Are Mental Health Issues Inherited?

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

Hmm. Just mulling this topic.

I have at least one specific line where I’ve been able to document mental illness in my family tree. I don’t know if it is genetic or just coincidence. I also don’t know if this can be attributed to the females or if it might be explained simply as postpartum depression or general depression. I’m keeping an open mind. But there have been too many (co)incidences for me to ignore the implications.

My 3rd great grandmother, Julia Chamberlain Maxwell, lived in the wrong time and place, and I’ve sent her my love from earth many times since I’ve come to learn more about her. One day, I’m going to wrap my arms around her and tell her I wish her final days had been filled with happiness rather than despair. You might be wondering how on earth I know of her condition? Luck. Pure luck.

When I first started researching my Maxwell line, I started with the logical steps: ordering vital records. I was able to get William’s, but Julia’s was not available for Polk or St. Croix counties in Wisconsin. I was a novice at genealogy then, but I knew enough to follow my intuition and dig. The last known census record for her was in 1870, and according to that census, she was still living at home with her husband and all but two of her children. I also found a Julia Maxwell of the same age and birth place in 1870 living in Madison (Dane County). Was it the same person? And why would this happen?

After poking and digging, I found a death record in 1876 for a Julia A. Maxwell in Dane County whose birth date and place fit my Julia. If she was, in fact, MY Julia, why was she in Madison when her family was 250 miles to the northwest? I decided to order it, thinking that the $15 was going to tell me if I had the right person and that it was the easiest way to rule her in or out. Surprisingly, it revealed that I had the right person. Like her husband, there were no parents identified. As I started to read it, I nearly fell out of my chair. The death record indicated she had died of mental exhaustion at the Mendota State Hospital for the Insane. To say I was flabbergasted and intrigued would be a gross understatement. Where to go from here? I later surmised that it’s possible William thought she would return home at some point by listing her in the household in 1870.

About this time in my research, I ponied up for a subscription to the Wisconsin Historical Society. Through some more digging, I discovered that the hospital was now incorporated into the University of Wisconsin health system in Madison, and that the historical society held whatever old records that were left. I wrote a note to them explaining what I was seeking and waited for a response. I wasn’t expecting much, but the outcome was far better than I imagined. I received a response the next day and the clerk told me that Julia Maxwell was one of the earliest patients at the hospital AND that her admission record was one of the very few that had survived. I purchased the record and waited anxiously for it. It was far more emotional than I had anticipated, and it made me feel a level of compassion for her that took me by surprise.

The admission record was handwritten by her husband, my 3rd great grandfather. His explanation of why he was having his wife committed to a mental institution was filled with anguish, and I could feel his pain. The admission record was basically a questionnaire. He answered the questions honestly. It wasn’t easy to read.

Note for those of us living in the 21st century: this account–without her input–would not be a remotely legal consideration for even a 5150 hold. It only took 3 pages to have her sent to a hospital where he *had* to know he would never see her again. I don’t know that he didn’t visit, but 250 miles on horseback for this purpose seems unlikely. Not impossible, but unlikely. I think it’s true because had he visited her, he would have been able to supply the names of her parents, her date of birth and made arrangements for her body to return home for burial close to her family. That makes me profoundly sad for her. She was buried in an unmarked grave on the hospital grounds.

I won’t share the copy of that admission record, but I will share with you some of the things I learned from it:

  1. The completed questionnaire was signed by William W. Maxwell on 10 July 1869. Side note: this is 6 days after their two oldest daughters were married to the youngest Hale brothers in a double wedding. I sure as heck hope she was able to witness the event. Yet it makes me wonder if she made a scene? Could she have behaved in a manner that was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back???
  2. Underneath William’s signature, he wrote “She is my wife”. I don’t know why that makes me so sad.
  3. The doctor’s certification of her mental condition listed his reason for wanting her to be sent to the asylum: religious excitement. It was certified by two doctors with a cancelled 5 cent stamp (of George Washington), and she was approved for admission on the 24th of July.
  4. The questionnaire was interesting, and if you took it at face value, you would think Julia was delusional and maybe insane by today’s standards. At the very least, if you saw her at the grocery store today, you’d avoid her at all costs. Apparently, in 1858, she saw the words “Great Amen” in “large bolden letters in the bushes”. She read the bible constantly, and when she read, she became agitated. She considered herself “the elect of God” and “the bride of the Lamb”. She read the bible so often it made her insane. [I know it’s probably not okay, but my dad and I laughed out loud at that statement.] William stated there was hardly any time she was rational.
  5. She had one instance where she tried to drown herself. She tried to injure her family members when “in a passion”. After the drowning attempt, they had to chain her to the bed to keep her from running away and probably to prevent her from hurting herself further.
  6. Religious fervor aside, I decided to look deeper into the timeline to see if I could dissect her underlying issue with the benefit of a degree in biology, my experience as a mother with a medically challenged child, and by being a post menopausal woman. THAT was more enlightening.
  7. William stated early on that her symptoms had really started the year before with “the turn of life”. He listed that she was a farmer’s wife and that she was the mother of 8 children, with the youngest being 6 years old. He also provided an almost overlooked detail that her mother experienced similar symptoms at the same age (48).

So… I decided to create her timeline.

She married William some time between 1840 and 1844. I can only account for 7 living children, so I’m guessing there was a stillbirth or an infant/toddler who died young. Their children, known and unknown:

  • Lavinia – born 1845 in New York
  • Unknown child – probably circa 1847
  • Mary – born 1850 in Wisconsin
  • Edward – born 1852 in Wisconsin
  • William – born 1855 in Wisconsin
  • Rosetta – born 1858 in Wisconsin
  • Minnie – born 1860 in Wisconsin
  • Ella – born 1863 in Wisconsin

By 1868, according to William’s responses, she was experiencing some sort of mental break.

Using my own experience after giving birth, it really didn’t take much to see that Julia may have had some difficulty with postpartum hormones. She might have just started to return to normal when she got pregnant again. It made me wonder what could happen under those circumstances, so I played medical sleuth from the comfort of my recliner. Google and I are really close friends, so I called on her. She didn’t disappoint.

In rare circumstances, untreated postpartum depression can become postpartum psychosis. I Googled it, and boy, the symptoms William described sounded a whole lot like that diagnosis. I decided to take it a step further, so I took her admission document to my next gynecology appointment. I shoved it in front of my doctor and asked for her medical opinion. She took less than two minutes to say, “I’d have to say she had postpartum psychosis”. I am not a doctor in real life, nor do I play one on TV. But I got this right.

I did ask what the treatment would be today and my doctor told me there were medications available. My poor 3rd great grandmother would have greatly benefited by being born in our time.

The story doesn’t end there.

I found two more instances in this family line that I can document, but I doubt there were just two. Unfortunately, I don’t have admission records for the other two women. Who’s to say what the underlying issues are, but I would be remiss if I didn’t consider the whole picture. Especially since I suffered from postpartum depression after both my girls were born.

My 2nd great grandmother, Lavinia Maxwell Hale, also suffered from some type of mental illness. She died in 1905 in an asylum in Monroe, Wisconsin. Monroe is almost 300 miles southeast of her home in Osceola. It took some digging for me to accept this. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to accept it, but like her mother, she is listed in two places in the 1900 census, which threw me off. Again. Ugh.

During my ancestral research journey, I developed a friendship with a woman who is from Minnesota but lives in Alaska and is researching these Maxwell people too. It turns out that she’s become a valuable research partner. She and I approach situations logically but differently. I have come to truly appreciate her insights. I’ll tell you our story some other day, because there is some divine intervention at work between us.

Anyway, one day she posed the question whether or not there was a genetic link for mental illness between Julia and Lavinia. I was a little incredulous and asked her what she was talking about? She said there was a Lavina Hale born in 1845 in NY in the 1900 census in Green County, Wisconsin. Since I found MY Lavinia enumerated in the household with her husband in Osceola in 1900, I told her there had to be another Lavina/Lavinia Hale out there. She wasn’t so sure, but we had no way to find out from our respective homes in Colorado and Alaska. Until I went to Wisconsin last October…

I was reviewing microfilm of the Polk County Press and decided to see if there was an obituary for Lavinia. Much to my surprise, there was. Bonus? It was informative and filled in some missing blanks. It was obviously written by her husband, because they were the words of a man who loved her and presented her in the most flattering light possible.

I discovered that she was born in Brockport, New York. I also discovered that she died in Monroe, Green County. Insert my frowny face emoticon. Duped by another wishful census record. Her obituary stated, “Mrs. Hale united with the Baptist church of Osceola, May 5th, 1877, of which she has been a member for 28 years, adorning her profession by a godly walk and conversation. She was baptized by Rev. Samuel T. Catlin, through whose benign influence and counsel she sought and found her savior, and altho clouds obscured her intellectual vision here for a few years.”

Unlike her mother, Lavinia did not have a death certificate. Unlike her mother, Lavinia’s husband brought her body back for burial in the family cemetery. She is buried in a family grave with her father and husband. Her tombstone is not a cenotaph.

Lavinia’s younger brother, Edward, was a veterinarian who married and had 10 children. One of Edward’s daughters, Mary Lucy Maxwell, died in a mental hospital in Fort Steilacoom, Washington. And like her grandmother, she is buried on the hospital grounds. Fort Steilacoom is a former military site; their medical records are closed and subject to current HIPAA laws. I have no way of finding out more about her condition.

I’m sure there are more people in my tree who have experienced some sort of mental illness. Whether they are merely part of our human condition or something that is genetic is beyond me. What I do pray for is that any human being–past or present–experiences compassion and kindness along the way.

Peace be with them and you.

Trouble with the Maxwells

My human Jenga puzzle

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

Picture any branch in your family resembling Jenga, and you had better make sure you don’t have to pull out any blocks. In my world, assembling the puzzle properly and never pulling a block out would be the ideal scenario. Due diligence is the key, and hindsight sucks.

Before I begin, I’ll just say that my mood has been gloomy since Friday night. It matches the weather today. I had to remove one of the key blocks to rework the master plan, and the outlook isn’t good right now. That pile of blocks is coming down, and it’s ugly and a huge disappointment. I’m emotionally invested in this commitment, and failure is not an option.

Item 4 on my gratitude list last week is 99% scrapped for now. It’s not for lack of trying. For the past 2 1/2 years, I’ve been hunting down people on the Maxwell branch of my tree so that I can have a Revolutionary War ancestor who fought in the Battle of Lexington, Bunker Hill and was a member of John Hancock’s tea party. So what’s the problem?

I introduced you to William Maxwell, my 3rd great grandfather, in my post titled Deja Vu. I have no direct evidence linking him to his father. I am good from Thompson Maxwell down to William’s father, and also solid from me up to William, but the link between father and son just doesn’t exist. At least right now. At least online. At least in the records I’ve reviewed personally. Might there be a smoking gun out there? Yes. But just not right now. The indirect evidence I have has not been solid enough to have a conclusive analysis pass muster. So what am I going to do about it? (Other than cry while watching my Jenga blocks tumble to the ground?)

I’ve spent the past 4 days considering this exact question. I’m not shelving it forever, because there is just too much here to make me leave it for good. However, I’m going to take a break from researching this family. I need more mental bandwidth.

For one thing, I’m moving my office home as my lease expires at the end of December. Moving is a lot of work – both mental and physical. Most of it up until now has been mental, because I’ve had a couple plans that have had to be abandoned for a variety of reasons. I have a new plan now, and this requires some physical effort to prepare. It also requires Kevin’s electrician skills and his truck. It’s exhausting, and the holidays are on the horizon. I haven’t started shopping. Hell, I haven’t even considered making a gift list. I’m not even finished my grocery list! I’m opting for the path of least resistance so that I have enough brain power to do the things that must be done between now and New Year’s Day. My problem with William Maxwell is just going to have to wait.

Ultimately, my plan with William is going to remain what it’s been: link him to his brother, James. James has all the direct and indirect evidence. I have plenty of incidental (maybe coincidental) things that connect William to James, but no smoking gun there either. I have a several options when I pick this up in 2020 or later:

  1. Take my search back to Brockport, New York. This is where my 2nd great grandmother, Lavinia Maxwell Hale, was born. Maybe there are some obscure records documenting her birth or the marriage of her parents. Previously, I had worked with the folks in Niagara County. Why? Because her father was living there in the 1840 census in his father’s household, identified as a male between the ages of 20-29. When I finally got my hands on Lavinia’s obituary in 1905, it said she was born in Brockport. Brockport is in Monroe County, which is the next county east of Niagara. Whether that turns out to be a physical trip or I pay a local person to search for me remains to be seen.
  2. Take my search to the Polk County Press archives in Wisconsin. I will be in Minnesota next summer and plan to drive. I can make a detour to River Falls on my way back to Colorado to pore through microfilm and see if there are any articles that help the cause. You know: the 1860s version of Facebook. See if I can find a dumb article that mentions one of them going to their brother’s house for dinner. They lived in land plats almost adjacent to each other, so this isn’t out of the question. When I last looked at the newspaper microfilm (October 2018), I was searching for obituaries and the like and not dumb social stuff.
  3. I realized as I looked through my DNA links to the Maxwells that ALL of them are through William’s line. None of them are the descendants of James. Or even further back. However, there is a Maxwell DNA Project on FTDNA, and 2 of James’ descendants have uploaded their data. On Saturday night, I wrote to my mother’s full 3rd cousin to see if he would be willing to take a Y-DNA test for the Maxwell project. He’s 82 years old and this would be a help. I offered to pay for the test. If the results are solid and conclusive, the probability is high that I can use the DNA link for my analysis in a few years. I haven’t heard back from the gentleman yet, though.

One last plan is on the horizon for me. And that is to start learning how to map DNA. I’ve got a lot of work to do to get up to speed on the subject. With the help of some of my more knowledgeable genie friends, I’ll get this party started.

In the meantime, I’m going to allow myself to feel the heavy disappointment for a couple more days (if necessary) and move forward. I have a date with the shelving stacked in my garage, plenty of boxes to sort, furniture to donate, and a basement that needs reorganizing. Then I can finish working the 2nd half of my plan for my home office/guest room. Getting organized is going to help my mental processes as well. I just don’t operate well–if at all–when my mind is jumbled.

Happy trails to all of you, and I hope your fall season is pleasant and under way. Until next week…

Charles Dickens Lives On

A whole lotta nothing…

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” This is the opening line of one of my favorite tales from Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities.

I’m not going to get political, but I will say that the events across the globe for the past few weeks brings the opening of this book to mind. And what does this have to do with my typical musings on genealogy? Nothing. Mostly because as I look back on the month so far, I realize that my attention span has been limited, I feel pulled in a few different directions, and because of those things, I’ve not been able to string a coherent train of thought to save my life. I think I need to be honest about this.

This isn’t to say I haven’t been working on anything worth sharing. I have. I am fortunate to have family members who are the happy and willing collaborators and recipients of my continued poking around. They make it easy for me to keep on keeping on. Bless them.

In between my work frustrations (honestly, I think this is the theme song for September 2019), some good things have happened:

1) Valerie’s application to DAR was finalized and submitted. Major accomplishment. Why? One troublesome ancestor happened to die unexpectedly without a will in 1821. David Dimmitt screwed up my life for a really long time. I will share their story in the future, because my need to find a smoking gun led to the discovery that his father did business with George Washington. Exciting stuff!

2) I was able to make a third–yes, third–connection between my Mom’s people and Dad’s people (outside of their marriage, that is). If you don’t believe in past lives, it might be time. Why is this strange? Well, neither of my parents’ people lived remotely close to each other. Ever. One side would represent the Union in the War Between the States; and the other would be on the side that damned northern aggression.

3) I’ve met some really cool people through Find-a-grave. Most of the time, people blow my questions off or give me a weird story about why they can’t help me. But the past few weeks, I’ve met people who are genuinely willing to dig in and seek the truth. That’s refreshing.

4) With my fingers crossed, we just might be really close to getting my sister’s DAR application finished tomorrow. I’m hoping my Maxwell ancestors sprinkle some fairy dust on this application. After all, I’ve been researching them for almost 3 years now.

5) My neighbor is probably one of the biggest reasons I’m sane right now. Getting a text from her that bubbly is being served on her porch in 30 minutes has got to be the best way to end a work day. Hands down.

6) My parents have made a generous offer to pay for me and Valerie to join them in Plymouth next April. Next year marks the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower arriving in Plymouth, and we’re going to be celebrating the event. Mom and I are both members of the Mayflower Society, and I recently joined the Pilgrim John Howland Society. That was an unexpected surprise, and I’m grateful we will be able to do it.

If you’re realizing there is no story here now, you win the prize. I just realized this might be my gratitude journal instead. When I can’t tell a story, it’s best to be grateful for friends and family. May you find blessings with yours as well.

Deja Vu

déjà vu noun
dé·​jà vu | \ ˌdā-ˌzhä-ˈvü , -ˈvᵫ \
Definition of déjà vu
a: the illusion of remembering scenes and events when experienced for the first time
b: a feeling that one has seen or heard something before

Pleasant Prairie Cemetery, Osceola, Wisconsin

One thing I know for sure is that we all have a place we call home. Maybe it’s your childhood home. Maybe you were in the military or a military brat (or in my family’s case, the State Department) and didn’t find it until later in life. Maybe you were the daydreamer who imagined being somewhere else. Anywhere else. Maybe you’re still looking. Then again, maybe you always knew you were home.

I was that kid who would hear stories from friends who visited Disneyland in the 1960s with some envy. I was an avid lover of books as a teen, and one of my favorite outings with my mom and siblings was to the library. I had lots of favorites, but one of them was Green Grass of Wyoming by Mary O’Hara. I don’t even remember the story line, but I wanted to live in Cheyenne. It makes me laugh now. As an adult living in Colorado, I’ve been to Cheyenne many times and no longer feel the way I did at 12. Even though I had never lived outside of Virginia, I just knew I was destined to live in the west. I left Virginia in 1988 and have been out west ever since. I might have reconsidered this at some point, but I met Kevin–who was born and raised in Montana–and the rest is moot.

But there are a few places on this earth that have me question myself. I’ve examined my motives and have come up with one conclusion: it’s deja vu from either another life or through my ancestral DNA. In my younger years, I used to think this line of thought was senseless, silly, meaningless and maybe just stupid. Maybe it is. But then again, maybe there is more to the notion too. I’ve seen plenty of evidence in the past 20 years to make me feel that it’s not coincidence.

The earliest feeling I can remember of feeling connected to a place is when we visited my grandmother in Grand Marais, Minnesota. Mom’s hometown. I just loved going there and staring out at Lake Superior. My Creech and Carter family made their home there, so this makes sense. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized it was actually in my soul. It’s possible my grandmother put a hex on me so that I would never forget it? Just kidding. But when I go back there, I feel connected. Really connected.

For my sister, who has been in the Navy and lived many places, both stateside and abroad, it wasn’t until she landed in Indiana for a job interview with Ford back in the late 1990s. I remember her call after her interview, when she told me she just felt very strange and that she should accept the job because there was an instant feeling of being home. It really puzzled her why she felt that twinge. When we told her it was the home of our Dunn family, it clinched the deal. She’s lives about 20 minutes from Mount Comfort and has no plans to leave Indiana. It’s HER home.

Then it happened overseas.

Back in 2009, my parents, Victoria and I went to Ireland over Christmas break. I don’t know when I had my “a-ha” moment there, but it hit me somewhere on the way from Galway to Dublin. There was a sense deep down I had been there before and that it was once my home. It was a serene, peaceful feeling. Ireland was once home to my Dunn, Seed and Marshall peeps, though I didn’t know it at the time. I don’t know if my father has ever felt this way, but Mom felt the pull of “home” when we first visited Scotland in 1987. I need to go back to Scotland to figure out if it comes over me now that I’m aware. I’ll pay attention to the lands in Fife to see if my connections to the Creech people extends across the pond, as well as Lanarkshire for my Dunn side. There are other ancestral tethers there to my Agnew and Sinclair roots too.

I’ve encountered a twist on this theme by doing my family genealogy and visiting places. There is something extraordinary and eerie when you stand on ground your ancestors trod in the past. I have no idea if the Native Americans have a word for that, but I’d like to know.

Last summer, Valerie and I went to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to visit Victoria and Mike over the 4th of July. We flew to Albany and then drove over the mountain to her place. When we made this trip 3 1/2 years ago, I hadn’t begun my genealogy journey, but I do remember thinking as we drove through the Finger Lakes region to Albany and then Massachusetts that it was picturesque, beautiful and that I could live there. There was a pull without an explanation. But last year I knew why: my Maxwell, Whaley, Chamberlain and Benton ancestors knew that land like the back of their hands. They raised their families in Massachusetts and eventually wound up in New York (Albany, Canandaigua, Pendleton and Brockport) before heading west to Wisconsin sometime before 1850.

Until recently, I knew nothing of these people, but now feel very connected to them and the places they lived. It’s my insatiable curiosity about them that has me continuing to dig. My only regret is that I didn’t learn of this earlier when Vic went to school in upstate New York. Apparently, I don’t do things the easy or convenient way. Doing things the hard way is what I do best.

When Vic, Val and I went to Buckland, Massachusetts, we looked out over the vast expanse of rolling green hills and I was filled with awe. That view was one my ancestors probably loved too. It’s a breathtaking view. More than 200 years separated us, but we were intimately connected in that moment. It can be a little overwhelming and sometimes emotional.

Then last fall, I dragged Valerie with me to western Wisconsin to finish researching these ancestors in the hopes of coming home with more information to complete a supplemental DAR application for Thompson Maxwell. My 3rd great grandfather, William Whaley Maxwell, left this world in 1891 with his parents’ names blank on his death certificate. That omission has created a lot of trouble for me, but it’s also taken me on a journey that has probably been more rewarding in the long run. I’ve discovered more about them than I would have if his parents’ names had been listed or if he had a normal obituary:

William Maxwell’s death certificate. The reason I had to go on a treasure hunt in NY and WI.
Not very helpful in the grand scheme of my research

For the record, he was definitely 73 years old; and although these 2 documents have different death dates, his tombstone says he was 75 and died on the 23rd. The 23rd WAS on Monday that year. I live for these types of discrepancies…

We arrived on a Friday morning, which gave me some time to head to University of Wisconsin in River Falls to do my newspaper look ups. The library is closed on weekends, so I had to get this done first. Val was bored out of her mind and really hungry, constantly signing for food, while I scanned the microfiche. I was able to procure some new pieces of information from that outing. Score. Val was rewarded with lunch and a trip to Cold Stone Creamery. She would insert a smiley face emoticon here.

The following day it was overcast, cold and dreary. It was the perfect day for a road trip outside of Hudson. Val loves spending hours driving around in a car, so this was a good outing for her. Maybe it was the stop at Culvers that had her happy? I had an 1876 land plat for Somerset, Wisconsin–where my Maxwell clan lived–so I set out to see the property. It’s still very rural; though there are some large homes/estates on the land now, I think I found the place where the Susan Maxwell Cemetery existed. It was overgrown with trees and there were no markers that I could see without trespassing. I was a little bummed by that. At the same time, I felt a little energized by being able to actually see this for myself.

After that, we headed to Pleasant Prairie Cemetery in Osceola, which was originally called the Hale Cemetery because the land was donated by my other 3rd great grandfather, Isaac Ward Hale. This is where my Hale/McKune extended family is buried. Most of the tombstones are for people in my tree. And yes, I feel like I know them all. I parked toward the front, walked to the back of the cemetery, and easily found a large tombstone marking the burial place of Silas and Lavinia Hale with Lavinia’s father, William Maxwell (photo up top). I reached out to put my hand on the tombstone and was surprised by my emotional reaction. My eyes filled with tears and all I could say was, “I’ve been looking for you for a long time and now I found you.” Up until that moment, I really hadn’t felt a tangible connection to Wisconsin. I logged it to another experience of being in a place very familiar to my ancestors.

Sunday I decided to set the genealogy aside and take Val to the movies and do a little more exploring. She would insert a happy dance emoticon here if there was such a thing.

Monday morning, we packed up our suitcases and headed to the Polk County Recorder’s office for deed and probate records. Insert imaginary photo of Val on a chair, picking her hang nails, because it would mirror reality. I found a few land deeds (happy dance emoticon for me!) to help my cause and decided to take Val to Culvers one last time for lunch before heading to the airport in Minneapolis and a long wait for our flight home. We were in the drive-thru queue, and I was talking to Mom and Dad when Dad asked if I had been “up the road” to St. Croix Falls to see the cemetery where our Creech family is buried. I hadn’t been there and decided to change plans and head that way. I wasn’t disappointed.

We entered St. Croix Falls Cemetery, and after talking to one of the landscaping crew, drove up the hill to the very top. I probably should mention that western Wisconsin is very hilly. Up on the hill in the oldest section, I found my 2nd great grandparents’ obelisk tombstone and all his wife’s Seed family. I wasn’t expecting to feel anything there, and it surprised me that I did. I don’t know why it surprised me, because Grand Marais–where this Creech family ultimately settled–was only several hours away. My intrepid great-great grandfather, Elisha Chadwell Creech, had the most prominent view of the entire cemetery below him. Somehow, I don’t think it’s by accident either. His visibility in the community as a pioneer and logger probably earned him that spot. It was a long way from Lee County, Virginia, to St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, and he lived a whole lot of life in between.

After leaving St. Croix Falls, my car veered across the state line back into Minnesota. My new plan was to meander along the St. Croix River until it was time to head back to Minneapolis. The drive was beautiful and quiet, and almost completely deserted at that time of the year. We had a quick stop in Stillwater–which is a place I’d like to visit again some day.

Ultimately, I came to a strange and unexpected conclusion: my soul is actually tethered to Wisconsin and Minnesota. I’ve called Denver home since early 1991 and have no desire to leave, so this conclusion isn’t something I say easily. Although I look like my father and I share plenty of DNA with him and his people, it’s this cast of characters on Mom’s side who I feel with me a lot of the time. Even though they’ve given me a whole lot of trouble, now I know why.

Connecting in Real Life

My big fat Dunn family

Photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels

I’ve written about my cousin, Mark, in previous posts. Mark is technically my 2nd cousin, once removed. Or my father’s second cousin. His grandmother, Ruth Dunn Bondy, was the baby of her family and the 6th daughter born to William Henry Harrison Dunn and Martha Eleanor Wilson. My great grandfather, George Oliver Dunn, was the 2nd boy, and the only male to live to adulthood. There was 14 years between them.

With a large family spanning more than a decade, it isn’t surprising that the ages of the cousins varies greatly. Although Mark is my father’s 2nd cousin, he is a year and a half older than I am. We did not grow up knowing each other; in fact, we never knew ABOUT each other either. That was apparently a well known secret of our parents and grandparents. He spent some of his childhood in Bethesda, and I never once met him. That day finally happened last weekend. Cue: the Hallelujah Chorus.

We’ve been writing each other consistently for almost 2 years. We’ve spoken on the phone as well. So it was a foregone conclusion that one day we would have the chance to meet in person. An open weekend on both our calendars and Frontier Airlines made that possible!

The timing of our correspondence naturally has people assuming we met inside through our mutual family tree. We did not meet that way at all. It was because of our mutual family tree that we did meet, but for an entirely different reason. I had written a message on his mother’s obituary wall and he responded to my message. We quickly developed a friendship and that was that. THEN we collaborated on our tree.

I wrote a blog post earlier about making time for the living. It was that post that clinched my airline reservation to Santa Barbara. I promised myself to walk the talk. It’s a good reminder to make these kind of things happen. But because of that trip, I didn’t blog last week and I was not sure what topic I would discuss this week either. In the end, I felt it right and appropriate to bring life back to the forefront. Because it matters greatly when you go down rabbit holes of vital records, land deeds and wills.

I won’t regale you of our daily activities, but you can assume I had a great view of the Pacific ocean, ate super good food, went to some wineries and imbibed in a slew of different wines, and most of all, enjoyed the company of my hosts–Mark and his husband, J. There are no words that could actually come close to describe their graciousness and generosity. Or my gratitude for rolling out the red carpet for someone who was unknown to them personally before last Thursday. In short, I had a wonderful trip. And they are THE.BEST. I feel like I’ve known them for a really long time.

Brick Barn Wine Estate (Buellton, CA) – photo taken by J. for me on my iPhone

While J. was golfing with friends, Mark and I were able to do some work on our tree. It wasn’t weekend completely void of genealogy! I came home with a case of wine, some olive oil, a Lionel Richie CD, and some items inherited from his grandmother and mother that were from the household of Martha Wilson Dunn. I was touched. And yes, you may also assume that my crybaby ways were in full force. I never imagined having a piece of my family history in my possession. I was touched by his kindness and thoughtfulness.

Mark’s sister, Gaye, was supposed to come up from Los Angeles to spend the day with us, but she wasn’t feeling well. That was a bummer, for sure. It just means that I will need to make another trip to make sure I can meet her too.

As we hugged goodbye at the airport on Sunday night, we could only thank our late loved ones for this boon. We both know that my grandfather, his mother and grandmother were smiling down on us and could take credit for a meeting that was long overdue. I’m also sure they were having their own happy hour and toasting the family. After all, these persistent Dunns were a big part of the reason we met.

Those Were The Good Old Days…

Opening in 1883, Brown’s Hardware is the oldest operational business in Falls Church. At its original location on the corner of Broad and Washington Streets, it’s prime real estate in “The Little City”. Although the structure no longer looks like this, it just might have a date with the wrecking ball now that the last surviving descendant owner (Hugh Brown) died in November 2018.

Really? Were they?

As humans, we tend to look back on the past with a lot of nostalgia. We are wired to let the ugly parts of our lives go and hold on dearly to the bits and pieces that bring back the joy. I’m no stranger to that tendency.

It might strike you as odd that growing up 10 miles west of Washington, DC, would seem like a suburban town with a small town feel. But it did. My parents moved to our house in Falls Church when I was four and my sister two. My parents still live there. And actually, my dad grew up in a house not far from where they live now.

I am a member of a group on Facebook for those of us who grew up in Falls Church. Those of you who are still there know that the main topic lately is the gentrification and growth that has rendered the little place we knew and loved into something unrecognizable. Falls Church was a colonial village well known to George Washington. It had a quaint downtown with comfortable yet old architecture. Well, that’s my perspective.

To my dad? I’m guessing by 1966 it was a souped up place that had grown up around the land on which my dad and his friends trod. It was still recognizable as his home for most of his life. Until now. In the past ten or so years, his boyhood home has been razed and a new monstrosity in its place. The architecture is not even close to what it used to be. The downtown area is now a mass of tall buildings that might be considered skyscrapers. Burger King is gone. Applebees is on the wrecking block. They don’t fit into the mold the city council wants to project. In fact, the city council has decided that they want to turn Falls Church into something the locals by and large do not want. Their marketing team has pushed a slogan calling it “The Little City”. That makes me want to vomit.

With every passing year, it becomes a place that is disconnected from my heart and soul. I’m not sure I’m happy about it either. I wonder what it will look like 100 years from now. Although I will be buried there, it’s probably best I don’t know. Heck, for that matter, maybe the city council will force everyone to be reinterred from our church cemetery to make way for something else?

On the other hand, this world is constantly evolving, and I wonder if I even have a right to be disgusted with the change? After all, the town in which I grew up hardly resembled the place where my own grandmother grew up. She grew up in Arlington (across the Potomac from DC), and back then, it was a farming community full of country folk. She didn’t especially like being lumped in a category of “country folk” although she enjoyed living where she did. And when she and my grandfather bought their house in Falls Church? That was truly the country. Times have certainly changed.

Which makes me think. Were they really the good old days? Parts of them? Sure! But ask women my mom’s age. They might not wholeheartedly agree. My mother grew up in a world very different than mine. She was encouraged to major in one of two subjects (teaching or nursing) or go to secretarial school. Mom wanted to study archaeology. That was not an option in 1955 because it was a male dominated profession. The good folks at the University of Minnesota told her to consider something else. By 1984, that way of thinking had gone the way of the dodo bird. Thank goodness.

She and her peers were expected to be stay-at-home moms. I’m not denigrating stay-at-home mom’s, so don’t go off on me. My generation grew up with a choice. She lived in a world where there were clearly defined gender roles. Kevin and I swapped those roles when it suited our family’s needs.

Mom might even say that during her tenure as a stay-at-home mom with preteens, she was forced to grow up. Her generation didn’t lock their doors at night. The neighborhood chats did not include topics such as the battered wife down the block or the sexually abused kids on the next street. Their conversations were sanitized and polite for company. Any forays into the seedy side were discouraged or forbidden altogether. I didn’t know anything about those topics for a really long time.

Up until I was 12 and Barb 10, we lived a rather ignorant existence. Mom let us ride our bikes without a whole lot of supervision (at least in the minutia). We had a lot of latitude, even though we lived 10 miles from our nation’s capital. The spring right before our birthdays changed everything in our world. It changed everything in the world of our friends as well. The event? The kidnapping of Sheila and Katherine Lyon from Wheaton Plaza as they were shopping for Easter stuff. The Lyon sisters were the same age as Barb and I were. Their family story had a tragic ending, which wound up being a cold case. The Washington Post called it a “regional unhealed trauma” and it really was. From that day forward, we were no longer allowed the same freedoms because Mom was justifiably terrified. It was really the first news story that I can remember that discussed a side of life we had never known.

And yet my parents were fully aware that it was not an anomaly. Those events happened, but they just didn’t make headlines and they certainly weren’t discussed in polite company. My parents’ peers surely knew about these things, but they had a tendency to pretend they didn’t.

They really weren’t the good old days, because since Pluto was a pup, there have been evil people in the world who prey on others. There have always been adulterers, cheaters, abusers, scammers and charlatans. But for some reason, we looked the other way. We knew the fathers who would go to confession on Saturday and then head out Saturday night to repeat the behavior for which they had just repented. There were wife beaters, sexual abusers, gamblers, alcoholics and drug addicts in the pews around us, but we chose to look the other way because they stood for something we didn’t understand or even comprehend. They weren’t like us, so we had to make it seem as though they were.

If my grandmothers were still alive, I’d ask for their opinion. But given that my Grandma Creech returned a clothes washer my aunt and mother had given her as a gift (it was electronic, with an agitator!) to replace it with one that cost way more and had a manual wringer, I’m not sure I’d give her reply a lot of weight! My Grandmom Dunn left a memoir for us (thank goodness). One of her stories was about her first job working at the Press Corps. She liked her job well enough, but her boss was an alcoholic who would disappear for hours. It was her job and the secretarial staff to make excuses for him and present him in the most esteemed light possible. She didn’t say, but I can’t imagine my honest and hard working grandmother appreciating having to do that. In the end, he was outed somehow and fired.

I think I’m going to give myself an assignment. I’m going to try not to glorify the past at the expense of the present. I’m going to work at seeing the good in where we are right now. One thing for sure: I will never forget the Lyon sisters and how their family probably feels about “the good old days”. I’m pretty sure that Mr. and Mrs. Lyon thought they were awful.

Post Script

Their love story

Elise Buhler Dunn’s engagement portrait in her velvet dress (Courtesy of Aunt Kathy’s inherited collection)

My post yesterday apparently resonated with lots of people. Thank you to those who let me know. I’m glad, because that post was my love letter to my grandparents-all three of them.

I spoke with Dad shortly after the post was published. It brought his feelings to the surface as well. If I were to poll his siblings: David, Terry (who is deceased), John, Patti and Kathy, I’m sure there would be strong feelings as well. (Kathy has since confirmed she felt gypped as well! Misery loves company!) My family abroad missed all of us stateside as much as we missed them. At the very least, I grew up knowing all my aunts and uncles. I love each of them dearly. In fact, my two living uncles-David and John-were my favorite babysitters.

Dad wasn’t happy about being the “left-behind” kid. My entire childhood he would joke that “most people leave home, but my home left me”. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I realized 1) he wasn’t joking; and 2) he resented it. That may or may not be a story for another day. He loved his family, and they never returned home to live. It was hard on him. After all, he drove Grandmom to the hospital when she was in labor with Kathy. Kathy’s young years were filled with fond memories of “her Joe-Joe”. I’m glad I wasn’t alive when they left for Bogota.

I also wasn’t exaggerating when I mentioned that I was heartbroken when we took people to the airport. Dad reminded me that I was “prone to waterworks”, and it was not enjoyable to witness the histrionics that followed. I grew up hating airports. Why? Airports inevitably took those I loved away from me.

Evidence of my crying ways: The day I left Sydney in 1985, we made a quick detour to the beach before heading to the airport so I could take some photos and say goodbye to a place I came to love. My dear cousin, Daniel, was in kindergarten and my biggest fan at the age of 5; he accompanied me to the water’s edge and ultimately to the airport. After two months of rehearsing our roles as Danny and Sandy in Grease (I always had to be Danny BTW), I came to adore that kid. I stood on the shore and started to sob. Daniel sobbed after watching me break down; both of us bawling our eyes out as we approached my aunt’s van, Daniel asked, “Grandma, why is Bitsy crying?” I have a photo of us with swollen, red faces as evidence of my sadness that day.

Back to airports. I’m 100% sure that my parents were sick and tired of my caterwauling after family left. Mom reminded me that airports actually brought the people I loved TO me first. I refused to see the glass as half full until I was an adult. Okay, maybe middle aged adulthood. Now airports make me happy. People that matter to me make a point of coming to see me and I get to do the same. How awesome is that?

One of the stories my grandfather told me in 1985 was one I forced him to repeat more than twice. Personally, I think it’s a great idea to find out how your parents met. Sheesh, I knew that. My mom and her roommate had a peeping Tom and called the police. My dad and his partner responded to the call. Their love affair followed quickly. But because I didn’t grow up around my grandparents, I never got to hear how *they* met. I would definitely go back in time to ask my Grandma Creech to tell me her story if I could. I really didn’t think to ask my grandparents. Instead, Granddad surprised me one evening as he pulled a photo out of one of the boxes. And naturally, he reminisced with a twinkle in his eye, an apertif in hand, and my grandmother standing between the dining room and living room grinning from ear to ear as he told me “their story”. My grandmother’s memoir provided her version of their story, which is sweet and ladylike. This is his, as I remember. And now I’ll tell you.

It all started when he pulled out a portrait of my grandmother as a beautiful young woman, wearing a velvet dress. She was lovely. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how he felt about her as he lovingly gazed at her portrait which exuded her youthful attractiveness. He sighed deeply and commented, “God, Voodie, you were gorgeous.” The man was clearly smitten with his bride of almost 50 years. I was touched. I had never considered my grandparents as a couple in love. Who does? As he ran his fingers across that portrait of my grandmother, he asked me if he had ever told me about how they met. I said no. He grinned.

Granddad had sowed his oats. During the great depression, he left college at Indiana University to help his dad run their grain business, and was none too happy about that. He had been studying accounting in the hopes of having a successful career as an accountant. He had also joined the Merchant Marines to fulfill his dream of getting his seaman’s certification. He had traveled the world during his service. He returned home to Indiana and got a job with the federal government. His job eventually required a lengthy business trip to Washington with a few other fellows.

Grandmom was a DC native and had a job in the typing pool, also working for the federal government. She was called in to work one Saturday and was busy at work when 3 young men appeared at the door looking for some desks. She liked what she saw, but this isn’t her story. As the men gazed upon the loveliness in front of them, one of Granddad’s colleagues leaned over to whisper, “See that one in the back? You should ask her out. She’s a lush and a little loose.” As Granddad headed to the back in my grandmother’s direction, his friend shouted, “Not her!” Granddad turned around with a smile and told him, “I don’t care!”

Grandmom was obviously as interested in him as he was in her. She had a car and offered to drive him back to his boarding house. They dated all summer and figured out before he headed back to Indiana that they were serious about each other. Shortly after his return, my love-struck grandfather bailed on the job that had him moving to Omaha and opted to make long term plans with my grandmother while looking for a better job. My grandmother decided to take a trip to meet his family at their vacation house in Pretty Lake, Indiana, dropping a colleague off on the way. Granddad met her at the Indiana border with a ring and a proposal. His parents and siblings were aware of his plan, and apparently co-conspirators in keeping the secret.

They loved this photo! It was taken moments after he proposed.

They married in Arlington in the spring of 1936. Her father refused to attend, thinking my grandfather was a player, too worldly, handsome and slick, and figured he would eventually leave his daughter disappointed and heartbroken. Before long, Granddad won his father-in-law over with a bottle of scotch whiskey. Dad was born the following spring, with six more children following over the next 19 years. And as Grandmom said with humor, all of them unreasonable facsimiles of their father.

Their whimsical post-honeymoon period wouldn’t last. His father died two years later and his mother had to later sell their house at Pretty Lake. His mother (known as Ema to my dad and his siblings) would alternate living with them and his sister’s family in Griffith, Indiana. After they lost a child while living in Puerto Rico, they grew up quickly. It was right before World War II, and my grandmother never returned to see Richard’s grave. They spent most of Dad’s childhood in Falls Church and later Vienna, with stints in Puerto Rico, Chicago and Massachusetts in between. Dad was close to his siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and his grandparents. Things rarely go the way we want, but it works out in the end. All in all, we are all blessed to have a family we love and who love us in return.