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.

Those Were The Good Old Days…

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

Really? Were they?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Script

Their love story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My grandparents and me

I was fortunate to have three of my grandparents in my life into my so-called adulthood. Widowed in 1948, my Grandma Creech died in 1992 within several months of my 30th birthday. My Dunn grandparents died in 1995 and 2008. All three of them lived to see me get married, and my Dunn grandparents lived to have great grandchildren; Grandmom (affectionally known as Gigi to my kids) died when Victoria was 14. I’m incredibly grateful for it, too. For the record, I always distinguished my grandmothers by Grandma and Grandmom.

Unlike my friends, my grandparents did not live within a day’s drive of my girlhood home in Falls Church. Grandma Creech was a teacher in Minnesota, and after she retired, she spent her winters in the DC area and taking turns staying with us and Aunt Mary Jane’s house. She returned home to Minnesota every March like clock work. She was the only grandparent who had a routine and annual physical presence in my childhood. I have fond memories of her time with us.

My Dunn grandparents–Bill and Elise–were exotic, exciting and jet setters. From the time I was born, they never lived stateside. My grandfather was a comptroller for the State Department, and their travels took them all over the world: Bogota, Tehran and Taipei until they retired to the Sydney area. They became permanent ex-pats when Dad was 20ish. My dad was the “left-behind” kid and we didn’t see them often (enough). I think it was mostly due to the fact that Grandmom was a DC native and missed her family that we saw them as often as we did. They returned stateside every 3 years with my uncles and aunts in tow, and remained committed to the triennial schedule until well after Granddad retired in 1970. As they got older, the trips happened every two years, and after my grandfather died in 1995, my grandmother made the trek every year until the year before she died. I really was blessed. Family was important to them, though I didn’t fully understand that that back then. We had different ideas of that concept.

When I grew up, all my friends saw their grandparents frequently and at holidays. I was jealous of them. Seriously jealous. Bummed. I felt gypped. Those feelings were ever present until their next trip stateside. Only then would I forget about how I felt and opted to enjoy the time I had with them. And when they left again, I would return to my heartbroken state for awhile until things normalized and the pattern repeated itself. They were at my high school graduation, but somehow, that was never enough for me. I was the only person I knew who had never been to their grandparents’ house. Until 1985, I had never, ever set foot in my Dunn grandparents’ house.

For my college graduation in 1984, my grandfather gave me the gift of a lifetime. He paid for half of my airfare to Sydney-which was about $2K at the time-and told me I could stay as long as I liked. Mom was super supportive, but Dad? He was less than thrilled. In fact, he was pretty much against it. He wanted me to find a full time job and grow up. He was 100% in favor of me adulting. Needless to say, we butt heads, Mom’s influence prevailed, and I caught a flight on Pan Am from JFK to Sydney via San Francisco and Honolulu on February 2nd and I didn’t return home to Virginia until the end of March. My careful planning, saving money and “adulting” prior to the trip enabled me to pay off my car loan so that I could be a tourist without any worry whatsoever. It was the best thing I could do for myself: I was foot loose and fancy free.

Although I had never verbalized how I felt up to that point, Mom knew. Moms know these things. She hugged me tight before putting me on the plane to New York and told me to have a wonderful time. I took her advice. I was almost 23 years old, and it was my first visit to see my grandparents on their turf.

Behind the scenes, my grandparents prepared for my arrival. I was the oldest of their grandchildren. My cousins are a lot younger than I am. There is 19 years between Dad and his youngest sister, Kathy. The Sydney grandkids were elementary school age, toddlers and babies. They put an addition on the room that my two aunts shared while growing up and turned it into an en-suite with its own bathroom. The room was directly across from my grandparents’ bedroom. I can’t remember being happier than when I was at their house. I allowed my childhood to take root at their house on Bilgola Plateau, and it was everything I wanted–and needed–this visit to be. We did so many things, traveled to Canberra, made trips to the Blue Mountains to visit my Uncle John and his family, took a ferry to Terrigal to visit with my Aunt Patti and her family. I hung out with Uncle Terry (who lived in the flat below my grandparents) and my Aunt Kathy, who lived close by. I spent a lot of time watching Grease with my 5 year old cousin, Daniel. There were ferries and quadrofoils to take day trips to Sydney, and a night to see La Traviata at the Opera House. I also appreciated them letting me learn how to drive on the other side of the road to go to the beach! I cherish the times I had with them, seeing their city and meeting their friends. I relished meeting my cousins for the first time. But my very favorite memory of all was a whole lot more mundane. It happened most nights–at least 4 times per week–and my grandparents indulged me. I forced them to pull out the photos and home videos, and I made them look through them and watch with me. I did this as often as I could, and I didn’t care if I had seen the same photos the week before. They were all new to me.

To their credit, they never suggested I find something else to do. I think deep down inside, they knew I needed to have a link to the past and they made that possible. Both my Dunn grandparents were marvelous storytellers. They were natural born conversationalists which ultimately presented as being great entertainers. Granddad was George and Grandmom was his Gracie. It was during this trip that I learned about my grandfather’s childhood in Mount Comfort, Indiana. Until then, I had always assumed he didn’t get along very well with his family and moved away to put distance between them. Why did I think that? I really don’t know. Maybe because I just didn’t know the truth. I didn’t understand the choices and consequences, and it just wasn’t true. It became obvious that he loved his parents, siblings and extended family. He just longed for a grand life away from Mount Comfort. He spoke fondly of his people from Indiana, and I learned more about my extended family–most whom I had never met. Would never meet. My dad had certainly met many of them when they traveled back to Indiana. But as I said before, I missed that part of childhood and my dad wasn’t from Indiana. So it was foreign to me. By this time, Dad was already doing family genealogy, but researching them wasn’t my bag at 23. I was, however, desperate to learn about my grandparents’ past.

I carry some of the stories my grandfather told in my heart, and can remember his laughter as he regaled his tales. He had a great sense of humor, which I hope I inherited. I left Australia in 1985 with a heaviness in my heart because my life had been irrevocably changed by my connection to them. The best outcome was that I returned to Virginia with a piece of my heart healed. All those feelings of being gypped disappeared. For the first time in my life, I was thrilled my family was weird and different.

A few years later, my wandering soul took me to Mountain View, California. A day after the green Mayflower truck loaded my stuff on the truck, I caught a flight on United to San Francisco. The next chapter of my life began on my sister’s birthday in 1988. Shortly after I arrived and got settled into my crappy apartment, my grandparents called. They wanted to let me know they were planning their next trip to the US the following summer and assured me that San Francisco was going to be their first stop before venturing east. It was during this call my grandfather said, “I know I told you about my Aunt Ruth. You would have loved her: you have kindred hearts. So I’m giving you the phone number of her daughter, my cousin, because I think the two of you will get on well. Her name is also Ruth, and she lives in Marin County. It’s not far from you.” Grandmom agreed and I called Ruth soon afterward. Ruth Bondy Linvill became my San Francisco mother. Her kids all lived elsewhere, so I adopted her as my own.

Much like my grandparents did with me on my first trip to Sydney, Ruth taught me more about the city where we both lived. She, too, was a fantastic conversationalist, interesting and funny. She was generous, kind, and my refuge in a place where I knew no one. She also told me stories of her childhood and visits to Mount Comfort. She told me about her mother, Ruth Dunn Bondy, the youngest of the Dunn siblings. I appreciated her letting me adopt her and she was only too happy to oblige. Once I started dating Kevin, my trips to Novato became more sparse and ceased when we got married. I hope she knows that I regret that.

It’s only been since I started working on my ancestral roots that I’ve been able to place people and stories in conjunction with my tree. They came to life and I realized that I knew more about them than I originally thought. But I still had a way to go on that journey. My grandparents laid the ground work for what I’ve discovered since. I appreciate that trip to Sydney back in 1985 more than ever. It gave me a gift I didn’t recognize as such at the age of 23. Now that I’m 57 and have had the chance to expand my Dunn family to include 2nd and 3rd cousins, I fully acknowledge the gift of family as the biggest blessing bestowed on me.

Thankfully, my parents were–and still are–a constant presence in the lives of their granddaughters. Vic and Val have never gone a year without seeing them, either at our house or theirs. When Vic turned 11, she started a trend of heading to Virginia to stay with them for a month. They did all the things with her that I did at the age of 23. Well, except that my folks took her to London one summer for a week and then to Scotland for a month the following year. I don’t regret how it played out, because in the end, the results were identical. We both know/knew our grandparents as adults. With a little luck, my parents will live to meet their great grandchildren too.

In early 2009, shortly after Grandmom died, Mom, Dad, Vic and I were on a group phone call. Vic blurted out, “I’m so surprised that we haven’t been to Ireland yet.” My parents laughed. The next day, they called us and requested a group chat. They announced that they would take her to Ireland on one condition: that I came with them. She agreed and I jumped for joy. I asked Mom and Dad if they were sure. Dad said, “Yes. Your grandmother is making this possible and somehow I know she would want us to make this trip as a tribute to her.” Choked up, I couldn’t argue with that. We traveled together in memory of her.

I never imagined in 1985 that Mount Comfort, Indiana, would mean something to me in 2019. It means even more than it would have in a different set of circumstances. I guess God really knew what He was doing when he gave me the situation I thought was awful and turned it into something wildly wonderful and very special. I only wish they were here so I could tell them how much I love them just one more time.

L-R: Mom, Aunt Eleanor Buhler, Aunt Kathy, Uncle John, Grandmom (holding me), Aunt Patti, Dad. Circa 1963.
L-R: Granddad, me, Kevin, Grandmom. On our honeymoon on their back porch in Avalon Beach in 1990.

I Wonder… About the Olympics

Photo by nappy from Pexels

This post has nothing to do with genealogy, only because I can’t tie it to my people in any fashion. Maybe Kevin’s ancestors in Norway can make this claim, but I sure can’t. It does have a little bit to do with history, though.

It’s a Friday night, Val is with Kevin, and I’m in my recliner with my animals close by (okay, one cat is almost sitting on my head) and I’m watching the Olympic channel. It’s that time where the 2020 Olympic qualifiers are in progress. Tonight’s sports capturing my attention are men’s indoor volleyball (that should come as no surprise to you, right?) and women’s gymnastics. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I absolutely love watching the Olympics: both winter and summer. I become the quintessential couch potato. I also “cheat” to get scores ahead of time when they are available. No, I’m not apologizing for it either.

As I sit here in awe of the athletes who have donned my screen tonight, it made me wonder. How long has the United States participated in the Olympics? That was easy enough to find out: the 1896 Summer Olympics in Athens. We sent 14 athletes and won 12 medals. The events were all in what we know as track and field. The participants were all from New England, and they represented our country well. The 1896 games were considered the first worldwide modern Olympics.

There was obviously no television, and radio didn’t really become a household thing until the 1920s. I’m interested in how the athletes were able to enter the world stage as well as how they knew about the games. Was the rest of the country aware of their efforts? Did they get results? Did they even care? Did my ancestors have any interest in the Olympics?

I did a perfunctory search on Newspapers.com and immediately learned some interesting facts: 1) the “summer” games were actually played in the spring. They closed in mid-April; 2) the most detailed articles seemed to be papers in New England and New York. To be fair, I found other publications that discussed the final results, from San Bernardino, California, to Sydney, Australia; 3) Most of the articles were one paragraph, though the Los Angeles Herald devoted two entire paragraphs to the results!;4) the predecessors to the respective international Olympic federation proposed that the games be open to international competition every four years in during Eastertide, between April 5-15 in Athens, Paris, London and New York, respectively; 5) France apparently was in the forefront to opening the games outside of Greek athletes.

Furthermore, an article appeared in College Life (Emporia, KS) on 13 Apr 1896 discussing the dismal prospects of sending Americans abroad to participate. The authors/editors felt that the distance would be a huge factor, and that we wouldn’t be able to send our best athletes to compete. I wonder if they eat crow on the other side?

Let’s jump to the 1900 Summer Olympics. They were held in Paris as part of the World’s Fair. The US medaled in Athletics (modern day Track and Field), Cycling, Sailing, Tennis and Golf. The articles I found for these games were published nationally, and were no longer concentrated in the Northeast. Though they were more numerous and longer than 1896, they pale in comparison to the news we now see.

In 1896, the games were not designated as the “summer” Olympics. They were THE Olympics. There wasn’t a winter Olympics. I know you’re wondering, so I’ve taken the liberty of doing a little research on them as well.

In 1901, the first winter competition came into existence and was called the Nordic games. The competitors were athletes from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Finland. The competitions were also held every four years in Sweden.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the games were political (Sweden and Norway were at odds) and that the organizers were vehemently opposed to the creation of the winter Olympics. As the objectors died, so did the Nordic games. They only existed until 1926.

The Winter Olympics weren’t originally known or called as such. It was first called International Sports Week, which took place in January and February 1924 in Chamonix, France. If you’re old like I am, you’ll remember that the winter and summer games were long held in the same year, every four years. (The split into every two years happened in 1992.) The Summer Olympics were held in Paris. By 1928, the IOC was in existence, and they officially announced the 1928 games in St. Moritz, Switzerland, as the second Winter Olympics.

I wonder when the idea to compete nationally and internationally took hold in mainstream America? Were the families as supportive and obsessed as we are today? Did they see the Olympics as a source of American pride? Did hearing about them make them want to hear more? We know that athletes of color were denied the opportunity to compete. Were women celebrated or reviled as well? How did these athletes persevere and grow sports into the iconic events we expect?

I don’t have anyone in my family who has competed on the Olympic stage, so I really don’t know.

I welcome your comments so we can all learn!

Census records are fun!

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

I can see my friends and family members shaking their heads in disgust. They like listening to books on tape, scuba diving, skiing, doing yoga, playing golf and playing cards. I like doing those things too, but I’m the weirdo in my family who likes reading death certificates and poring through census records. I have a group of friends who enjoy the same pursuits, so I know I’m not alone. This post is not for my friends who do genealogy, but for those of you who don’t.

Some genealogists/wanna-be genealogists hate the census records. Why would someone feel that strongly about data? I’ve been given a few reasons: 1) Census records were never meant to be genealogy tools: they are designed to allocate resources and shuffle the 435 members of the House of Representatives based on population shifts; 2) Some people didn’t or don’t complete them; and 3) Some people lie. Yes, really.

I know it too, but the records are useful in helping me research people. I use them as a tool to supplement my research, not stand alone. When they are available, I like them. Why? 1) The census places people in a location at a specific point in time; 2) I can see the profession and determine if I’ve got the right family. If I know my 2nd great grandfather was a farmer, but I find a William Dunn in Mount Comfort, Indiana, with a different profession, it’s probably not the right guy; and 3) Depending on the decade, they can provide so much more information. Fun fact: I’ve been working on my future son-in-law’s ancestry. His mother’s side is 100% Italian and his father’s is 100% Irish. His mother’s people were primarily bakers; his father’s people ran the gamut. There were a few priests, lots of laborers and one snake keeper at the Bronx zoo! In all the records I’ve seen, the snake keeper was my first and probably my last.

I can’t change the fact that sometimes my wandering ancestors were in between a move. I can’t change the fact that people-especially women-lie about their age (no, I don’t find it amusing to watch a person progressively lop off a few years each decade). I also can’t change the fact that there were several decades where women AND men identified as widows/widowers instead of divorcees (shameful!). I just choose to focus on the stuff I can see and use.

Before I embarked on this hobby, I had never seen a census record before. I’ve completed them personally and for business, but I hadn’t thought about them beyond the mundane task it tends to be.

Before 1850, the federal census only named the head of the household and listed age groups of the members of the household. Researching women prior to 1850 can be very frustrating, if not impossible. The 1850, 1860 and 1870 census records do not identify the relationship of the people living in the household; that didn’t happen until 1880. But they do ask for birthplace and age, so that’s helpful.

In 1880, the federal census became extremely useful in my research. It not only listed the relationship of the members of each household, but also enumerated the birth place of the parents as well as marital status. If a family member is sick, the illness is stated as well. My definition of sick and the instructions for the census taker are different, though. They considered being blind a sickness.

Census records are subject to the 72 year rule per federal law. That is, they are protected from public release for 72 years for privacy reasons. The 1950 census will be released in April 2022. To people who complain about that, I say be happy we aren’t in a country where the 100 year rule is invoked.

The 1890 Federal Census is lost forever: Part 1 and Part 2. It is the bane of my existence and my friends and I periodically lament this huge loss. There was so much that happened between 1880 and 1900 and that demographic record is lost forever. Sigh. The saddest part about it is that most historians feel that had they moved the damaged records to offsite storage and held off on the destruction of the records, technology could probably have saved many of them. Thanks, Congress.

The 1900 census is one of my favorite tools to use. It contains so much useful information, including the birth month and year, how many children the woman has had and how many are still alive, whether or not the person can read, write or speak English, and still states the birthplaces of the parents. Understanding our immigration was important for a long time. Keeping in mind that many states did not issue birth, marriage or death certificates until about 1907ish, this census can be helpful in searching for children who might have come to adulthood (or died) between 1880-1900.

Some things that I didn’t know when I started doing this work, but learned from other people or on my own: In the 1800s, many people (especially women) were illiterate. The Federal census was recorded by census takers, who visited the households. Some of the handwriting is atrocious and difficult to read; some of the records are written in pencil and are faint; and often the census taker phonetically spelled names. You might be surprised at how those names are mangled. Visualize their spelling of Surrepta or Tremilious… and yes, those are names in my extended family tree. Then there are the records that only have initials for the first and middle names.

You just never know what surprises await you. And for some reason, I find this as fun as playing golf or going to the movies.