Remembering “Pap-Pap”: An Exercise in Writing Ancestor Character Sketches

I was only 9-years-old when my maternal grandfather, John Figlar, passed away. Although I used to spend a great deal of time with my grandparents as a child, I had very little direct interaction with my grandfather. (All of his grandchildren, including me, called him “Pap-Pap.”). I remember “Pap-Pap” only as a short, stocky, old man, who was bald except for the thinning gray hair at the sides and walked with a cane. He used to sit at the kitchen table and roll his own cigarettes, carefully filling each paper with tobacco from the turquoise Bugler can, and play solitaire or “Beat the Devil,” as he liked to call it, for hours at a time. He would call out to Grandma in Slovak and she would respond with a plate of food or a shot glass of Kassers 51 whiskey (he always bought Kasser’s because it was available by the quart, while many of the other brands were sold by the pint) that she would place next to his ashtray.

Today is the anniversary of my grandfather’s death, and I thought I would take a few minutes to reflect on his life and death.

It wasn’t until I began doing genealogy in 1991 that I found out the details of my grandfather’s life—that his birth name was Janos Figlyar and that he was born in a tiny village in Slovakia called Osturna. He was the youngest of eleven children and lost his father when he was just a very young boy. I also learned how during WWI, János spent time in a Russian prison where his ability to repair carriages and make wheels saved his life and enabled him to escape. He arrived in America in 1921 at Ellis Island, and worked in the coal mines near Barton, Ohio. He was matched in marriage to Verona Straka by her brother-in-law who worked in the same mine. They married in 1924, and went on to have seven children. My mother, Anna was the oldest.

Much of what I learned about my grandfather came from my mother. She often referred to him as a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” because when he was sober he was a great father who liked to joke and play cards or build puzzles with his children. On the flip side, he had a naturally foul temper, which when coupled with a fondness for alcohol, often resulted in frequent violent outbursts. My mother often experienced the brunt of my grandfather’s wrath, and the memories of these episodes remained with her throughout her life. Although terrified of her father, she loved him deeply, took care of him when he became ill, and was deeply saddened by his death. In my book, Three Slovak Women, I write about their complex relationship.

Although I was just a young girl when my grandfather died, I can still vividly recall his funeral, which was held in the Russian Orthodox Church. Adhering to ritual, the casket is reopened during the funeral mass and family and friends say their final good-byes in a procession in front of the casket. The image of my mother throwing her arms around my grandfather as he lay in the casket, and weeping loudly, will never leave my memory.

When we investigate our family history we must be prepared to discover both the good and bad traits and actions of our ancestors. Sometimes all we get are tiny glimpses into their lives. Nevertheless, we can’t view them through “rose colored glasses.” Researching and writing about my grandfather has provided me with an objective perspective about him that his children (especially my mother) were sometimes not able to see.

So, “Pap-Pap,” I pause to remember you today—may you rest in peace.


As family historians, it is important to not just research the facts but to tell our ancestors’ stories. What I’ve written above is a mini character sketch about my maternal grandfather. When I teach courses on “Writing Your Family History” I often give this exercise to my students, so I will share it here with you.

Pick the most interesting character in your family and try to write a few sentences or even a paragraph or two about this person. Add a photograph if one is available. Once you’ve written about one ancestor, move on to another and then another, and so on. Soon, you will have a collection of profiles to compile into a larger family history! Happy writing!