Dean’s List: What do you know about your family?

For many of us, there comes a time when we want to know more about our ancestors.


For many of us, there comes a time when we want to know more about our ancestors.

I was reminded of this the other day after I’d written a piece about my mother and her fondness for horses. (It was titled “The one-horse, open sleigh,” and you can find it at under the news blogs).

After it appeared online, I got an e-mail from my son, who wrote: “I had no idea she had horses … or the sleigh … thank God this info is being documented!”

It’s hard for me to imagine that the topic never came up at the dinner table or during family get-togethers. More likely, when we’re young we don’t pay much attention to the stories we hear about our grandparents and other colorful kinfolk.

And if we never had the opportunity to know the ancestors in question, we’re even less interested.

But, then as we mature, we become curious about our origins, our ethnicity, the family who came before us.

That wasn’t my experience. I listened with great interest to the stories my parents told about their parents.

In so doing, I learned, for example, that my maternal grandfather had run a livery business that was located across the street from a “holy roller church.” When the congregants would emerge for a breath of air, having worked themselves into a feverish frenzy, he’d be sitting on his porch sipping a tall, cold beer which he’d raise in a toast to them.

We would visit this same grandfather at his summer cottage on a lake in Washington County. I had to be reminded before each visit what his current girlfriend’s name was so that I didn’t call her the name of last summer’s girlfriend.

In later years, we visited him at his home in Albany in a neighborhood that was to be leveled to make way for the South Mall, now known as the Empire State Plaza. By that time, he had settled down with a permanent “lady friend,” as the family called her.

I learned that my paternal grandfather, who died in a fire, was a dynamite expert, and his nickname was “Curly.” My father was out, at the movies I think, when the fire broke out, and he blamed himself for not being home.

Part of what I know about both my mother’s and father’s families I learned at the cemeteries.

My parents were big on visiting the graves of relatives on Memorial Day and planting flowers. My father’s family had its own cemetery. Most of my mother’s relatives were buried in a historic cemetery where Jane McCrea and Maj. Duncan Campbell are among their neighbors.

There were other little cemeteries spread over several counties around the Great Sacandaga Lake, and we would visit each of them. It made for a long day’s road trip every Memorial Day.

I did not adopt that tradition of my parents, but my youngest brother did. He faithfully puts fresh plantings on the family’s graves each year, and there are even more cemeteries now so he does it over several days.

Next Memorial Day I think I’ll invite myself and any of my children who are interested to join him.

A cemetery is a good place to begin when you want to know about your ancestors.

And who doesn’t enjoy a picnic with old friends?

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