Genealogy Heist

I shoved a handful of tattered papers and black and white photos in a plastic box. Opening another drawer, I found another stack of papers that I quickly removed and added to my haul. My husband worked the drawers on the other side of the room, quickly and silently unrolling and uncovering treasures lost to time, disinterest, and forgetfulness.

This wasn’t a bank or museum heist. It was a genealogy rescue mission.

It all began innocently enough. I married a man obsessed with his genealogy. We were both soon busily tracing our family’s story, hunting for hints of who we are and where we came from.

I had never known much about my family. Asked to create family trees in elementary school, I managed to produce saplings while my classmates came with sprawling oaks.

Tell me about your grandparents, I’d ask my dad. “I don’t know anything about them. We barely saw them growing up,” he’d say. They were Polish, I knew that, and spoke little, if any English, in their small town south of Chicago. Most of the time, my dad remembered their names.  Sometimes, he forgot that, too.

My mom wasn’t much better. She’d point to an old water-stained photograph in a faded gold frame that used to hang in my grandparents’ garage and now hangs in her dining room and say, “That’s Petronella Wilhelmina Verhoven.” Who’s that? I’d ask. A relative, she’d say, before quickly adding, “but it might not be her and I don’t know how we are related to her.” My mom just liked the photo, whoever she was. Sometimes I would stare into her forlorn eyes under a floppy cap, trying to see a resemblance. Was that my nose, my forehead?

My mom had a habit of finding old photos and proclaiming them relatives. We had an old 1890s velvet album in the living room filled with late 19th and early 20th century studio portraits of baby boys and girls in frilly white gowns reclining on tufted chairs and young women encased in corsets and bustles. The best one to my childhood eyes was of a circus company that included a dog-faced girl, a fat lady, and two tiny Tom Thumb-like people on chairs on front. Who wouldn’t want to be related to them?
So I had little to start with when I began my research, but I made headway quickly thanks to the wonders of the internet. I discovered for the first time that I was fairly equal parts Polish, German, Norwegian, and Swedish. I’ve even managed to find some of the towns where many of my great-greats came from in Europe.

My parents even proved to be helpful in their own way. Once, I found an article in a small Indiana newspaper describing a bicycle accident my great-grandfather Stanley Janik got in when he was 74 years old. It turns out my dad knew more than he had let on all these years about his Polish grandparents. “Oh yeah, that was a big deal. He had to have his leg amputated,” he said when I told him about it.

But despite these kernels of information, my parents were tightfisted with any photos and documents that might aid my research. I’d ask them for any birth certificates or marriage certificates they might have, even their own, and received only vague promises to look. I’m pretty sure I only got my own birth certificate because I needed it to get married. It wasn’t that my parents were interested in genealogy themselves or even knew what they had squirreled away. My offers to scan everything and store it in archival boxes for protection were met with hard stares and vague promises to scan everything and send it to me.

Which is what led us to thievery. Visiting my parents one weekend, my husband and I took advantage of their absence to take as many photos and documents as we could and ship them to our home in Wisconsin. I knew my parents would probably never notice they were gone.  Even so, I felt a little guilty.

But it somehow didn’t seem so bad when I considered that these things belonged to me, too. This was my family and my history, the place where I come from and the people that made my life possible. I wasn’t just stealing; I was reclaiming my history and honoring the lives of my ancestors by choosing to remember them rather than purchasing members of other people’s families.

Maybe it’s just an excuse, a concocted justification for my actions, but all I know is that it sure feels good to finally have a family tree with spreading limbs rather than a stunted sapling.

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