An Open Letter to a Professional Genealogist

From one of a dying breed who is desperate to keep the candle burning.

Dear Ms. Smolenyak,

I just read the CNN article entitled, “Her name is on a pub, a boat and an AI platform. But what happened to the Irish teen who arrived at Ellis Island in 1892?” I found it quite interesting, particularly in regard to the work you did to answer that question. From there, I found your website, and am enjoying it quite a bit, too.

I was hoping you could give me some advice/perspective/insights regarding my unique situation.

My name is Barbara Abelhauser, and there’s a very good chance that by the end of this century, no more Abelhausers will exist. I should be put on some sort of an endangered families list. It makes me sad. And I am at a loss as to what to do to help preserve the legacy.

Currently, there are only 8 other Abelhausers left on the planet. Here is their status:

  • I know my paternal aunt and uncle. They’re the only other American ones, and they both have dementia. They have never met any of the others.
  • I have met one distant cousin briefly, but have since lost touch. He was very ill when last we spoke. I met his three children once when they were small, but I’m sure they don’t remember me. They are all in Canada.
  • That cousin’s sister resides in Greece, and I’ve tried to get in touch with her but have had no luck.
  • There’s another distant cousin in France who has authored a book or two (as I have), but I don’t speak French.
  • And yet another distant cousin in France who came to the last name by marriage, and her husband recently died. (I wish I had had the time and resources to meet him. Now I deeply regret not having done so.) The two Abelhausers left in France don’t know each other. (I am Facebook friends with this one, but we’ve never met or spoken. She speaks French. Thank goodness for Google translate!)
  • All of these Abelhausers are quite old. The only two who are younger than me, (and I am 58) are the two children I briefly met. They are now adults. I’ve tried to get in touch with the young man, as he is the only male Abelhauser of childbearing age, and I’m not sure he realizes that he’s the last Abelhauser hope. But I have not been successful in tracking him down. I have no idea if he intends to have children.

The family name came from the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, which throughout history has sometimes been part of Germany. And I’ve found two other families with the last name Abelshauser and Abeltshauser (as if 10 letters weren’t enough!), in Germany. I corresponded with one of them briefly, decades ago, and was told their ancient ancestors were stone masons. Well, mine were bricklayers. That is quite a bit of coincidence. But I have been unable to genealogically link us in any way.

Have I tried hard enough? Probably not. I was recently diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and that explains a lot about my lack of follow-through. I’m easily overwhelmed.

Please understand, I’m not concerned about bloodlines or anything like that. We’re all related within 100 generations, aren’t we? No, it’s more about the name. I would dearly love to give it some sort of immortality before our flame flickers out for good.

Not that I’m looking for fame, although I write a blog and have self-published a book. I just want people, someday a hundred years from now, to stumble across the name somewhere and think, “Huh, that’s an interesting last name. I wonder what they were like?”

I have done a few modest things toward that end.

  • I paid to have The Abelhauser Family added to the wall on Ellis Island, as the American branch did arrive through there.
  • I have my self-published book, which is a collection of my blog posts related to gratitude, but it’s not going to ever make a best seller list.
  • I have put part of our family info on the website. (My lack of follow through is my worst enemy, though. Even the book would never have come out without a lot of help.)
  • I have blogged about the family name a time or two.
  • When I married for the first time a few years ago, I kept my last name.

I realize that there’s no reason anyone else on earth should care about the extinction of the Abelhausers, and therein lies the heartbreak for me. I’m sure everyone wants to leave a mark on this world. For me it’s doubly important because I fear that 70 years from now, the name will disappear and no one will know that any of us were ever here. But we were here, once upon a time.

It’s all so impermanent, isn’t it? When I hear of some animal going extinct, I think about how lonely the last one must have been. What must it have felt like to have your mating call go unanswered? If other animals were capable of seeing the big picture, how sad the last of each species would be to know that once they are gone, that’s it.

I was hoping you might have some creative ideas for me in terms of getting the Abelhauser name out in the world for future generations to see in places other than cemeteries.

Thanks in advance for any thoughts you might have. And have you ever come across any other endangered family names? How common is this?


Barbara Abelhauser

One of a dying breed, desperate to keep the candle burning.

If Ms Smolenyak responds, I’ll update this post, dear reader!

The headstone of my grandmother, to one day be joined by my uncle and his wife.

I wrote an actual book, and you can own it! How cool is that?


Let’s All Participate in the Census

Your participation benefits all of us.

By now, everyone in America will have received a letter in the mail from the Census Bureau urging you to stand up and be counted, and giving you several very easy ways to do so. I filled out mine on line. It’s about 10 questions. It only took about 5 minutes.

Come on, now. You’re stuck at home. What else do you have to do?

And here’s some very good news: there is NO question regarding your immigration status. Nor can any information be shared with law enforcement. It’s mainly about who lives in your household, how you are related to one another, whether you rent or own, your race, your age, and your gender. It doesn’t ask sensitive information such as your income, your political affiliation, your social security number, or your bank accounts.

Your answers will remain confidential for 72 years. Then it is available for people researching genealogy. I know I’d have been lost without that information when I was researching my family tree.

For family tree purposes, I was kind of disappointed that the long form questionnaire isn’t available as it was in decades past. They used to give a small percentage of households that form to complete, and it gave a lot more details about your life. I could always imagine my relatives, a hundred years from now, looking over that data and being fascinated. But I never got the long form, and this time around they don’t even have it. Pity.

It’s really important for you to participate in the census, because it helps determine your congressional representation, and how federal funding gets allocated. Many politicians would prefer that you do not participate, because they feel that an accurate representation of what this country truly looks like will not be in their best interests. Don’t let them draw an inaccurate picture of this nation! The 99 percent should show that it’s a force to be reckoned with! Represent!

Your participation will indicate which areas of the country need new schools, libraries, clinics and roads. It will determine funding for hospitals, fire departments, and school lunch programs. It helps entrepreneurs decide where to open new restaurants, stores, and factories.

Your participation in the census will positively impact your community for the next decade. And it will keep some poor census taker from having to knock on your door to get the information that you didn’t already provide. Let’s keep each other safe from COVID-19 by saving these folks the trip.

Thank you!


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Shards of the Past

So much of our history is oral.

Somewhere, nestled in my family tree, is a guy who got stuck with the nickname The Prince of Prunes. He got this dubious distinction by somehow falling into a wine vat. I’d love to know the rest of that story.

I think, but I’m not sure, that he’s the same guy that my mother used to have a tiny little picture of. He was wearing a spiked helmet and a monocle. He looked very severe. Apparently he was Prussian.

Here’s the thing. (Yes, there’s always a thing.) I have no idea who this guy is, where he came from, or how he popped up in the Danish side of my family. The fact that there was a Prussian floating around in there somewhere was apparently a source of a great deal of embarrassment. My grandparents didn’t like to talk about it.

I don’t even know where the picture is.

My mother also mentioned some Czech ancestry, too, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out when or where. I wish I had listened more. (I actually listened quite a bit, come to think of it. I just didn’t ask enough questions.)

My mother also said that back in the day, we had a family crest. She once showed it to me. I remember it included a unicorn, which I thought was extremely cool. I have no idea where that crest went. She said it was the Von Barby crest. But my cousin, who is the genealogist of the family, insists we were just Barby. Again, I have no idea when or where or how.

So much of our history is oral. We lose so much over time. Mine is probably the last generation of my family to hold even these small fragments of stories. I wonder what else has been lost?

Still, it’s kind of fun to be related to royalty, even if it is only of the wine vat variety.

Prussian helmet

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Does Cancer Run in Your Family?

I hate to say it, but there’s rot in my family tree. Generation after generation, people are dying of breast and ovarian cancer. A lot of good people died too soon. After a while, it becomes obvious that this can’t be a coincidence.

Past generations had to fly blind, which is part of the reason why life expectancies were so low back then. But current ones fly blind only by choice. Science has now identified at least a dozen possible genetic anomalies that lead to hereditary cancer. And there are many types of potentially hereditary cancer: breast, ovarian, gastric, colorectal, pancreatic, melanoma, prostate, and uterine cancers all can be caused by faulty genes.

There are three categories of cancer. Most cancer is not hereditary. It occurs by chance. This is called Sporadic Cancer, and happens at random, with no strong familial history. It is often triggered by lifestyle choices such as smoking or not taking birth control. The second category is Familial Cancer, which is likely caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, but there’s no indication of a specific pattern of inheritance.

The third category of cancer is the scariest one. It’s Hereditary Cancer, and it occurs when an altered gene is passed down in the family from parent to child. Genes don’t care about your lifestyle. They don’t care if you don’t smoke and don’t drink and don’t ovulate and maintain a healthy weight. They don’t care if you’re a vegan and live in a pristine environment. Mutated genes will do their thing simply because they’re there. They are ticking time bombs inside your body.

That means that if you have an anomaly like the BRCA1/2 gene that runs in my family, you have a shockingly increased risk of various types of cancer than the general population. In this case, you have 87% higher risk of Breast Cancer, 63% higher risk of Ovarian cancer, 36% higher risk of Pancreatic cancer, and a 20% higher risk of Prostate cancer.

Yes, that’s a lot to take in. Yes, it’s frightening. But the good news is you get 50% of your genes from each parent. That means that just because a certain type of cancer runs in your family, you don’t necessarily have the genetic anomaly that causes it.

The only way to find out is by seeing a genetic counselor and getting tested. You can find one near you by visiting this website. If you can show a family history, and you have any health insurance at all, odds are very good that you won’t have to pay a penny out of pocket for this test. You visit the counselor, establish your history, give a blood sample, and go back for one more visit for the results. Simple.

If you test negative, you have the distinct pleasure (like me! Yay!) of having a lower cancer risk than even the general population. Wouldn’t that be a weight off your shoulders? (Believe me, it’s like getting an out of jail free card.)

If you test positive, you’ve still done something good for yourself. Now you have the knowledge and you can take steps to reduce your risk. For example, learn the signs of the cancer in question, so that you can catch it in its early stages, so you have a much greater chance of surviving. Increase your surveillance through more frequent or more detailed periodic testing. In some cases there are medications that you can take to reduce your risk.

Or you can talk to your doctor about risk reducing surgery. Some of my family members have chosen to have hysterectomies and mastectomies. I genuinely believe that’s why they are still with us today.

The frustrating thing is that many family members are not arming themselves with this knowledge. In our case, a lot of the men aren’t being tested. But there is even one man in the family tree who very likely died of breast cancer. While this is rare, when men do get it, they’re much more apt to die from it because they’re not doing breast exams, so they catch it late. It’s nothing to play with. The BRCA1/2 gene also can cause pancreatic and prostate cancer. And even if you’re lucky enough to avoid the cancers but carry the genes, there’s still a 50/50 chance you’ll pass these nightmarish genes down to your children.

So if there’s any type of cancer popping up in your family tree, I can’t emphasize this enough. Get tested. Encourage your siblings and cousins to get tested. Share genealogical information with one another. Share this post.

Do it for the people who love you and whom you love. Because there’s nothing so horrible and unnecessary as dying from something that you could have prevented.

Knowledge. Is. Power.


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Service of Bibliomaniacal Proportions

According to Wikipedia, and contrary to popular belief, library usage is on the increase in spite of, or perhaps because of, our kindles and our nooks and our laptops. Unfortunately many local governments still target libraries first when they need to make budget cuts. The services a library provides can seem intangible to the public. They don’t rescue people from burning buildings or fill potholes or keep crime off our streets.

Unfortunately many libraries seem to be lax in promoting themselves, and that’s a tragedy because they provide a lot of amenities. Everyone knows that libraries are places where you can check out books and DVDs and use the internet, but there’s more to them than that. Many libraries offer research assistance, tax preparation assistance, homework assistance and a wide variety of classes from adult literacy to yoga to cooking to computer classes. They often host community meetings and conferences and are voting sites as well.

More and more libraries are also housing used book stores and cafes. They are great sources of genealogical information as well as archives of local history. They often provide programs to spark an interest in reading in children as well as book clubs for adults. Many coordinate summer reading programs.

Not satisfied with your library’s collection? Most of them participate in an interlibrary loan system and can get the material you desire that way, and they are also usually quite open to suggestions as to purchases they should make. People often don’t take advantages of this.

I recently convinced my library to buy the book “Crazy Town” by Robyn Doolittle, about Rob Ford, the crack smoking mayor of Toronto. I was very excited when it came in, not only because I then got to read it, but also because everyone who checks out that book from now on will have been influenced by my suggestion, and that’s a wonderful feeling.

It’s hard to put a price tag on information and knowledge and entertainment, but if we don’t support our libraries and actively participate in their programs, we will feel their loss acutely. So go to your library today, and bring a child or a friend with you. While you are there, thank the librarians for their service, as their praises go mostly unsung.


[Image credit:]

Sealed Without Your Consent–Mormon Ordinances by Proxy

The LDS Church performs a wide variety of ordinances, some of which are called saving ordinances, which they believe are required for salvation. One such ordinance is called sealing, and it seals you to spouses and other family members for all eternity. Fine and dandy and more power to them, I say. Everyone is entitled to their own sacred beliefs, and that is one of theirs. Even as someone who is outside their faith, I can respect that.

But wait. Hold on. It turns out that a whole group of my ancestors in Denmark have been sealed. And they passed away before the LDS even existed. How is that possible? It turns out that there’s this loophole called an ordinance by proxy.

According to Wikipedia,

“After Latter-day Saints enter the temple and receive temple ordinances for themselves, they may return and perform the saving ordinances on behalf of their deceased ancestors. These are performed vicariously or by “proxy” on behalf of the dead, and Latter-day Saints believe that it is up to the deceased to accept or reject the offered ordinance in the spirit world. Only saving ordinances are performed on behalf of deceased persons.

“Ordinances on behalf of the dead may be performed only when a deceased person’s genealogical information has been submitted to a temple. Latter-day Saints complete genealogical work for deceased persons and if it is determined an individual has not received some or all of the saving ordinances, the individual’s name is submitted to the temple to receive these ordinances by proxy. Optimally, the proxy who stands in will be a descendant of the deceased person, but the ordinance proxy may also be an unrelated volunteer.”

Well, that certainly explains why the Mormons have the best, most detailed genealogical records in the world. They want to save as many people as they possibly can. That can’t be a bad thing, can it? Rumor has it they’ve even sealed Adolf Hitler, Anne Frank, and Mother Teresa. That’s a load off, knowing that their places in eternity are assured, because their actions in life didn’t already seal their fate for better or for worse, right? [Heavy sarcasm alert.]

But when I heard about this happening to my relatives I was disgusted, and my cousin and my late sister could not understand why. Here’s why. I take my spirituality very seriously. It has been hard won and required a great deal of soul searching. The thought that when I die some future relative who is a total stranger to me can perform this ordinance on my behalf, against my will, is offensive. If I wanted to be sealed, I’d do it while I was alive.

I suppose I could petition that my relatives to be “un-sealed”, but I feel I don’t have the right to do so for the same reason that the proxy sealer didn’t have the right to seal them in the first place. I have no idea what their wishes would have been, so I can’t in good conscience make that type of choice on their behalf.

My sister said, “But why do you care if you’re sealed? You’ll be dead.” I care, dammit, because we’re talking about my legacy. We’re talking about what other future family members will read about me and believe about my choices. Unless they make an effort to do their homework, they’d most likely assume that the choice was mine, and I’d hate to think that perceived choice might influence theirs. I don’t want my legacy, my hard won philosophy about this life and the next,  to be usurped and altered, no matter how well-intentioned the person who chooses to perform this rite may be.

It’s a certainty that I won’t completely agree, religiously, with the majority of my future relatives. Heaven knows I don’t agree with all my living ones. And, oh, by the way, there are some relatives that I’d rather not be sealed to for all eternity, thankyouverymuch. There. I’ve said it.

My sister also said, “What would it hurt to have all your bases covered?” To which I replied, “And what if one of those bases happened to be related to the Satanic Church? How would you feel then?”

I sincerely believe that every person has their own spiritual path to walk upon. I don’t want some “one size fits all” type of divine insurance policy. Not only does it lack sincerity, commitment and dedication, but it would deprive me of my free will. If that means I’ll be burning in hell, so be it.

So if any future ancestors are reading this and thinking of having an ordinance by proxy performed on me, thanks, but no thanks. Even if I were truly given the opportunity to accept or reject it in the spirit world, I plan on being busy, and will not want to be disturbed.


Time out of Mind

I’ve been watching this great series on the TLC channel called “Who Do You Think You Are?” in which celebrities trace their family trees. In one episode, supermodel Cindy Crawford discovers she’s a direct descendent of Charlemagne. No one in her family knew this.

The question is, how on earth is that possible? I mean, if there were one tidbit of information you’d think would get passed down from generation to generation, wouldn’t it be that? As in, “Oh, by the way, your great great great great great great (however many) grandfather was the man who they call “the Father of Europe”. Just thought you might like to know that.”

But really, it doesn’t take much to break this chain of information. Someone along the line might have been orphaned, and therefore never knew the family history. Or someone could have had dementia, or didn’t really care about the family, or was estranged, or was told the history and assumed it was outlandish and therefore dismissed it. Any number of things could have happened.

Being a second generation American, I know how muddied the information stream can become. I don’t even speak the same language that my grandparents spoke. And for the vast majority of my life, I assumed that I was of German descent because of my German last name, when in fact my father’s family is French. The Alsace Loraine region of France has bounced back and forth so many times in history that a lot of French families have German appellations.

But it makes you wonder what other valuable information has been lost to us. I mean, we’re not even sure about the exact ingredients used in the mummification process. We can only speculate about the purpose of Stonehenge. And whenever I think about the wisdom lost when the library in Alexandria burned, I feel like weeping. What was lost during the sack of Rome (any one of them)? Are we sure nothing important is rotting away in Aunt Mabel’s basement or Uncle Arturo’s attic? What knowledge has been suppressed for political reasons by the various governments that have come and gone throughout the world?

Can we ever really know what is true about ourselves and the world around us?

Great Library of Alexandria 3

How the Great Library of Alexandria may have looked.

[Image credit:]

Our Expanding Family Tree: Cousins Coming out of the Woodwork

One of the largest and oldest organisms on earth is Pando, a Quaking Aspen clone in Utah that covers over 106 acres. Looking at it, you’d assume that it was just a bunch of individual trees, but it’s actually one organism, and it’s thousands of years old. We didn’t know that until recently. I think of Pando whenever I come across a new relative.

We are all related within 100 generations. Think about it. But one of the most exciting things about the times we live in is that it has become easier and easier to track down distant relatives. It used to be that you’d have to rely on that one family member who was conscientious and persistent and enthusiastic enough to do the painstaking family research, but with and so many other genealogy sites, often the longest branches of your family tree are but a few keystrokes away!

Just the other day, out of the clear blue sky, one of my second cousins found us. She lives in Australia and is a fascinating person. 30 years ago we probably would never have known she existed.

As a matter of fact, I now have several cousins on Facebook from both sides of the family. Some of them don’t even speak my language, and we probably couldn’t pick each other out of a police lineup if we had to, but we now have a connection, and that makes me very happy.

My family is all over the United States, France, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Denmark, Ireland, South Africa, Greece, Australia…it’s a global connection. We have much to learn from each other, and much to share.

I have this fantasy that as the branches of all our family trees become ever more intertwined, our prejudice and intolerances will fade away and this will become a much more peaceful world. One can only hope.


This is Pando.

Sins of the Fathers?

I have a very unique last name. So unique, in fact, that only 3 people in the United States have it. The two others, my uncle and aunt, are in their late 70’s, so eventually I will be the only one. I’m past child bearing age, so once I’m gone, unless my cousins in Canada or Europe move here, there will be no one with my last name left in this country. (And don’t bother asking. With a name this rare I’m way too easy to find.)

For most of my life I didn’t have any contact with my father’s side of the family, never having met him, so I did not know the family history. I always assumed that I was of German descent. Therein lies the problem. In my early teens, like many young girls, I read the story of Anne Frank, and then moved on to other substantive books about World War II and its global consequences, and assumed that my family must have played a part in that atrocity in one way or another. I bore that guilt and shame for decades.

I know that probably sounds overly dramatic, but this reaction really isn’t unusual for Germans of my generation. (There is even a really good movie about it called “The Reader” starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes.  I highly recommend it.)  It’s got to be hard to have parents or older relatives whom you love very much, and yet you know, or at least suspect, that they were part of the Nazi party. Reconciling that in your mind must cause a great deal of inner turmoil. I have read somewhere that over 8000 Nazis worked in Auschwitz alone,  and yet no German of that generation seems to be willing to admit to knowing anything. Some had to know. And knowing that your loved ones had to know has got to affect who you are, whom you trust and how you love. It is a mistake to think that we’re past World War II. I think the scar tissue it has produced will last for generations.

Having said all that, a few years ago I was released from my own personal hell. First of all, I discovered that my family was French, not German. They come from the Alsace Lorraine region, which has been passed back and forth so much throughout the centuries that many French speaking people have German last names.  But that didn’t necessarily absolve them in my mind. Atrocities know no boarders. So I contacted the Elie Wiesel Foundation ( ). They have a list of everyone who was ever a member of the Nazi party. Imagine my joy when they informed me that no one with my last name was ever a member! It took me a while to get used to this concept, but it sort of feels like a get out of jail free card. And since then, I’ve met a great deal of my father’s side of the family, and have come to know that they’re wonderful people. Had I known them all along, I probably wouldn’t have had these concerns in the first place.

In retrospect, though, I think that the human race in general must, by necessity, bear some residual guilt when any atrocity is committed, even those of us who had no direct participation in the act. That guilt and shame is what keeps us human. It’s what keeps us in the light. And it is therefore a cross that I’m willing to bear.