Monday, July 31, 2006

The "Littlest Sweeties Have Arrived!"

Those of you who have been reading my BLOG may remember a couple of postings about the cardinal who had taken up residence in a nest in the tree outside my dining room window. I nicknamed her "Little Sweetie" (see post 1 and post 2) as a tribute to my late mother, Ann, who adored cardinals. Well, last week Sweetie's eggs hatched and we saw (at least) two baby cardinals poking their heads out of the nest. One afternoon the entire family assembled--father "Red Bird,"Sweetie" and the babies! I took some video but am not sure if I was able to focus in close enough to get a clear enough picture (I hope to share the video here in a future post)--I did not want to frighten them!

You may wonder what this has to do with writing and/or genealogy, well not much...but it is a story about a family (albeit a family of cardinals) so I guess it does count in a way. I don't know why but these birds have managed to secure a soft spot in this "city girl's" heart!

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Coming Soon: The Digital Genealogist

Those of you who are big advocates of genealogy and technology (as I am) were probably disheartened by the news that is discontinuing one of its magazines Genealogical Computing. But fortunately GC's former editor is starting a new publication of her own, Digital Genealogist. See the following posting:

-----Original Message-----
From: Elizabeth Kelley Kerstens, CG, CGL [mailto:liz@ancestordetective.
Sent: Friday, July 28, 2006 1:18 PM
Subject: Digital Genealogist

Many of you know that I have been the editor of Ancestry's Genealogical Computing for the past nearly seven years. Ancestry has chosen to discontinue the magazine, effective with the
July/August/September 2006 issue that is currently in the mail. I still believe there's a need for a magazine devoted to genealogy and technology. To that end, I am starting my own magazine later this year. It will be called Digital Genealogist and will be delivered to subscribers as a PDF. It will be similar in format and content to Genealogical Computing. In fact, a lot of the authors and columnists will continue to write for me in the new publication, including Drew Smith, popular Cybrarian columnist. The first issue of Digital Genealogist will be send out via PDF attachment to subscribers in November 2006.

If you are interested in subscribing, the annual rate is $20. You can subscribe at Payments are being taken through PayPal by clicking on the PayPal button on the Digital Genealogist website. Subscriptions will begin with the first issue.

One of the advantages to subscribers of a PDF is that the URLs in both articles and ads will be live links, allowing you to immediately explore ideas suggested by authors and websites of advertisers. I am hoping that the format will be agreeable to subscribers.

Liz Kelley Kerstens, CG, CGL
Editor, Digital Genealogist

I've written for Genealogical Computing, so I wish Liz all the best in her new venture!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Blue Collar Book Tour Rolls On...

I will be promoting my new book, Pittsburgh's Immigrants at several venues. The Blue Collar Book Tour with my fellow Arcadia authors, Dan Burns (Pittsburgh's Rivers) and Sandy Henry (Carnegie) is continuing throughout the summer and fall (I will post new dates as they are scheduled).

Tuesday, 8/1/06 Barnes & Noble Carnegie Booksigning/Author Chat (w/Blue Collar Book Tour) South Hills Village Mall, Bethel Park, PA 7:00 p.m.

Thursday, 8/10/06 Carnegie Booksigning/Author Chat Borders Books & Music, South Hills/Pittsburgh PA 7pm

Tuesday, 9/12/06 Barnes & Noble Carnegie Booksigning/Author Chat (w/Blue Collar Book Tour) Greensburg, PA 7:00 pm

Also, check out our new Web site:

and our new online store at:

Hope to see you at some of these upcoming events!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Taking a Short Break

I am taking a couple of days off from blogging. I am in Pittsburgh to conduct research for a forthcoming book, and to participate in The Blue Collar Book Tour with my fellow writers Daniel Burns and Sandy Henry (see my post on this from a few days ago). Our next event will be Monday, July 24th at the Barnes & Noble Store (on Smithfield) in Downtown (or dahn tahn as we native Pittsburghers say!) from 11 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.

I will be back to more regular postings next week!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Looking For Photographs

I am in search of photographs to be included in two forthcoming books I am working on:

Pittsburgh's Slovaks and Sports Memories of Western Pennsylvania.

If you have any photographs you would like to share for either of these projects, I would love to include them in one or both of these books. The publisher is unable to pay for images, but a full credit line will be given to the owner or copyright holder. Hard copy images (clear, high quality photocopies) are preferred. Should you wish to send digital images they must be scanned at 300 d.p.i. and saved in TIFF (.tif) format and placed on a CD-ROM.

Please provide the following information with the photographs:

Your name, address, telephone number and e-mail address
Date of the photograph (if known, or at least the time period, e.g. early 20 th century, late 18 th century, etc.
Who is in the photograph (if known) and the occasion or a brief description
Name of the copyright owner.
Due to space limitations, not all photographs submitted can be chosen or used. The publisher will be selecting all photographs to be included – the author assumes no responsibility for use or for loss or damage to any materials provided.

The deadline for submission is August 9, 2006.

Please contact me via my Web site:

Many thanks!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Slovak Day at Kennywood Park: Pittsburgh, PA

I will be heading out to attend the 83rd Annual American Slovak Day Kennywood Park, West Mifflin, PA. For those of you with Slovak roots, this is a great day to show your Slovak Pride!
Here's the basic info:

83rd Annual American Slovak Day Kennywood
Presented by the Western Pennsylvania Slovak Day Committee
Thursday, July 20, 2006 Funday Tickets - $18 Senior Tickets - $10 Tickets & Info please call: (412) 351-2381
12 Noon Children's Games & Treats
1 PM Slovak Kitchen OpensPavilion No. 4
2 PMChildren's PerformancesMain PavilionPAS Jr. Ensemble and the Pittsburgh Jr. Slovakians
3 PM Greetings, Honored Guests Main Pavilion
4 PMEucharistic Celebration
Main Pavilion, Principal Celebrant: Abbot Clement L. Zeleznik O.S.B.Benedictine Abbey of St. Andrew Svorad - Cleveland, OH
Homilist: Rev. Richard Portasik O.F. M.St. Anthony Friary - Uniontown PA
Concelebrants: Priests of Pittsburgh and Greensburg Diocese
Followed by Slovak Folk Entertainment by: PAS Folk Ensemble and the Pittsburgh Slovakians
Hope to see you there!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Update on "Little Sweetie"

In a previous post I wrote about a female cardinal I nicknamed "Sweetie" who has made a nest in the bush outside of our dining room window. She is now firmly planted in that nest, and leaves it only once or twice a day most likely to get food. Occasionally she chirps or sings and I am trying to capture the sounds on a voice recorder. But, she always seems to stop just as I am about to hit "Record!" I will keep trying. I am also trying to get some video, but the nest is quite well hidden. The bush is a bit too high so we can't take a peek in the nest, but I am curious to see if there are any eggs that will soon hatch some baby cardinals. What a delight that will be!

My husband and I are totally entranced by this bird who has made her home with us, for now... Nature has a funny way of making us pause from our stressed out, high-tech world and appreciate the beauty around us.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Family History Writing Exercise #2

Today I thought I would share another of my favorite family history writing exercises. This one is "Review and Write about a Photograph."

Find one of your favorite old family photographs. Who is in it? What are they wearing? What are they doing? What is their facial expression? Is anyone else in the photograph? Describe it in as much detail as possible. For example, see the accompanying wedding photograph. Here's a snippet of what I wrote about this photograph that appears in my book, Three Slovak Women.

After the ceremony, the couple and the wedding party boarded a train for St. Clairsville where a photograph—the one that triggered the memories of some the attendees so many years later—was taken in a local studio. I am fascinated by this surprisingly crisp image. This picture, I later learned, caused hard feelings between my grandfather and his brother, Jacob because Jacob's wife, Eve, wanted their infant daughter to sit between the bride and groom in the picture. János refused because he thought a baby in between them would cause false speculation about the reason for the marriage. There are thirty-one people in the photograph—all dressed in their Sunday best. The men were attired in plain, dark suits, and the women wore dresses of varied lengths and colors (some white, some dark).
Stephen Troyanovich, János’ good friend and fellow coal miner, was the best man. The matron of honor was Helen Zaleta, a friend of Verona's from Pittsburgh. Verona had become close to Helen while working in Pittsburgh and chose her over [her niece, Mary for this distinction]. Although included in the general wedding party photo, Mary did not play an important role. The other attendants included relatives, and several of János’ co-workers and their wives.

Typically Slovak couples were married in their best clothing. But often, as part of tradition, the groom paid for the bride’s wedding garment. The bride would get a new pair of boots for the occasion—after the wedding she seldom put them on again for fear of wearing them out, but would carry them over her shoulder to church or other special occasions to show that she had them and often saved them to be buried in.

Verona's dress was white covered with beads, as was her thin, sheer veil. She wore the ankle-high lace-up boots, and held a bouquet of white carnations in her lap. János was clean-shaven, his mustache gone. He wore a dark suit, with a carnation pinned to the lapel. The look on his face makes me think he was much happier than Verona.

Now, it's your turn: dig out a favorite old family photograph, let your imagination take over, and start writing!

Friday, July 14, 2006

My Latest Book: Pittsburgh's Immigrants

Here are some details about my latest book, Pittsburgh's Immigrants (with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh), Arcadia Publishing, 2006. Be sure to check the posting about the upcoming "Blue Collar Book Tour" I will be doing in conjunction with fellow Arcadia authors. Would love to meet you at one of the signings!


Since the mid-1700s, Pittsburgh has welcomed generations of immigrants. This region in southwestern Pennsylvania was once a magnet for European immigrants who carved out livings in steel, iron, glass, and other factories along its famous three rivers. Those immigrants built the city's ethnic neighborhoods: the Irish North Side, the Polish South Side, the Italian Bloomfield, as well as other immigrant enclaves in smaller cities and towns in the surrounding areas. The diversity of Pittsburgh's neighborhoods symbolizes a city truly rich in history and culture. Many notable Pittsburghers in business, the arts and entertainment, and sports were either immigrants themselves or children of immigrants. Pittsburgh's Immigrants pays tribute to the hardworking men and women who made significant contributions to the growth and development of western Pennsylvania and left a legacy of rich and vibrant ethnic culture that endures to the present day.

Be sure to check out newly released Arcadia <> books by my tour partners: Pittsburgh's Rivers by Daniel Burns, and Carnegie by Sandy Henry

History Comes Alive with Pittsburgh’s Blue Collar Book Tour

for immediate release

PITTSBURGH, PA—Local authors Daniel J. Burns (Pittsburgh’s Rivers, Duquesne), Sandy Henry (Carnegie, Something Borrowed, Something Blue) and Lisa Alzo (Pittsburgh’s Immigrants, Three Slovak Women, Baba's Kitchen) have joined forces to promote their new books as a team, which they are calling Pittsburgh’s Blue Collar Book Tour.

Henry, also a mystery and children’s author, explains, “The three of us were already acquainted, and our new books are part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. They are very similar, as they chronicle and celebrate different facets (and faces) of Pittsburgh and Carnegie. Teaming up with Dan and Lisa will make the book tour even more fun.”Arcadia’s regional books are historical photographic essays and feature towns across the U.S. Pittsburgh has been spotlighted before, as Brookline, Beechview and Kennywood were popular earlier releases in the Images series.

Burns is a Sergeant with the City of Duquesne Police Department and President of the Mifflin Township Historical Society. He jokes, “I feel like a thorn between two roses. But the three of us have lots of events planned together, and we hope that readers will come out to see us.”

For their new Arcadia books, both Burns and Alzo worked with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Alzo is a native of Duquesne, PA and frequently lectures on the topics of Slavic Studies and genealogy. She says, “It is an honor to be touring with Sandy and Dan since we share a passion for preserving the past and paying tribute to those who helped to make Pittsburgh a great American city. I am also grateful to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh for opening their doors and photographic collection to me for Pittsburgh’s Immigrants.”

Burns adds, "Many local histories are forgotten or lost. Books such as these not only preserve much of what was but also bring history back to life through many never before seen old photographs."

Henry worked with the Historical Society of Carnegie on her Arcadia book. “The Historical Society was a tremendous help to me, and they made the experience of writing my first nonfiction book a great one. And as a native of Carnegie, writing the Images book about my hometown was really special.”The Blue Collar Book Tour will be hosting Author Chats and book signings at area bookstores beginning in mid-July. The first promotional stop will be the Barnes and Noble at the Pointe in Robinson. The authors will each give a brief presentation beginning at 7 PM and will be on hand to sign and sell copies of their books.

Additional information is available at; and book an interview or appearance, please contact:Lindsey Miller, Publicity ManagerArcadia Publishing420 Wando Park Blvd., Mt. Pleasant, SC 29464phone: 843-853-2070 x 370facsimile: 843-853-0044



July 20, 2006 Barnes & Noble, Robinson, 7:00 p.m.

July 24, 2006 Barnes & Noble, Downtown, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.

August 1, 2006 Barnes & Noble, South Hills Village, 7:00 p.m.

Additional dates TBA

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Got Eastern European Roots?

If you're of Eastern European heritage you might want to think about attending the upcoming EEGS/FEEFHS INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE in Winnipeg, Canada- August 4th to 6th 2006.

The theme for the conference will be:


The East European Genealogical Society (EEGS) and the Federation of East European Family History Societies (FEEFHS) will hold a conference to explore East European ancestry on August 4 to 6, 2006 at the Victoria Inn, 1808 Wellington Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

The conference will feature presentations by renowned specialists from the U.S.A. and Canada focusing on areas in present day Poland and Ukraine as well as the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and German Empires. Presentations will cover research procedures, records, sources, language, and scripts and many other topics. There will also be a generic track for beginners to genealogy with general research topics including computer and others.

Winnipeg is the gateway to the west for East European settlement in Canada. It has many Ukrainian, Mennonite, Jewish, Polish, and other ethnic museums and research centres as well as institutions of genealogical importance such as the provincial archives, provincial genealogical society, two universities with Slavic and German studies and others. Winnipeg hosts the Folklorama Festival, a two week event that begins on the last day of the conference and features over 40 pavilions with ethnic food, entertainment, and cultural displays for many areas of east and central Europe. Pavilions include Warsaw-Poland, Krakow-Poland, Ukraine-Lviv, Ukraine-Kyiv, Russian, Czech and Slovak, German, Hungarian, and others. (see: for more info).

I admit I am just a bit biased in favor of this conference since I will be a speaker, and also since I serve as 2nd Vice-President for FEEFHS. Nevertheless, if your ancestors hailed from any of the countries being featured in lectures at the conference, your time and money will be well-spent! Also, I would love to meet you, so if you are there, be sure to introduce yourself!

For more details about registration, hotel information, etc. , see:

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Two, Four, Six, Eight… Who Do We Appreciate?

As I mentioned in my last post, I was heading to Pittsburgh to attend the 39th annual family reunion on my mother’s side of the family. The A-LAFF-FA (Abbott, Lizanov, Alzo, Figlar, Figlar, Figlar, Augenstein) reunion was held on Saturday, July 8, 2006 at the 100 Acres House, South Park, PA. There were just a few members who were unable to attend this year. The weather was beautiful—sunny and warm, but not too hot or humid.

Every year we select a theme for our reunion. This year’s theme was “Show Your School Spirit.” Everyone dressed in attire from their favorite school (T-shirts with school logos, or their own specially designed costumes). Pennants (painted in the appropriate colors) representing family members’ current schools or alma maters were dotted around the Hundred Acres House. The ALAFFFA-teria was open for brunch and dinner with items such as “Chef’s Surprise” (a.k.a. mystery meat) green peas, white bread and butter, Jello square, fruit cup and milk (along with items that actually could be eaten and enjoyed: chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs, rigatoni, potato salad, macaroni salad, vegetables, fruit, and dip, grilled sausage and the infamous “ALAFFFA Pot” (sauerkraut mixed with secret ingredients), and assorted cookies on the menu. There was an ALAFFFA Yearbook—two poster boards of members’ school pictures and comment balloons for writing captions or messages. A “School Spirit Syllabus” was posted highlighting activities for the day. Activities for “Good Kids” included a school supplies hunt, marshmallow math and school spirit cheers, while “Bad Kids” participated in a spitball contest, passing notes relay, table top football, and “Smokin’ in the Boys’s Room.”

After the mid-day meal, we all paused for a moment of silence for two members from the first generation who passed away in 2005—Toni Figlar and John Alzo (my father). Although we were saddened that Toni and John could not be present, we all felt that their spirits, along with our other “A-LAFF-FA Angels: Ann, Doug, John, Grandma and Grandpap Figlar—were there with us.

There is a real sense of pride as we look to next year—our 40th reunion. Three generations will gather again, and ideas for a special celebration at the 100 Acres House (July 7, 200&) are already being discussed. And no matter how far some of us have to travel, we’ll do our best to get there. Whatever the plans, one thing is for certain, the love and sense of family that were at the very core of that first reunion planned in 1967 by my Uncle John Figlar still exist. In this uncertain world, it is nice to know that for one day a year we have this one comfortable and safe family cocoon we call “A-LAFF-FA” So, here’s a shout out to my family: “Three Cheers for ALAFFFA!”

Friday, July 07, 2006

Family Reunion Time

I’m headed out today for a trip to Pittsburgh to attend the 39th annual ALAFFFA Family Reunion. ALAFFFA is the acronym created by my Uncle John Figlar who started the reunion in 1967. It stands for the surnames of the seven children of John and Verona Straka Figlar (Abbott, Lizanov, Alzo, Figlar, Figlar, Figlar, Augenstein).

In 1991, I interviewed my Uncle John for my thesis project and eventual book Three Slovak Women, and he talked candidly about what he had hoped to accomplish by starting a yearly reunion:

“We just keep it going every year, and hopefully I would like to see it keep going until I can’t go anymore, I’ll be dead, but I hope you guys will keep on doing the same thing every year—try to get there for the reunion.”

Sadly, my Uncle John passed away in 1995, but thanks to his vision and inspiration, ALAFFFA is still going strong!

I probably won’t post any items for the next two days as I take time to visit with family and enjoy the reunion festivities! I’ll write all about it in my next post early next week!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Hello, “Sweetie”

From time to time I will share small vignettes and character sketches I’ve written. The one below is a tribute to my (late) mother, Anna Alzo.


My mother’s favorite bird was the cardinal. She would leave peanuts for them on the railing of the back porch whenever she heard the familiar chirp. Mom especially liked it when the male cardinal would turn up because she could admire the beauty of his red feathers. After my mother passed away in 2000, I inherited the numerous cardinal statues and ornaments that she accumulated over the years. Some were gifts from me or other members of our family, while others were collectibles she bought for herself now and then. I have a few of them displayed in a curio cabinet in my dining room as a way to honor my mother’s memory.

Many years ago, my mother was given the nickname “Sweetie” by two of my younger cousins, Kim and Todd. Mom used to watch them when they were very young so my Aunt could go to work, and would always refer to Kim and Todd as her “Sweeties” so from that time on, she became known as “Aunt Sweetie,” or just simply “Sweetie.” Not long ago, my cousin (Todd) remarked that whenever he sees a cardinal outside his window he thinks of my mom and says, “Sweetie’s dropping by for a visit.”

For the past several weeks whenever my husband and I would sit down to dinner at the table in our own home we would hear the distinctive chirping of cardinals outside the dining room window. A male and female cardinal would routinely perch themselves in the bush that brushes against the window. We remarked how they sure seemed to like that particular bush. A few days ago, I noticed the female cardinal in that same bush again, and then upon closer look, saw that she was sitting contently in a nice little nest tucked away nestled the leaves near the top of the bush! So cute! I’m convinced that my mom sent her to watch over me.

I have tried unsuccessfully to snap a picture of the little “Sweetie” but I think she is camera shy. Nevertheless, I hope that she will continue to drop by for at least a little while longer.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Post-Holiday Blues

Holidays are great,but sometimes they can be a writer's worst enemy. I find it difficult to get back into the swing today after enjoying Fourth of July festivities. I spent today trying to motivate myself to work on two separate writing projects--one is a an article for a genealogy magazine, and the second is a submission of text for the back cover of a new book I am working on, along with captions for ten photographs that will be reviewed and out of those ten one will be selected for use on the front cover. I worked a bit on both, but could only concentrate for small blocks of time. The weather outside was not conducive to staying inside to write. It was a sunny day, not too warm or humid. So I took a walk. It was good for my physical well-being, but not so much for my productivity.

There were other distractions too. For example, planning for an out-of-town trip this weekend, doing paperwork for an upcoming conference I will be speaking at, and a host of other daily tasks that needed my attention.

As writers, sometimes we have to accept there will be days when we won't be able to produce much copy. But at least I did accomplish one task: I finished this post!

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Happy Fourth!

I won't be writing a full blog entry today - plan to enjoy the Fourth of July Holiday with a barbecue, several glasses of chilled wine, and hopefully watching a fireworks display later on this evening (if the rain stops!).

In the meantime, here's a link to an article posted on MSNBC, "Genealogists discover royal roots for all." Even if you are not an avid genealogist, I think you will find this piece quite interesting!

Enjoy! Have a happy and safe Fourth of July!

Monday, July 03, 2006

Remembering “Pap-Pap”: An Exercise in Writing Ancestor Character Sketches

I was only 9-years-old when my maternal grandfather, John Figlar, passed away. Although I used to spend a great deal of time with my grandparents as a child, I had very little direct interaction with my grandfather. (All of his grandchildren, including me, called him “Pap-Pap.”). I remember “Pap-Pap” only as a short, stocky, old man, who was bald except for the thinning gray hair at the sides and walked with a cane. He used to sit at the kitchen table and roll his own cigarettes, carefully filling each paper with tobacco from the turquoise Bugler can, and play solitaire or "Beat the Devil," as he liked to call it, for hours at a time. He would call out to Grandma in Slovak and she would respond with a plate of food or a shot glass of Kassers 51 whiskey (he always bought Kasser's because it was available by the quart, while many of the other brands were sold by the pint) that she would place next to his ashtray.

Today is the anniversary of my grandfather’s death, and I thought I would take a few minutes to reflect on his life and death.

It wasn’t until I began doing genealogy in 1991 that I found out the details of my grandfather’s life—that his birth name was Janos Figlyar and that he was born in a tiny village in Slovakia called Osturna. He was the youngest of eleven children and lost his father when he was just a very young boy. I also learned how during WWI, János spent time in a Russian prison where his ability to repair carriages and make wheels saved his life and enabled him to escape. He arrived in America in 1921 at Ellis Island, and worked in the coal mines near Barton, Ohio. He was matched in marriage to Verona Straka by her brother-in-law who worked in the same mine. They married in 1924, and went on to have seven children. My mother, Anna was the oldest.

Much of what I learned about my grandfather came from my mother. She often referred to him as a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” because when he was sober he was a great father who liked to joke and play cards or build puzzles with his children. On the flip side, he had a naturally foul temper, which when coupled with a fondness for alcohol, often resulted in frequent violent outbursts. My mother often experienced the brunt of my grandfather’s wrath, and the memories of these episodes remained with her throughout her life. Although terrified of her father, she loved him deeply, took care of him when he became ill, and was deeply saddened by his death. In my book, Three Slovak Women, I write about their complex relationship.

Although I was just a young girl when my grandfather died, I can still vividly recall his funeral, which was held in the Russian Orthodox Church. Adhering to ritual, the casket is reopened during the funeral mass and family and friends say their final good-byes in a procession in front of the casket. The image of my mother throwing her arms around my grandfather as he lay in the casket, and weeping loudly, will never leave my memory.

When we investigate our family history we must be prepared to discover both the good and bad traits and actions of our ancestors. Sometimes all we get are tiny glimpses into their lives. Nevertheless, we can’t view them through “rose colored glasses.” Researching and writing about my grandfather has provided me with an objective perspective about him that his children (especially my mother) were sometimes not able to see.

So, “Pap-Pap,” I pause to remember you today—may you rest in peace.


As family historians, it is important to not just research the facts but to tell our ancestors’ stories. What I’ve written above is a mini character sketch about my maternal grandfather. When I teach courses on “Writing Your Family History” I often give this exercise to my students, so I will share it here with you.

Pick the most interesting character in your family and try to write a few sentences or even a paragraph or two about this person. Add a photograph if one is available. Once you’ve written about one ancestor, move on to another and then another, and so on. Soon, you will have a collection of profiles to compile into a larger family history! Happy writing!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Accidental Genealogist

I began researching my roots in 1991. I wish I could say that some family experience, medical reason, or curiosity inspired me to search for my Slovak ancestors, but to tell the truth I became a genealogist quite by accident.

I was in my second year of the Master of Fine Arts Degree program in Nonfiction Writing at the University of Pittsburgh and enrolled in a class, “The Literature of Pittsburgh” for which one of the required readings was Out of This Furnace, Thomas Bell’s classic novel about three generations of Slovak men working in the steel mills of Braddock, Pennsylvania. Bell’s book prompted me to ask my mother about our family history and I subsequently learned about the life of my grandmother, Verona Straka Figlar, who immigrated to the United States from the tiny village of Milpos, Slovakia in 1922. After barely making it through Ellis Island, Verona began her life in America as a domestic, and through an arranged courtship, married Janos Figlyar, a hardworking, but stern Rusyn coal miner/steelworker. Once married, Verona struggled to raise seven children during the Depression, and withstood her husband’s fondness for alcohol and frequent violent outbursts. As the details of Verona’s background, journey to America and struggles as an immigrant woman were revealed to me, I came to appreciate her as more than just my grandmother, but someone with a poignant life story.

Thus, I embarked on my genealogical journey, researching my maternal grandmother’s side of the family. This was in the days before the Internet was an integral part of daily life. Before the availability of millions of genealogical Web sites, online census records and immigration databases, I searched courthouses, spent countless hours viewing microfilm in the Carnegie and Hillman Libraries in Pittsburgh, PA, wrote to the National Archives, conducted approximately 30 oral history interviews, walked in my grandmother’s footsteps during a visit to Ellis Island, and traveled to towns such as Barton, OH, and Wilkes-Barre, PA. I read numerous books and articles on Slovak history and culture, immigration, the Great Depression and other topics. Although my grandparents called themselves “Slovak,” I also became aware of my Carpatho-Rusyn roots. For more information, see the Carpatho-Rusyn Society.

After six years of thorough research, and several more years of writing and revising I earned my degree, and also finished my first book, Three Slovak Women, published by Gateway Press (2001).

Now, one might think that because I’ve written a book I have the upper hand on this quest to find my roots. Not so. The more information you discover, the more you want to know. Thanks in part to the vast interest in genealogy, there are more resources available than ever for the family history enthusiast, and I have continued researching my family.

In addition, thanks to my work over the years I have had the good fortune to be able to teach genealogy and lecture about my experiences to local and national audiences.

When I look back now, it is ironic that I started out with a goal of obtaining a writing degree, and now I teach others how to research their family tree!

So, this is why I call myself, “The Accidental Genealogist!”