My Brother, Chris

Chris – 1968

I wasn’t sure I would ever want to write about Chris. Not that I don’t have feelings about him and for him, because I do. It’s just that his story is… sad. This Saturday will mark the 5th anniversary of his death. Apparently, I’m ready after all.

Born on June 13, 1968, Chris is my younger brother by six years, two months and seven days. He was the baby of the family and the only son born to my parents. He had some innate gifts that were squandered when he died: he was a self taught musician, he was smart and he was the funniest person I’ve ever met. There were times when he combined all 3, and when he hit his personal trifecta, there was no one else in the room who could compete with his wit and presence. He was a memorable person. Ask anyone I know.

He had other talents as well: he was interested in other cultures, he was color blind to other races and belief systems, he loved the beach and he loved skiing. He was interesting, and he was an artist. He was a gifted wall paper hanger, and his customers loved his work. His client list was impressive and included sports figures and politicians in the DC area. He was a son, grandson, brother, husband, father, cousin and friend. Had he loved himself as much as his family and friends did, he might still be alive today.

Talking about him makes my heart hurt. You would think after 5 years, the hole there would have closed up. Despite some of the blessings in the final outcome–which I will definitely discuss below–his life and death just make me feel depressed.

Being 6 and 4 years older than our brother, yeah, Barb and I teased him. We got away with a whopper of a lie for a long time, which came back to bite us in the ass later on. Although he started out as “Barb’s baby”, he wound up being scared she would beat him up (with legitimate cause) and found himself becoming my ally. To be fair, Barb was in the Navy and left home for good at the age of 18, so proximity had a lot do with it. I lived in Virginia until 1988. Even then, he stayed close to me, was in my wedding, and found another brother in Kevin when we married. He was a really good uncle to my little girls.

Bar none, one of our biggest and funniest family stories include Chris, New Year’s Day, Wendy’s, skiing at Breckenridge and surprisingly, coffee (instead of alcohol). I can’t think about those times with him without a smile and a tear. My tears are for what could have been and should have been. In spite of the horrible choices he made, he was loved and is missed. My only consolation is that he died with a lot of my other loved ones within an 18 month span, and they are undoubtedly with each other now. Without question, 2014 and 2015 were the two worst years of my family’s life. I hope they’re having fun while the rest of us are here living and missing them. The holidays seem to make those sad feelings creep up to the surface.

Me and Chris in 2010. Photo courtesy of Lori Morrison.

Chris was a heroin addict. There. I said it.

His addiction stole everything from him. He destroyed relationships with the people he loved the most. He created hurtful drama, spun a master web of lies, and obliterated everything good in his path. He would have short periods of staying clean in between very long periods of going off the rails. I’m not here to tell you all the awful stories, and truth be told, there are way too many to elaborate. They are painful and they get in the way of the forgiveness process. You’ll just have to take my word for what it’s worth. Having a loved one who has a substance abuse addiction is a living hell that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It’s a soul sucker.

It wasn’t too difficult for me to forgive him for the general destruction he caused. I had plenty of time to expect his death as an outcome. The part that is my sticky wicket is that he never, ever made a real honest attempt to claw his way to sobriety. I never thought he should do that for us. I thought he should have tried for himself and for his daughters. Five years later, forgiving him for not trying for them is still my work in progress.

Yet, so much good has happened after his death. We all now have a good relationship with his ex-wife (which could have never happened while he was alive). My parents are close to his daughters, and they hold on to family a little bit tighter because they lost their son. At the luncheon after his funeral and burial, we all agreed to have a do-over. If you don’t believe in God’s grace, I’m here to tell you that it exists in spades. Once the profound grief passed, we were able to discuss the past with a newfound understanding. It truly was a blessing in disguise, and an unexpected happy surprise.

Actually, his death was peaceful and much kinder than what might have been. He died in a hospital surrounded by loved ones, rather than being found deceased in an alley in the District. Adriana (my sister-in-law) was the first one to verbalize how grateful she was for that. She said aloud what the rest of us were thinking.

A few things about him that I miss the most still make me feel like someone pierced my heart with an arrow. I honestly don’t know how long it will take for that feeling to lessen. Apparently, more than 5 years. Chris had a calling card with me. He would leave me voicemails that were funny and often crude or profane. I wish I had kept the last one he left for me, but it was so awful and disgusting that I just couldn’t keep it. It was one of the rare times Victoria checked voicemail when we got home and said with a deadpan expression, “Mom, it’s for you. It’s Uncle Chris.” I’ll just say that I called him back and yelled at him, reminding him I had a teenage daughter. Sheepishly, he genuinely apologized. We had a falling out the year before he died, and I never got another one of those messages. Fortunately, I did make up with him in person the week before he went into a coma in the hospital. I’m forever grateful for that opportunity. I might have been able to be with him when he died, but Val and I missed our train in Newark. I’m still sad about that. I got the call from my parents when we were barely out of New Jersey.

Chris and I shared a mutual love for hard rock. Sometimes really hard rock. When he taught himself how to play his Gibson, he would come in and play guitar riffs for me from some of our favorite bands: AC/DC (our mutual fave), Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, ZZ Top, Van Halen. I could go on. My college friends and I took him and his best friend to their first concert in 1981: AC/DC at the Capital Centre. I can’t listen to them without thinking of him, and those thoughts are always accompanied by a smile.

Chris and his Gibson, abt. 1982. He later pawned it.

His funeral on December 13th was memorable. Mom chose the readings and asked me to be the lector. She also let me choose the arrangement for Psalm 23. Victoria knows I want it played at my own funeral, and that is Shepherd Me, O God. I cried the whole way through it and could barely read the second reading. After communion, Adriana sang Ave Maria, and not one person left the church with a dry eye. She is a very gifted singer with the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard.

Case in point. Adriana and Chris at Great Falls

The following day after his funeral, my parents decided to drop by the cemetery on the way to driving me to the airport. It was a cold December afternoon, and Mom wanted to put something Christmasy to mark his grave. It’s actually our family plot; it was not adorned or marked because he was the first to occupy it. At some point, Mom, Dad, Val and I will join him. Anyway, Mom decided to walk around to visit her friends already there, and Dad and I just stood in front of his burial spot. I told him, “You know, Chris was grimacing at all those church songs yesterday. I’m going to play something just for him.” I set my phone down on top of the dirt, turned on the speaker, and played Highway to Hell. For the first time in awhile, Dad doubled over with laughter. I told Chris to get the party started until the rest of us could get there, and that he could plan on me kicking his ass for an eternity. That’s no threat… it’s a promise!

Gone too soon.

It’s Thanksgiving time. Come on in and meet the Dunns…

It’s been 5 months since I started this blog, and I guess I’m a little surprised that I’ve not introduced you to any of my Dunn ancestors, save my grandfather, Bill. I’m still learning about them, through research and DNA. Since Dunn is my maiden name, I’m a wee bit fond of them. They continue to be a bit elusive, so my search for more about them is undoubtedly going to take a lifetime.

I’ve told you a little about my grandfather. I was fortunate enough to have him in my life well into my adulthood. He died in March 1995, and the world is a little bit smaller with him gone. He was a mover and a shaker, a hard working and hard playing man. He made friends easily and there were few people he truly didn’t like. He was one of those people that easily found common ground, and might have been able to get a door knob to talk to him. He was quick to smile and laugh, and he was just a fun person to be around. I miss him a whole lot.

I wish I knew if this was a unique trait to him or if it’s something he inherited from his father, George Oliver Dunn. Nobody really knows. My great grandfather died in 1938, when Dad was a year old. Naturally, Dad doesn’t remember anything about him, and those that did know him are long gone as well. Only the stories remain.

I certainly listened when they were offered, but I wish I had thought to ask more questions about his parents and their childhood memories. It’s just going to have to be enough to live with the stories I do know. Dad is also eager to learn more about his grandparents and what they were like as children. He’s hit up his cousins to see what photos and artifacts there might be in Aunt Alys’ attic.

What I do know about George is that he was the only surviving son of William Henry Harrison Dunn and Martha Eleanor Wilson, born on the 8th of July 1878 in Mount Comfort, Indiana. George was the 3rd child and 2nd son, but only knew his sibling order as the oldest son because his older brother died at the age of 1 the year before he was born. He had six sisters, and until their mother died in 1913, were close. He married my great grandmother, Claudia Alys Whitaker, on 28 Mar 1900. They had 4 children: Verne “Vee”, Bill, George and Alys.

Claudia and George Dunn in California, visiting Vee.

George and his siblings (Cora Jane, Mary Frances, Neva Grace, Sara, Bessie Fae and Ruth) lost their father in 1908 and their mother in 1913. After Martha Eleanor died, the surviving siblings had a rift over the estate. His sisters fought him in court and their relationship was fractured (to say the least) from that point forward. He kept in touch with Cora and Ruth, and eventually mended fences with his other sisters after time had healed some of the wounds. Mary died in 1899 from typhoid fever, and George died in 1938 at the age of 60. Claudia outlived him by another 29 years.

Dunn Family in 1903 in front of their new farmhouse, l-r: William H. H, Martha, Bess, Sara, George, Ruth. Grace and her husband and daughter are in the carriage. Photo courtesy of Mark Linvill.

Before all of that mess, he had assumed his father’s role as running the only grain elevator in rural Indiana roughly 20 miles east of Indianapolis.

It was a successful operation until the great depression. He took eggs and chickens and other items in lieu of payment until he either declared bankruptcy or closed his doors for good. He was apparently good with numbers and became the Hancock County auditor until he got sick and moved to Plymouth, Indiana, where he died shortly thereafter. From all accounts, he was the love of Claudia’s life, and when he died, she was devastated. That devastation was emotional and financial. Her children would take turns caring for her until she died.

William Henry Harrison Dunn (b. 1848) and Martha Eleanor Wilson (b. 1854) were married on 2 Oct 1872. William had lost his first wife and daughter the year before. He and Martha had a long and happy marriage until their deaths in 1908 and 1913, respectively.

Both William H. H. and Martha were the children of Indiana farmers, William Abner Dunn and Henry Bascom Wilson.

William Abner Dunn was born in 1816 in Abbeville, South Carolina, to Samuel Agnew Dunn and Mary “Polly” McGee. He married Frances Ann Harvey in 1837 in Franklin County, Indiana. Frances died in 1892 of La Grippe and Will died the following year, presumably of the same ailment according to their obituaries and other news articles. They were both from pioneer families in Indiana, though both their families hailed from South Carolina. They had 11 children: Mary Jane, Nancy Caroline (who would become the 2nd wife of Martha’s father), Milton L., Martha Emeline, Sarah T., William H. H., Andrew Jackson, Franklin M. L., an unknown infant daughter, and James P. H. It would seem as though they had an affection for naming their sons after former presidents. Anyone want to help figure out who might be Franklin M. L. and James P.H.? I’ve Googled ad nauseum and come up with nothing.

Like his son, William Abner Dunn was a farmer. Can I just say how delighted I am that I can post photographs of their faces while they were living rather than their tombstones after death? I’m incredibly grateful that Mark and his sister, Gay, have this expansive collection of photos. These are my only link to their faces, and I stare at them and see a variety of my family members with similar expressions (maybe not Frances, because it appears as though she’s lost her teeth in this photo). It can be a little unnerving, but mostly I’m thrilled.

Family lore has the Dunn family leaving Abbeville around 1832 and arriving in Franklin County, Indiana, about the same year. According to the census records, Samuel was engaged in Agriculture, so it’s probable that he was a farmer. William Abner was one of 9 children, their 3rd son and born 5th. Family lore also says that Samuel and Polly left South Carolina for Indiana because Indiana did not permit slavery. I so want that to be true, but I’m a little skeptical. Until recently, I thought it was the unvarnished truth, until Mark brought it to my attention that Samuel owned one slave in the 1830 census. If I could easily add an emoticon, it would be a frowning one.

Side story about that because it gives me pause. Samuel was born in 1775–in a time and place where slavery was the norm. He was first enumerated in the 1810 federal census with 4 members in his household and all of them white and free. In 1820, he had 8 free white persons in his household. But in 1830, he had 10 in his household, all of them white and free save for 1. In 1830 he was 55. Why??? By 1840, he was in Indiana and had no slaves. Did he buy someone to set them free? I honestly don’t know. I can hope that’s the truth. At any rate, Polly died in 1840 and Samuel died in 1846. They are both buried in the Dunn Cemetery in Hancock County, Indiana.

What I DO know is that his father, James Dunn, did NOT own slaves. He died in 1805 and left a will. No slaves were part of it, and he mentioned his wife and all living children. He was also engaged in agriculture and was illiterate. He was enumerated in the 1790 and 1800 federal censuses, and there were no slaves in his household for either one.

James Dunn was born in what is now Northern Ireland in 1734 (2 years after George Washington) and not much is known about his emigration to the colonies or when he married Agnes Agnew or when he moved to South Carolina. This continues to be an area I research, as my father and other ancestors before me have. Agnes Agnew was probably the daughter of Samuel Agnew who was born in County Down, Ireland. Both of them were Scots Irish with ancestors from Scotland. They were both Presbyterian.

James fought in the revolutionary war and sat on a petit jury during the war. He was the ancestor I used to join the DAR.

All the work on the Dunns was done long ago by my father, and a slew of other family members (like Mark’s mother and grandmother). Apparently, my great grandfather–George Oliver Dunn–made a trip to Abbeville with his father at some point in his life. They tracked down family members and later corresponded with them. When George died, all of our links to Abbeville died with him.

So I’m grateful to all my fellow Dunn family members who have kept our line going until this point. My research right now is trying to smash the wall down between James Dunn and his ancestors. That task, my friends, is only possible through DNA. We’re making progress, but ultimately, I think it’s going to take for me to get to Northern Ireland to dig some more. Two years ago, my father indulged me by taking a Y DNA test and entering his specimen into the Dunn Family Project on FTDNA. I don’t know why, but neither one of us was expecting any new revelation or surprise there. And we were both wrong and Dad was a little bit right.

Dad’s Dunn Y DNA test lumped us with a man who lives in England but whose surname is Dun. He was also grouped with 3 other fellows with the surname Dunn, whose common ancestor was another James Dunn who died in Massachusetts. They don’t know where their James Dunn was born, but all of their DNA takes them to Lanark, Scotland. My father long suspected our roots would take us back to Lanark, and he can leave this world knowing his research and hunches were dead on. I’m proud of him for that.

Through that Y DNA test, Dad and I have corresponded with a gentleman who goes by Skip. He’s a lovely person, and the best living gift that the DNA test could give. While we haven’t been able to exactly quantify the relationship between he and Dad–at least yet–we had yet *another* surprise…

After I posted my article about Thompson Maxwell and Josiah Crosby earlier this summer, Skip let me know that we have another shared common Crosby ancestor. After doing the mapping, it turns out that Skip and Mom are 10th cousins. So Skip is cousins to both my Dad and Mom. It truly is a small world.

So please join me and my family in our wish for you to all have a very happy Thanksgiving and holiday season. Valerie and I will be joining up with those we love back in Virginia, so we can cherish our living connections as long as we can. God bless!

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 Ancestry.com 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.