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Thursday, April 26 Opinion

Hines Sight / Adding branches to the family tree

I'm a genealogy addict.

That's right -- I'm one of those millions of people who spend an inordinate amount of time perusing the multitude of public records available online. I've also made trips to a couple of nearby town halls and to most of the cemeteries in Fairfield and Westport and paid for documentation. And I'm thinking of making a trip to upstate New York to find information on even more relatives.

It's kind of a weird hobby when you think about it. I'm basically tracking dead people.

Although I've been researching my family history for only a few years, I think it really started decades ago when I was intrigued by my maternal grandmother's story about how she, as a young girl, "came over on the boat from Italy with her mother." While I remember so much of that tale -- including how she would go to the upper decks from steerage to collect money from the wealthier passengers -- I cannot find the record for her voyage. But I won't give up.

I've learned that my Italian great-grandmothers retained their maiden names -- as was the custom in their homeland. How modern of them. However, the headstone for my maternal great-grandmother at St. Thomas Cemetery in Fairfield is engraved with the last name of her husband.

By the time I started my search, the majority of the family's older generation was gone. My mother, being the youngest of 10, was a wealth of knowledge, and I tapped her memory right up to the months before she died at age 86. She also was a great keeper of documentation, including her baptismal certificate from 1926. One of the most valuable pieces of information she gave me was that one of my great uncles was the first to leave Italy for America, paving the way for the family. Passenger records for the trips across the Atlantic Ocean for many of my ancestors note the name of that great uncle, who received them upon their arrivals.

As for the paternal side of the family, that's an entirely different story. I've found lots of information for my grandmother's family with the help of Italian genealogists. But my grandfather's family is a mystery. He had a brother and a sister I never heard of, and his father seems to have vanished from any records. I seem to remember some whispering back in the day about how his family was estranged. Finding concrete evidence of birth, marriage, residence and death is a constant challenge. But that's part of the fun.

My most recent enlightening discoveries involve two cousins (once removed, according to ancestry calculations). I knew that one of them was killed in action during World War II at the age of 20, but never any details.

My cousin, who was known as "Junior," was a private in the 116th Infantry in the 29th Division. His unit was the first to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day; my father's anti-aircraft artillery battalion was right behind him. But Junior didn't die during that assault in France. From Aug. 25 to Sept. 18, his unit was sent to Brest to capture the French port. The fighting, described as fierce, began Aug. 25 and continued for three weeks. It is in that harbor town where I have determined Junior was killed. He died on Sept. 1, 1944, and is buried at Long Island National Cemetery.

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I vaguely remember the other cousin, Junior's oldest brother. He was a tall, slender man with a nice smile. I knew little about him, but records kept appearing containing his name and referring to him as a musician. A quick question to my older sister confirmed that he indeed was a musician. As best I can I tell, he was a member of a band that played aboard cruise ships. He was on the high seas for much of his young life.

There is so much more to discover, and with the help of total strangers, the history of my family takes shape. Some of those strangers have turned out to be relatives. One man also lists my paternal great-grandmother, who lived for a time with her family in Elmira, N.Y., as a member of his clan. He wrote in an email that his mother used to visit Elmira, leading him to believe our families are connected.

Tracking my lineage is far from complete, and some days I wonder why I continue. But I found a quote by the Jamaican musician Ziggy Marley that kind of sums it up for me: "I was born by myself but carry the spirit and blood of my father, mother and my ancestors. So I am really never alone. My identity is through that line."

Patricia A. Hines is a Fairfield writer, and her "Hines Sight" appears every other Friday. She can be reached at hinessight@hotmail.com. She also can be followed at http://blog.ctnews.com/hines.