What Started It All : My Love of Genealogy

An early memory. I walk into my parents’ bedroom and see my mom looking at a big piece of paper that to my 8 or so year old mind covers up her entire bed. I ask “What is that?” My mother responds “It is a family tree.” She then showed me her name and my grandparents’ names. She went on to explain that she had recently talked to her Aunt Caroline (her dad’s sister) and with her help had written down all the names and dates of those that encompass the Klein Family Tree. “Am I related to everyone on here?” I asked. “Yes” was her reply.

I was amazed. Both of my parents are only children. I grew up in a very nuclear existence with my brother and sister and I being the only (and I indeed mean only) grandchildren on both sides of the family. Were we spoiled? I don’t think so. I like to think that our grandparents treasured each of us a bit more because we were it.

But looking at this family tree, my world suddenly expanded. A seed was planted.

My father died from brain cancer when I was ten. Understandably, his death deeply impacted my life. His parents were still alive when he passed and I subsequently formed a strong relationship with his mother, my Granny Dunlap. She was an interesting soul. She was born in 1909 and was never the happy homemaker. Though she loved to cook, she was a working-out-of-the home mom all of my dad’s formative years. She could also handle her alcohol better than a person twice her size (she wasn’t even five feet tall). “Oh, the stories I could tell you…” she would often say when she was feeling a bit tipsy. But that was as far as it would go.

As she got older, old photos would begin appearing around her home. We would ask her who they were and she would tell us. She was great at labeling the backs of said photos as well. The stories she would share would be few and far between (especially when sober). But I was a teenager at this point and not too concerned about asking the right questions.

When she passed away at the age of 81 in 1990, so went the stories that were never shared. Since my father had no siblings and now both of his parents were gone, I felt a loss of connection. I had no one left to ground me to that side of my identity. My last name’s meaning and origin was a big question mark in my mind.

All were gone (on that side of my family tree) and in their wake was a heart-shaped hole.

Flash-forward to my early twenties. I am living near Madison, Wisconsin, just out of college, newly employed and lots of free time on my hand plus access to a world-class Historical Society Library.

Libraries are my second home. I began investigating first the census records and then requesting death records, marriage certificates, you name it I searched it out. This was in the early 2000’s so the internet was still in infancy. Not everything was online (hint: it still isn’t).

I started asking those questions to my dad’s cousins and my grandmother’s remaining younger sister. I began paying closer attention to our annual trips to Southern Illinois and visited cemeteries with my mom and her cousin for that side. I began filling in some of the blanks.

And the more I fill in, the more is left gaping open.

So I press on … with no end in sight.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What got you started investigating your family history? Do you know your family’s story? I can help.

One page of my mother’s original family tree

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