How I Uncovered a Dirty Family Secret and Found My Uncle
A Real Grandpa
You've probably seen those Ancestry.com commercials where someone finds out something special about an ancestor. Well here's a true story about exactly that.
As a kid I was told almost nothing about my father's father. Babcia, -- that's Polish for grandma -- had been married to another man, my father's step-dad when she came to the U.S., bringing my 16-year old dad and his sister.
We were told a little about the step-dad. He seemed to be a good guy, but died shortly after they arrived in America. Heart problems, I think.
"But what about my real grandpa?" I asked somewhere around the age of seven or ten.
"He was in the Polish Resistance," Dad said. (They'd emigrated shortly after WW2.) "We never heard from him again."
I'm told my brother and sister each asked the same question and got completely different reports.
"What was grandma Babcia's last name before she got married?" I asked another time.
"The same as ours."
"Were they related?"
"No. It's just a very common last name."
I'm sure you've already guessed something fishy was going on...and it was.
A Secret Revealed
On my 17th birthday, my mom decided I had the right to know something. By this time she and my dad were in the process of divorce. She was tired of keeping secrets and didn't feel I should be kept in the dark about my grandfather.
"This is a picture of your grandfather." And she showed me the same photo you see here. "I promised your dad I wouldn't tell you till you were old enough."
On the back of the photo was a name. Notably the last name was NOT the same as mine. It was 13 letters long and contained two z's! Once I got over the surprise I was pretty grateful I hadn't gotten stuck with it!
Babcia had never married my grandfather. Dad cried when he told my mom about going to meet his father:
Babcia had dressed him up in his Sunday best and taken him to a corner outside a printer's shop. He was about four years old. "Now when the man comes out, I want you to say, 'Good day, sir. It is a fine day isn't it. No I have no need of anything.' Can you do that?"
Looking at the photo, I knew it was my grandfather. He was the spitting image of my father.
"It's why your dad became a printer," Mom said.
I found it pretty funny that anyone would care if Babcia was married or not. But those were different times. Dad was a big one on keeping family secrets and seemed embarrassed by her indiscretions.
Mom made me promise not to discuss it with my brother or sister (both younger) until she was ready to tell them.
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Growing Up Printer
Dad got his first printing job in New York at age 16 thanks to the parish priest who helped them get here after the war.
He owned a shop for a few years, but the market was too competitive and he landed a job with a company who sold presses. He was both setup mechanic and salesman and pretty darn successful at both.
When I was a kid, he'd be gone weeks at a time. When he came back he always had a print they'd used as a sample which he'd frame for our walls. Sometimes they were the terribad big eyes kitten ones or poker dogs, sometimes they were gorgeous landscapes.
We had a disassembled printer we kept in the same shed that my pony lived in. Movable type and all!Dad kept threatening to put it together and teach us to use it, Never happened!
He did get occasional private graphics and print set jobs, and would teach us how to help. My mom's first book of poetry was published this way! Us kids helped type it on an ancient ball-type typewriter with changeable font balls, and paste it together.
Once, back when he had his shop the mob offered him a "very special printing job," but he refused. Not that the money wasn't tempting for a poor immigrant printer with kids to feed, but...who wanted to get involved in that?
The smell of printer's glue and ink chemicals is ingrained on my memory. When I smell them it's like being with Dad all over again.
Go figure, the man I am married to (besides being a laser physicist and ballroom dance instructor) just "happens" to be a graphic designer. Meanwhile all our female relatives on the mother line are writers, going back to Willa Cathers. I'm thinking there is a theme here.
A Few Family PhotosClick thumbnail to view full-size
Family Jobs? Coincidence or not?
Dad was a printer.So was his dad and his new-found half brother! My brother, while not a printer, works in the communications industry. If you're reading the web or connecting via sattelite news, he might be involved!
It seems that just about every female on my family tree line has writing blood. That's me, my sister, my cousin, my mother, aunt and grandmother.Maybe more! And way down the line I'm related to Willa Cathers - who was the inspiration for the character name of the protagonist of my Witches Gates Saga series of novels.
So is the idea that "jobs" run in families just wacky coincidence or fact?
Do jobs and trades run in families?
Something in the blood! It compels us to follow a certain direction.
Bring your family history to life. From choosing a theme to adding suspense, drama and romance. This book will help you tell the stories of your ancestors.
A Family of Historians
As a family of writers, I probably shouldn't be surprised that collecting the stories of our ancestors has become such a passion for myself and my family.
Family gatherings were a time for storytelling. We'd hear about Grandpa and the Bird-Shot Partridge, Capitalism (a Model-T Ford used in a May Day Parade) and the story of Babcia and the Apple Tree. I could sit around the dinner table or the fireplace for hours, listening to the older folks spin their yarns. "Just one more," I'd beg at bedtime.
Mom usually read us bedtime stories, but these were even better. Tales with characters I knew. And most of them far quirkier than any book.
One of my Mom's earliest major writing projects was a novel based on my Babcia's struggle to keep her children safe during the war. I remember that she showed me a chapter with the scene of Babcia taking Dad to visit his father at work. (At the time I assumed that was before he left to join the Resistance fighters.) Mom was never happy with that one. Now I know why.
Sadly, that excellent project went by the wayside when my parents divorced.
Decades later a good chunk of my family is writing our history. Mom's writing a novel about her divorce and the ensuing aftermath of dealing with three out-of control teenagers. She and her sister are also collaborating on a novel about their childhood growing up during the McCarthy Era. My own sister and I are working on a book about my sister's challenges with an abusive ex and a daughter with emotional disabilities.
And that fireside story about Babcia and the Apple Tree? It made it into a chapter of my recently published novel.
Many years later my brother got interested in genealogy. Another family historian. go figure.
He'd asked Dad about our grandfather on a few occasions, but Dad always blew him off.
"Maybe if we ask him together," he said.
I'd moved to Florida years before and this was my first visit in a while. Dad, of course, wanted to talk about the Animal Planet channel which he'd just discovered. We sat through an hour or so of him replaying clips about tigers.
Both my brother and I are animal lovers but finally my brother turned off the sound. "There's something we wanted to ask about..."
We gave him the name.
"Oh yeah, he was a family friend," Dad said, getting that laugh in his voice that always told us he was lying or at least not giving the full story.
We drilled him for almost an hour, but he wouldn't admit that it was his father. He did tell us a couple of super-vague details about the man.
Contact From Overseas
Years went by. Dad passed in 2007 and there are many funny stories about that, which might eventually make it into my writings. (Yes, they are actually funny as heck! Dad was always a prankster and he left several pranks behind when he left.) My brother continued the genealogy studies and started putting up a family tree on Ancestry.com
We found several new names to add to the tree, a photo of the ship my grandfather (a Danish sailor) had come to America on, and other fun items. Such as the fact that one of our direct ancestors was the town drunk of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Yep, they have record of his fines for rowdy behavior. Go figure.
Then one day I got an excited call from my brother. "Check your email! Check the site!"
As part of my brother's research, he'd posted our grandfather's name on one of ancestry's boards. One day, against all probability, he got an answer.
You've Got an Uncle!
Uncle Kaz sent a photo of grandpa. It was the same exact photo that we had. Except his copy didn't have the bent corner.
Another mystery answered. That of why Babcia might not have wanted her grandkids to know. And what embarrassed Dad. She wasn't just unmarried. She was the other woman.
Uncle Kaz sent us a photo of himself as well. He looks so much like Dad!
Unfortunately, Kaz doesn't speak much English and none of us speak Polish. We always thought Dad refused to teach us his language because he didn't want us to know what Babcia and were saying. Maybe we were right. But the language barrier is workable.
My brother did get a translator and they exchanged a few emails.
The Saga Might Continue
At first, my brother didn't want to give up our uncle's email address. I suspect he wanted to keep the contact "special" for a while. I decided to humor that. For a time.
Today, thinking of the photo for this article, I logged onto Ancestry.com again to download it. My brother has the original. Thank goodness! If I'd had it I'd have lost it in my house fire a few years back!
I discovered my brother hasn't logged into the site in at least a year.
And there was another message from Uncle K dated 3 years ago -- it looks like my brother may not have seen it! K lost all our contact info in a computer crash back around 2011.
So I wrote him today. I'm so excited to have found family and so amazed that a photo could confirm it.
If the saga continues, I'll let you know.
I Met Him on Skype!
After waiting several days and not hearing back from Uncle K, I realized that I had a Skype address for him. I wrestled with it for several days because my computer had (and still has) something broken with it, and I couldn't log in. Finally I figured it out and left him a message to please add me to his contacts. For several days I didn't hear back. Then one day, I got buzzed with a message that he wanted to talk to me!
I still feel a little faint!
There he was, live and on my screen! As said, he doesn't speak much English, but we each pulled up our translators and figured it out. Omigosh! I sent the whole family his contact info and I need to take some pics to send him. Like NOW!
Okay, we actually DO owe this all to these folks. Otherwise we wouldn't have met Uncle Kaz.
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