Tuesday, June 24, 2008

On family stories

General Bourgoyne at Saratoga

JAN: One of the reasons I wanted to go to Burgundy in France, is because allegedly my last name was changed to Brogan from Bourgoyne, which would mean a long, long, time ago, my family emigrated from Burgandy France to Ireland. I say allegedly because I have a firm policy of never believing any family story. Maybe it was the way my father rolled his eyes everytime my aunt (his sister) told me one.

SUPPOSEDLY, my great grandfather changed his name to Brogan so it would sound more Irish. But he was taking a job in Liverpool at the time, so don't you think he'd want to sound LESS Irish? To blend, all he had to do was go with the existing name - the one that sounds like you could be related to the famous British Revolutionary War general. (Another eye roll from my father about this possibility)

But recently, a very distant relative who was doing Brogan family research, contacted me through my website, and apparently his great grandmother Brogan, a sister of my great-grandfather, told him the same Bourgoyne thing, so...I'm thinking maybe I shouldn't doubt everything on reflex. Especially since I didn't really believe that my husband's last name was changed from Saint Onge or that he was part Indian, only to find the whole thing confirmed on the web by a professor who was doing a study on the Metis Culture (the interrmarriage of French and Fox Indians in Wisconsin).

Not only did I find exactly which relative changed the name (his great grandfather) I was actually able to get the likely percentage of his Fox Indian blood! (And all that time I was eyerolling when his father collected Indian art.)

We all have family stories that bring us pride or make us roll our eyes. I want to hear the ones that are most controversial, or hardest to believe. Anybody?

HALLIE: My family's 'myth' has to do with my mother's mother who once lived near Minsk (or Pinsk) in the early 1900s. The story goes that came over to this country on the ticket and passport of another woman who had died. She claimed that the name we all knew her by (Kate) was that woman's name, not hers. Even after thirty years in this country, she was sure that one day the police would come looking for her and send her back to Russia. The other myth is that is that my grandfather knocked her up before he emigrated from Russia to the US, and that her cousin brought her to the US and made him marry her. What is indisputably true is that theirs was an exceedingly unhappy marriage, and that my grandmother made the best, thinnest, crispest cinnamon cookies on the planet--I've never been able to duplicate them. Recipe, anyone?

ROBERTA: We're supposed to have been related to Kit Carson on my mother's side. Looking at the Wikipedia entry for Kit, I'm not sure that's a claim to fame. On my dad's side, the biggest name is John Brerton who was a graduate of West Point and served in the xxx war. Then he shot himself...hmmmm....

Kit Carson
My favorite family story is my husband's translation from German of Isleib: Large lunch followed by a restful nap (and then some of those cinnamon cookies.)

HANK: My Grampa Dave insisted that we were from Russia, that his parents were from a town called Tzablodovska (or something along those lines). And so his family took the name Sablosky. Gramma Minnie insisted the family was from Poland, and the original name was Szablowdowska (or something along those lines.) Aunt Portia (who was blonde, I could never at age 6 figure out how, and whose husband was cool and had an MG) insisted the family was Austrian, and that the real name was Sable. Everyone argued about it. Gramma made fantastic coffee-chocolate flavored coffee cake, with cinnamon. When we all aasked how to make it, she said coffee, chocolate, flour, butter and cinnamon. No one could EVER duplicate hers either. Maybe it was a Russian/Polish/Austrian thing.


  1. sorry, I meant to say John Brerton fought in the American Indian wars. Also of note in my family is a recipe called "Aunt Alvina's coffeecake". that one I could duplicate for you and it's fantastic!

  2. I have what might be termed "colorful" family histories. One of my uncles, who lived in the same town in North Jersey where I did, came over from Italy in the bowels of a steamship when he was 9 years old in 1900. He said there was no food, except what he took, or bathroom and had to "make do" with what was there - empty boxes etc. It took 3 weeks to cross the Atlantic. I had heard that story as a kid, then went to Ellis Island a few years ago and actually saw his name on the monument there. It made me realize how precious this country really is that people were willing to do that to have a better life.

    My wife's family has some colorful history as well. She is from Belgium descent on her dad's side. They settled on farms just north of Detroit. Her great, great aunt Marie was the "town" bootlegger. The way my father-in-law used to tell it, she and the local police would arrange raids on her house to keep the neighbors satisfied that they were doing their job. "Marie, is 10:30 Thursday okay for you?" She had bottles and glasses arranged for the "raid" and they'd come in break a bunch to make noise and leave. Then she'd get back to 'stilling.

    Then too there's my story - but you'll have to see the movie I wrote - "The American Siblings" -about a guy who meets his half-sister after 40 years. The thing I like most - it stresses the importance of relationships. I re-titled it after 9/11 when I realized how important family was. Everyone, both in the "Tower" and outside was concerned about their family members. The ones in the gravest danger were just as concerned for their loved ones. To me that said it all about life. As Mike Myers' Chat Lady says - I get ferclempped as I write that. I really do.


  3. Hey Mike,
    that's a great story about your uncle. And perhaps another movie idea in your wife's great grandmoter's story.
    My daughter went to Ellis Island, too, and found my (Polish) grandfather's name and she said she got goose bumps! It makes you realize that we're only where we are because of the incredible sacrifice of our ancesters.

  4. Yes, Jan, I get ferclempped thinking about the shoulders I stand on and how grateful I am to all the ancestors.

    I had my wife put her finger by the name on the plaque and I took a digital picture. Also, took one of her grandfather's name.

    Like your daughter, I found it moving to touch my ancestors in that way. In that instant, that was a reality directly in my path. It was a true piece of who I am.

    That's why she got goose bumps. In that moment she connected with a piece of herself. That's exciting to me - because that is what my life is about - to bring people to wholeness, however that occurs.

    Roberta -

    The equivalent to "Aunt Alvina's coffeecake" in our family is "Grandma's Belgium Raisin Bread" it is truly awesome. The only enhancement I give it is a little sprinkle of cinnamon on occasion.

  5. My family story goes as follows: My great-grandfather, Zayde, went back and forth between Trenton, NJ and a town in Russia called Rezhnoi at least five times around the turn of the last century. While he was in Trenton, the Russians came along and conscripted his teenaged son to serve in the army.
    My great-grandmother later got word that he had been killed in battle and buried in a mass grave. With her husband in the US, she rounded up the other four kids, put them in a wagon, and rode to the mass grave.
    She hired grave robbers to exhume her oldest son so that she could be sure he got a decent Jewish burial. She had to promise not to cry out when they found his body, as what they were doing was illegal.
    She recognized him by his riding boots, got him buried, then took the four remaining kids and the wagon and headed for Germany, where they were to catch a boat to the US.
    Along the way, at least according to my great-aunt Ida, the baby of the family, they had to crawl on their bellies through battlefields, and hide in pickle barrels.

  6. Neil--that's astonishing. Somehow, after all that devotion and bravery, it's the pickle barrels that make me cry.

  7. Neil -

    After reading your post, I have a whole new appreciation for the words "coming to America..."

    After I read it, I was reminded of what my brother-in-law's Polish parents endured. I know his mom was imprisoned in a concentration camp and was freed. That affected her physical health the rest of her life.

    Yeah... coming to America.

    In a way it represents the inner pull we each have to be unique and live in the fullness of who we are without restriction.

    Pickle barrels - it's a reflection of who they were and we are. Definitely something so magnificant that you get misty just reflecting on it!

    Thank you, Neil.


  8. There are two 'legends' in my family that have never really been confirmed...one on each side.

    On my mother's side, it was said that my great-grandfather invented the process of casting aluminum like iron, but he did not profit from this because it didn't occur to him that it could patented.

    On my father's side, my grandfather liked to tell about the last time he'd driven a car, in the days when you didn't need anything like a driver's license. He said he crashed through the big display window of the department store downtown, and it was written up in the newspaper under the headline YOUNG MAN TAKES SHOPPING TRIP.

    I am dubious about both stories!

  9. I've found most of my family tall tales involve upgrading the family member in question, just a little.

    But on the non-family side, several years ago I had my own business as a genealogist. One of my clients was trying to trace the arrival of his Irish great-grandparents, who came over with their infant son. I searched every possible ship and port and couldn't find the grandparents. What I did find was an infant with the right name and age, but he wascompletely unaccompanied. The adjoining names on the list were single men.

    So my best guess is that mom and dad were stowed away somewhere on the ship, but they wanted to make sure the baby arrived legally.

  10. John,
    I like both stories but really relate to the shopping trip story. And having once gone through the glass door of a bar that was trying to keep me out (I was underage), I think its entirely possible. (It embarassed my brother, who was there, to no end, but hte crash was pretty spectacular).

    Sheila, are you still in the geneology business? I might have business for you!

  11. I'm trying to think of the eye-rolling stories from my family--I think they're more of the Glare-Let's-Not-Go-There variety.

    My husband, though, deserves all the eye-rolling I can give him. He seems to have gone through his childhood picking up just the surface fact and missing the whole story. For years, as we drove down to LA to visit his family, he'd point at some big electrical plant and say, "My grandfather built that." A decade later, his sister heard him and said "Grandpa's plant is in NEW JERSEY!" Then there was the stuffed teddy bear my son had played with for about three or four years, and I heard my husband telling someone his mother had made it. NOT! I bought it for someone's baby & my son claimed it before I could wrap it and get it out of the house. THEN...there was the statement that our son was sleeping through the night at four weeks. UM, NO--that would have been my husband doing the sleeping! Son and I were up every morning at 2:00 a.m. watching Dick Van Dyke reruns!

    Who knows what stories my son will grow up believing!

  12. Yes Becky,
    We have some of that going on in this house, too. The problem is, the journalist in me has at tendancy to try to nail down the accuracy of everything.
    After twenty five years of marriage, I've come to believe that maybe family stories should employ a little hyperbole and metaphor and that maybe, I should just keep my mouth shut!