Considering one’s ancestry is like peering up at a contrail, the trail of condensation behind a plane way up in the sky. As you follow it back in time, the dense white line turns into blobs, then puffs, then nothing. What came before?
I’m halfway or so through my adulthood — at least I hope I’m only half way — as I begin reflecting upon my life, beginning with what I know of my ancestors, the vast majority of whom I know not even a name but to all of whom I owe, well, my existence for starters. A good number of my known ancestors spent much or all of their lives in East St. Louis, Illinois. As such, that once booming (and now busted) industrial town on the Mississippi River is like my ancestral homeland, though I never lived there myself.
I was born three months after Bill and Lorraine Durbin moved their family off the floodplains in 1962, past Cahokia Mounds where pre-Columbian Native America once thrived (and where the population in the year 1200, by the way, exceeded that of London) and up the Illinois bluffs to an unincorporated suburb known as Fairview.
But my parents, grandparents and some of my great grandparents all met each other and raised families in the town known by some simply as East Side, across the big muddy river from its better faring namesake of St. Louis, Missouri.
My East Side ancestors all arrived there within a few years of one another starting around 1901. These working class folks didn’t know one another as they arrived on the Illinois side of the Eads Bridge. But this is where Polish immigrants Adam Malec and Julia Walczak would meet and marry—their daughter Bernice was my Grandma Kalish. Slovaks Louis Kalish and Anna Krokvica would meet up here after emigrating from Austria-Hungary—their son Jimmy was my Grandpa Kalish. And long before becoming my Grandma and Grandpa Durbin, East St. Louis is where Anna Kutkin met William Durbin, she from Lithuania and he from a failed farm in downstate Dahlgren, Illinois.
Unlike my other grandparents, William Durbin was already an eighth generation immigrant to the United States. His line started in the colony of Maryland and would meander to Kentucky and Kansas before settling in Illinois. The family tree on this page (click to enlarge it) shows the extent of my tree, which is really not so extensive at all when you consider all our ancestors not on there, having long ago dissolved into the blue sky of history.
None of my East St. Louis ancestors were educated beyond a few years of grade school when they arrived, none had any money, and, except for Grandpa Durbin, none spoke a word of English. But they all had strong backs and a will to survive. And in those days in East St. Louis that’s all you needed. Well, it helped too if your ancestors came from Europe and not Africa.
The words that follow would hardly count as an abstract to the dissertation of knowledge my dad and his brother Bob gathered. They were the true authorities on genealogy. But I’ve done my best to tell a reasonably authentic story of what is known of whence I came, applying only a bit of literary photoshopping along the way. The basic facts remain as I understand them.
These puffs at the end of my family’s ancestral contrail will one day disappear. But something tells me to make them stay up there just a bit longer. So here goes.