When I was very young, I was certain that one of the highlights of my mother’s high school career was that she got to paint the big toe of her high school’s patron, Saint Thomas Aquinas, on a life-size mural inside the school entrance sometime in the mid-1940s. She was proud of her small contribution to the memory of a beloved saint that she and her classmates hoped would inspire the quest for learning by future generations of Catholic girls on Chicago’s South Side.
They could not have had a better saint for that cause. Aquinas, one of the greatest theologians and philosophers of the Catholic Church, believed in the moral dimension of education and the obligation of teachers, as role models for their students, to help others seek truth by way of experience and understanding.
Aquinas Dominican High School, a beautiful brick structure on the South Side of Chicago, closed nearly 40 years later due to declining enrollment and rising costs. Still, the legend of that toe and the saint to whom it belonged followed me throughout most of my life in one way or another.
My mother loved her school and its namesake so much that when I started first grade at Saint Philip Neri School, just next door to her alma mater, she gave me a small wooden statue of him, holding the Summa Theologica. It has endured several big moves, a corner breaking off its pedestal at some point, and today it has pride of place on a bookcase in my office.
Most of us have a favorite teacher or two, people we remember throughout our lives who made a difference to us. Today, on the occasion of Catholic Schools Week, I want to share my heartfelt thanks to and fond remembrances of these educators, some of whom have gone to their heavenly reward and others who are still with us, all of whom meant a lot to my family and me. Thanks to her experiences, my mother, Joan (Schiavon) Huesca, instilled in my sisters and me a love of education and an appreciation for the value of Catholic education in particular. One of her teachers, Sister Rose Francis, an Adrian Dominican nun, had a huge influence on her. To hear my mother say it, Sister Rose Francis was one tough cookie who was as much feared as she was loved by her students for her passion for teaching. Continue reading “The Catholic Educators in our Lives”
History classes bored me when I was young. They seemed too focused on battles, dates, and dry facts and names that meant nothing to me. Aside from those who interested me, such as Galileo Galilei, Henry XIII, Marie Curie, Abraham Lincoln, and Charles Lindbergh, most of the people in my history books had no seeming relevance to my life.
Stories were more up my alley: fairy tales and myths, fiction and non-fiction, biographies, and family stories. Reading about people, their experiences, and their feelings was my escape from the world. Listening to family stories around the dinner table brought me back into it, wide-eyed and rapt in wonder at the marvelous things my grandparents, great-grandparents, and aunts and uncles had seen, done, and thought, at times practically in my own backyard. The idea that these people made me who I am has spurred a curiosity to learn as much as I could about them, and so began my lifelong love of genealogy.
History becomes more relevant and interesting when you have a personal connection. As we try to make sense of the world of our forebears, we begin to understand that their stories and the historical events and people behind them are also part of our own story. As American historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has written, “The past is not simply the past, but a prism through which the subject filters his own changing self-image.”
With a growing curiosity to uncover more about my family and their stories, I paid closer attention to the surroundings and events that affected their lives. My youthful boredom with history transformed into a fascination with it and its relevance to my life and those before me as I began to look in new ways at my ancestors’ lives and motivations in the contexts of their time and place in the world.
Although as a California resident I knew a fair amount about the Gold Rush of 1849, it took on personal meaning through the family stories of my great-great grandfather, William Constantine McGinnis, who found gold, fell ill, and had to be nursed to health by his wife, Margaret McCoy, who sailed from New York to San Francisco around Cape Horn to be by his side.
I learned of the immigrant’s perspective on the same period from my husband’s own great-great grandfather, Joseph Edouard Baron, who left his family in the south of France during an economic depression to seek his fortune in California.
When we moved to Gilroy, about 30 miles south of San Jose, I set my sights on visiting the local historical society and museum. It was there I ran across mentions of two men named Tully, my husband’s surname. One was an ancestor, the other possibly his cousin. Both were early settlers. Researching their places in the history of Gilroy gave me added appreciation for my newly adopted hometown and surrounding area.
Our children didn’t have much of a chance to dislike history. I took every opportunity I could to connect them with historical events. They knew the stories about their Hoppin pilgrim ancestors; their ancestor Zachariah Riney, who taught Abraham Lincoln to read and write; and their Grandpa Welner “Bing” Tully being stranded in an airfield in Burma during World War II. History came alive for them and helped them gain a wider perspective of the world and how they fit into it.
Last March, on a family history sleuthing trip to Tucson, Arizona, my husband, our son Kevin, and I snapped pictures of each other in front of Tully Elementary School, named for my husband’s second and third great-grandfathers, Charles Hoppin Tully and Pinckney R. Tully; and gazed up at the ceiling of the old Presidio, made up in part from freight boxes from Tully & Ochoa, their mercantile company.
Charles H. Tully, an educator and journalist in early Tucson, understood well that the current events of his time would become the history of the future. In the late 1800s, he became the treasurer of the Arizona Historical Society, founded by Arizona pioneers committed to documenting the history of the Arizona territory for future generations. His own letters, in the society archives, give insights into the events, culture, and values of the day.
If you don’t know any stories about your ancestors, start where you are. Ask a parent, a grandparent, or an uncle about their life or a recollection of how a historical event impacted them. Record their stories, in writing or electronically, to preserve the details. Ask a lot of questions. And prepare to be amazed.
Like us, our ancestors did not live in a vacuum, and we cannot learn about them without learning about the times in which they lived. Their dreams and struggles, their triumphs and tragedies, and their character and attitudes were shaped in some way by the historical forces that affected their everyday lives.
If we are to make sense of their lives and of who we are, because of, or in spite of them, we need to embrace their historical and cultural context, just as our own descendants will need to do years from now to understand us.
History may be about the past, but it is our story, too, and it is up to us to know and preserve it for future generations.
If you’ve ever thought about writing down your family stories, don’t overthink it or wait until the “time is right.” Just do yourself and your descendants a favor. Get busy and start writing.
Though I have been writing this blog for a dozen years, it took me six years until I was able to write about my parents, Gilbert and Joan Huesca. By then, my mother had been gone for 25 years, and my father had been gone for three. It is not easy to write about someone you love and miss deeply, so I expected to write three or four stories at the most over a couple of weeks.
But first I struggled with all the reasons not do it. The hardest part was the sadness I felt when I sat down to write my parents’ stories. When you sit down to write about someone you miss so much, you risk letting your emotions get in the way and quelching your efforts from the start. While it might be easier to sidestep the sadness by not writing about them at all, it was also healthier to work through it. Moreover, it was reassuring to think there would be a lasting record of their lives, something that could endure, even if one day my memory were to fade.
Marriage Record of José Cayetano de la Trinidad Huesca (1815 – after 1860)
María Josefa Rodríguez (1821 – 1897)
[Note: Amanuensis is an ancient word meaning one who performs the function of writing down or transcribing the words of another. Derived from the Latin root manu- , meaning manual or hand, the word also has been used as a synonym for secretary or scribe.]
My father received a 12″ x 24″ oval version of this portrait of Cayetano, as he was known, and another of his son, Enrique, from cousins during a visit to Jalapa, Veracruz, in the 1980s. It may be a crayon enlargement, which was a technique used to enlarge a smaller photograph. It is hard to date the portrait, but based on his graying hair and the fact that crayon enlargements were available beginning in the 1860s, I would estimate him to be about 45 – 50 years old.
His lively eyes and his slightly parted lips suggest he wants to share something with us – perhaps the wonder of witnessing the growth of his eight children, or the joy he felt as he finished some of the wood furnishings he crafted for the grand Cathedral Basilica of Puebla in his profession as a carpenter. Maybe he wants to share the insights he has learned about faith and family and life, insights into the wisdom and values that have flowed through the veins and permeated the conversations of subsequent Huesca generations to the present day. Continue reading “Amanuensis Monday: “Nuptial Blessings of Our Very Illustrious Lord””
Today, on this Fourth of July, as the United States turns 242 years old, my mother, Joan (Schiavon) Huesca, would have turned 90.
We lost her 31 years ago this Fall. Sometimes it seems as though I saw her only yesterday. Other times it feels like it was a lifetime ago. But I always smile when I think of her on this day.
Having a birthday on Independence Day was an important part of my mother’s identity. She used to say she was born with a bang; her uncle John McGinnis was so excited that he set off firecrackers under some of the overpasses in his neighborhood to celebrate. As a little girl, she believed for many years that all the parades and firecrackers were just for her. Continue reading “Happy Birthday, Mamma!”
(Originally published April 23, 2013, and updated June 1, 2018)
I am a proud member of Geneabloggers Tribe, and before that a member of its predecessor, Geneabloggers, Thomas MacEntee’s web-based group of family history writers and genealogists. It includes over 3,000 members – that’s 3,000 blogs – from all over the world. I joined in 2012 but have been fortunate enough to read hundreds of inspiring stories by some very talented people.
Thomas’ website was a rich repository for genealogy news, research and tech tips, writing prompts, and links to some of the best articles about genealogy you could read on the web. One of the popular features on the site was called “May I Introduce to You…” written by fellow blogger Gini Webb of Ginisology. Gini’s profiles on Geneabloggers were always a good read, like her blog. Her interviews introduced me to fascinating new blogs, some of which I now follow regularly. Continue reading “It’s an Honor to Meet You…”
I spent Memorial Day this year with my cousin, John. I came across him about eight months ago for the first time in the way distant cousins sometimes meet these days, on the Internet. His name had just popped up, as names do, in the course of researching my mother’s Schiavone family history. But I was with him in name only, because he was killed in action in the Vietnam War 49 years ago this month.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the eldest of four sisters, I was a young teenager with limited exposure to the war other than my parents’ conversations at the dinner table, my classmates’ occasional references to their brothers’ draft numbers, and the latest developments on the six o’clock news. Not until I grew older did I read numerous accounts of the conflict, many of them first-hand. But I never knew anyone personally who had been there, odd as it might seem. Continue reading “He Gave Not Some, but All”
My Dear Great-great Grandparents, François and Catherine,
A reminder popped up on my calendar today that you, Francois, died of meningitis 127 years ago, on May 25, 1891. It prompted me to reflect on your lives and the values you imparted to your descendants, now seven generations strong. As one of those descendants, I write to let you know of the special place we have for you in our hearts even now.
So much of who we are, we owe to you
So much of who we are and why, we owe to you. I can think of three of my father’s brothers, three of my cousins, two of my nephews, and one of my sons whose faces mirror yours, François. Catherine, your name has been passed down to so many women in our family – it is the name I chose for my Confirmation. And your fair features have endured, from my great-aunt Blanca on down, through my paternal aunts, cousins, and even in my immediate family, exquisite reminders of your grace and beauty. Continue reading “Letter to My Great-Great Grandparents”
In 1848, as 21-year-old Eduard Baron pressed through the crowd onto the ship that would take him from his native France to America, he must have been overwhelmed by a rush of emotions. Whether he felt elation, anticipation, wanderlust, trepidation, or sadness at leaving loved ones behind, one thing was certain: there was no turning back.
For decades, a sense of unrest had swept the country. France had been in the throes of an economic depression, and the monarchy of Louis Philippe had restricted basic liberties such as the right to work and the right to assemble peacefully.
Selma (Kangas) Tully, about 24
years old. Anaheim, California,
November 24, 1919.
In this day and age, it is common to see hundreds, sometimes thousands, of photographs marking the great and small events of a person’s life. In the case of Selma Tully, however, we have a single photograph that leaves us to wonder about her life before and after it was taken.
Born April 22, 1894, in Yliharma, Finland, Selma Justina Kangas lost both her parents, Juho and Susanna (Ruuspakka) Kangas, by the time she was three years old. We have no inkling as to what happened to her between that time and the time she came to America. Chances are she probably moved between relatives as she was growing up.