Mom and me before I said goodbye last weekend

Sheesh. It’s been over a year since I had anything much to write here. Having a job seems to have something to do with that; then there is the post-COVID fatigue I had last year. I wish I had my act together better.

The rest of 2022 was fairly uneventful for me and my family. Well, with the exception of Val needing hospitalization the week before Christmas. A blip on the Kirkemo radar. On New Year’s Eve, I managed to book a trip home to Virginia for myself and Val in March. Then 2023 arrived. It crept in the usual way: little fanfare, no fireworks or parties and no excitement. Just the way I like it. Then Val and I got COVID… AGAIN… and spent the last half of Febuary recovering and whining. Oh, and sleeping. That fatigue is indomitable.

And on February 27, with 5 days left before we were supposed to hop on that plane, the unthinkable happened and our lives were irrevocably changed. Forever. My 85 year old mother fell backward down the basement stairs and broke her skull, facial bones, clavicle, ribs and her C2-C7 vertebrae; she was unconscious until she got to the hospital and sustained a severe traumatic brain injury. I had to wait a few days to clear a negative COVID test and I moved up our departure 2 days. Vic headed up to Fairfax to help Dad navigate decisions and relay information. She held down the fort until I could take over.

It’s been a very difficult 2 months since that fateful day. I’ve made 2 trips home since then and another one is on the horizon. Three weeks later, Mom was discharged to the hospital’s inpatient rehab facility and is now in a skilled nursing facility to finish rehab. She’s doing well in some areas and not well in others. It’s been hard on everyone, but most of all, my Dad. He just turned 86 and his life has completely changed; he’s still trying to figure out what the future looks like. The Mom I had before the fall is gone; new brain injured Mom is an imposter of her with all sorts of weird issues and difficulties. I never imagined this life for either of them.

Needless to say, I’ve been updating a Caring Bridge site to keep friends and family in the loop and keep in touch. It helps Dad and the rest of us manage the communication so we’re not on the phone all day long but being mindful that people love her and care about her and us.

So if you want to read about our adventures, please feel free to click the link to her Caring Bridge site, which I try to update as often as I can. There are days where we have nothing to say so expect that. But when I do update (like tonight), sometimes my keyboard has a case of diarrhea. Apologies to all you visualizing souls!

Musings and Milestones

Boy, it’s been such a long time since my last post. Call it pandemic fatigue. Or working full time. Or just plain exhaustion. Or all of the above, because they’re all true.

Last week, I turned 60. S-I-X-T-Y. How did that happen? I can still remember my 40th vividly. Heck, I remember my 21st in detail as well. I’m now old. OLD. Social Security and Medicare are a few hops, skips and jumps in front of me. Just yesterday, Kevin and I were newlyweds and moved to Colorado. Next month, Kevin is retiring from Raytheon after 31 years. How did this happen?

I’ll be honest and say that my 50th was the worst birthday ever. It fell on Good Friday, back when I was a good Catholic. It came with a lot of realizations (the unkind ones), relationship reflections (mostly the utter failures or outright disappointments) and shingles. I got shingles two days before my 50th birthday, and they hurt like hell. I woke up that Good Friday morning and realized that there was more of a vista in my rear view mirror than my proverbial windshield. I had a failed marriage, some regrets and personal shame. Victoria and I were barely speaking: she was 18 and leaving for college in New York and I was overprotective and controlling. We fought all the time and were both miserable. When I dropped her off at college, it occurred to me that we might never recover from our rift. That terrified and saddened me, and I was floundering on how I could get back on track with her. IF I could make that happen. Valerie was still a minor, and I completely blocked out any plans for how I’d navigate her path in adulthood. It was too stressful to allow myself to see in that crystal ball. I was literally and figuratively running from myself and my fears. I felt like I had lost my footing and I was sick and tired of being afraid.

One decade later, life is very different. Geography, time and effort healed my relationship with Vic. I got shingles a second time a few years later, but I’m happily free of them now. I have better and closer relationships with my loved ones. I’m acutely aware that my parents are facing their own mortality and probably none too happy with losing friends and loved ones all year long. I worry about their next move while actively trying NOT to think about it. Val is an adult and happy. Even though I am her legal guardian, I’m trying to build her life with more self-sufficiency and independence (that’s a work in progress).

My 60th birthday was the polar opposite of my 50th and absolutely enjoyable. I spent it traipsing around cemeteries with my loved ones. For whatever reason, I felt the need to head to Abbeville, South Carolina, to walk on ground where my Dunn/Agnew/McGee people lived and died. God knows that I do love genealogy, but it is really about spending time and making memories with my living loved ones that gets me going. I want to spend the next decade devoting my energy to cultivating my relationships with them.

So I think I’m going to switch gears here on the blog and do a little work on leaving a better genealogy legacy for myself. After all, I want to mean more than a birth and death date when my time is up here. Who doesn’t want to be remembered with love?

It’s been years since I devoted most of my energy to self improvement. I spent 5 years in hard core self work after Kevin left. I knew I needed it to figure out my part in our divorce and what I needed to do to be… happy. It sounds dumb and insane, but it took me a long time to realize that happiness is an inside job. I tended to blame Kevin for making me unhappy. I decided that I was going to turn that paradigm around and just BE happy and let everyone else own their crap.

Last night I stumbled on a blog by a guy whose posts really resonated with me. I honestly don’t know why, because my divorce is almost 17 years in my rear view mirror. There’s nothing left from the post-mortem, and I’m happy to say Kevin and I are friends and co-parents. Yes, in that order. It surprises me that I’m wanting to go back and dig a little deeper into some self-reflection. Surprise is actually a watered down word, because I’m actually stunned I want to pick at an old scab and see what’s underneath. What is wrong with me?

Maybe I just want to gain more introspection. Or to learn more about our human condition. Either way, this guy rocked my boat at 11 pm last night. I read his blog until 2:30 am this morning, and my body knows that was crazy. Val and I are going to have to pencil in a nap in our schedule today. At any rate, this is the exact post that hit my solar plexus. How damn inconvenient.

It has been such a long time since I’ve permitted myself to go back in time and reflect on how I felt. This is not to say that I want a do-over to get Kevin to understand this, nor do I want to rehash this stuff with him. It’s soul sucking, and yucky. Would I like a magic wand to wave over that part of my life and change it to a happy ending where we are not divorced? Hell, yeah. But pigs aren’t flying and that’s not possible. And I desperately want the world to do better in respect to relationships, marriage and expectations.

So I’ll settle for giving Matt Fray a plug and for providing all of you the opportunity to have a happier outcome than Kevin and I had. If you are a little lost in your marriage, please give this guy a closer look. Because I love you guys and you’re worth it. I want you to experience marital joy and love as my 60th birthday present to me.

Rites of Passage

What a horrid, wonderful year

Image by marla66 from Pixabay

It’s been a long, tough year–for all of us–and in a variety of ways. A ghastly pandemic. Social isolation. Masks. Extreme weather. Murder bees. Twin hurricanes. I was worried that this year was beyond salvage. In fact, my lapse in blogging is the result of being overwhelmed and unable to find anything nice to say or share.

In some ways, 2020 has been a most disappointing year, but in other ways, it’s been an amazing year too. How disparate is that?

The personally disappointing part: losing my job and company. Sometime in early May, I realized that the call center industry–my industry of almost 30 years–was going to be forced to undergo a major transformation. After watching our sales pipeline completely disappear, it became obvious that my business was not going to survive. So in early July, I made the decision to shut the company down for good. It was surprisingly easy, save for one aspect: letting someone very close to me go after working closely together for 28 years. Letting him and his family down was excruciatingly painful and heart wrenching.

God opens one door when another one closes. Several weeks later, my son-in-law intervened and demanded I provide him my resume (no, I hadn’t done a resume in almost 30 years!). A few days later, I interviewed for a new job and was hired. I began a new job in late August, and life has been hopping ever since. Oh, do you see me doing a happy dance? Having a position in a new industry is exciting!

But the biggest happy news of 2020 in Casa Kirkemo was “THE Wedding”. After almost 8 years of dating, my oldest daughter, Victoria, married her college sweetheart, Mike, earlier this month back in Virginia. The wedding planning changed a lot from their original vision, and they ultimately had a socially distanced wedding in a different venue, and a vastly different honeymoon than the 3 weeks in Italy they had hoped to take.

But isn’t the very notion of success being able to successfully navigate changes and disappointments? If that’s true, then I think we should all take a bow. This year has forced all of us to dig deep! Victoria and Mike stayed the course and pulled off a beautiful weekend. While many of their loved ones were not able to join them, it turned out much better than anyone anticipated under the circumstances.

Last year, Vic asked me to put together a pictorial family tree of sorts to display at the wedding. True to form, that plan also morphed into something completely different. I wound up gathering photos of the parents, grandparents and great grandparents, and they wound up displaying them–along with a whole lot more photos of them and their friends– in a digital frame at the front table. Although it wasn’t the original vision, it worked well too. Every time I looked at that table, people were in front of it and looking at the photo slide show.

With the silent presence of living and deceased ancestors bearing witness, a new family has begun.

I’m not comfortable publishing photos of Mike’s family without permission, but I will share photos of my side of their union for posterity. Some are wedding photos, and others are not. In the case of my Creech grandparents, no couple photo exists, so I had to settle for solo photographs.

Victoria and Michael Taggart, October 2020
Betsey and Kevin Kirkemo, September 1990
Bobbie and Joe Dunn, July 1961
Phyllis and Gene Kirkemo, December 1955
Elise and Bill Dunn, May 1936
Karen and Halvor Kirkemo, January 1913
Caraline and Fred Heckel, March 1927

I think this is a nice tribute to an ancestral journey and rite of passage. I think their ancestors were with them in spirit and wishing them all the love and happiness for a long life together.

Elisha Creech, 1917

An Oscar nominated movie compelled me to find out more about my grandfather’s service in World War I

Elisha Creech (l) and unknown friend ca. 1917

Hello, friends. It’s been awhile! I’ve spent the past two months acclimating to having my office here at home and attempting to knock some of the bigger tasks off my to-do list. I’m slowly getting there, despite some logistical obstacles.

Sibbill is my main obstacle; she likes sitting on my task list. Somehow, when I clear her off, the tasks are blurred. Yes, that’s annoying cat hair on my desk…

While my genealogical research has been sitting on the back burner as I attempt to accomplish other things, it hasn’t been ignored completely. Occasionally, I do some work on my DNA matches through Ancestry. I also took a class on doing research on my Scots-Irish ancestors (story for another day). However, most of my work as of late is focused on developing the stories of my loved ones. Simply put, I’m trying to bring these folks back to life so they are more than a sum of their vital statistics.

One person who has been elusive is my maternal grandfather, who I never knew. He died in 1948 from esophageal cancer, when Mom was 9. There are only 2 people alive today who knew him: Mom and her cousin, Gladys. Sadly, Mom only has the memories others shared with her. Gladys is 3 years older than Mom, and while she has a better pictorial memory of her uncle, everything else about Elisha Creech has been buried with the people he loved and who loved him in return.

I mentioned in my first blog post (which was about his wife) that my grandmother was not one for stories. She hardly ever discussed my grandfather, except in fleeting conversation. While I never doubted he and I would have loved each other had he survived, I never felt connected to him or his story. That is, until recently.

After being laid off from his job, my maternal cousin, Jay, has taken up genealogy as a hobby. We’ve enjoyed collaborating, and his discoveries and desire to keep his side of the family in the forefront have kept me moving on my own family, including our mutual family. Jay has organized a paternal family reunion in Texas later this month, and has been busy creating pedigree charts and involving his father’s extended family members to contribute. I’ve been his cheerleader because 1) I love him and want to help; and 2) I’m jealous he has his elderly aunt still alive to indulge him.

For the past few months, Jay has been motivated to clean out a storage unit filled with his parents’ stuff. This unit is filled with furniture and furnishings, but also contains boxes of memorabilia and photos. Most of us have never seen most of them. With his sister, Carol, helping him, Jay has been able to scan a slew of photos that are now coming to life. It’s been so fun to help him figure out who these people are. Seriously, this is the most rewarding part of doing genealogy.

Now to back up a bit. Last month, my neighbor and I went to see 1917 at the theater (on a blustery and snowy day, I might add). If you haven’t seen it, this is a plug to tell you to see it, if only for the cinematography. It’s brilliant. I was mesmerized by the endless trenches and the overall story as well as the fact that it was filmed as one continual journey without breaks. I wish I had brought tissues, and I came home with a massive headache (from crying). The movie made a huge impact, and for the first time in my life, I was now really interested to read more about World War I.

This is where 1917 and Jay collide.

He’s found several photos of our grandfather in his World War I uniform. I had seen one of them, as it is in a frame in the hallway outside my old bedroom in Falls Church. The others are new to me.

Elisha (l) and unknown people. I suspect this was taken in Minnesota upon his return in 1919

Elisha Leroy Creech was born on November 14, 1894, in a small town near Trego, Wisconsin, to James Seed Creech and Louisa Agnes Hale. He was their oldest child. Ultimately, James and Louisa had 6 children with only 2 living to adulthood. James owned the sawmill that his father once owned, and Elisha was forced to quit school after 8th grade to help with the family business. He expressed regret that he hadn’t finished school. Anyway, James moved the operation to Grand Marais, Minnesota, in 1909.

I had previously found his basic military information on Ancestry: 1) Elisha Creech left the Cunard pier in New York City, on September 10, 1917, on the RMS Carpathia as a member of the First Battalion, Company A of the 10th Engineers Forestry Division; and 2) he departed Brest (France) on the USS North Carolina and arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey, on February 9, 1919, as a member of the 12th Battalion and 32nd Company of the 20th Engineers Forestry Division. Other than that, we really didn’t know about his service in World War I.

Two weeks ago, Jay brought some items over to my parents to view: a few poetry books, a bible, some WWI song books and a book about the 20th Engineers. Dad is currently reading that book. One afternoon, he provided a thumbnail sketch of what my grandfather did in WWI. I was driving home with Val, but he had my complete attention. I’m a pretty visual person, and words form pictures in my mind. Instantly, I could visualize those trenches in France.

When the United States agreed to contribute to the war effort, their allies in Great Britain and France asked for trained lumbermen. These lumbermen were to assume responsibility of logging operations to reinforce trenches, provide lumber for barbed wire fence posts and railroad ties and build structures like medical outposts, mess halls and the like. Those efforts included timber management, logging, sawmill operations and distribution. Each of the companies performed specific functions, and I assume the men were placed into companies where their particular skill sets were needed. You can read more about this effort here.

As part of the 10th Engineers, Elisha Creech was in the first unit arriving in France. His unit consisted of men who were part of the US Forest Service, logging operations and private sawmills. The government placed ads in the Forestry magazines asking for enlistment. I figure he or his father saw the recruitment ad and set his course in motion.

Before I continue, I’ll let you know Mom has sent off the request from the Veterans Administration to get her father’s military records. We’ll be able to get more specifics from those records. They won’t be here before June, so some of my information is based on a calculated guess. I’ve used the information I have, along with maps and reunion information to fill in some of the blanks.

According to his obituary, he enlisted in the Army on July 17, 1917. The Cook County Herald later reported that Elisha Creech left Grand Marais on Monday, July 30, 1917, for Duluth, where he was “to be examined for admission for the Forestry Engineer Corps”. Sometime in August, he arrived in Washington, DC, to begin training on the grounds of American University. He was not yet 23 years old, and I wonder how he felt about leaving home to head to war torn France. At a minimum, he would be nervous. At most, scared to death. Regardless, he performed his duty, and I imagine that he was proud to be part of a unique group of men.

His unit arrived in Glasgow, Scotland (with a hearty and warm reception from the Scots), on October 2nd; from there, they continued the journey to Le Havre, where they docked at 5 am on October 7th. At 10 pm that evening, they boarded a train to spend the next 36 hours heading to Nevers, which was the final destination. They arrived on October 9th. They spent the next two weeks waiting for equipment to arrive and training in the mud. Much to their dismay, only a portion of the equipment had been loaded into the cargo on the Carpathia. Nevertheless, by November 1st, all the units reported for duty at their assigned posts. By December 1st, two French and one American mills were in full operation.

What information I’ve uncovered is that his Company (A) had been divided in half: one half reported to the Pontenx District and the other half to Brittany. Which group was he in? From my reading, I suspect he was in the Brittany group in Mortumier (due south of Paris). If this is correct, this was the first American mill in operation during World War I. Service at that mill began November 27, 1917, a mere 13 days after my grandfather turned 23.

In the early part of 1918, the Allied forces realized there was a need for more forestry troops; Congress authorized the creation of the 20th Engineers and ramped up training to send those men. By October 1918, the 10th Engineers merged into the 20th Engineers and their duties changed again. I’m not sure where Elisha went from there or if he moved at all. The armistice was signed one month later at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, and preparations began to return the soldiers home. I imagine that Elisha received this message from Colonel James A. Woodruff, commander of the 20th Engineers, in December 1918. While at the end of the letter, Colonel Woodruff expresses his thanks, the start of it summarizes their impressive efforts in the 15th months they were in France.

Because my grandfather was in the first group to arrive in France, he was in the first group mustered out in January 1919. When 24 year-old Elisha arrived in Hoboken, he must have called home because the Cook County News-Herald reported on February 12th that he had landed in Hoboken and would be home soon. On March 5th, the newspaper reported that he had arrived home the week before, and that all his friends were surprised at how good he looked. I would imagine they didn’t visualize the hard manual labor he had performed abroad. In less than two years, he undoubtedly transformed from a boy to a man.

I don’t know when he and my grandmother met, but just maybe their paths crossed upon his return. I imagine they found each other attractive. They didn’t marry until 1934, so this is just the musing of a romantic who doesn’t have a damn clue. They married on June 12, 1934; my grandfather was 39 and it was my grandmother’s 37th birthday. I don’t know why he waited so long to marry, but my grandmother was busy working as an elementary school teacher and putting her siblings through college. My grandmother was a caregiver her entire life, and I wish she were here so I could hug her for her sacrifices.

I wish I had asked her about their courtship and marriage when I visited her in 1992, shortly before she died. (What was I thinking???) Instead, she thanked me for bullying telling her how much I wanted her to attend my wedding in California in 1990. (She was thrilled she was able to see the Great Sequoias before she died.) She also let years of resentment seep into her conversation. Much to my shock, she told me she was mad at my grandfather for leaving her and that she didn’t want to be buried with him. I immediately tattled informed Mom and my Aunt Mary Jane, who quickly had words with her. Needless to say, I reminded her that he didn’t *choose* to die and leave her to raise their two daughters alone, and my aunt told her if she wanted to be buried elsewhere, the only way that would happen would be if she put it in writing. She didn’t do that, and they are buried together in Grand Marais. Mischief managed.

Because Mom has very little information about her father, I’ve been trying to dig up information to share with her. Through inane newspaper articles (which I consider the Facebook of its time), I found out that he played the outfield on a local baseball team. Apparently, they were pretty good because they had a winning record. Mom didn’t know that. What I know about him could fit in a thimble, and I’m working to change that.

What I DO know is that after the war, my grandfather owned a gas station and struggled financially, mostly because he had a soft heart and employed men who needed jobs during the Great Depression. Grandma quit her teaching job to stay home with her kids, ultimately returning to her profession after he died. Mom remembers him being a kind father. He loved dogs, as did his brother and parents. He ultimately became the Postmaster of Grand Marais in 1936, a position he held until the cancer rendered him unable to work. He died at Fort Snelling in Minneapolis on June 1, 1948. My grandmother wouldn’t allow my aunt or mother to attend the funeral. I’m not sure why, and I don’t agree with her decision, but I believe with all my heart she was doing what she felt was in the best interest of her daughters. They had endured the previous year watching their father’s health deteriorate. In the end, his obituary indicates that Grandma and the entire town gave him a proper funeral with full military honors and a respectable burial.

Articles printed in the Cook County Herald in June 1948
Photo courtesy of Jamie Linnel, Findagrave

I’ll be in Grand Marais this summer and plan to do a little digging around while I’m there. I hope there is more out there, but nevertheless, I’ll settle for putting some flowers on the grave. The last time I was there in 2011, the cemetery didn’t provoke strong feelings, save that I miss my grandmother. Nine years later, it will.

The Year (and a half) of Mourning

It qualified as the worst of times…

Image by Mircea Iancu from Pixabay

We’re nearing a sad anniversary for me. Typically, most people find Valentine’s Day something to anticipate and enjoy. I don’t hate it, but I definitely don’t love or celebrate it either. Since 2014, it commemorates the start of the worst 18 months of my life.

I lost a very dear friend and mentor on February 14, 2014. I had no idea that his death would mark the beginning of a year and a half of profound loss. I had plans that night. A fancy dinner at my house for six. Dennis had received news that his cancer had metastasized, and we knew the end was near. I decided to use my best china, crystal and silver, and I decorated my dining room in pink. It was festive, I had taken off work early and was mopping the floor when my phone rang. It was my friend, Ron, who was also a guest. I assumed he was calling to get the specific time I wanted them to show up. Instead, Ron quietly asked me how quickly I could get to the hospital with the medical power-of-attorney papers. As I was obviously struggling with the quick change of gears, he let me know we were dealing with an end of life event.

Dennis died later that evening, with all the dinner guests by his side. Following his last breath, I kissed him on the forehead and left. The dinner party was a bust. We headed to his home immediately, only to find Valentine candy boxes stacked neatly on the counter and Valentine cards addressed to Valerie and me. He was prepared, but I was not. Little did I know that would be a recurring theme for awhile.

As co-executor of his estate, it was a long year of tying up loose ends. His brother decided to have the memorial in July around his birthday so that his family could attend. It was followed by his interment at Fort Logan. In early November, his house finally sold. I had to sign the papers early, as I was heading back east to attend Victoria’s volleyball championship tournament in Hoboken. It was a relief, but bittersweet as well. Settling on his house represented the closing of a chapter in my life that had been very special and memorable.

We met at the cemetery with coffee and donuts on the first anniversary of Dennis’ passing. Fort Logan National Cemetery, Denver, CO.

Unfortunately, I knew the weekend ahead of me was going to be even more sobering and awful. My brother had been in a coma after his heart surgery, and my parents decided that they would pull him off life support on Sunday. They decided to wait for Val and me to arrive from New Jersey so that I could say goodbye. We missed our train and he died shortly after we boarded our train. It’s a bittersweet memory, as Vic’s team had won and were heading to Newport News the following weekend. Val and I were sitting across from a woman and her adult daughter. They could tell what had happened based on hearing my side of the phone call. I hung up and sat there in complete shock. The older woman put her hands on my thighs and leaned toward me and said, very kindly, “I’m so very sorry.” She meant it.

Rather than fly home and fly back for the tournament, I decided that Val and I would stay. The next day, I went with my parents to the funeral home to help them make decisions. I had done this for Dennis with his brother and brother’s wife earlier in the year, so the memory was very fresh. This time, the grief started settling in a whole lot faster. Chris was my only brother. Their only son.

As with Dennis, my parents decided to wait until after Thanksgiving to have his funeral so that family could attend. We buried him on December 13, 2014. When it came time to ring in 2015, I was absolutely certain it was going to be a much better year. Nope. Not a chance.

Photo courtesy of David Hunsberger, Find-a-Grave.

I had a handle on losing my dear friend and my brother, or at least I thought I had done more grief work than I really had done. It was now April, and I had plans for my birthday. My birthday was early in the week, so the plans were set for Friday evening. It was opening day for baseball, I was wearing my Rockies jersey, and Ron was taking me out to dinner to a nice Hibachi restaurant. I was at work and had finished a cup of coffee when my phone rang. It was my dad, and he sounded awful. Stressed out crazy, actually. As a former cop, my dad was usually calm and not easily excited. I discovered through personal experience that his calm flies out the window when it concerns people he loves.

My dear aunt–my mother’s only sister–was coming home from the hospital after surgery. Mom was her ride home, as my cousin was driving his father to a nursing home so she could recuperate before a bigger surgery down the road. She, too, had cancer. Dad relayed to me that as they were walking in her building from the garage, Aunt Mary Jane told Mom she needed to sit down. Before Mom could reply, my aunt slid to the ground and died instantly. Mom performed CPR on her sister until the paramedics arrived. They were able to revive her a few times, but their attempts were not successful, and we suddenly lost the matriarch of our family.

I planned on canceling my birthday dinner, but Mom intervened and told me that Aunt Mary Jane would have wanted me to go. She instructed me to have a cocktail and toast in her honor. (Aunt Mary Jane was a firm believer in the therapeutic benefits of happy hour.) The downside? Ron had to put up with me being a lousy dinner partner.

Aunt Mary Jane’s death rocked my world. It was sudden and unexpected and nobody had the chance to say goodbye. It was a perfect way to die from her perspective, but it really, REALLY sucked for everyone else. Losing a loved one in this manner is grueling. It was the beginning of my realization that perhaps I hadn’t done enough grief work after all. It commenced a period in my life that found me on the couch in my family room, eating my grief. I mean that literally. By the end of 2015, I put on 50 lbs.

I wasn’t able to go to my aunt’s memorial because Val and I already had tickets home for the week of the 4th of July. Ironically, I booked that trip so I could spend some time with her and her husband. My cousin decided to hold on to her remains until his father passed away. We weren’t sure when that would happen, so that event was pushed out into the future.

Meanwhile, my godfather had been in a nursing home, debilitated by Alzheimers (such a cruel, cruel way to live and die). I always called him Uncle Robert, because it was a relationship of the heart and DNA be damned. His daughter, Mary Kay, and I are 6 months apart in age, and we lived next door to each other until I was 4. Our families were and are close. He passed away in early June. I was already numb, so piling another person on the grief pile seemed normal. I had hoped to get to his funeral and burial at Quantico, but it was scheduled the week after Val and I left DC. I lost sleep over that one. Plus, my family said it was an unforgettable experience: a complete shut down of I-95 from Arlington to Quantico. The route was stopped by people who saluted his hearse. My loved ones bawled, and I bawled when they told me about it.

Photo courtesy of John Evans, Find-a-Grave

In late June, Mary Kay’s husband, Scott, lost his mother. Her memorial was scheduled in Annapolis while Valerie and I were there, so I was able to go. As I met with my loved ones–who were sharing this same grief–a family friend suggested we become professional mourners. Why not get paid to cry like this?

My parents traveled to Scotland in August and returned home to find out that my father’s good friend had passed away while they were overseas. Mr. Rice and Dad joined the Metropolitan Police Department on the same day and retired the same day. They were really good friends, and we grew up knowing their family very well. His wife and Mom were girl scout leaders together, and their daughter, Sonya, was one of my sister’s best friends. Dad was in complete shock and really unhappy they had not been able to attend his funeral or burial at Quantico. I had seen Mr. and Mrs. Rice at Christmas mass the year before, and it seemed surreal that another person had left our close circle.

Photo courtesy of John Evans, Find-a-Grave

Over Labor Day weekend, Val and I traveled to Rhode Island to attend Vic’s first season volleyball tournament in Bristol. The weather was spectacular (autumn in New England can’t be beat), and I was enjoying the view when my phone rang. Caller ID indicated it was my parents. I answered, and Mom informed me that Uncle Jim had just passed away. He had not taken Aunt Mary Jane’s death well, and his health spiraled after she passed away. Even though he was 94, he died of a broken heart. This was the final death of the 18 month year from hell, and ironically, it was the only death where I felt relief. He had been miserable since April, and I felt God owed him that. My cousin had lost both his parents within 5 months, and that was not something to celebrate. Because he was to be buried at Arlington, I didn’t have another funeral to attend that year. Thank goodness, because I had decided Val and I flew back east every weekend to attend as many volleyball matches as we could since it was Vic’s senior year in college. We were able to attend all but 2, with the final in Grand Rapids at the Elite 8 (4th year in a row). Whew.

Vic graduated the following May. She was sad that Dennis–who was her godfather–was not there to celebrate with her. He was her biggest fan. Anyway, we got home from New York and then flew back to DC for Uncle Jim’s funeral and interment of their remains. The service was at the Old Post Chapel in Fort Myer, with a procession of a horse drawn carriage, through the gate and down the hill. It was a hot, muggy day. After the 21 gun salute, their remains were placed in the columbarium. It marked the end of our horrible year, and I wouldn’t wish it on my enemy. I still get teared up when I write about each one of these people, all of them in my inner circle. It was nothing short of devastating.

Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA

I took that photo when I was there in November with my cousin, Jay. It was good being with him, and we both teared up as we remembered that brutal year of loss.

What did I learn? For one, our holiday table has fewer chairs around it. The people who we lost are loved and missed. But they gave us a gift too. The gift is love, along with a reminder to cherish the time we still have with those gathered around us now. I don’t take it for granted, and I can say with assurance I never will. Better to have loved and lost than to not love at all. One day, I will be with them again. But not too soon, if I get my way.

I have lost more friends in the interim–each mourned individually. I try not to defer the grieving process because I don’t need to gain 50 more pounds. But hopefully I’ll never have another 18 months like that again. I pray you don’t have to experience it either. In the immortal words of Tiny Tim (through Charles Dickens), “God Bless Us, Every One!”


Life with a special needs daughter

Val and George, discussing important stuff. Taken November 2014 at Yorktown, Virginia

I’ve been wanting to write about Val for awhile, but she requires some brain power and more effort than I usually expend for most of my posts. Maybe because I’m more invested in her than anyone else in my life?

Valerie Nicole was born on an evening in early March of 1997. I had a difficult pregnancy with her, which might have been God’s way of giving me a heads up that more trouble would follow. (I was oblivious then.) She was a few weeks early, only because I was sick of contractions, being dilated to 7 and wondering when the shoe would drop. My obstetrician took care of that for me.

It should have been a very joyful day for me and Kevin. Her delivery took 3 pushes and was the easiest thing about her life then… and now. When she made her appearance, she didn’t cry. Her face looked like it was crying, but nothing came out. I happened to notice my doctor’s face, and her furrowed brow didn’t reassure me. There were no smiles among the nurses either.

Val loved bath time for years

I won’t bore you with all the dreary details, but we brought her home and if I had any plan for an adjustment that wasn’t painful, I was in for a huge shock. She cried. All.The.Time. It wasn’t just a plain old cry, though. It was one that screamed to everyone that she was in immense pain. We had her readmitted in the hospital 2 days later, and for some bizarre reason, they put her on an adult ward in the hospital and ran a million tests. All those tests came back “normal”. Even worse, the nursing staff was horrible, didn’t seem to care and didn’t listen to me or Kevin. After enough of their crap, I decided Kevin and I could do a better job and decided to kidnap her out of there. I hailed a cab with Val and surprised my husband at 5 am. He was sleepy, confused and sat there in complete silence as I told him my reasoning for the break out. He busted out laughing only because he was picturing me as a kidnapper. And then he got very, very angry. I laid in our bed sobbing with this screaming baby, and he got a shower and dressed. When he finally appeared in our room, he calmly told me he was going to take matters into his own hands.

For that morning, he was my hero. I simply couldn’t manage anything but a kidnapping. He headed to the hospital, met with that damn male nurse and the head of nursing and told them what he felt. He left there with a smug smile and headed home briefly before dropping Victoria off at daycare and going to work. After he got home, he called my mother. I heard him say, “Bobbie, can you please come early? Name your price. I’ll stop at the liquor store and buy a gallon of gin, just get here as soon as you can.” My father made that happen the next day. Dad joined her the following week, not really believing us that things were as awful as they were. It didn’t take long for him to face reality. It was then that he and Val began their bond that continues today. My parents headed home on my 35th birthday. With them as my witness, I laid on the driveway in front of their rental car and told them they couldn’t leave me. They left anyway (without running over me).

It didn’t get easier for a really long time. Like years. Her pediatrician threw everything but the kitchen sink to see what was wrong. She was jaundiced. She didn’t eat much, because she had acid reflux and it prevented her from even wanting to eat. On top of that, she had cyclic vomiting episodes, which resulted in her being hospitalized numerous times. She had one of those episodes that October. We had a mammoth snow storm. Kevin’s truck was 2 wheel drive, and he had to borrow a neighbor’s 4WD vehicle to take me and Val to the hospital. Then we were stranded there. Such fun.

During that stay, a very handsome and egotistical hospitalist made the rounds. I sized him up silently, immediately figuring out his achilles heel. He checked himself out in the mirror as he entered our room. Yeah, I nailed him. He started to give me some standard line of bull in a condescending fashion, and basically told me I was a crazy person. So I smiled my biggest dimpled smile and invited him to sit on my bed. I scooted close enough to him to make him really uncomfortable. He bolted off the bed and exclaimed with exasperation and maybe a little fear, “What do you want me to do???” I jumped off the bed and got in his face and yelled, “If she were YOUR daughter, what would you do for her? That’s what I want!”Within minutes, he wrote me a referral to a pediatric gastroenterologist and he literally ran out of the room, never to return. Ha ha! I sat on the bed with a satisfied grin. Twenty-two years later, I’m still proud of using mental combat to get her what she needed. It was one of my finest moments.

Val had a nissin fundoplication that December. My 9-month old baby had horrible ulcers and a very inflamed esophagus. That pediatric GI was her wonderful doctor until she aged out last year. On our last office visit, he wrapped his arms around me and told me, “I’ve loved every moment of being her doctor. She’s a love and you are one special person. I looked in his eyes and Dr. Ted was crying. I couldn’t help but join him. He was a really big part of her childhood. To this day, her seizure meds cause acid reflux and constipation, and her now adult GI is still a part of our lives. For the record, the hospitalist I mentioned above was friends with Dr. Ted. He happened to give Dr. Ted a heads up that a crazy person was going to make an appointment with him. 21 years later, Dr. Ted and I still laughed about that. And he agreed with me that he is one of the most egotistical people he’s ever met. 🙂

At this point in our lives with Val, I *knew* something was really wrong with her. Our pediatrician told me that he had practiced long enough to know that mothers know, even if the medical community didn’t. Although I had people tell me that I needed to relax and let her grow on her own, Dr. R. was concerned enough to tell me not to let them get to me.

Victoria and I were in Australia for my grandmother’s 85th birthday in 1998 when the phone rang in her house. It was Kevin. He had taken Val to her annual check up, and I knew instantly that this conversation was not going to be a happy one. He was choked up and had difficulty getting the words out. Val failed every single pediatric milestone, weighed a whopping 12 lbs, and was diagnosed as failure to thrive (and that diagnosis is basically a judgment handed down to poor parenting). He told me we needed to take her to a developmental specialist and a geneticist when I got home. His last statement was sobering, and he struggled to tell me that her survival was not guaranteed. I hung up the phone and burst into tears. My grandmother sat on the couch next to me and hugged me while I sobbed.

We saw many specialists over the years. Because she wouldn’t eat, she spent 3 years in feeding therapy. At 18 months, she had physical, occupational, speech and feeding therapy every week. I was fortunate to have Dennis–my boss and friend–support us through this journey. I know it was tough on him, but it was very stressful for Victoria, Kevin and me and our families and friends. You couldn’t pay me enough money to go back.

In the meantime, Val’s pediatrician came down with leukemia and had to lighten his load. His practice brought in a young doctor to take his toughest cases. It was much later that I found out he was brought in to specifically deal with Val. Dr. G. was our lifeline. I had his personal cell phone number and personal e-mail address. He remained her doctor until earlier this year. That transition, too, was a little emotional for both of us. Anyway, back in 1999, he would spend his evenings poring through obscure medical journals to see if he could find anything to explain her problems. At this point, she was still not achieving typical milestones, not walking and not babbling.

In the summer of 1999, he called me at the end of his work day and told me he thought he might have found something. He gave it a name: Angelman Syndrome. He had the University of Colorado geneticist do the DNA test, which came back as inconclusive. Still, Dr. G. didn’t give up. He told me that he felt it looked like a duck and quacked like a duck, and that he wasn’t convinced by the lack of clear results. He told me he was going to find the best place to get tested.

We were referred to Baylor University and the ball was in motion. When the folks at Baylor requested my family’s DNA, we were pretty sure there was something there. My parents and sister obliged. This process took almost 6 months. Then one wintry February day in 2000, I got confirmation that Val had AS. Although I had reconciled this in my head, nothing prepared me for the grief that followed. At that very moment, it was an overwhelming death sentence. I dropped to the floor in my shower and sobbed for what seemed hours.

A psychologist would tell me shortly afterward that it was the death of a dream. Death to my hopes that all would be normal and she would catch up. Fear that I wasn’t up to the job. Fear how we would manage. Fear that I would have an adult disabled person in my house for the rest of my life. I was devastated. If you’re wondering about Kevin, he deals with grief by turning inward. Through the looking glass of time, I wish we had entered therapy to deal with those fears.

Kevin was taking photos of the beautiful fall foliage in his backyard. He was sidelined by a very grumpy person. Just in case you’re wondering if she always smiles. She doesn’t.

Once I picked myself up by my bootstraps, I started making some big changes. I made myself a promise to allow 24 hours to wallow in self pity and then it was time to resume my role as mother and cheerleader. I had to get my family into a system somehow. It’s a promise I keep to myself today. It works.

Since then, we were given the crash course in genetics. My father, sister and I share a deletion on the 15th chromosome. Dad and Barb’s deletion is identical, where mine mutated. The markers turned on with Val, and because of that, she is affected. She is nonverbal, has epilepsy, and a lovely sleep disorder. She’s got a huge smile and a wonderful sense of humor. She’s silly and a prankster. She loves animals and road trips. Every day is groundhog day with Val, and it’s a reminder to me to leave grudges behind. She’s forced me to be a much more patient person. A more accepting person. A more compassionate person. I consider her the best gift God ever gave me. She gave me purpose and resolve. It’s a privilege to be her mom.

Now that I work on the family genealogy, I’m diligent about researching any clues that might lead me to understand which side of the family it came from. The Dunns? Wilsons? Whitakers? Dimmitts? Jacksons? Stokes’? Harveys? I honestly don’t know. If the mystery is to be solved at all, it will be the DNA that reveals the source.

We had fantastic neighbors in our neighborhood in Highlands Ranch. They were so supportive. One of them was in early childhood education in our home school district. She knocked on my door one evening before Kevin got home and gave me some advice which we took. She told me to move to another school district. One of our wonderful neighbors had a teenage daughter with Down Syndrome. After she told me her daughter had to go to 6 different schools because of boundary changes, I knew the advice was good. Kevin and I put our house up for sale, sold it within an hour and moved to an established neighborhood part of a stable school district. It was a decision neither of us regret. We hated leaving those wonderful neighbors, but we had to do what was best for our family. Val started preschool that summer.

Kevin and I separated in 2003 and divorced in 2005. We tell people that we got divorced because we were sleep deprived. The funny thing is that we’re not kidding. We went into survival mode and remained there for a very long time. I thought the day we got Val’s diagnosis was the worst day in my life. I was wrong. That day was the day he moved out. I spent most of that year dealing with emotional paralysis. Fortunately, the help of an on-line support group, therapy and a decision to grow up got me through those hard days. Kevin himself was attempting to survive a depression that lasted quite awhile as well. I consider those the dark days.

I can say that we’ve come a long way since then. When he left home, my mom had accurately observed that she remembered a time when we were the best of friends and that our friendship had completely disappeared. I realized she was on to something. Rather than get him back as my husband, I decided to shoot for a goal of getting my friend back. It turned out to be a good goal for a million different reasons. Aside from the obvious (that’s it’s far better to have a friend than an enemy), I really wanted his help co-parenting our daughters. They were just 8 and 5 when he left. I had a lot of parenting time left, I didn’t want to do it alone, and I didn’t want them to grow up without their dad playing a major role in their lives.

During those years, Val still had cyclic vomiting episodes which required a minimum 3 day hospitalization. Nobody seemed to understand the origin, and it was like the chicken and the egg. Either nausea caused them or something else caused the nausea and vomiting. When she was about 10, she was in Children’s Hospital and the chief of neurology was making rounds while she was in distress. He walked in the room and said to the nurses and attending physician,”She’s having a cluster seizure. Why aren’t you giving her rectal valium?” Everyone was stunned, but they followed his instruction. The valium stopped her vomiting within 60 seconds. I think everyone learned a lot from that man that day, and we finally got relief from those episodes.

Another side note on the sleep deprivation being part of our miserable story is a flip side that is much happier. The sport of volleyball was the vehicle to getting our friendship back on track. At the age of 11, Victoria had decided volleyball was going to be her thing. Neither of us wanted her to play club volleyball (it’s time consuming and expensive), but she pulled the ultimate card one afternoon: “When is this going to be about me and not you guys?” Not surprisingly, she headed for the court–all in–the next day. I knew it was serious when she joined without knowing anyone.

How did volleyball do this? Well, for one, it’s very hard to dislike someone who wants the same person to succeed as much as you do. It’s impossible, actually. In the early days, we’d alternate going so one of us was home with Val. By the end of the season, Val became a permanent cheerleader on her sidelines. We were Vic’s biggest fans, and we were gypsies who headed across the country to watch her play. Along the way, we dragged friends and family into our caravan. Seven years later, we were blessed with four more years to enjoy through college. Val loved being with Vic and her teammates. Volleyball was the thing that brought my family back together.

Val went on to have a wonderful experience in school. She was fortunate to have teachers, aides and other parents who were on her side. On our side. She joined the Sparkles her freshman year in high school. The Sparkles were the unified cheer squad at school. The girls were so good with her. But they disbanded after the teacher retired, plus it interfered with volleyball in New York. So she joined the Unified Basketball team for the rest of her high school years. While we loved every minute watching Vic play, Val was a complete 180. We were constantly telling her to run! Instead, she would grab her typical peer’s hand and wave to the crowd. Kevin and I did enjoy watching the kids play, though. I miss it all.

Val at her 21st birthday party, March 2018. Photo courtesy of Tina Brewer.
Val in her cap and gown after graduation, May 2018. It was a pretty special conclusion to her 18 years in Cherry Creek School District.

It’s now almost 2020 and Val will be 23 on her next birthday. She is happy in her day program. Kevin and I are in a good routine with her, and she’s a happy person. I no longer fear being her caregiver for life, as it’s been a job I’ve held since 1997 and we’re a packaged deal. I can’t imagine NOT having this job. She likes hanging out with me and Kevin, and frankly, she prefers our company. She and Kevin go on motorcycle rides and to see bands play and people dance. She’s a very social person. She and I travel, shop and go to movies. I drag her on my genealogical pursuits and she’s a good sport. I truly can’t imagine my life being different than it is.

And that, friends, is God’s grace and blessing bestowed on me.

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…

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