This post is technically a day late, but I was building the site last night, so didn’t have time to get the first week’s blog done on time. Sorry!
My journey down this rabbit hole began in the spring of 1975–sort of. That was when I started writing to my grand-aunts and grand-uncles (the first generation born in the USA), asking them what they knew about our family history. This was before Roots; before the Internet or genealogy software; back in the Dark Ages, when a stamp cost only a dime and there was only one Bell company. I had no grandparents at that point. The last grandpa died before I turned 9, Grandma Haws died 3 years before I was born, and Grandma Meintzer died 6 weeks after I was born, seeing me only once. I was named for both grandmas, but never knew either of them.
Unfortunately, even though I was only the 3rd generation in the US, my grand-aunts’ and -uncles’ knowledge of the “old country” was minimal. Apparently their parents really didn’t talk about it. Maybe they were simply too busy trying to survive and assimilate into their new country. “When did your parents emigrate?” “Not sure.” “Where did they come from?” “Germany.” That’s about as useful as “the Midwest!” And while they patiently answered my questions as well as they could, their common question was, “Why are you asking? We aren’t related to anyone famous/important.” They were right–we come from a long line of peasants. In the 1970s, the only people doing genealogy were gray-haired old ladies trying to prove they qualified for the Mayflower Society or the DAR.
I’d forgotten, though, that I’d tried to start this journey at least 8 years earlier–some time before Chicago’s “Big Snow” in late January, 1967. I was younger than 9, and it was a Sunday evening, after supper. I was sitting on the floor of the living room, next to the bookcase where my brother, Bob, had stored the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica set he’d picked up dirt cheap at a garage sale. With its help, I was attempting to create a pedigree chart on typing paper. I’m not sure why I wanted to do it, but I think maybe I’d read a book that had a family tree at the front to help sort out the characters. Anyway, I knew the names of my siblings, my parents, and all their birthdays. Then it got harder, so I’d ask my mom, who was across the room, trying to finish reading the Sunday Chicago Tribune, “Mom, what’s Grandpa Haws’s middle name?” “Matthias.” Then, “What year was he born in?” I knew he shared a birthday with my sister and Abe Lincoln, so already had the month and date. She gave me that answer, and I worked my way through the grandparents.
What I didn’t notice, because I was young, was that with each exchange, the irritation in her voice increased ever so slightly. When I started on the next generation, I knew enough not to ask her about my dad’s grandparents, but I figured hers were fair game. I gathered the names, and then I asked, “What’s the birthday for Grandpa Meintzer’s father?” That was the last straw. There was NO mistaking the exasperation in her voice as she replied, “I don’t know. You’d have to ask your grandfather.” My pursuit of genealogy ended for the night, and didn’t resurface again until 1975.
You might wonder how I can confidently place this event as being prior to late January, 1967. My mom’s father was the “last grandparent standing”–the one who died during “The Big Snow.” We weren’t into séances, so if she was telling me to ask him something, he would have to be alive. For whatever reason, he never got asked and that tree never got finished. Would my path have changed if I’d talked to him at that time? I’ll never know.
I still can’t provide a clear explanation of why I started genealogy–at 8 or at 17. I didn’t receive obvious outside influence, but did my grandmas or other ancestors prod me along subconsciously? I don’t know. Maybe? When I catch up with them, I’ll ask!