Who Do You Think You Are aired its penultimate episode: Jason Sudeikis researched his paternal line trying to determine why his forefathers abandoned their families.
Before I begin writing, I have a confession to make: this episode left me rather cold. Now much of the season has been lackluster, but unlike the lesser episodes which I railed against, there was nothing particularly egregious about this episode. No attempts to retell history by reframing an unflattering ancestor as a hero, no dubious DNA test results, no use of bigotry as the answer for every question. There was nothing wrong with this episode per se, it was more about gestalt.
It is something of an open secret that Who Do You Think You Are researches more celebrities than are actually filmed. Celebrities whose stories are not interesting are handed their research before the cameras roll and are wished good luck. There are some very infamous stories from Britain about potential guests were who considered and then rejected because the show could not make it interesting. It’s sad but understandable; to keep a show going it must be interesting to viewers. It also must be fresh, something that makes the story totally new or at least an old theme retold in a different way.
The vanished parent is a very familiar trope in Who Do You Think You Are, which is very sad from a societal point of view. It is also most likely where the most pressing genealogical questions are asked. Nevertheless, this theme also starts to get perhaps too familiar over time. Kim Cattrall chased down her grandfather, Susan Sarandon her grandmother. Jerome Bettis his grandfather’s father. There are others. (Over in the UK, Alan Cummings also chased down a grandparent who left his family which led him to Southeast Asia.) Both Cattrall and Sarandon discovered that their absent grandparents were also bigamists. Both absenteeism and bigamy are also part of Jason Sudeikis’s family story. To Jason Sudeikis this is (naturally) shocking, but this is now something I have now seen several times over so the drama has faded somewhat. (And with the decreased time to tell a story, the overabundance of commercials, and the Ancestry and Apple plugs, Who Do You Think You Are is a bit like The Simpsons of the past decade or so–retreating into the familiar while losing its freshness.)
This show could have used some better editing. When I watch each episode, I write down names and dates to keep things straight, but this episode got the better of me. I wasn’t sure who was alive when and who immigrated when. This is an editing room problem rather than a research problem (I hope), but it makes the research look slapdash. I went on Ancestry to try to clear my confusion. It did not help. It also didn’t help that there were so many Lithuania names, which are very difficult to transcribe to my ears.* Clearly I wasn’t the only one. Sudeikis’s ancestor named his mother “Mary Gash” on a marriage certificate when her real name was Marianne (Lithuanian name that I couldn’t catch).
Sudeikis’s traces his father’s line, which I suppose is appropriate given that his mother’s family is probably familiar territory to him. Sudeikis’s maternal uncle is George Wendt (Norm Peterson of Cheers). According to Wikipedia, his maternal great-grandfather was Tom Howard, a famous photographer. But Sudeikis knew nothing about his paternal grandfather Stanley Sudekis because Stanley died when Dan Sudeikis (Jason’s father) was very young. Dan Sudeikis had no memory of his father whatsoever and was raised by his mother Edna. All Edna ever said about Stanley was that he was six feet, two-and-a-half inches tall, weighed 195 pounds, and died after falling on a sidewalk outside of a Chicago church. So Sudeikis began his search in Chicago.
In Chicago, Sudeikis got Stanley’s death certificate, but the informant was not Edna. It was an Anna Pukel who lived at the same address as Stanley. Stanley did indeed die outside a church by slipping on a sidewalk and fracturing his skull. There was a coroner’s inquest, and it turned out that Anna Pukel was Stanley’s cousin. Stanley did not actually live with her; it appears that he was a homeless drunk who abandoned his family (which Sudeikis also learned from decree for separate maintenances–which is not a divorce–that his grandmother filed against Stanley), refused to work, and slept on park benches. Sudeikis’s grandmother refused to appear at the inquest, saying that she hadn’t seen him in three years. Stanley’s uncle also wanted nothing to do with him. Alcohol was also probably involved in Stanley’s fatal fall (figuratively and literally). And it also appeared that Stanley never ever met his son Dan. All in all, not the kind of discovery that one would generally want to find.
Sudeikis wanted to learn how to feel sorry for Stanley, which he eventually did. Now it’s important to recognize that Sudeikis was showing empathy rather than the hero worshiping of false idols that went on earlier in the season (most notably by Martin Sheen, Blair Underwood, and Jerome Bettis). The reason he was able to feel empathy is because he learned that Stanley’s father (also Stanley) abandoned his wife Michaelina “Emma” (Bielskis) Sudeikis and young son in Chicago to start a whole other family in Bridgeport, Connecticut.** Whereas Stanley Sr.’s bigamous second family thrived, his first family suffered. (I would note that the genealogist who brought the bigamy to Sudeikis’s attention looked positively shocked at the discovery. I wonder if this was legitimate or just acting.) Stanley Sr. in turn also his father Joseph at an early age. Joseph Sudeikis, a Lithuanian immigrant, was a miner in Mahanoy, Pennsylvania at a time when mining was even more dangerous than it is now. He probably lived in a company town in which he had virtually no job security and his labor was exploited by his robber baron overlord. And he tolerated it all so that he could provide a better life for his family. Joseph died in a mining explosion on November 9, 1901, leaving a wife and many children including young Stanley Sr. In Sudeikis’s mind, this is where the absentee father began, a cycle that his own father broke.
Sudeikis went home to tell his father all that he learned. The family discussion did not appear too painful, although it is not one that I would have wanted to have to give. The Sudeikis family took it very well.
* One thing that was not discussed was what exactly Lithuania is. I mean, yes it’s a country, but at the time when Jason Sudeikis’s ancestors came to the United States, what we know of today as Lithuania was actually a part of Russia. Yet, as you can tell from the names, language, and the self-identification, the Lithuanian people saw themselves as a discrete and separate nation. I know this is a story about immigration and vanished fathers, but a little Lithuanian heritage lesson might have been nice.
** This is where the show leaves me so frustrated. In 1920, Stanley Sudeikis Sr. is married to Amelia “Mill”(Trakitis) and has a daughter named Lillian who was a newborn. In 1930, he has a 9-year-old daughter Julia. While Jason Sudeikis noticed Julia, he seemed completely oblivious to the fact that there was another daughter who evidently died very young.