Researching Close Ancestors

In building a family tree, it is tempting to focus on adding as many generations as possible to each of your known family lines. Indeed it is satisfying to trace a family back eight or more generations. Some of the branches of my family tree run so deep that I get frustrated with other lines with unknown fifth great grandparents.

Two of my brick walls are both ancestors of my great grandpa Howard Cook. I know that his grandfather George Cook emigrated from Germany/Prussia in 19th century, but I do not know who George’s parents were. Likewise, I do not know the origin of Great Grandpa Cook’s maternal grandfather, Cyrus Cole. He appears in the 1860 census as a farmhand living in Brownhelm, Ohio, as if he created himself wholesale, ready to work with pitchfork in hand.

Early on in my research, I felt a bit of defeat that two of my brick walls were connected to a close ancestor. How could I fail in tracing the family of a man I thought I knew well? I decided to invest more time in researching Great Grandpa Cook himself. Although it was likely that this research would yield little or no clues that could help break through those brick walls, I figured he was worth my time. What would I find about the life of a man who was so essential and influential to my mom’s side of the family?

I knew that his first career was baking and that he’d worked as a professional baker until he developed Baker’s Lung, which caused him to take a job as a school custodian, a job that had little glory but much security. I found two newspaper clippings about his work as a baker.

The first is an advertisement from The Lima News from May 24, 1929:

Lima News Page 2 May 24 1929

In 1929, he was just 22 years old, and my great grandma was expecting their first child, my grandma Eileen. I think it’s interesting that at such a young age he was accomplished enough to be listed by name in an advertisement, as the “Pie Foreman” no less.

The second clipping is from the February 23, 1954 edition of The Lima News:

Lima News Page 17 Feb 23 1954

This short article implies that he received a 30 years of service bonus in August of 1953, which means that he began working as a baker during the month before he turned 16. When I was growing up and heard about his first career, my mind invented the notion that he was a baker for 20 years. Who knows why I settled on that number. Maybe my young mind could not comprehend such a scale of time. It turns out that he had that job for at least 31 years, and then he worked as a school custodian long enough to earn a pension.

In looking at census records, I discovered that Great Grandpa Cook did not attend high school. This surprised me as 80% of my memories of him involve seeing him read something, such as the newspaper or one of the hundreds of issues of National Geographic he collected. I looked back at my family tree for clues about why his education ended early while his oldest brother did finish high school. The answer was the untimely death of his father, my second great grandfather William Cook. William died of TB when Great Grandpa was just 11 years old. He completed three more years of school and then went to work.

I wonder why he chose to be a baker. He was successful enough at this work that he was able to sustain a middle class life for his family (which included six children, by the way).

I was also able to borrow and scan some of his recipes from his days as a baker. All of these recipes are massive in scale since he was a commercial cook.

His master chart for pie fillings:


The formula for “thicking” which looks to be a slurry of several standard thickeners:


His recipe for chicken pie filling, with “2 hens”(!);


He also had a recipe for potato salad for 80 people and parkerhouse rolls:


I have two points in sharing this information here. First is my pride in his work. Second is to encourage you to research your close ancestors. Search old newspapers, yearbooks, and the like. Ask your older relatives if they have any of that ancestor’s writing. You could find lots of information to deepen your understanding of relatives you thought you knew well.

23andMe Update: Maternal and Paternal Phasing

Yesterday I revealed how I’d nearly exhausted my very limited reserves of patience waiting for my dad’s 23andMe results. If only instant gratification were possible with such tests. Maybe some day in the future there will be DNA test kiosks right next to all the blood pressure machines in pharmacies. In the meantime, it is impressive that 600,000+ genetic markers can be analyzed in just a few weeks, even though that seems like a long span of time for impatient people such as yours truly.

Dad’s results were ready this morning. By afternoon, his results had been phased with mine. Mom tested last month, so now I have been phased with both parents. (More information on the phasing process is available here and here).

Here is a chart of my geographical percentages with and without phasing:

Screenshot 2017-07-06 at 8.29.16 PM

I had hoped to shed more of the “Broadly” percentages through phasing, but this is as about as accurate as direct-to-consumer genetic genealogy tests can be at this time, at least for someone like me, whose known ancestors migrated to America from their home countries 150-350 years ago.

I will close with a 23andMe-generated graphic of my phased results:


Old Family Photos

Howard Cook (1)
A photo booth picture of my great grandfather Howard Augustus Cook

Last year I had the great privilege of borrowing my late great grandfather Cook’s photo collection, which I scanned. I’ve seen few pictures of my other three great grandfathers. When I opened the boxes of Great Grandpa Cook’s pictures, I was stunned at the volume of photos, and to a lesser extent, the fashion sense of some of my ancestors. He had many pictures of his siblings, too. I get the feeling that he and his five siblings cemented their bond over the years by sending portraits to each other, in addition to the usual family snapshots.

Some of these portraits reveal a great depth of feeling. My second great aunt Mabel looks to have been a master of relating the ongoing story of her life just by a look on her face. This one is a photo booth picture, which was the selfie machine of its time I suppose:

Mabel Cook

Great Grandpa Cook worked as a pastry baker at a local hotel for 20+ years, where he was known as the “Pie Foreman” in local newspaper ads:

Howard Cook Barr Hotel

He developed baker’s lung mid-career and switched to an occupation with more retirement security, school custodian. There were lots of school pictures of his custodian days in the box of photos, such as these two, which I find deeply amusing:

Howard Cookc4fb4cc7-95fd-41a4-a260-c2c7fe1caf0e

Yesterday I assembled my favorites and made a slideshow video of them. I highly recommend making this kind of video to anyone who has lots of photos of their ancestors. I used Windows Movie Maker, a super basic video editor. All I had to do was drag and drop the pictures into the program and choose a transition preset. I uploaded my video to Facebook and YouTube and was delighted to see these pictures play on my living room TV.

A Dutchman

In writing about my family tree, I have referred to my paternal grandfather several times, but I have hesitated to write about my mother’s father, Grandpa Bob. Every time I log into my DNA matching accounts, I see his legacy. On 23andMe, the great majority of my close matches are connected to me through him. It so happens that both of his siblings have done genetic genealogy tests. His family tree is so well represented in my matches that I have entertained the notion that the desire to know one’s genetic heritage may be associated with a hitherto nameless gene that happens to run through several of his family lines.

There is no reliably tactful way of raising the subject of a close ancestor with a checkered past. Feelings can still be so raw that the only simple way to refer to such an ancestor is through pictures, such as this one:

Screenshot 2017-05-30 at 7.44.49 PM

Grandpa was afflicted with both alcoholism and depression. Even though I honestly cannot recall a time he hurt me intentionally, I turned away from him when I was 10 years old, when he bookended several years of sobriety with more drinking. One day I came from school and his voice sounded a half octave higher, like Joe Pesci halfway through a bottle of Ripple. Hearing him say my name in that funhouse voice bricked in my heart, and I couldn’t even look at him.

He pleaded with me, “Why won’t you look at me, Shelly?”

At that age, I did not have the words to explain to him that I couldn’t deal with him because I knew that his drinking had an been an earthquake in my mother’s youth. I loved him, but he had hurt my mother. That was all that mattered. I loved my mother more.

I have written before that there is no point in judging my ancestors because if they had lived their lives differently, I might not exist. But this neutrality is tough when that person’s behavior wounded some of the people I love most.

About a year and a half ago, I lost a friend to suicide, and she gave me the unintentional gift of forgiving Grandpa Bob. Her life had fallen apart by degrees, and she had descended to the outskirts of the local alcoholic culture. That life quickly wore on her; she ended her life three months later.

Through her, I understood that Grandpa’s triumph was his survival. To have been been so afflicted and resisted suicide for seven decades was a victory in itself. In researching his family tree, I discovered that two of his first cousins had ended their lives, one of whom did so in such a dramatic fashion that his end was the lead story in the local newspaper the day after his death. This headline-making cousin was also his best friend.

Depression and alcohol in tandem are a juggernaut. Each alone can drive a person to do or say the very things that push away the people who love you the most. Together this alienation is achieved with greater efficiency, like a carpet bomb that eventually wipes out everyone around you except for toxic strangers.

Grandpa has been gone for fifteen years. When I see the names of his family lines in so many of my genetic matches, I now think of the good times we had with him, which have grown precious in my memory. I remember when he taught me how to cook pancakes and slowly heat maple syrup in a sauce pan at the same time so the syrup would be perfect when all the pancakes were ready.

He told me a few times that he was a Dutchman. I asked him how he knew, and he told me, “Listen to your baby brother. He already knows how to speak Dutch.”

When I was building the outline of my family tree, I discovered that he really did have some Dutch ancestors and that he’d descended from some of the early Dutch settlers of New York:

Screenshot 2017-05-30 at 5.19.50 PM

How such information is lost and found as family histories are passed down through generations is a mystery to me.

The week before I stopped talking to Grandpa, he surprised me by writing “E.T. phone home” on the chalkboard in my room. He was the kind of Grandpa who excelled¬†at making quarters appear behind ears, so he didn’t reveal himself as the author for a few days. When I found out he was the one who wrote it, I sprayed the chalk board with hairspray so it would stay longer. Even after we stopped talking, I let his message fade in its own time.

Another 23andMe Update: Maternal Phasing

Right after I published my previous post about wistful anticipation of my impending 23andMe ancestry composition update, I logged into that site to see that my mother-to-child phasing had already been completed. It’s a good thing I saved screen shots of my first ancestry composition. Even though those percentages seem to have been burned into my brain over the past year and a half, I have a memento of that which changed how I thought of myself in unexpected ways.

One of my earliest memories involves thinking that I spontaneously appeared on earth from parts unknown the very moment I first considered that I have a memory. I don’t think that notion was entirely erased until I saw that first 23andMe ancestry composition painting. This was evidence I belonged to a web of people who’d been cast over the earth since time immemorial, and in that belonging I felt profound comfort.

I can’t remember a time when I truly doubted I belonged to God, but I was uncertain that I belonged to any person, despite that I am part of a close and loving family. I really couldn’t ask for better parents, siblings, and close relations. The issue was knowing (and I have referenced this situation before on this blog) that there was an astronomically low probability that my parents could be my biological parents. Two parents with type O blood produce a child with type A blood about one time out of a million.

I’ve made some interesting discoveries regarding my family tree, such as uncovering the identity of my paternal great grandfather who had become a missing person 94 years ago.¬†The odds that I am myself are much more extraordinary. There was a one-in-a-million chance my parents would have me (layered on top of the already slim odds that two parents will produce a particular child, a thought that as a parent myself makes me dread the possibility of time travel, by the way).

Before I close, I will share some screen shots about my maternal phasing on 23andMe. This process did make some alterations to my ancestry composition, and I haven’t had time to judge whether I think the new version is an improvement. More regions were added as trace results, so now I have a map that looks much more like my mothers:

Screenshot 2017-05-27 at 11.16.37 PM

My old ancestry composition versus my new phased ancestry composition:

Screenshot 2017-04-28 at 9
December 2015 result, without parental phasing
Screenshot 2017-05-27 at 11
May 2017 result, with parental phasing . . . there is one more line to the result which I cut off because keeping it involved zooming out to a level that made the text of this screen cap unreadable. The line was “Broadly Middle Eastern/North African < 0.1%”

Since I now have a parent tested with 23andMe, I have a new component to my ancestry report that breaks down their prediction of which regions I inherited from which parent. On the left is my dad’s contribution, and my mom’s is on the right:
Screenshot 2017-05-27 at 11.18.25 PM

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