Monday, June 16, 2008

Finding ancestors in unusual places

We came across "The Ancestors" again recently, and seeing the antique artwork revived all the old questions. The paintings of the stern-faced man and woman have been part of our family for as long as I can remember, always stuck in somebody’s attic, basement or shed.

The assumption always has been that they’re twigs on our family tree, somehow. We just don’t know which branch.

Not knowing their names or how we’re related, I’m certainly not inclined to hang them on the wall and look at them every day. But I can’t quite bring myself to consign the pictures to the garage-sale pile, not yet.

So there The Ancestors sit, stored in dusty archives alongside Christmas ornaments, boxes of clothes I’ll never wear again and the great blender for which I can no longer find parts.

Genealogy fascinates me, especially now that the Internet links us to such marvelous archives as those compiled by the Mormon Church. But I already spend too much of each day clicking and typing on my computer.

At the end of a long work day, the last thing I want to do is spend more time at my keyboard to track relatives … even if I’d like to know the cousins, aunts and uncles I assume are out there.
Sometimes, however, they find me.

For instance, when my aunt Kate came to visit recently, she left me a book to read and keep. "In My Blood," by John Sedgwick, is billed as covering "six generations of madness and desire in an American family."

That is our family, too, Kate said, through her mother (my grandmother). Fascinating!

We apparently are among the descendents of Major Gen. Robert Sedgwick, 1613-1656. Our lineage means Kate and me could join the Ancestors of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts (founded in 1637). That makes it the oldest Hereditary Society in the U.S., according to

Such ancestral one-upmanship matters to some people, but certainly not to Kate or me, especially since neither of us are joiners at heart. I’d rather have a relative I can hug than a plaque on my wall.

But it is nice to know our family’s been on U.S. soil for at least that long, even if they did have a whole tool-box full of loose screws, according to the book.

Of most interest to me is how many of the people John Sedgwick profiled were notable writers of their times, authoring books and contributing regularly to such periodicals as The Atlantic, GQ and Newsweek.

I’ve also discovered that the Internet can produce inadvertent genealogical treasures. Sometimes the joy just falls into your lap (otherwise known as the Inbox).

About two years ago, my cousin Lisa (on my father’s side), sent me an e-mail. "I’m checking this guy out," she wrote, "but it looks like we might have some Marsala relatives. YAY!"

The message she forwarded introduced Rosario Marsala. I have copied it verbatim. But keep in mind that Saro doesn’t speak English; his daughter translated his message before they sent it.

"I was born in Villalba (Sicily) in 1947, now I live in Catania. Our grandfathers were brothers and so our fathers were cousins. From a long time I tried to make contact with your family and finally I make it with notices in Internet. If you want to know me and your descentent better I’m disposed to exchange notices. With love to you and your family, Rosario Marsala."

For someone like me, with few blood relatives I can identify, write to and hug, that short e-mail was found treasure.

The three of us have exchanged intermittent messages since, along with wistful hopes that we can all get together someday.

In one of the more charming linguistic twists of translation, our newly found cousin often signs off his recent missives with, "Lovely, Saro."

Dear Saro, yes it would be a joy to meet you and yours. I’d love to have you teach me Italian, more about our family and Grandma Maria’s recipe for ragĂș.

But just knowing you’re there is such a warm fuzzy feeling, such a delight. Thank you for that.
Now, if only I knew who "The Ancestors" were.

E-mail Kathe Tanner at

No comments: