Monday, August 3, 2009

Talking with Grandma

My grandmother is the person who got me started on the genealogy road, so for anyone who ever gets annoyed when I suddenly get excited by something you find mundane at best, like finding a family headstone, blame her. (While true, this strategy deflects annoyance from me to my grandmother, and my grandmother is adorable, so how can anyone stay annoyed with her?)

My cousin recently started getting into genealogy, starting his mother's side and catching up on his father's (my mother's brother's) side, and knowing I do a lot of research, he had a lot of questions that I couldn't answer (he's my kind of genealogist - he doesn't just want to know the facts. He wants to be able to place a person in a place in a time and know the details about that person's life but also how it fits into the larger world historically. Time consuming, to be sure, but fascinating. Obviously, nerdiness runs in the family...) Anyway, there were questions like, when did Grandma move to Freeport? What did Grandpa do when he was in the Navy during World War II? How did they meet? So instead of guessing, I decided to set up a meeting so we could get it straight from the horse's mouth.

My grandmother is 94 years old. On my mom's side of the family, she's the last of her generation, both of the Raynors and the Cronins. She might live to be 100, but she might be gone tomorrow. If we were going to get her stories, now was the time to do it.

The great thing about my grandmother is she's very with it for a 94 year old. She goes out with her friends and she still drives. She can't hear very well and she can be forgetful, but ask her about the family tree, and she knows the answer, or if she doesn't know it, she's written it down somewhere. And sometimes I'll be chatting with her about one thing - something normal like, say, work - and she'll suddenly be off on a tangent about her days working at the telephone company as a young woman. Or we'll be talking about my brother taking up skydiving, and she'll suddenly start telling me a story about how she remembers when the thrill was actually just going up in an airplane (because they were so new), and how if you had the money, you could buy a ride out at Mitchel Field.

So I knew she had stories. Which was good, because my cousin had a lot of questions. A lot of it, I already knew - like how Grandma grew up across the street from Grandpa, and Grandma's brother Dan and Grandpa grew up as best friends. But there were lots of things I'd never heard, things that might not ever be genealogically significant but that humanized people I mostly knew as names and dates, like how my grandmother's father, Timothy Cronin, came to New York and went back to Ireland several times because he got into too much trouble and his older sisters here couldn't handle taking care of him, or how Grandma's mother, Ellen Casey Cronin, would take the train back to Brooklyn every now and then because she missed living in the city. Grandma's the only one left who actually knew these people. And, for example, I only have one photo of my great-great grandparents, but now thanks to my grandmother, I have a bit of a clearer mental picture of them and what they were like.

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