Kilroy Was Here and So Was Gertrude: Telling Family Stories

Kilroy Was Here
 

It’s 1948. My Grandpa Art Lamb marries Rita Hubbarth. His father, Jimmy Lamb, gives Rita a plastic pregnant doll. He tells his new daughter-in-law that the doll’s name is Gertrude.

What it says on the base of the stand is “Kilroy was here,” a popular World War II reference. Get it? Kilroy, pregnant girl-doll?

According to my grandmother,Rita, the doll is supposed to bring fertility to the newly married couple. Gertrude has been passed down through each generation since to married couples in the Lamb family. She’s had an almost-perfect success rate.

The question everyone asked: Why was this little doll named “Gertrude?”

Family Stories: Getting to the Source of Love and Loss

It took a little bit  of research through the census records (minus a Nova Scotia glitch)  to find the answer.

In 1905, Jimmy and Rose Lamb had their first daughter, Gertrude. By 1910, she was gone, one of the first of three Lamb/Heffernan children to pass away in this particular generation.

Unfortunately, between 1910 and 1920, they lost their second daughter, Anastasia.  In 1924, Rose was gone as well – taken by tuberculosis. I wonder why the doll is Gertrude’s namesake, as opposed to her mother Rose or her sister, Anastasia? Whatever the reason, giving the doll her name, opened the door to learning previously unknown history.

Rose Glennon Lamb with Gertrude
(in back, white blouse)

My father remembers Jimmy Lamb as “grumpy,” (who could blame him?) but didn’t know why. Jimmy remarried, and his second wife, Mae, raised all of Rose’s children – the five who survived to adulthood.  My grandfather referred to Mae as his mother, although he always kept the photo of Rose Glennon Lamb, who died when he was five. No one ever spoke of Gertrude or Anastasia.

Yet forty years after the death of his first child, Great-Grandpa Jimmy Lamb remembered his daughter Gertrude.

When families don’t tell their stories, the stories become lost. History is hidden. As sad as it is, there is something to be told, that can’t be forgotten. Historically, Rose and Jimmy worked at the Alexander Smith Carpet Mill in Yonkers and were directly impacted by the Industrial Revolution. Lives were lost due to tuberculosis. Out of this, is the story of a man who survived incredible loss to rise up and become a community leader and local politician…all stories that will be continued after Tanners and Quarrymen, as part of the Famine series.
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FamilySearch.org Beta: Use It!

For those of us involved in historical research, the advent of online primary source documents has been a godsend. At least for me. Microfilm reels make me queasy.

The reason why I like FamilySearch.org and FamilySearch.org Beta is because I don’t need a library card or password to log on. Yes, I’m that lazy HeritageQuest.

Or pay a fee. Yes, I’m that poor Ancestry.com.

Maria Lamb, 1905 Census, Yonkers, New York.

 The Beta site has many more resources than the main site. Family Search site contains1880 census records, social security documents and user-input birth and marriage records. The Beta site includes more obscure census data, such as the New York State 1865, 1892 and 1905 records. And I’m only talking New York.

Records are available for numerous states and countries – browse by location or document type. These include census, marriage and birth records, death records, military, migration and probate court. Year span ranges from pre-1700 to the present. Outside of the United States, the majority of records exist for North America and Europe. Still, there are a few for Africa, Asia and the Middle East. New Zealand and Australia lie somewhere in between.  The downside is that not all of the collections have browse-able images. Many do, but not all. Due to privacy laws of various countries, some information cannot be displayed.

Beta also has a great online tutorial with lessons for beginning research, creating a family tree, and a list of all the LDS centers where you can get research help in person. FamilySearch is created and maintained by the LDS church.

Research, Records, and…Nova Scotia? A Census Glitch.

1905 New York State Census Yonkers, 2nd District, 6th Ward

I ran into some trouble trying to find my great-grandfather, James, in the 1905 New York State census.  He lived in Yonkers in 1900. He lived in Yonkers in 1910. Where did he go in between?

Admittedly, I searched online, the easy way with FamilySearch.org (Beta). I filled in the forms – name (James Lamb), birth year (1884), place of birth (New York), name of spouse (Rose Glennon Lamb). No go. I would have to try something new. Being partially employed and procrastinating grad school assignments and NaNoWriMo, I had plenty of time on my hands.  Finally, I went through the 1905 census page by page.

Not really. I knew James lived in Yonkers. I knew the approximate neighborhood because I could find his mother, Maria, brother-in-law Cornelius, and the nieces and nephew. So, to clarify, I went page by page in the 2nd District 6th Ward of Yonkers in 1905.

And there they were: James, Rose and their first daughter Gertrude, all listed as being from N..S? N…I? N…Y?  NY – the abbreviation for New York – would make the most sense. A transcriber somewhere along the way decided it was “Nova Scotia.”

Nova Scotia? My great-grandfather Jimmy Lamb was a proud member of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, thank you very much, and a life-long New Yorker. Well, Yonkers-er.

Two issues holding up the research: The 1905 census taker didn’t write out the complete state or country name. A transcriber interpreted the unclear initials as Nova Scotia. Because of a clerical sleight of hand or two, James Lamb (and possibly many others in Yonkers 6th Ward), born in New York, won’t show up easily in the online search results.

In all likelihood, they are there…but you will have to look. Page by page.

Cemeteries Tell Stories. Listen.

Have you visited a cemetery lately? Cemeteries tell stories. They tell a story of a town, a church, a family. If you’re writing historical fiction, researching history through cemeteries is a great way to see life from another time.

Now, it sounds weird to talk about “life” and “cemeteries” at the same time. I get that. Put all the spooky, unfounded fears aside and look what kind of history can be found in a cemetery. Weave these details into your narrative.

photo credit: peter blyberg

My current work-in-progress,
Tanners and Quarrymen, is set in Eastchester, New York. 
This is my great-great -great grandparents headstone.

time period: the older, the better. Check out the dates – All of these details (and lets face it, it’s not always uplifting) gives the writer clues to the drama of real life, and death. Study the trends over time, styles of headstone, age of death, epidemic patterns, mortality rate.

(c)Sheila R. Lamb Bridget Lamb, Holy Mount Cemetery, Tuckahoe, NY

setting: pick a cemetery or two in an area where your story will take place.  Graveyards can tell you a lot about a town’s settlement, immigration patterns, and socioeconomic status of various citizens. Who has the fanciest headstone?
personal stories: a graveyard can give you what census records and death certificates cannot. A headstone may list other family members buried in or near the same plot. Others may say where the deceased was from, which seems to be the case for many Irish and other immigrant families. Is there a pattern of deaths during a certain time period? Does one family or another have a number of children who have passed?

Cemeteries tell stories. Stop in and listen.

Saloons, Cockfighting, and Covering Your …Research.

Grandpa’s been at it again.

“A young man, of Irish descent, recently committed a piece of roguery near this place…for which he was summarily dealt with…he was lodged in jail.” (The Statesman, 2/2/1871)

The place he was near?

“Two doors north of the Catholic Church, as if to give dignity to the institution, a new liquor saloon has recently been opened…to which…is attached a cockpit, in which several fights have already taken place…” (The Statesman, January 6, 1870)

I can’t verify my Irish immigrant ancestors in Westchester County New York did these things, but I’m willing to bet he had a rooster or two in the cockfighting ring, that he tasted a whiskey or two. Or three. In any case, I will attribute many of these escapades to my great-great grandfather once the manuscript is underway. The joy of fiction!

I spent several hours researching primary source documents. The kind librarians at the local history library were able to do some inter-library loan work.

I scrolled through several years of the Statesman, which later became the Yonkers Statesman on microfilm (does anyone else get nauseous while using that machine?) I’m sorry to say that when I sat down to begin, I looked for a search button. I had to snap my mind back to the fact that microfilm machines do not have keyword search tools. They have a knob to turn the reel. And focus functions. And, nowadays, a print function.

Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M
http://www.flickr.com/photos/29072716@N04/3920937438

Within history is a story. Within every day, every life, there is a story. Searching through news nearly 140 years old gave me the opportunity to see what life was like then. What did people do for entertainment? What was the social class structure like? What was life like for Irish Catholics during the various waves of immigration? How did cockfighting become a pastime?

I don’t think a novelist has to be a historian – but a writer does have to do research. A writer should be able to answer the questions in order to create a detailed world in which their characters will live. In the case of historical fiction, that world has to be accurate.

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