Written by Steve Mosco, firstname.lastname@example.org Wednesday, 20 November 2013 11:01
Lynne Berge sat at a computer at the Plainview Family History Center clicking through digital records and unearthing hints of her family history. Berge grew up sharing a room with her Irish immigrant grandmother, but knew precious few details about the family’s beginning in the old country.
“She didn’t like to talk about it,” Berge said, remembering her grandmother’s unease with tracing the family roots back to Ireland. “They wanted to be Americanized.”
But following her grandmother’s death, Berge took to the task of playing familial detective. She dedicated time and effort in her search and eventually came across a random photo of her grandfather — which then led her through the criss-crossing branches of her family tree.
Stories such as Berge’s are known to happen at the Family History Center, at 160 Washington Ave. in Plainview. Led by a team of volunteers including Massapequa resident Kathleen McGee and Huntington’s Marie Lollo Scalisi, a genealogy and family history research professional, visitors often begin their search with little to go on other than a name, a town and a wealth of curiosity.
“Many people come here because they want to learn about their family’s medical history,” said McGee, a longtime volunteer at the History Center and also the moderator of a help session with the Irish Family History Forum at the Bethpage Public Library. “But during the search, they might find ancestors with brave and adventurous stories. Families that escaped the famine in Ireland or families that lived near the poverty line in tenement housing. They go on a journey and discover so much.”
And such journeys can take a number of years. McGee began researching her family history close to 20 years ago, tracing her Irish heritage back to County Kildare. She hopes to one day visit the land that bore her roots, to reconnect and breathe life into the long-gone past.
Genealogy professional Scalisi began specializing in New York and New England genealogical studies in the early 1980s while driving her great aunt to a Massachusettes nursing home with her mother. During the long drive up she started asking her mother family questions, but had no idea where it would take her.
“It inspired me to dig through the Massachusetts archives and the New York City municipal archives,” she said. “It grew into an obsession and then into a profession.”
Clients hire Scalisi as a consultant to analyze what they already know and how to go about their search. Often she will take to researching herself, a detail-oriented and tedious task. In her own family search, Scalisi, an alto-bass, was able to pinpoint exactly where her singing voice originated.
“I found a book of songs from 1872 belonging to my great-grandmother called, ‘Songs for Low Voices,’” she said. “I don’t wonder where my voice came from any more.”
Scalisi said learning about her vocal origins is a small piece of information, but important to her present life. She said history is filled with families packed with accomplishments, dreams, tragedies, talents and much more — none of which is printed in history books.
“In school we learn the overview of history,” said Scalisi, who also volunteers her time at the Plainview center. “But no one learns about each individual family and how they make up the bigger history. It’s also a way to understand the present. Many of the concerns people had back then are the same concerns we have today.”
But some of the concerns are far different, and offer an opportunity for researchers to really appreciate the era they are living in and all of the benefits that come along with modern society. Chief among those benefits, according to McGee and Scalisi, is medicine.
“Influenza wiped out entire families. They were dropping like flies. Some people alive today find out a relative was the only one in a family to survive an outbreak — it really changes their outlook,” said McGee. “To see how many young people died in colonial times, it really gives you a new perspective.”
And the advent of the Internet has given a new perspective to ancestral researchers. Scalisi said all forms of records degrade over time, and having such a wealth of historical docuements floating in the ether is a blessing to anyone searching for answers.
“It’s all waiting to be found,” said Scalisi.
For Lynn Berge, research uncovered more than just a few pictures. She was able to connect with cousins she did not even know she had. Now, they work together to keep the search moving forward — to uncover that next family secret.
“Families lose touch over time,” she said. “This is a chance to reconnect a bit. It’s a journey through your own history.”
For more information about the Plainview Family History Center, call 516-433-0122 or visit www.familysearch.org. To learn more about the Irish History Forum, check out www.ifhf.org or join the search on Facebook at www.facebook.com/irishfamilyhistoryforum.com.