Climbing the family tree

At age ten or so I read a brief article in one of the St. Louis newspapers titled “How to draw your family tree” or something along those lines. The idea intrigued me, and when I asked Mom and Dad about it they sat me down at our kitchen table with a blank piece of paper. On it they proceeded to draw from memory a crude tree with every ancestor they could name off the top of their heads.

That sketch is long gone but the exercise continued. Dad and I kept at it together, even visiting the reading rooms of the National Archives when we moved from downstate Illinois to Washington, DC. As a teenager, my interest in geneology faded but Dad kept at it for the rest of his life. After he retired, geneology became a serious passion that consumed countless hours. It ranked up there with baking bread, reading books, and keeping the squirrels away from his beloved backyard bird feeder.

Thanks to Dad and his brother Bill, who was likewise bit by the family history bug in his later years, I can tell you something about dozens of my ancestors. The first thing I can tell you is where their life stories happened to converge: East St. Louis, Illinois. I think of it as my ancestral homeland. A number of my known ancestors spent much or all of their lives in this once booming (and now busted) river town just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri.

I never lived there myself. I was born three months after Bill and Lorraine Durbin moved their growing family out of East St. Louis in 1962, off the floodplains and past Cahokia Mounds where pre-Columbian Native America once thrived (and where the population in the year 1200, by the way, exceeded that of London) and up the Illinois bluffs to an unincorporated suburb known as Fairview.

But my parents, grandparents and some of my great grandparents all met each other and raised families in the town known by some simply as East Side. They arrived starting around 1901. These working class folks didn’t know one another as they arrived on the Illinois side of the Eads Bridge. But this is where Polish immigrants Adam Malec and Julia Walczak would meet and marry—their daughter Bernice was my Grandma Kalish. Slovaks Louis Kalish and Anna Krokvica would meet up here after emigrating from Austria-Hungary—their son Jimmy was my Grandpa Kalish. And long before becoming my Grandma and Grandpa Durbin, East St. Louis is where Anna Kutkin met William Durbin, she from Lithuania and he from a failed farm in downstate Dahlgren, Illinois. Unlike my other grandparents, William Durbin was already an eighth generation immigrant to the United States. His line started in the colony of Maryland and would meander to Kentucky and Kansas before settling in Illinois. 

None of my East St. Louis ancestors were educated beyond a few years of grade school when they arrived, none had any money, and, except for Grandpa Durbin, none spoke a word of English. But they all had strong backs and a will to survive. And in those days in East St. Louis that’s all you needed. It helped too if your ancestors came from Europe and not Africa.

The stories I can tell would hardly count as an abstract to the dissertation of knowledge my dad and his brother gathered. But tell them I must, doing my best to tell an authentic story of what is known of whence I came, applying the occasional bit of dialog invention along the way. The basic facts in my stories are just as I understand them.

Considering one’s ancestry is like peering up at a contrail, the trail of water droplets behind a plane way up in the sky. As you follow it back, the dense white line turns into blobs, then puffs, then nothing. Thinking back on my ancestors, of which I have thousands, just like everyone else, is to me like that. I’m lucky I at least know the names of three dozen or so of my progenitors. So before these puffs of story dissolve into forgotten history I’d better jot a few down.

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