offer a suggestion. Consider organizing a family event, perhaps this summer: a reunion, a cookout or formal dinner, whatever setting you like, and sit around with all the relatives and share stories. How grandma and Grandpa met. How did we get to the West? What did you do for fun back when there were no iTunes, Facebook, and Live stream movies. What did Mom’s mom do when Granddad left for the war?
And come on, let out the skeletons hidden in the closet. After all, it’s history.
I guarantee you’ll take away something that you didn’t know about your family.
If you want more information on getting started tracing your ancestry, the Tri-city Genealogical Society can help. Online ancestry services will cost you, but as Margie points out, companies such as ancestry.com and software programs at rootsmagic.com have done a lot of the research for you, so you save time, and money on gas and postage, in hunting down records.
And just sitting down for a family meal now and then and sharing memories is free, and priceless.
A program note: I’m putting together a piece on the ancestry research for the newscast. I’ll let you know when it airs (via KNDU/KNDO Facebook and Twitter).
BTW: Van Cortlandt is Dutch (I thought I was Swiss!).