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Two years ago I moved away from Greenwich Village. Now I'm trying to move back.

June 19, 2020

Walking in their footsteps: my relatives from Brooklyn, known and unknown

Frank Carter, bond trader on Wall Street in the 1940s

He didn't like to talk about his childhood in Brooklyn. As the first in the family to work on Wall Street in the corporate world, clients and peers in his day made assumptions about you by your ethnic background. He was proud of being from Brooklyn. Flatbush was nice then, but his father, a bookbinder, deserted his mother and him by the time he was 13 and my grandfather had to go to work, first part-time as a bellhop in a hotel, then full time after his first year of high school. A serious person and a reader like his mother, he wanted a better life. But at 16, at the start of WWI, a wave of patriotism was sweeping the city. He tried to sign up for the draft by lying about his age but was sent home when his mother showed up. He was the breadwinner in the family. He couldn't go. Back at work, he befriended the Wall Street businessmen who passed through the hotel, found a mentor, and eventually became a bond trader with his own firm at 111 Broadway. Unlike his father, who divorced and remarried twice more, he was a a rock. After familial setbacks, and seeing what could be lost in stock market crashes and wars, . . .
. . . he took steps to avoid disaster. During WWII, as a husband and father, he sold their house in Westfield, NJ, giving up an active social life for draft deferment, and moved his family to a farm. In Pittstown they could grow their own food, if it came to that.


At his farmhouse in Pittstown

On winter break when I was 14, I flew to Arizona to spend a week with my grandparents at their Del Webb retirement community in Sun City. They had left family and friends on the East Coast, a modern stone house which they had built to entertain my grandmother's friends in community theater, for a temperate climate and year-round golfing, swimming, and gardening; more importantly, they had doctors with expertise in geriatrics. New Jersey winters in a remote country house, cut off by snow and icy roads, and small town doctors with no training in cardiology and other threats to the elderly--goodbye to all that. 

While he adored me when I was little, taking me to parades and introducing me to books with a gift of Child Craft encyclopedias and illustrated hardcovers of children's classics, which I didn't appreciate until I was an adult--I saw the harsh critic in him on this trip. He had become a faultfinder. My parents had said this about him, but I hadn't seen it until now. 

Most days felt like a celebration. I was the "it girl." We saw a Broadway show, had dinners out, went shopping, sightseeing in the desert--it was over the top. But one night at dinner in a country club, he said something that brought me to tears. My grandmother and I had to go to the ladies' room to calm ourselves. I don't remember what he said that upset me so. Every other moment of the trip was wonderful. But he could be critical of everyone, especially liars and cheats and bums in politics and public life. When we were listening to records one night, he wouldn't let me play Sinatra: Sinatra was mafia. My grandmother and I laughed. He was being too serious. My grandfather loved Italians. My grandmother was from an Italian family in his Brooklyn neighborhood. How could he not like Sinatra records? So we listened to Sergio Franchi. No Sinatra. Because of the mafia. At the time, I didn't understand his feelings but now I do.  He was remembering life in New York in his day.


Long after my grandparents were gone, about ten years ago, I remembered a portrait photograph of them to commemorate an anniversary. Unprompted, the picture popped into my head and I thought, was he Chinese? Later I asked my mother and, startled, she laughed and said no, he's English, but a doubtful look came over her face. We never discussed it again; he was my dad's father and my father had died. There was no way to find out. But a few months ago, after all the talk of Ancestry's DNA tests and my curiosity outweighed politicians' warnings about privacy, and I found the Chinese thread--I was four percent Chinese. Mostly English, as I expected, and a smattering of other exotic cultures. I was thrilled to have my hunch confirmed, but I couldn't find the Chinese ancestor in my grandfather's relatives or elsewhere. It took me months. So I worked around it, and built profiles of my German and Italian relatives from Brooklyn, then the English, Irish and Dutch ancestors from NJ and PA I already knew about, but the Chinese thread intrigued me the most because of him. Finally I found it on his mother's marriage certificate which I had to purchase from the city. She had too many surnames and was hard to trace, so I needed the certificate to get her address. Then I saw her mother's name for the first time, Isabella Kiersted and the name of her father who was married to someone else. Looking further, I found a Manhattan marriage record for Isabella, with her name misspelled, in the New York, New York Extracted Marriage Index. Belia Kiersted had married Wong You Foo on 9 Jun 1878. Without Isabella's name, and if she hadn't married, I never would have found the Chinese ancestor. 


A marriage record for my Chinese ancestor


This opens up Lulu's story. She shows up in census records of two other households as well as her parents' simultaneously. Were the other families relatives or had she been in foster care?


Lulu was at my parents' wedding, and my mother met her on at least two occasions before, at  a Christmas dinner at Lulu's home in Flatbush and again at a party with my father's family the day before the wedding. My dad never talked about Lulu, even though my grandfather was close to her. I don't think my father knew. If I'd had the chance to tell him, I think he'd have sat bolt upright with a happy surprised look on his face that said what? then laughed. A no-nonsense businessman, the possibility of a family secret would never have crossed his mind. He would probably have said, "What difference does it make?" 

I've been asking myself the same thing as I see more and more of myself in my ancestors' lives, starting with a burning desire to move to New York when I was 13. I thought I had chosen a life in the arts as a single with my own apartment, and ambition to make it. Now I learn I've been walking in their footsteps without realizing it, living in neighborhoods where they lived in the Village and Soho and Brooklyn, pursuing our common passions in music, theater, and books; shopping in department stores; and striking up friendships in classes, cultural events and restaurants with straight-talkers. I'm also finding other things in my ancestors I hadn't unexpected beyond the discoveries through DNA matches and the online family tree, I'm finding common birthdates, dates of death and anniversaries. Sometimes the way it all lines up, I have to wonder are my life's pursuits and where I've lived really of my own making?


Contact: Debbie Carter, VillagerExpat@aol.com, (212) 925-3721

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