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Learning family history from your older loved ones

By Patricia LaCroix, Contributing Writer

In 1976, when I was 12, the students in my sixth-grade class were given a writing assignment that required us to interview a person in our families.

I chose to interview my 81-year-old paternal grandmother who immigrated from Poland to America. I no longer have the paper I wrote, but 41 years later, I still remember the interview.

To me, Grandma was perpetually old. Photos of her at 41 didn’t look that different than how she appeared sitting in front of me for that interview at the age of 81. But the story she told was, instead, of a young, teenaged girl.

First-hand accounts of the past

My grandmother had come from Poland to America at the tender age of 16. She came over with a girlfriend, and no one else. She left the bulk of her family, including her parents, behind. Her sister Anna — known to me as “Ciocia Hanka,” my Great-Aunt Ann —had already made the trip and awaited her in Chicago.

Grandma brought no money. Instead, both her girlfriend and she had tied bottles of vodka to their thighs and hid them under their dresses, in the hope of exchanging the liquor for money in the New World.

She boarded the ship, afraid, but also excited about her new life in a country that she heard was full of riches.

Here in America, she met my grandfather, married him, and had three sons and a daughter. She never returned to Poland. And, as they say, the rest is history.

But what a privilege it was to interview my grandmother! To hear, first hand, what coming over to America was like — her fears, her dreams — and also, what life was like in Poland in the late 1800s — living on a farm in a hut with a thatched roof and a dirt floor.

Questions spark memories

Years later, I sat with my elderly Aunt Josie — along with two of her six sisters, which included my mother — in a run-of-the-mill Chicago diner. Alway inquisitive and curious (and on my way to becoming a journalist), I started to ask my aunt questions about her early life. I knew she was born on the East Coast, rather than in Chicago as her other sisters were. I wanted to know more.

I found out that her father, my grandfather, had owned a general store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her older brother and sister were born there as well. Financially, the family was doing quite well. But Grandpa had too many customers on credit and lost the business when people defaulted on their debts. He moved the family to Chicago, where he became an upholsterer, and where my mom and her other sisters were born.

As she told me the story,  a memory came back to her. She remembered sitting on the floor of the general store, looking up at her mother and father as they worked. She said she couldn’t have been more than three years old. “Oh, my God,” she said. “I haven’t had that memory in YEARS. I never would have remembered, if you hadn’t asked your questions.”

One revelation leads to yet others

Then I found out that there was yet another sister — a baby girl named Wanda — who died at the age of three. Already in my 20s, I had no idea another sister existed. So in my mother’s family, I learned, there were eight girls in all.

Her other sister, my Aunt Betty, was also sitting at the table and mentioned that their mother had told them that she married Grandpa because he look so dignified in his military uniform.

Curious about that, I did a little research via the Internet and found out that my grandfather had served in “Haller’s Army” — a group of roughly 25,000 Polish men living in America and Canada who volunteered to fight against Germany in France during World War I. (You can learn more about Haller’s Army by clicking HERE.) My grandfather was, essentially, a Polish hero!

Resources to find out more about your family

Genealogy is fascinating. Nowadays, with the Internet so prevalent, ancestry databases are available at our fingertips to help verify facts and learn even more. Sites like and make it easier than ever. The World Wide Web is a genealogical treasure trove.

Historical and government records can also help you trace your heritage and build your family tree. The following resources may help with genealogical and family research:

State archives contain historical information including state census, microfilm, Native American records, and pioneer certificates.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s Genealogy Page provides resources that may help your search for historical information, including the recently released 1940 Census Data.

The Nationwide Gravesite Locator can help you find burial locations of veterans.

The Department of the Interior provides a guide to tracing your Native American heritage.

The National Archives and Records Administration offers genealogical workshops and courses. Topics include an introduction to genealogy and research into records such as Census schedules, military service and pension records, and passenger lists.

Workshop Schedule for Washington, D.C.

Workshop Schedules Nationwide

The Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation has 51 million passenger records in its searchable database which allows you to find family members who entered the United States through the famous port.

Moreover, you can learn more about your ethnic and racial backgrounds via the various companies that now offer DNA testing as a genealogical service.

Just ask

I once shared all this information with my cousin who is also my Aunt Josie’s grandson. He said, “I wonder why my Dad (her son) didn’t tell us any of these stories.”  I replied, “Did you ever ask him? I bet he didn’t even know… because he never asked either.”

Don’t be afraid to ask. Be curious. Be inquisitive. Ask questions. All families have amazing histories, which are often hidden and buried deep within the minds of its oldest members.

There’s so much to know. Our families are rich with history, and our elderly have stories to share. The memories are there. Even Alzheimer’s patients, who might not remember what they ate for lunch 15 minutes ago, often can still remember things that occurred 50, 60, or even 70 years ago.

 They just need to be asked.

Some information courtesy of

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