Ancestry.com and 23andMe are brilliant modern genealogical tools. They are connected to various databases around the world, including the National Archives, and can fill in gaps of genealogical history. But genealogy is more than a collection of digitized documents and records; it is listening to stories at the dinner table, digging through dusty scrapbooks, and cultivating a love and respect for tradition in future generations.
I knew two of my great-grandmothers for most of my life. Iona Magdalene (Latzo) Urban (1919-2017), my father’s paternal grandmother, passed away when I was 21. Helen Gertrude (Shumake) Townsend (1926-2013), my mother’s maternal grandmother, passed away when I was 17. Iona, I knew as Baba (pronounced Bubba), and Helen, I knew as G.G. (abbreviated for great-grandmother).
Baba told stories at the Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve dinner tables. Her memory was as sharp as a knife. She recounted names, dates, places, and telephone numbers like she heard it all yesterday. I remember the vivid details of her and her husband’s early life. She married Henry Urban in 1937 in Weirton, West Virginia, just across the Ohio River from Steubenville, Ohio, the hometown of Dean Martin. She and Henry lived in a one-bedroom shack in the heart of steel mill and coal-mining country.
Baba’s husband was a Purple Heart–decorated WWII veteran. He received the Purple Heart after surviving a flame-thrower burn to his entire right-side abdominal area. He also survived a bullet wound to his left thigh. Henry fought in both Europe and Japan. After the war, he worked security at Weirton Steel. Baba’s son, Charles Henry Urban, said his father got the security job because “he was known to travel anywhere with a .45 caliber and two loaded clips.”
I also remember Baba’s stories about her family and maiden name, Latzo. Her father was Steve Latzo of Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Steve’s brother, Pete Latzo, was the 1926 welterweight boxing champion of the world and inspiration for the popular comic strip character, Joe Palooka. Pete then lost the welterweight crown to Joe Dundee in 1927. Baba hung decoupaged Joe Palooka comic strips on her bedroom walls proudly.
G.G. loved military history. The two of us spent many evenings sitting by her fireplace looking at WWII scrapbooks. She kept newspaper clippings of Pearl Harbor, the Allied invasion, V-E Day, and V-J Day. She told me about war bonds, rubber shortages, and war-time propaganda. G.G.’s daughter, Beth (Townsend) Rush, was born on August 6, 1945, the day America dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Beth’s brother, David, joked, “You came into this world with a bang.”
G.G. and her husband, George Ivings Townsend, were married 52 years. One night, she brought out an old box of black-and-white wedding photos. Their wedding was the day before her 18th birthday, June 27, 1944. She was 17 and he was 28. George left for Italy and spent the winter of 1944-45 in the northern Italian mountains as the Americans pushed toward the border of Switzerland. He later had partial hearing loss because of his military service.
Our family lineage was written on a large loose sheet of paper. It was rolled up like a scroll and kept with G.G.’s scrapbooks and photos. G.G., along with her mother, Helen Gertrude (Woodworth) Shumake, traced our lineage as far back as Oxford, England, in the middle of the 16th century. Their research connected distant relatives to the Church of England, Mayflower, Great Awakening, American Revolution, Northwest Ordinance, Civil War, and Great Depression.
G.G. and her mother discovered John Howland was our ancestor on the Mayflower. John Howland fell overboard but managed to grab a rope attached to the ship and was brought back aboard. Our ancestors that fought in the American Revolution left New England after the war and settled in northwest Pennsylvania. Our family remains in northeast Ohio/northwest Pennsylvania still today.
Our history in the Methodist tradition started with Darius Woodworth, a distant ancestor and Methodist circuit rider. He preached the Gospel on horseback and was also a close friend of U.S. President James A. Garfield.
Baba’s and G.G.’s stories were part of a larger narrative that culminated with a love and respect for tradition. Baba was a devout Catholic. At the Christmas Eve dinner table, Baba said grace as everyone at the table ate a piece of holy bread dipped in honey, a Polish-Catholic Christmas tradition, and wished each other blessings in the new year. On Easter, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Day, G.G. and our family sang “Be Present at Our Table, Lord,” a traditional 18th-century Methodist hymn, in unison. We saved Christmas bows and wrapping paper because both families struggled during the Great Depression, went to church on Sunday or else we would not see our family until next weekend, and heard stories about deceased relatives so that we may know the impact they had on someone still living. Our faith in Christ persisted. We prayed for the strength to endure among tragedy, risk, and the unknown. We were taught to love serving others. We refurbished churches, taught Sunday school, and mentored young children. We believed in hard work and the Ten Commandments. We did good business because it helped us and our community build trust, respect, and friendships. We celebrated abundance because we persevered through strife. At one point in our family history, a bag of onions and a few old potatoes were a meal. An orange in our stockings was a gift. A bucket was kept outside to collect rainwater for washing hair.
Baba no longer tells stories at the dinner table, and G.G. and I cannot look through her scrapbooks and sit by the fireplace anymore. But as a man, Christian, and one day (Lord-willing) the head of my family, I can continue the stories and traditions I was taught as a boy. All of this I owe to Baba and G.G., the tender-hearted and Christ-like matriarchs of the two sides of my family.
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