By Pam Pacelli Cooper
President, Verissima Productions
The ornate silver cup had been given to my husband at his birth, inscribed with his name and birthdate. When our child was born, the same cup was inscribed again with the name and birthdate of our son. We had always been puzzled by the original inscription on the cup: etched in old-fashioned script, it appeared to say “ELKOI” and the birthdate May 5, 1901. We asked my mother-in-law who that was, and she couldn’t say. “It’s just an old family heirloom. I thought it would make nice birth cup for my son.”
The name “ELKOI” haunted me for years. I would open the china cabinet and look at it, and wonder at the strange name and think about who that person might have been, where they lived, what his or her life was like, and how he/she was related to our family. I had forgotten about the cup as I began to explore my husband’s family history of Jewish immigrants from Latvia and Germany, who came to American via Baltimore and New Orleans, and settled in the Deep South. From the raw dates and pages his great great uncles and aunts gradually began to emerge as personalities like a photo in an old darkroom.
I went to historical societies, talked to people online, and incorporated facts from the stories my mother and law had left with us to uncover a family of entrepreneurs and lawyers, farmers and Confederate soldiers. One of them was the owner of a successful confection operation. Uncle Hiram (nee Hyman) had started his confectionery company in one city and then moved to another in the early 1900’s. I wondered why he had moved, as he was so successful in the first location. Had he married? Did he have children? What became of them?
I kept digging. With the help of Family Search and a local historian, I discovered that Hiram had married later in life and had married a much younger woman. They had a baby, in May of 1901 and named her Elka.
So, that was the name on the silver cup! What I had always read as ELKOI, was actually “ELKA 01.”
Now I needed to know what happened to Elka, and Hiram, and Hiram’s wife. My further research revealed that Hiram’s wife had died unexpectedly when Elka was only 9 months old. Hiram left her in care of her aunt, closed his store in that city and moved his operation to another city.
I’m now looking to fill in other details of Elka’s story: how long she lived, if she had a relationship with her father, what her life was like, and what Hiram’s life was like after he uprooted his comfortable life and moved to another city.
Two months ago, I wrote about the plastic bins I carried back from Chicago to Boston containing all sorts of items and papers that have both answered, and raised, questions about my family. This month, we see how something as small as a name engraved on an old, dented silver cup, can lead to a richer understanding of a whole other chapter of our shared family history.
In this Thanksgiving season, I am especially grateful to be a personal historian. I continue to hone the skills of inquiry, research, recording interviews and writing which combine to help me put together the scattered pieces of the jigsaw puzzle into a coherent, informative and enlightening, picture.
Our clients, and in this case, my husband, are now able to feel more complete knowing where they came from — and who they came from.
As the holidays approach, think what “silver cups” might be in your cabinet. Are there artifacts that have always intrigued you? Fragments of stories you would like to flesh out? Please share any stories you have in a comment here, and help inspire others to “preserve their lives.”