How Poking Around in My Family’s Past Changed Everything

One of the things I’ve had on my List for many years now has been to do some genealogy research and create a family tree.

I grew up in Chicago, the product of a Northside Italian dad and a mom from a Southside Irish neighborhood. I’ve always identified as “Half Irish, Half Italian.” (“Half Garlic, Half Gaelic,” my t-shirt says.) I grew up hearing stories of how my dad’s dad came to Chicago from Luzzi, Italy (and I even had the opportunity to visit Luzzi while studying in Italy in college.) And, of course, on the Irish side, stories were endless about the family members who came from Ireland. (Including the story of how the Titanic was part of my family’s history.)

Me in My Grandpa's Birthplace - 2002

But even with all the stories I’d heard in my lifetime, I knew there were missing pieces. I wanted to know more about the towns in Italy and Ireland where my relatives were from. And, even moreso, I wanted to know more of the mystery of my mom’s mom.

Despite the fact that my mom always claimed to be 100% Irish, something didn’t seem quite right to me.  My grandma,  Nana, never knew much about her background. Her father died when she was very young, her mother when she was about 13. But the weird thing was, her maiden name was Margaret Kostro. Kostro didn’t sound very Irish to me.

The other hint that something wasn’t quite right was that I remember Nana always singing a certain song to me in some language that I believed to be Polish, and she was always sure to get us paczki for Fat Tuesday.

Still, I took it for granted that I was half Irish, half Italian. It was such a clean story, and a great combo, in my opinion. And a lot of Irish neighborhoods in Chicago were near Polish neighborhoods. It was possible she just picked up on their culture as a kid.

But, this nagging question started making me more curious. I started poking my nose around sites like and I still wasn’t committed enough to pay for their sites, but I started making family trees using the information my living relatives could tell me.

Eventually I hit a wall with the information I knew, and I put the project on hold. Maybe I’d do the free 14-day trial and see where it got me, but not until I knew I had 14 days I could actually commit to the research.

But the other day, something triggered the desire to start digging again. I ended up finding the Cook County Clerk’s office, where (for the price of $15 a piece) you can access your family’s birth, marriage, and death records.

Sure enough, there was my grandmother’s birth certificate, and my curiosity got the best of me. I paid the (ridiculous) fee, and accessed the certificate. Sure enough, right there in front of me, was my answer.

My grandma’s father was born in Poland. I am at least 1/8 Polish.

Now that I’ve realized how much more interesting and exciting genealogy research can be when you have access to the right documents, I think it’s time to finally sign up for that account.

It will be the perfect winter project for me, and I can finally cross this one off my list!



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