Finding Family in Geneva

Exchange Street, Geneva, NY
Geneva is a small city in the Finger Lakes region of central New York, known for its beautiful scenery and popular wineries.  It is also my grandfather's hometown, which he left in the 1930s to find work elsewhere.  Life being what it so often is, my father grew up in a different part of the state and didn't get to know his father's relatives.  

In this Facebook age, we forget how easy it was to drift apart and lose touch, but that's what happened in my Dad's family.... that is, until I met Carol through DNA testing (you can read about that story here)... and the rest, as they say, is history.  

I just returned from our first family gathering, reuniting descendants of the five sons of John J. and Julia Mary (Flynn) Hill. I've written about this family before (see "Trust but Verify" and "Crossing the Pond"), and this trip was my chance (and my Dad's) to finally meet this branch of our family.  I loved seeing all those intense blue eyes -- it was a tangible reminder of our shared DNA.  [Overheard at the reunion:  The Hills have eyes...]

Most importantly, I heard some stories that shed a little bit of light on the personality of Grandma Julia.  My father's cousin Jack grew up in Geneva and lived with his grandmother, so he could tell us a few things about her.  
Jack with Grandma Julia, mid-1940s
Julia was a hard-working woman.  After her husband died in 1916, she kept a boarding house, and would get up every day at 4 am to start the day's baking.  She was no-nonsense with the children, but must have had a kind heart, because she was always ready to feed hungry strangers at the back door.  

Jack told about how her five adult sons would sit in the living room drinking their whiskey; when offered a shot, Julia would grimace and protest, refusing to take more than a sip.  When the men left the room and she thought no one was watching, she would drink it straight down, pretty as you please.  

Whenever anyone was sick, she would insist they take the "cure" -- whiskey, water, and a spoon of sugar.  It got so that sometimes the kids would go into the kitchen and cough hopefully at her.  

On St. Patrick's Day, she would bake a cake, and when it came out of the oven, she would spread out newspapers and throw the cake against the door.  It would break into pieces and everyone had to eat a piece of the broken cake for good luck.

Jack told about the divisions between the Irish and the Italian kids.  The Italians had to go through the Irish neighborhood to get to school.  Jack, a slight boy, used to sit outside as bait, taunting the Italian kids.  When they started to come at him, his bigger cousins would jump out from the bushes.  If the noise got too loud, their grandmother would come out of the house with a broom to shoo everyone back to their side of the tracks.

Now here's when you know that there is the hand of fate in family history: my new cousin Carol arrived a few days before the reunion and went to visit St. Patrick's cemetery, where our great-grandparents are buried -- only to find that she had no clue where to look for them in the enormous expanse of gravestones.  Ready to give up, she ran into a gentleman walking nearby, who asked her who she was looking for.  She told him.... and Jack led her straight to the family plot.  Of course the random person she happened to meet would be the only person in Geneva who could help her!  

image courtesy of  thegraphicsfairy.com