My Perfect Year

As my wife and I approach our first wedding anniversary (!), I’ve been thinking about how my personal memories of 2016 are very different than the larger cultural narrative of 2016 as one of the worst years in history.

I will gladly take my January wedding to Melissa, purchasing our home in May, and building our life together there over the rash of celebrity deaths (RIP, Carrie Fisher) and a divisive presidential election. On the professional side, 2016 also saw the completion of my project listing Michigan Masonic deaths in the 1930’s, and at work, the Archives of Michigan continues our digitization project of Michigan naturalization records from across the state. My Perfect Year!

Back at home, within days of returning from our honeymoon, I eagerly added Melissa to my family tree software. A whole new family to discover!

Always and Forever.

Always and Forever.

For years, Melissa shared research stories of her deep ancestral ties to West Virginia and the many generations of both sides of her family that lived there. Yet I could never personally relate to her research in War of 1812 or Revolutionary War-era records and share similar compelling tales of family triumph or tragedy.

Tennant Memorial Cemetery, Jakes Run, WV.

Tennant Memorial Cemetery, Jakes Run, WV.

So it was a real thrill when we visited Tennant Memorial Cemetery near Jakes Run, West Virginia. Located just a few miles from her family’s farm, the cemetery is home to 8 Tennants, 7 of them being War of 1812 veterans and the other a Revolutionary War veteran. As someone with half of his family arriving here as post-1900 Polish immigrants, Melissa’s deep American roots makes me rather envious.

Melissa and I have plans to research those War of 1812 Tennant ancestors further, both at the National Archives and onsite there in the local community. Given my family’s relative close proximity in western Pennsylvania, we might be able to fit in some work with my side of the family, too. Researching our families together is something that Melissa and I each eagerly look forward to. We hope that 2017 will bring even greater joy and triumphs than My Perfect Year.

Revisiting My Photo Archives

My divorce this year has led me to look through the family archives and review my personal photo collection. Print after print, box after box, I’ve been busy making scans of significant, memorable, or otherwise important family pictures (thank you, Flip-Pal). Predominantly of my daughters, the images in some cases date back more than 10 years. That decade is fairly small in the larger canvas of my family’s history, but in my own life – the here and now – it represents so much more.

Those images, and the memories they stir, serve as a personal reminder of what we do every day as family historians – collecting a lifetime of memories, stories, and images, and sharing them with the current and future generations. With my divorce, sharing those stories, events, traditions, and memories (and making new ones) with my daughters is now even more of a priority for me.

Here are just a few pictures that jumped out at me as I was poring through the family photo boxes. This first one is of my oldest daughter (she’s 11 now), where we are busy playing “Daddy with a Bucket on His Head.” Thankfully, my daughter’s accessorizing has moved past plastic headwear and on to more sophisticated pursuits, such as my suit, shirt, and tie combinations. And for the record, her taste remains exquisite; my work shirts and ties today nearly surpass my bucket-wearing days of the not-so-distant past.

SCAN0185_copyHere is another picture, this one of my youngest daughter with my father. About 6 months old at the time and at her first Christmas, what strikes me with this image is how intense my daughter’s gaze is. Nearly 9 years later, that gaze can still penetrate.

SCAN0144_copyFinally, this image is from just a few weeks ago, and has immediately become a personal favorite. Taken in Detroit right before the “Star Wars”-themed night at the ballpark, because nothing says baseball like The Force, Jedi Masters, and Boba Fett. We are all clearly eager for the evening’s festivities to begin and, of note, my youngest daughter even picked out my T-shirt.

Tigers_2Those photographs of the girls remind me of our special moments, those memories of Daddy-daughter outings, ice cream jaunts, video games, air hockey, and skeeball at the arcade, bath time, bedtime songs and rituals, and so much more. Looking ahead, I will be more mindful and appreciative of those moments with the kids, capturing and sharing those memories of the 3 of us together and our new family moving forward, today and into the future.

Back in the Old Neighborhood

On my recent research trip to Chicago, there were a number of memorable finds and ancestral breakthroughs. Yet one of my most gratifying days was spent driving through the South Side, stopping at, taking pictures of, and trying to visualize those important and life-changing family events that took place at those locales.

Before my trip, I had amassed an impressive list of addresses for various bungalows, apartments, schools, churches, and other significant landmarks that defined and shaped my family’s life in Chicago. Using Google Maps, I plotted out all the locations out in advance, and re-ordered my list several times to make sure my route was the most direct possible. No sense criss-crossing the city wasting precious research time! Although Google offers the Street View, nothing compares to being there on location, driving the same streets and viewing the same neighborhood cityscapes.

Throughout the day, several locations stood out for me. The first was 8227 S. Indiana. According to my great aunt, this was the house where my grandparents were married in 1942.

8227 S. Indiana, Chicago (IL).

The Alderson’s first moved to that address in the mid-1930’s, according to the Chicago telephone directories from the era, and remained there for nearly 20 years. Fast forward to the mid-1960’s, a few short miles away. The Avalon Theater was showing “Disorderly Orderly,” starring Jerry Lewis. In the audience, my mother and father were on their first date.

Avalon (New Regal) Theatre, 1641 East 79th St., Chicago (IL).

Originally opened in 1927, the historic theatre was renamed the New Regal in the 1980’s. I remember both my parents pointing out that distinctive dome from the Chicago Skyway as we drove past. My parents’ first date must have gone well, as a few years later, they were married at St. Felicitas Church.

St. Felicitas Church, 1526 E. 84th St., Chicago (IL).

Located at 1526 E. 84th St., the church is again only a short distance from the other landmarks, schools, and residences that I visited on my travels that day. I thoroughly enjoyed my adventure, touring my family’s Chicago neighborhoods, viewing first-hand the sites and locations that shaped my family’s narrative. Yet perhaps the most rewarding part of my journey will be when I sit down with my parents to share and discuss my trip and findings. Perhaps I’ll glean some new insight into their experiences there in the South Side or learn about new locales that I’ll explore on my next adventure to Chicago.

The Meeting of the Minds

Growing up, I was fortunate – blessed, really – to have all 4 of my grandparents in my life. My brother and I have hundreds of memories shared with the Alderson’s and Rzepczynski’s, whether in New Buffalo, Kalamazoo, or at Gravel Lake. Yet despite all the time we spent with each set of grandparents, there were precious few moments or gatherings where all 4 of them were together. Of course, there certainly were those moments before I was born, but as a child, the idea that all 4 grandparents would be together was quite extraordinary and exciting. Whether a graduation party or the summer get-together at Gravel Lake, those shared family events were always memorable.

I have very few images of my 4 grandparents together as I knew them later in their lives, although I do have a few photos of them separately or as adults years before. Here is a fairly recent one with my two grandfathers:

William Alderson and Leo Rzepczynski, April 1995.

This meeting of the grandfatherly minds was in the spring of 1995, likely at my college graduation party; William Alderson is on the left, and Leo Rzepczynski on the right. This gathering represents one of the last family functions where all 4 of my grandparents were together; William Alderson died in December 1997, and Leo’s wife Stella passed away in January 1997.

As a youngster, I always eagerly anticipated having my two grandfathers together, as there was sure to be some raucous storytelling, the occasional expletive, and plenty of laughs. Yet with my two grandfathers, one story always stood out.

Back in the day, driving near or around Gravel Lake, one grandfather apparently cut off the other. A car horn blast by the innocent grandfather was answered by the other with the universal hand gesture. What makes that exchange so funny is that neither man realized who the other party was until later. I don’t recall much more about the exchange, but two things I remember vividly are the absolute delight in my Grandpa Alderson’s voice as he retold and relived the story, and my Grandpa Rzepczynski’s uproarious laughter at being “fingered” as the guilty party.

I think of that terrific story every time I see a photo of the two men together, and in this case, the family story is perhaps even better than the image itself.