My great-great-grandfather Frank was a dapper little man who was thrifty, hard-working and good at suing people, and the more I learn about him the more colorful he becomes. Reconstituting the facts of someone’s life — the dates, names, and places — is one thing, but rediscovering and reconstituting the stories that fill out that life is quite another. It’s one thing to know that my great-great-grandfather was a tailor, but it’s quite another to know that he lived just around the corner from his shop and that he was the boss, employing six men in making clothing for the larger retail trade. And it’s quite another thing from there to know that in 1897 — before he changed his last name from Fenig to Fenning — Frank lost the $60 with which he was going to pay his tailors, which caused a minor riot and the intervention of Newark’s boys in blue.
Of course I believe that Frank must have really lost that money, because I am very loyal. But I am glad that the tailors thought he was lying, that the Newark Evening News ran this story, and that the New York Herald picked it up because they thought it was funny.
I will never know Frank Fenning, but these small pieces of his life make him just a bit more real as a person who lived in a complex world. Every story that I hear or gather about him (about anyone) is a gift, giving me back something that our family once must have known but have now forgotten.
My cousins often wonder how it is that I know so many of the stories that my grandfather tells, how I know so many stories that no one tells anymore. The answer really isn’t very difficult at all: these stories are everywhere. Sometimes it takes a little bit of legwork to find them (or a lot), but sometimes all you have to do is listen.