My birthday, my family tree, and why I’ll never be running for public office

I’ve never met or even been remotely acquainted with anyone who shares my birthday (April 24).  I know of no fewer than three people who share a birthday on April 26, and even Katie has already encountered two other kids with the same birthday as hers.  (Now that I’ve put that out there, no fewer than 15 people will comment that their great-aunt’s sister’s husband’s cousin once removed has a birthday on April 24.)

But what has happened TWICE on my actual birthday is I’ve gotten an email from a distant relative, looking for genealogy information.  Genealogy is one of those things I pursued several years ago – you know, before adding my own sapling.  It still interests me, I just don’t have the time to pursue it; genealogy is a hobby that requires a lot of dedication and patience.

This year, on my birthday, I’ve connected with relatives in Alaska and Norway via a great-great-grandmother.  I have very little to go on with regard to Helene Nore; she was married to August Yager, a wagon maker by trade, and they had three children.  While my dad remembers August (my dad, his mother, and August all lived with August’s daughter and son-in-law for a time during WWII), Helene passed away long before my dad was born.

Census records showed August living with his three children in 1910, 1920 and in 1930.  The 1930 census shows Helene living in the Nebraska Institute for the Insane – and when I first saw that, I recalled something from a genealogy course I took – often times menopausal women were committed or institutionalized and it wasn’t uncommon to see Mom, Dad, kids altogether in one census, mom gone the next census, and then mom back with dad for the following census (after all of those hot flashes and hormonal swings passed, I guess!)  But it seems Helene was in the Institute from sometime prior to 1910 until her death in 1936, and one of my new connections has found that August & Helen’s kids were turned over to an orphanage for a while, so things must’ve been pretty bad.  I’ve made feeble attempts to get the records, but am thwarted by privacy laws (yes, even after all of these years … time to sic my brother, the attorney, on this little task, now that my interest is peaked again).

But Helene’s institutionalization isn’t the only odd or unusual story on the family tree.  Several years ago, pre-Katie, I got another birthday email, this time from a woman in Canada.  She indicated that she had a picture that might be of interest to me.  She described the picture as one of three little boys, and on the back it noted the boys were named William (aged 8), Paul (aged 6) and Allen (aged 5), it was taken in Lanark, IL, in 1923 and was signed “your brother, Will”.

I had posted to a message board several years before getting that email, looking for information on a great-grandfather who was adopted by his grandparents.  ‘Adoption’ in the 1870s is sort of loosey-goosey; you pretty much lived with whoever took you in, and there wasn’t typically a paper trail.  I’d posted all of the relevant facts about my great-grandfather, one William Orus Kunce:   spouse, kids, all applicable dates and places.  And I didn’t hear a peep for several years until that email landed in my inbox.  Well, those are the names of my great-uncles, and my grandmother was born in 1923 in Lanark, IL, so unless there was some weird parallel universe out there, this had to be my family.

Notice I didn’t say she attached the picture to the email.

We exchanged a few emails and at one point, I asked one of the boys in the picture was wearing a sailor suit – I have a copy of that picture, and “Billy” is very cute in his little sailor outfit, standing behind his two brothers.  A sweet picture.

A short time later I got an email response with the picture attached.  Billy, Paul and Al were standing behind a Model T in what looked to be a grassy field.  Wearing white robes.  With hoods.

My great-grandfather had taken his three young sons to a KKK rally.

Skip came running into the study when I saw the picture – I’m sure I gasped and let out some OMGs and who knows what else came flying out of my mouth.  To say I was shocked would be an understatement.

I asked my grandmother about that picture, and she remembered it very well, although she didn’t have a copy.  Grandma recalled the time when her mother, Bessie, was sorting through pictures, and Bessie tore the picture into several pieces.  Bessie did not like that her husband had belonged to the Klan, although Grandma told me that William left the Klan upon becoming a Christian.

And … the woman in Canada almost didn’t come into possession of that picture.  She’d met with an elderly woman who shared many Kunce pictures and stories, but the older lady held the KKK picture back until the last minute.  Probably a good call – not exactly something you want to whip out when first meeting someone, although it is a good conversation piece, I guess.

So now I’m back all excited about the family tree game.  Some of it is the thrill of connecting with new people far and wide, and some of it is a little bit of anxiety … other people find out they’re related to Queen Victoria or they can trace their roots back to the Mayflower.  Not me, I’ve got institutionalized people and Klansmen in my tree.

Oh well – public office is overrated anyway.



My big fat Greek wedding and holiday treks to Austin

Christmases and Thanksgivings in Omaha for me meant no fewer than 10-12 adults and at least five children of varying ages, smashed into a house that was probably all of 800 square feet (my maternal grandparents’ house on Spaulding Street) and maybe SLIGHTLY bigger at Grandma Kramer’s house on 49th Street, just up the street from Gorat’s steak house (or, as my deaf Grandpa called it:  “Go-Rats”.  Very appetizing.)

The one kitchen table would be laden down with too much food and acted as the buffet once it was time to eat.   The kitchen barely had enough room for one person to turn around, let alone three or four women all trying to juggle hot dishes coming out of the oven and managing the saucepans bubbling on the stovetop.  The kitchen table being otherwise occupied meant everyone was eating from plates balanced on laps or, if you were lucky, you got use of a metal TV tray that was just a whisker away from being toppled by an errant toddler or finally folding over on its own rickety legs that were bent and misshapen from having been stuffed in a closet the other 364 days of the year.

And while Christmas was usually cold in Omaha, the doors and windows were always open – partially to let out some of the heat from the ovens and the bodies, but also to let in some fresh air to clear the Pall Mall haze that hung three feet from the ceiling (HELLO … it was the 70s.  EVERYBODY smoked.  I also miraculously survived getting to said grandparents’ house without benefit of a car seat, or even a seat belt, and I’m here to tell the tale.)

But I loved those holidays, and playing with cousins that I seldom saw the rest of the year.  I remember playing Monopoly with my cousin Laura under the kitchen table, because setting up the board anywhere else meant we were in somebody’s way.  Going to Grandma Kramer’s meant great anticipation to see Kellie, Dee Dee, and Billie Jo who were from far far away (when you’re five, Iowa seems very very far from Omaha), and pestering Uncle Bill and Aunt Karol to please please PLEASE play Mousetrap with us?  (Especially after we ventured into Grandma’s very creepy basement to get it out of that dank, dark closet with the one lightbulb on a pull string …)

Childhood holiday memories for Skip are very different than mine.  Skip’s parents divorced when he was very young, and he was raised by his mother and his maternal grandparents.  While his dad remarried, gaining Skip step-siblings and eventually a brother, Skip was raised as an only child – and his mother was also an only child.  So  holidays with his mom’s side of the family meant small, quiet get-togethers.  Those times he did spend with his dad’s extended family came with some guilt and angst from being with one side of the family over the other, so that tempered some of the joy and excitement he might’ve otherwise felt.

The first time Skip experienced a Kramer gathering, it was a bit of a shock.  It’s wasn’t quite Toula and Ian, but having come from different families and traditions, it was different.  There were a lot of people, a lot of chaos, a lot of laughter and a LOT of snarkiness.    We’re the family that sat around one beautiful summer day and played word association … my cousin Shelly said ‘bugs’, cousin Nikkie said ‘annoying’, Aunt Sharon said ‘mother’.  Grandma Kramer was next up and not surprisingly, the game came to an abrupt halt.  And while Grandma was NOT amused, the rest of us laughed ourselves into tears.  Underneath all of that snarkiness and laughter is a lot of love for one another, but to an outsider … we do take some getting used to.

So now we’ve got our only child of an only child, and the roles are a bit reversed:  while my brother has married, there are no Kramer cousins, but down in Austin there are three sets of aunts and uncles and any family gathering brings as many as seven cousins of varying ages.  The Austin houses are bigger, meaning everyone actually gets to eat at a real table, but in spite of the bigger kitchens, everyone is still in the way of pulling something out of the oven or off of the stovetop.  There’s no smoke haze over dinner, but the joyous noise and chaos are the same – and there’s still too much food.   The best part now is that Katie gets to make her her own memories.  Looking for Grandma Betty Jo’s money-loaded Easter eggs in the yard, and Uncle Kip walking in, dressed as the Easter Bunny.  Jumping on the trampoline with the rest of the cousins, and saying good-bye even as she’s counting down the days until the next visit.  Skip understands, now, what my childhood memories are made of, and we’re both grateful to the extended family in Austin that gives Katie that opportunity for joyous noise and chaos.

The good things never change.