A few weeks ago my wife Sandy was contacted by old friends (two sisters) that she has not seen since childhood. They had discovered each other on Facebook a few years ago but now the opportunity to meet face to face after all these years was possible. So my wife and I drove to nearby Syracuse to meet at the deli restaurant The Brooklyn Pickle. So over great sandwiches and conversation time seemed to disappear. Before we knew it, the afternoon had gone, and it was time to say our goodbyes.
On our drive home my wife was surprised at the memories her old friends had of her mother and father. Memories that she did not herself recall. One of the sisters was a few years older, and would at times babysit for my wife’s mother. She told how my wife’s mother (a school teacher) would help her with math and school work. Taking them shopping for school clothes, trips, and many other events that my wife could not recall. In those few hours my wife was to learn much about her parents and in particular her mother that she had forgotten or never knew. We spent hours talking about this over the next few days. I started to think about how our friends know so much about us as we do them. In many cases much more or different things than our cousins or even siblings. I came to the conclusion that old friends are an ignored source in our genealogy research. Memories of other old friends started to make their way into my thoughts.
Gary Short was my friend from grade school through high school graduation and too few years beyond. We had so many adventures together growing up that it would read like a slightly watered down Tom Sawyer. The picture above shows Gary holding a book we had both read that we borrowed from the public library. We used to go the library often to find books to read. Gary was from a large poor family. He worked hard to finish high school and earn his X-ray technician certificate. I was well aware of his situation, and I admit that I looked up to him and all that he accomplished. Before I moved away from my hometown, we made plans to meet in four to six months, since he was taking a job then in a hospital nearby the town to where I was moving. It was the last time I was ever to see him. From what I was able to find out well after the fact was, he developed problems with addictions and ran into trouble with the law. Gary died in 1988 he was only 36. His obituary listed 26 nieces and nephews as well as 23 grandnieces and grandnephews. I hope they hear some of the earlier stories about Gary so that they will perhaps someday learn the good things about him like the stories I have. However, the stories he knew about me are now lost.
John Curtin was a family friend. He always seemed very old to me. But in checking out facts for this post, I discovered he was 61 in the picture above. Since I was 12 when the picture was taken, I guess to me he was old. He was a retired brakeman for the D&H Railroad and had many stories he shared. His humorous prayers before family holiday meals were legendary. We had a steel bar that was installed in the doorway between the living room and kitchen in our house in which I used to do chin-ups. One evening several of us were doing chin ups when John decided he was going to do a few. He gripped the bar and with a great effort started to raise himself up as his trousers fell around his ankles. Good times. A few years later I was asked to be a pallbearer at his funeral.
James Davis was one of the most brilliant and funniest people I have ever known. More importantly, he was my friend. In many ways, we were total opposites. He was a staunch conservative and I a liberal. This was at the time of the Vietnam War, Hawks, and Doves. We agreed on nothing political. However, that was not important to us. What was important was trying to win a point in our many debates. We were both working our way through school and worked in a large retail store called Grandway sort of the Wal-Mart of its time. I recalled one Christmas the store’s Santa Clause was very late in getting back from lunch. A special education class was there to visit with Santa. Jim was pressed into service to play Santa Clause. I decided to stay close by and watch so I could tease him about this later. The one thing we liked to do is to find something we could use to tease each other. So the sight of this reluctant college football player in a Santa suit was too good to pass up. However as he approached this excited group of special education children, Jim disappeared, and Santa appeared. This is the only was I can explain it. Jim did such a great job that was like watching a great actor work on stage or in a movie. The children loved him they squealed and laughed and had a great time. He spent about a half hour with them. After he had gone back to the employee lounge to change out of the Santa suit, I went back there to tease him a little. However, I found him slumped against a wall crying like a baby. He turned to me with tears running down his face and said “all those dollars spent on the military we should find some to help them.” I did not say anything to him that I had planned to. Instead, I tried to cheer him up. Also, I never brought up his statement to him in our future debates. Besides, I always knew how big his heart was. My friend’s great heart gave out on him a few years ago. I got the chance to tell his children this story about their father and a few others they did not know.
Virginia Rice was like another mother to my wife and I and a grandmother to my children. We had just rented an apartment, and her apartment was across the common area from ours. At first, my wife was concerned that this might cause problems since we had three very young (all under the age of 6) children. However those fears were soon dispelled, and she quickly became a part of our family. Before long no family gathering was complete without her being there. For a long time every Friday night we would order take out food and play the card game Pinochle. We have many fond memories of her skill at this card game. Everyone wanted her as a playing partner. My daughter thought so much of her that she is Godmother to one of her daughters. Perhaps someday I will have the chance to tell one of her descendants about this World War Two veteran, card playing, Polish food junkie, funny and deeply religious person.
My advice to anyone doing family research is to try and find old friends if possible of the people you are researching. Even with people you think you know well. Old friends can share stories you may know nothing about. By talking with these people, you may learn surprising things that most likely you would never know. If you dig a little deeper, you will have an enhanced story.