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What are the odds?

Last Thursday, I stopped at a local microbrewery to try their new chocolate stout. There were eight random seats throughout the place but every one had someone sitting next to them. I picked one at random and sat down.

The guy sitting next to me was talking through my head to three men on the other side of me, and they were discussing politics and economics. I had no interest in discussing these subjects with strangers drinking beer with high alcohol content, so I stared at “Wheel of Fortune” with no sound on the TV across the way so I would not feel compelled to get involved in their discussion. “There is one H, $750.”

After 45 minutes, the other three guys left on good terms, and the guy next to me says, “You didn’t want any part of that conversation, did you?” I answered, “Still don’t.”

So now I start talking to this guy, who lives in Park Ridge, and owns a bar in West Town. What’s he doing in Mundelein? I don’t know my Chicago neighborhood names because I am suburban born and raised. I ask him where the tavern is exactly, and he rounds it off to the nearest cross streets. “Ashland and Chicago Avenue,” he says.

I have family who lived near there but later moved. So I inquire further.

“What’s the name of the bar?”

“Chipp Inn,” he said.

“832 N. Greenview,” I said.

“How do you know that?”

“JoAnn.”

“How do you know her?”

“My cousin!”

Now I finally realize that my late cousin JoAnn sold the bar to this stranger sitting next to me. What he was doing in Mundelein of all places, I’ll never know. So I buy him a beer, and one for myself. He starts telling me stories about my cousin that brought back the memory of her like she was sitting there with us. He buys me a beer, and one for himself. More stories. I dig through my cloud account on my phone and struggle for a half hour to find a photo I took when I was at the Chipp Inn 15 years ago. I finally find it, a picture of the stranger with other members of our family. I posted on our private family group on Facebook the photo of him 15 years ago, and a selfie taken that day. Freaked everybody out. “How did you run into him? Mundelein?”

Another stranger is watching all this and buys us both a beer, and one for himself. He starts telling stories about running into unexpected people. “If I’d have turned left that day instead of right, I wouldn’t have found my half-brother. Hadn’t seen him in 20 years.”

I forget whose turn it was but someone bought three more beers, including one for himself.

The brewery closed at 9 p.m. and we finally left at 10:30!

So what does all this have to do with genealogy?

First, it’s a reminder that genealogy is not just names and dates. It’s about stories. It’s about memories. When someone is gone, the memories are clouded with the passage of time. It’s easy to ask family about someone who is gone, but they only have their time frame to refer to. My late cousin has 9 surviving siblings, but none of them lived with her when she owned the tavern. I finally made contact (by accident) with someone who probably knew her best during some difficult years in her life. She lost her son, then her husband. She inherited this tavern, which was a lot for her to maintain. Her health was not good but she had to stay up late taking care of her patrons and get up early to do the books and order supplies and clean the place. I left that night with another puzzle piece of someone who was very dear to me.

Second, it reminded me that I need to tag my photos, so I could quickly find people rather than struggling with my phone. My battery was down to about 5 percent and I wasn’t sure I’d find the photo in time. I especially need to tag any photo that has someone whose name I do not know. Bring those photos to other people and ask them, before it’s too late. My parents, in their late 80s, have helped me identify a lot of people in our old photos, and I really would like to send copies to these people or their descendants, if I could track them down. Maybe they don’t have any photos from the 1930s and 1940s.

Finally, I know that not everyone wants to talk with strangers, and most of the time I try not to. If I’m in a situation where a conversation has started, I ask a lot of questions. The other person might be flattered that I want to know about them, or they might not be happy that I’m digging too deep. You can usually tell by their response. But if I talk, I try to find out things that just might make a connection that will help the genealogy project. There’s no right or wrong answer whether you should or shouldn’t talk to someone. I once spent two hours on a flight sitting next to a first cousin I hadn’t seen in 20 years. We both got off the plane and ran into my cousin/his sister and when we realized that we lost the chance to catch up for two hours, we were flabbergasted! What are the odds?

If you have any stories like this, e-mail me at italianroots@comcast.net and please put Fra Noi in the subject line.

About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.

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