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The ornate silver cup had been handed down to my husband at his birth, inscribed with his name and birthdate. When our son was born, we added his name and date of birth. But the baby cup had a previous owner. The original inscription had always puzzled us: etched in ornate cursive, 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. Don’t know where we got it. I thought would have been a shame not to use such a beautiful piece.”

The name “ELKOI” haunted me for years. I would open the china cabinet, look at it, and wonder who that person might have been, where he or she lived, what his or her life was like, and how the person was related to our family.

The Search Begins

I had forgotten about the cup when I began to explore my husband’s family history of Jewish immigrants who came from Latvia and Germany to American via Baltimore and New Orleans and settled in the Deep South. I went to historical societies, talked to people online, and incorporated facts from the stories my mother-in-law had left with us. His great great uncles and aunts began to emerge from the pages of raw data as personalities, like the gradual coming into focus of a Polaroid picture.

This was 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 1900s. I wondered why he had moved, since he had been so successful in the first location. Had he married? Did he have children? What became of them?

I Meet “Elkoi”

I kept digging. With the help of Family Search and a local historian, I discovered that Hiram had married a much younger woman later in life. They had a baby, in May of 1901 and named her Elka.

Elka! So, that was the name on the silver cup! What I had always read as ELKOI, was actually “ELKA 01.”

What had happened to Elka, and Hiram, and Hiram’s wife? Further research revealed that Hiram’s wife had died unexpectedly when Elka was only nine 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 researching additional details of Elka’s story: how long she lived, if she had a relationship with her father and what kind, what her life was like, and what Hiram’s life was like after he uprooted his comfortable life and moved to another city.

Putting the Pieces Together

I am grateful to be a personal historian because my research, interviewing, and writing skills give me the capacity to pull together the scattered pieces a personal history 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.

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.”

Note: A version of this post originally appeared in Verissima Productions Life Preservers Blog.

Pam Pacelli

Pam Pacelli

Pam Pacelli and her husband Rob Cooper own Verissima Productions. For the past decade, in print and video, they have been documenting significant historical events, promoting the goals of organizations and companies, and preserving the stories of individuals, beloved places, families, and family businesses—creating a correspondence with the future.
Pam Pacelli
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