My late grandmother Eleanor Agnes Fazzone Stanton, she of the bird legs and long nose I inherited, was born on December 7, 1914. A day that would eventually live in infamy. Today marks the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt exhorted Americans that they had nothing to fear but fear itself.
Nana encouraged a similar fearlessness in me, particularly in the dozens of letters she wrote me every year of my life. Until those final years when dementia crept in and then soon cloaked the spry nana that I once knew. Friends and the verses of songs stayed wrapped around her mind’s spindle, but her awareness of the present came completely unspooled.
Her handwriting started to look wobbly. The letters she sent decreased in frequency, the inside containing a pre-printed message, signed with her wobbly name.
I pulled away. I made no effort to visit her after she fell and broke her hip and spent months recovering in the hospital. She moved in with my uncle. Occasionally I sent letters with pictures of my daughter. I feared seeing her, I feared the feelings of helplessness that would accompany seeing her. I could not help this frail woman who had sat with me watching daytime television and making me tea when I was home from school, vomiting into buckets.
I wanted to cryogenically freeze my memories of her and let time do no harm to my impression of Nana.
I eventually got over myself. I went to visit her twice before she passed away. She sat in the living room of my uncle’s home where she smiled sweetly and nodded her head at my baby and occasionally hummed songs from memory. The final moments of happiness for my 94 year-old grandmother, crystallized by my six month-old daughter.
Two years later I was watching the ancestry program “Who Do You Think You Are?”. The celebrity accounts moved me in a way that reality television never does. The star’s searches netted them personal interviews with distant relatives, visits to slave plantations and European cemeteries. And while we cannot all finance a DNA consult with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., something they all seemed to echo about newfound identity –ascertaining who one was in the context of ancestry—spoke to me.
I had always desired the standard-issue answers about my stock: places of origin, dates, names, jobs, from where I inherited this impossibly round chin. I wanted to mine the raw facts, unmuddled by oral tradition, unsullied by personal agendas. I sought the hard documents, whatever public record could offer me, anything that had not been lost in translation.
So I joined Ancestry.com like the program touted, and my digital dig began. The initial phase of my search was rapid. Cousins once and twice-removed had already paved some of the way for my search. The software will gamely connect names and dates and relationships based largely on census records, and within a few days I had connected more than a few stars in my family’s constellation.
But the thing about geneology is that the grid of names and dates is never enough. I hungered for an artifact, some small piece d’ resistance that could speak volumes about whatever it was I was supposed to learn about my family and myself.
There was a romance to excavating all the pieces, even from the online archives. My search expanded. I e-mailed with distant cousins whom I’d never met, whom I may still never meet. I foraged through the Latter-Day Saints’ database. I purchased memberships to newspaper archives. The weeks turned into months, and my desk turned into a rat’s nest made of scraps of paper with family tree branches scrawled on both sides.
As my family tree solidified, two things became abundantly clear: That which I could find would surprise me. That which I couldn’t find would not. I learned that search entries were not always so cut and dry. Census takers estimated ages. Newspapers fudged facts. My grandmother forged her maiden name.
When I found my Nana’s perfect Catholic schoolgirl penmanship lopping off the whole second half of her maiden name on her marriage license and then again on the affidavit for the county records, I felt the weight of her secret. Did she fear discrimination of her Italian surname when she married in Kansas City, Missouri in the early 1940s? Was she trying to create a new identity as she settled with my grandfather in Nashville, TN. Had she already disinherited her late father, whom I also learned my great grandmother attempted to divorce for “cruel and barbarous treatment” per another snippet from the New Castle News?
As the oldest of my siblings and cousins, I have always stood at the edge of the forest where the mighty trees are established or felled, and where the little saplings are trying to take root. There is never a steady rain of information from the canopy, only sporadic droplets of memories and news that I work hard to shield from my siblings and cousins when I am able.
I thought tracing my family roots would allow me to finally funnel all those droplets from the canopy above. Instead of being a passive reception, though, it became more of an exercise of writing a love letter to the ones I would come to know through the archives, and to those that would read what I had exhumed. Dear Family of the Past. I don’t know what kind of stunts you pulled, but you’re interesting and I love you. Thank you for making it possible for me to be here, learning about you. Dear Family of the Present and Future. Thanks for understanding my need to figure all this out. I’m getting closer. I hope you are, too.
As Pearl Harbor Day passes again this year, F.D.R.’S words echo resoundingly against fear as we approach our future, but also as we engage the stories of our past, personal, public, or otherwise. The ink that penned these stories might be difficult to decipher, but the messages of love and fearlessness are unmistakable.