Margaret DeAcetis set two framed portraits on her dining table for her guests to see. In one, her late mother, Ottilie Mages, is holding an infant Margaret in a park in the 1940s.
The other is of her grandmother, Ottilie Thiel Mages, as a girl in Ziegenhals, Germany, which now is a part of Poland. She first came to the United States in 1902, then returned to Germany. She permanently settled in the Bronx in 1926.
Those pictures represent a link to DeAcetis' past, a connection that unfolds in a range of documents — census records, Ellis Island ship manifests, the Mormon church's Family History Library. They've all led DeAcetis on an enlightening journey of family discovery over four years. Her parents' marriage license gave her an address that helped find her mother's information on the 1940 Census.
"I think it's important to know something about what your family background was like, what their lives were like," said DeAcetis, 69, of Port Washington. "It makes you appreciate the sacrifices that they made for you. And sometimes, life was just very, very hard."
She's learned that many of her German immigrant relatives worked in domestic service. Some as cooks, like her mother, who died when DeAcetis was not quite 10.
DeAcetis could find no trace of her mother in the 1930 Census, but from the 1940 data, DeAcetis pulled up an image on her computer screen. There, on East 91st Street in Manhattan, in a household headed by T.T. Watts Jr., a stockbroker with a wife, a daughter and two employees, DeAcetis' mother is listed as one of the workers.
"I was delighted to find her," she said.
"It [the census information] tells you she's female, white, 29, and married," DeAcetis said. "They ask about level of education, and she indicated, or her employer said, she's had eight years of education. Her birthplace is Germany."
DeAcetis learned her mother worked 80 hours in a week preceding the census tally on April 17, 1940, and earned $840 the prior year.
For DeAcetis, these little factoids about her mother are exciting finds. "She died when I was young, so we never had those conversations .?.?. So, in a way, this is what I'm learning about her."
And her reward? "What I used to say was what I missed in my family was the lack of stories," she said. "So now I'm finding the stories." And she's sharing them with her children and grandchildren.