Tuesday, October 2, 2012

We Are Family

The search for family history in Wisconsin continues:

A trip to Milwaukee, when one has never been, can hardly be considered a waste of time but, for the purpose of this trip, it offered no information for me.  Since I had found nothing more on Uncle Charlie in the Milwaukee Public Library, we opted for a trip to Appleton which is where he had lived and worked.  Appleton was much closer to our Green Bay base so the decision was easy.  Charlie was a baker and I found a number of newspaper articles from the mid-twenties describing problems with his neighbors who were none-to-pleased to find out he had been granted permission to expand the bakery he was running from his home.

Monica and Alton wandered the weekly Farmers Market while I hit the adjacent library, combing through Polk's City Directories for bakery addresses as well as more info on Charlie.  No luck beyond 1930.  What the heck?  He wasn't in Appleton and he wasn't in Milwaukee.  Now what?!  I WAS able to find and print the obituary for an aunt whose birthday had evaded me, giving me fodder for Ancestry.com searches so the trip was not a waste.  While we further pondered the expanding (or at least NOT diminishing) mystery of Charlie, we headed to neighboring town, Neenah to make the first of many cemetery visits to my aunts and uncles.  I had already been given the general vicinity of the "drawers" where I would find my Aunt Betty and Uncle Bernie so Monica and I began wandering.  In the process, she spotted the familiar last name of one of my cousins - Charlie's daughter!  The stone had both birth and death dates of her husband but only her name, indicating she was still alive, information I hadn't been able to confirm and was excited to learn.  

After a quick trip south to Oshkosh to take a picture of little Alton in front of the water tower wearing locally named overalls, we sat alongside the Fox River, watching dragonboat races, eating cheese curds and pondering our next move.  Through the miracle of the smart phones, we found a phone number for Alice and, at Monica's urging, I made the call.  How do you announce yourself to a person who doesn't even know you exist?  Happily, Alice recognized my mom's name and invited us to her house but, truthfully, I was a little concerned that she did so since we may NOT have been who we said we were.  I'll allow her own children to do THAT scolding.

When Alice answered the door, it was clear we were related and she said the same...we laughed at our similarities and, when I took my mom's photo albums out, she marveled at how much my mom and her older sister looked alike.  Since my mom was the youngest and Charlie was the oldest, his daughter and his youngest sister were just three weeks apart.  It turned out that Alice had only minimal contact with her father from the time she was born as her birth coincided with their divorce proceedings.  She had little information and we were careful to not bring up dirt I had unearthed but, when Monica asked just the right question, she casually mentioned that Charlie had changed his name.  He what?!  "Alice, this is HUGE!". That tiny piece of information made a world of difference to this trip and the research I was doing.

It turned out he had returned to Appleton for the last few years of his life, information known only by one of my aunts.  Alice was only told at the time of his death.  Charlie had chosen a new name from one he saw on a sign, presumably to keep himself off the radar of creditors. His new wife and son had taken the new name and Alice, when asked where he was buried, suggested we try the tiny community of Medina (Ma-DY-nuh), where his wife's family had lived. 

That night, I checked the Find-A-Grave website and confirmed there were relatives of the second Mrs. Charlie buried in Medina.  The next day, we decided we would start at the cemetery in Medina, then to neighboring Hortonville cemetery should we not find Charlie at the first.  Medina was a leisurely twenty mile drive on a beautiful little two-lane highway 96 and we had no problem finding the town's cemetery.  We wandered the rows and easily found the missus, with her new name, but were still trying to find Charlie when a car pulled in and parked near us.  A nicely dressed lady, fresh from church, walked over to us and asked if we were looking for anyone in particular.  It turns out she was the secretary of the cemetery and knew everyone in town.  When I told her, she knew exactly who I was talking about.  She knew Charlie.  She knew his son, Jack.  She knew Jack's son "who lives in the white house over there around the corner...".  "Wait, I have Jack's phone number at my house; I'll be right back".  With that, she drove off, leaving Monica and I standing there, stunned.

As we waited, surrounded by the grave stones of the residents of this town, it occurred to us that some were OUR family members.  That name change started a new line of a new family, forever breaking their link to the family name but their blood was our blood.  As we pondered this, the lady we now knew as Evelyn returned.  She popped out of her car along with a young women.  "I got Jack's number but I did one better...I brought his granddaughter."  Seriously?  This beautiful young lady, about Monica's age, was really Jack's granddaughter.....my uncle's great-granddaughter? We hugged.  We laughed.  We agreed to meet at the town's tavern, once run by her mother's family, for lunch.  

When Nicole arrived, she was soon followed by her mother and the four of us spend several hours filling each other in on family history, previously undiscovered by either side.  She had no idea that her great-grandfather was born with a different last name or that he was one of nine children.  We had no idea that Charlie's son had also grown up to be a baker and he had worked at that very tavern when he was married to Nicole's grandmother.  And Nicole knew where Charlie was buried.  I got names and dates to add to my family tree and, after lunch, we headed to the Hortonville cemetery to finally visit with my uncle.  

The visit ended up being somewhat anti-climatic because there was no stone to mark Charlie's final resting place.  There had been a temporary marker but, since he had passed in 1969, the marker had become brittle and was nowhere to be found.  Nicole had been there before and knew where he was so I spent a little time wandering the bare lawn, finally at the end of this search.  I had figured out where my Uncle Charlie ended his days and our journeys both ended in Hortonville, Wisconsin.  

The next morning, found us on the road east, heading to Eau Claire, the city where my mom was born and raised.  Mark and I have seen much of the country's perimeter but the midwest had never been on the radar except for the fact that it was my mom's home.  The four-hour journey across a state was beautiful.  Flat.  Farms.  A bald eagle.  The changing colors of the trees that warmed my soul almost as much as the ocean.  In Eau Claire, we tracked down the rest of my family's graves, including my grandparents whom I never met.  In the process, we drove around the same town my mom had driven around with her friends.  We couldn't find the family house but found out since that the house was renumbered so that will be a visit for another day.

On the return trip from Eau Claire, Monica again urged me to make a phone call, this time to Jack.  He at least at been warned about us by his granddaughter who had called while we had lunch.  He gave me directions to the house and, in their home on a very dark Wisconsin highway, I made the acquaintance of another cousin, one whose name had been changed when he was six years old and who had no real information of his father's family.  Again, I shared my mom's photo album and plan to make some copies to send him.  

When I started making plans for this trip, it was pipe dreams.  I had originally planned to stay in Eau Claire but changed to Green Bay when it because obvious that finding my Uncle would require research in that eastern part of the state.  I came for family.  I found family.  I had planned to go alone to eliminate the need to drag others along which I attended to the drudgery of library research.  I invited Monica and Alton to ensure I ventured out to see some sites outside of the library and maybe try a midwestern microbrew.  It proved to be a good decision since Monica encouraged me to take chances with making those phone calls and Alton, like all babies, was a great ice-breaker.  Although he won't remember the trip, the photos we took were memorable and he'll know he was a part of it. 

Monica decided that the word for this trip was "serendipity".  The serendipity of her spotting the grave marker with Alice's name.  The serendipitous visit from an angel named Evelyn who stopped by the cemetery to see what the work party of the day before had wrought and, instead, facilitated a family reunion.  There was also a black swallowtail butterfly that fluttered by us at the cemetery that Monica plans to add to the ink butterflies she collects.  Serendipity indeed.


Kym said...

I wandered with you and got splashed with the delight you felt. One genealogist gives hope to another. Thank you.

Monica... That One Girl said...

I just got choked up reading this. My mind is still blown.

PS- Corn!