Posted by: downtothesea | December 27, 2008

New: Genealogy! Amaze your friends and family!

My husband and I, in light of the ridiculous economy and the deficit of funds associated with our chosen professions (he, an artist and me, a graduate student) decided to make several genealogy-themed presents for Christmas this year.

Granted, on the surface, genealogy gifts may seem rather specialized and unlikely to generate much excitement but I have yet to encounter anyone who has no interest in their past.  Even people who claim to have ‘hated’ studying history in school love reading about the generations of relatives who came before them, and some may even become fascinated by the ‘moments of history’ their ancestors experienced.  My father is a case in point here–once a man who had little or no interest in any history whatsoever,  now he probably knows more about the Famine in Ireland than I do, though I studied it when I lived there myself.  Why his sudden change of heart?  The discovery that part of our family immigrated to the States from Ireland as a direct result of the Famine.

Our approach to the gift-project was simple:  I went on, and dug up a variety of digitized, printable sources on a handful of relevant family lines (immigration records, census records, military records).  Then my husband the artist, a whiz with Photoshop, altered the images to make them more readable;  he cropped some sections, enlarged some sections, highlighted some sections, and made lovely titles for each page of images.  Finally, he arranged the pages in an artist’s presentation folio book.  Voila!  Professional-looking and easy to read for those who aren’t familiar with reading the older handwriting ubiquitous in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century documents.

Our aim was to make our presentation books accurate but not comprehensive–in the spirit of the old adage “always leave ’em wanting more.”  We hoped the books would encourage our families to dialogue about family history, and that’s exactly what has happened.  Suddenly, everyone is excited to further their knowledge of their own genealogy and to share what information they already know.  For any genealogist who has had difficulty interviewing living family members about family history, homemade document books like these could be just the thing to interest relatives in genealogy and encourage them to provide their own precious input to ‘further the cause,’ as it were.  It might be worth giving it a shot.

Happy Holidays, all!

Posted by: downtothesea | December 17, 2008

Friends, photos, and family.

The Crown Hotel, Edinburgh Scotland, 1854.

The Crown Hotel, Edinburgh Scotland, 1854.

Where the Crown Hotel once stood, 2008.  Photo by the outstanding R. L. Gardner.

Where the Crown Hotel once stood, 2008. Photo by the outstanding R. L. Gardner.

I have wonderful friends, friends I consider my family.  R. is one of those precious individuals.

Knowing my obsession with interest in genealogy, she was an absolute superstar and thought to seek out this spot for me on the corner of Prince’s Street and West Register Street while visiting Edinburgh–the former site of my family’s (the Millers) hotel, the Crown (torn down in 1923).  The interesting photographic study in change and continuity above is entirely thanks to her.

R.:  you’re an absolute diamond, darling.  Thank you so much.

Posted by: downtothesea | December 13, 2008

A massive game of genealogical “Telephone.”

You may remember that a short while ago I finally tracked down the Gavins in the US Census of 1860.  I had been unable to find them via a simple search of the family name in the US Census database, and this was because their name was misspelled by the census taker: he spelled it “Gavver” instead of “Gavin.”  Typically, the way a US Census worked was that the census taker would leave a census form to be filled out overnight by each family he was assigned.  The census taker would collect the completed forms the next day.  However, if the family was illiterate, the census taker himself would transcribe the family’s information as they provided it verbally.  Now, according to the census, Elizabeth Gavin was illiterate but her husband Michael was not.  Did the census taker arrive at the Gavins’ household in the daytime, and with Michael at work have to get the census information verbally from Elizabeth?  Maybe.  I will probably never know, but it’s certainly worth considering.

In light of this, I want to recommend a thoughtful article by Michael John Neill on the many opportunities for misinterpretation of information along the long, fine thread of communication that separates our ancestors from us.  While you’re at it, browse through his entire blog, RootDig;  it’s chock full of great tips for the genealogist.

Posted by: downtothesea | December 12, 2008

Irish rover.

I still want to devote a little blog space to a few more family Christmas traditions, but this tidbit of information has been rolling around in my mind for days and I need to set it down, even if it’s in only the most basic stages of research right now.

I am currently taking a step back from lengthening my family tree;  my current goal is to expand my tree.  There is so much more to be learned about the folks who lived much “closer” to me, chronologically.  In effect, I’m doing a genealogical “regroup” before my enthusiasm spirals out of control and I’m not so much doing research as tacking pretty-looking assumptions together.

Owen McCabe (b. ca 1820), my ggg-grandfather, had arrived in Niagara Falls, New York with his family in tow by ca. 1855.  He’s there in the US census of 1860.  Now here’s where things get interesting.  Though Owen, his mother, and his father are all listed as having been born in Ireland, Owen’s wife and first child, both named Ellen (the child Ellen would be my gg-grandmother), are listed as having been born in Scotland.  Odd.

So I did some more research, and at Scotland’s People I found a marriage record for Owen McCabe and Helen Kelly dated 8 September 1850 in Gorbals, Glasgow, Scotland.  I know these are “my” Owen and Ellen, because the baptismal records of Owen’s and Ellen’s children in Niagara Falls record Ellen’s maiden name as Kelly.  I was mildy curious as to why Owen, an Irishman, would be living in Scotland, but I dismissed it with “oh, he was probably just looking for work in the last years of the Famine.”  Come to find out the story’s a little more interesting than that.

While I still need to consult a few more books on the subject, the following was the situation as I understand it, bearing in mind that my version below is extrememly oversimplified.  During the Famine, those Irish who could, scraped together what little money they had and boarded ships Canada, America, anywhere their prospects looked better than they did in Ireland.  But the poorest of the poor could make it only as far as England and Scotland, sometimes shipping out for free by acting as human ballast for coal ships.

Glasgow, Scotland was a final port of call for many Irish emigrants desperate for work, and they gathered in one particular section of Glasgow, “The Gorbals,” in great numbers.  This is where my Owen McCabe settled.  From what I understand, Gorbals was a terrific slum through the second half of the ninteenth century and was still considered one of the most dangerous places in all of Great Britain through the 1980s.  I’m very interested to find out more about Gorbals and its Irish immigrant population, so I’ll be digging around for that information over Christmas, I wager.

I suppose the moral of the story is not to ignore the places your ancestors lived.  The stories of the locations themselves may provide additional information about the lives of your family members you would never have learned about by simply sifting through census records and vital stats.  Three cheers for “satellite” research!

Posted by: downtothesea | December 9, 2008

Beyond eggnog and Santa suits.

As a child, I never felt more alive than at Christmas.  I have always been one to experience life intensely, both its high points and low, but something about Christmas made me focus especially hard on every precious minute.  It was almost as if in December I could actually sense time slipping away from me;  I could feel its loss as life whirled on, ever-changing.  At Christmas there was always a sense of “things will never again be as they are right now.”

But then again, that could have just been me.  I was a funny little kid.

Though we were a very small family we had a whole litany of Christmas traditions we enjoyed.  Some of them, upon reflection, seem slightly old-fashioned and probably wouldn’t hold the attention of a modern child, but I adored them all.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Each year, immediately following Thanksgiving, there began in our neighborhood an unspoken and good-natured contest between the mothers to see who would get the electric candles up in the windows first (jumping the gun by putting them up before Thanksgiving was an immediate disqualification).  I loved those awful plastic candles.  I admit: I still do.  In the early years of my life, the window-candle bulbs in our house were Halloween-orange and frosted.  It was the late ’70s, and as I recall, most things at that time were Halloween-orange and frosted.  Our neighbors up the hill whose two boys were my very best friends (and still feel like my brothers) had glorious red bulbs in their plastic candles, which made the interior of their house look positively macabre.  We kids loved it.  We played “haunted house” in the glow of those blood-red lights for several seasons running until their mom got fed up with us and switched them out for white.

Throughout December, Mum let me keep the plastic candle in my window on all night and as I was falling to sleep I’d gaze at it.  The effect was mesmerizing, and even now when I return to my folks’ house for the holidays, nothing is more comforting to me or more indicative of the season than those silly plastic 35-year-old candles (complete with molded plastic wax “drips” on their exteriors) glowing merrily away in the windows.

Another favorite tradition was the “Advent Workshop” our church held each year during the first Sunday of Advent.  It was an all-day affair, beginning after the service.  The entire undercroft of the church was set up with holiday-themed craft stations, and for a quarter or so a craft, a kid with two bucks in her pocket could spend the entire evening getting covered in glue and glitter and completing every Advent craft that was offered.  Just about every finished craft could do double-duty as an ornament, and for years our Christmas tree at home was festooned with a variety of Advent Workshop projects.  The mothers and the teenage girls always took on the important grown-up project of making their family’s Advent wreath from a block of styrofoam and the sea of cut evergreen branches that were dragged into the junior choir’s dressing room each year for that purpose.  I was an impatient and slightly wild crafter and so was never invited to lend a hand with that particular project, especially as it involved garden shears and a measure of dexterity.

After the crafting was finished, we all sat down for a delicious potluck dinner.  I was a notoriously picky eater as a kid, but for some reason every year I emerged from my culinary cocoon for that one fabulous night.  I made a habit of eating everything in sight.  Several times.  Every dish was sublime, pure ambrosia.  And once we had stuffed ourselves silly, the plates were cleared, the lights were turned down, candles and books of carols were passed around, and we sang.

We sang any and all carols requested, and with gusto.  It was a special treat to have a seat near Reverend J., who, apart from being kind and funny and a wonderful storyteller, had a beautiful singing voice and sang louder than anyone else in the room.  We would light our individual candles for “Silent Night,” always the last song of the evening.   Sometimes I wouldn’t sing myself, but I’d just listen to the chorus of soft voices around me, of my friends, my family, people I had known my whole life.  I can’t remember every Christmas gift I received as a child, but the memory of the sheer delight of our yearly Advent Workshop is always easily recalled and is a marvelous gift in and of itself.

More tomorrow.

Our ridiculous silver fiber-optic Christmas tree (with color wheel).

Our ridiculous silver fiber-optic Christmas tree (with color wheel).

Posted by: downtothesea | December 8, 2008

Headaches, past and present.

It’s snowing in Southern Ontario right now, and the scene from our living room window is straight from the proverbial Christmas card:  big puffy flakes floating lazily down from the sky to land gently on every every bricked, stained-glassed, and gingerbread-trimmed surface in our lovely Victorian neighborhood.  And we’re supposed to get more snow tomorrow, courtesy of a winter weather system they call (quite romantically) an “Alberta Clipper.” 

I really wish I could enjoy charming winter scenes like this one.  But until the low pressure of the stormy weather system moves through, I am a slave to a weather-induced migraine.  Granted, at the moment, I have just the right combination of medication in me to allow some modicum of productivity, for which I am deeply grateful.  So it’s not really as bad as it could be;  you learn to cope.  It could be so much worse.

It has taken me most of my life to figure out the right “cocktail” of drugs that allows me to function in a relatively normal fashion when I get migraine headaches.  I vividly remember having them as a child and being completely unable to do anything but wait out the pain.  When I was finally properly diagnosed with migraines as a teen, something curious happened: my family began talking about headaches.

You have to understand my family.  They are of immigrant stock, and tough as nails.  When my mother had extensive knee surgery last year, she refused her prescribed painkillers and made it through her recovery on three or four Tylenol a day.  I still have to convince my dad on a regular basis that it’s really okay for him to take an Advil when his arthritis acts up.  Needless to say I was quite the  black sheep with my debilitating headaches, begging for huge amounts of pain relievers and lying in the dark for hours on end.

But, as I said, with a diagnosis to legitimize my complaints, things changed and people started talking.

My mother began speaking of the “sick headaches” her family members would have a few times a month which required that they “take to their beds” for days.  This, my mother said, was such a common occurrance that no one batted an eye when one aunt or another would excuse herself from the company of her family and remain in her darkened room until her “episode” was over.  Furthermore, my mother revealed that she herself had experienced the frightening “blind spots” associated with migraine aura (visual disturbances which occur just before the pain of the headache begins). 

On the other side of my family migraine seems to have reared its ugly head as well.  My grandmother, my dad’s mom, told me that she had also suffered horrific headaches when she was a young woman.  She recalled praying fervently to God that she wouldn’t get a headache one morning as she boarded the train to Niagara Falls with her young son to visit her extemely ill mother. 

Current research on migraines suggests that they are indeed hereditary, and I was lucky enough, it seems, to have inherited the trait from both my mother’s and my father’s side of the family.  It is selfishly comforting to know that I am not alone in this pain, that other family members have experienced this as well.  On the other hand, I feel deep, deep empathy for those women (and men, though rarely) who had to suffer through these wretched headaches with little more than cool compresses and dark rooms.  I feel for all the mothers in my family who had no opportunity to sleep away their migraines and simply worked through the grinding pain, raising their families, running their households, rarely complaining.

If I could ever travel back in time to visit my distant relatives, I would visit the migraineurs first.  I would give them icepacks and tea and draw all the curtains in the house.  I would shoo away their children, close their bedroom doors and leave them to rest in the blessed darkness, alone.  But not before patting them gently on the hand and whispering, “You don’t have to explain.  I know just how you feel.

Posted by: downtothesea | December 4, 2008

I was once lost, but now am found…

Today I sat down and went through the 1860 US Census for Niagara Falls, New York, page by page, looking for my ancestors, the Gavins.  I knew they were there at that time, as their children Margaret, Ellen, Ann, and John had their baptisms registered in the records of St. Mary of the Cataract Church in the 1850s.  I had previously searched the census by their surname and had come up empty-handed.  Where were they?

Well, I found them.  They were listed under “Gavver.”  There’s a good chance the census taker didn’t quite understand their Irish accent, which wasn’t uncommon, I’ve discovered;  in fact, a Niagara Falls census taker in 1870 lists my other set of Irish relatives, the McCabe family, as “McKibb.” 

Here’s the census page, reproduced in its entirety.  The Gavins are family number 511, about halfway down the page:


The other amazing piece of information this census gives me is the names of two Gavin children, Bridget (age 15, born in Ireland), and Mary (age 10, born “at sea,” obviously during the family’s emigration from Ireland in 1850).  I didn’t know these two children even existed.  I am so, so excited to have found them, and maybe, wherever they are, they are excited to have been found.

Now if you’ll please excuse me, I’m going to go hang out with the Gavins.

Posted by: downtothesea | December 3, 2008

Thank you God, for inventing grandmothers.

When I was little my Grandma E., my mom’s mom, was the tallest person in the world.

In reality, she was only 5′ 6″, but she was slim as a willow, and her long, slender limbs made her look even taller.  And she was strong as heck;  I remember the grip of her hand on mine when I was small, holding me tight as if she was afraid I’d float away.  Looking back through old photos today, Grammy seems so slight, so proper, so ladylike.  But I knew better;  she was my great partner in crime.

As an only child, I must admit I completely wore out the adults in my life, who did double-duty as my playmates when my own neighborhood friends were elsewhere.  But Grammy, it seemed, was tireless.  She was eternally ready to swing with me on my swingset long after all the other adults had shooed me away and told me to “go read a book.”  She held my hand for hours as I scampered up and over the two large rocks in their side lawn (an endless source of fascination for me) and even let me jump off them all by myself every once in a while.  She loved to play loud card games, and in fact she delighted in making any game loud;  I remember hands of Old Maid that ended with both of us dissolved into hysterical laughter and screams.

And she let me do all manner of things I would never have been allowed to do at home.  My mother tells a story of one afternoon when Grandma and Grandpa were minding me at their house in Worcester, Massachusetts.  I was about four years old and Grammy and Grampy had just purchased me one of those plastic “Big Wheel” bikes that were so popular in the 1970s.  It immediately became one of my favorite toys, and it made my mother tremendously nervous.  That afternoon Mum, returning from an appointment, pulled into my grandparents’ driveway behind Grandpa’s car just in time to see the top of my head disappearing at great speed down the hill in their back lawn.

Mum scrambled out, craning her neck to see over the roof of her father’s car, and discovered to her horror that I was on my new Big Wheel pedalling down the hill as fast as I could, occasionally spinning out in the garden and coming to a stop in the dirt.

“Amy!  Where’s Grandma?” Mum called out, panic rising.

“Oh, it’s okay,” I informed her with all the breezy confidence of a four-year-old, wheeling my splendid plastic chariot slowly back up the hill.  “She’s right over here.”

“Ma!”  My mother rushed over to where Grammy was standing in the shade, arms crossed, watching me tear down the grassy hill again.  “You didn’t let me do that on my bike when I was little–remember?”

Grandma was nonplussed.  “She’s fine, Judy.  The Big Wheel’s so low to the ground if she falls off she’s got nowhere to go.  Look–she can’t even tip it over.”

My mother threw up her hands in protest.  “But Ma, she could hit the back fence!” 

“Judy,” said my grandmother calmly, turning back to watch me, “for heaven’s sake, the peonies will stop her before she gets that far.”

Easter, 1977.

Grandma E. and me in the living room of my grandparents' house in Worcester, Massachusetts: Easter, 1977.

Posted by: downtothesea | December 1, 2008

Church Windows–a holiday recipe.

In the spirit of the truly delightful family history recipe blog A Culinary Genealogy, I have decided to post one of my own family’s favorite seasonal recipes.

My dad’s mom passed away in February of this year, just a few weeks short of 86 years old.  She was an absolute diamond of a person–the kind of soul who could make friends with anyone, anywhere, at anytime.  She also told the most fantastic stories and jokes, and I’ve never known anyone who could laugh as long or as hard as she.  A family gathering with Gram insured we’d all be completely apoplexic with laughter at least once before our time together was done.

Gram was also a fantastic cook.  Within weeks of my arrival as an undergrad at college back in the early 90s, a carefully-wrapped package came from her filled to the top with gorgeous blonde brownies, one of her specialties.  I met many of my good college friends for the first time when I passed those scrumptious treats around our dorm.

But Gram’s magnum opus, as far as I was concerned, was her recipe for Church Window Candies.  Each year she made a behemoth batch of them when she and my grandfather visited us for Christmas.  I can’t remember exactly when she started making them–no one in the family can–but it had to have been around the time I was 6 or 7 years old.  She’d found the recipe in a magazine somewhere and was intrigued by its premise: the candy, made from melted chocolate and colored-marshmallows and formed into logs, was meant to resemble stained glass windows when cut into slices.

We were all hooked on them from that first Christmas.

She made Church Windows faithfully each year after that, carefully perfecting the process (which was messy as heck) and tweaking the recipe (which was uncomplicated but persnickety) until she was satisfied.  And they were insanely delicious.

This year, I decided I would pick up the torch and make them for the holidays, using Thanksgiving as a dry-run, as it were, for Christmas. 

Well.  It was quite an experience, and I see now that I shall also have to spend a few years perfecting my own technique.  Our kitchen is still pock-marked with chocolate and I’m sure a few marshmallow escapees dribbed under the stove never to be seen again.  But–there were Church Windows for Thanksgiving.  Maybe not up to Gram’s standards, but there they were.  And here they are for you to try.

Church Window Candies

Church Window Candies


  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1 12oz. pkg. semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1 12oz. pkg. milk chocolate chips
  • 1 bag mini colored marshmallows
  • chopped walnuts to cover finished candy logs
  • wax paper

In large saucepan, melt butter slowly.  Add 1/2 of pkg. of semi-sweet chips and 1/2 of pkg. of milk chocolate chips to pan.  Heat gently until chips melt and are smooth.  Remove from heat and cool until chocolate is only warm to the touch.  Add 2/3 bag of marshmallows to chocolate (marshmallows will melt if chocolate is too hot!) and mix thoroughly to coat marshmallows.  Cool mixture in fridge for 15 minutes.  On 2 18″ sheets of wax paper, form cooled mixture into 2 logs about 10″-12″ each.  Roll logs messily in nuts–there is no way to be neat about this!  Do what works best for you, and don’t panic if you end up covered in chocolate and nuts.  Wrap logs in their wax paper and refrigerate until firm (at least 2 hours).  When firm, change wax paper (it looks nicer).

To serve, cut log in 1/2″ thick slices.


Thanks, Gram.  They are so good.

I am a great supporter of free access to online genealogical databases.  This is not only because I am a destitute graduate student, but also because I’m rather of the opinion that much of this information should be in the public domain, available to all.  I think it’s a bit mad that I should have to pay for the privilege of seeing my own great-uncle’s death certificate.

Then again, in several cases I have paid for this information, so I’m hardly a bastion of righteous refusal.

In light of this, I wanted to take a moment here and laud the OnLine Parish Clerks Project for the County of Lancashire. 

From their website:  “This site aims to extract and preserve the records from the various parishes and to provide online access to that data, FREE of charge, along with other data of value to family and local historians conducting research in the County of Lancashire.”

This source is a goldmine for anyone with family connections in Lancashire, England.  Several dedicated volunteers have transcribed thousands of county births, marriages, and deaths, all searchable, all free, free, FREE.  The death records often include causes of death–macabre little gems (for me, at least).  The marriage records often mention witnesses to the event, which may potentially give the genealogist insight into further family/friends connections.

The OPC is clearly a labor of love, and that kind of dedication shows.  Kudos to these folks.  Even if you have no connections to Lancashire, take a little time to mess around in the records;  I’ll bet you a cookie you’ll find something interesting there.

Wigan, Lancashire parish church of All Saints;  parish church of my ancestors the Balls and the Hilliards.

Wigan, Lancashire parish church of All Saints; parish church of my ancestors the Balls and the Hilliards.

 Photo by Victoria Reay, Standish, UK.

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