Friday, March 9, 2007

The Family Secret

Darling and her her cousin inside Lynden's Pioneer Museum.

I love this old photo of my nephew wearing his grandfather's Navy uniform from WWII.

Geneology...some folks could care less about their family history. Some never think to question it. Perhaps some question it and are hushed up by older family members. And then again, there's those of us who just can't seem to keep our noses out of the family history (those would be the same ones who can't get enough of cemeteries, me thinks.

Trudy Kunzman Peters
(Hi, Grandma!)

My grandmother grew up part of a very large family. While there were just two brothers and herself, her mother was one of 12, most of whom lived in fairly close proximity and who gathered for family events on a regular basis. When my great grandmother was but a wee one, her father received a letter from his younger brother telling him to move his family to Washington, exlaiming the fish were thick enough in the river to walk across their backs to get to the other side. So instead of heading to Texas, they came here. As it turns out, this is a good thing, as a couple generations down the road my grandmother would meet and marry my grandfather. And he wasn't in Texas.

But this story isn't about my dear grandmother. No, I merely mention her as she knew her family. Her grandfather and his brother lived in the same community and raised their large families together. Grandma knew her cousins and second cousins, and cousins sixteen times removed.

No, this story is about my grandfather...and his lack of family. My grandfather and his sister were born into a German immigrant family. Both of their parents had travelled here seperately, but met and married once here. Their names were Erdmund and Martha, the year was 1906. Two years later, Martha gave birth do a daughter, whom they named Hilda. Another four years, and a son, John, was born. Two years after that, Martha died. She'd contracted TB, a dreadful and highly contatious disease. She was given a tent out in the yard to live her last days in.

Erdmund never remarried. He'd had a large tract of land and sold smaller pieces of it to the new Dutch immigrants who were settling in the area. He moved his family into a home that was built just south of where his wife had died. Hilda and John, who had been just six and two when their mother died, were looked after by Erdmund's siter, Tillie. A small, temporary house was built for the family. Just prior to 1920, this huge red barn was erected. In 1920, their new home was finished.

Peters Dairy, where they milked Guernsey cows.

John Peters

John grew up a strapping young lad. He attended church with his family; Lutheran, of course, as they were German. And it just so happened that another family attended this same church; a family who's uncle had been one of the founding fathers of the church, a family with a lovely daughter. Eight years younger than him, young Trudy caught John's eye. It was the depression era. Not many weddings were held; couples ran off to get married, and so it was that, the night Trudy turned 18, this couple also snuck out and became man and wife.

John and Trudy on their wedding day in 1938

Now, so far you are likely wondering just where is this family secret? Well, John and Trudy had three children, my mother among them. As was the custom of housewives, my mother was a part of all sorts of little clubs, one of which was called Birthday Club. And at Birthday Club, my mother met a woman who said to her one day, "You know we're cousins, right?" Or something to that effect, and my mother just looked at her and said, "No, I didn't know that..." It seemed as though this woman's mother was my grandfather's cousin; that my mother's grandmother and her grandmother had been sisters. This was all quite confusing. Who were these people, anyway?

And so the questions began coming. Naturally, my grandfather had been too young to remember much about his mother. However, being a few years older, there were things Hilda recalled. Like walking down the street in Lynden holding her grandmother's hand. But when she was ten, her grandmother had died, and that's where the memories ended and the mystery begins.

Aunt Hilda and Uncle Milton

With a bit of questioning, it was discovered that Martha had had two sisters in this area. No one knew why the Peter's family had become estranged and never again communicated with Martha's family; both of her parents had still been living when she died. It would appear that her mother had been the one last string that tied the two families together, for young Hilda did recall spending time with her after Martha's death. Martha's mother passed away just four years later, when Hilda was ten and John six. No memory of the rest of the family seemed to rest in either of their minds.

But upon word that there were cousins out there, they showed excitement. Why they'd never questioned it before, I don't know. Or perhaps they had, and were sushed up? According to my grandmother, Aunt Tillie could keep a family secret to the grave, and evidentally she did, as did her brother Erdmund. The children didn't dwell on it, but their grandchildren did. And a surprise reunion was planned. My mother invited her parents and her Aunt Hilda out for lunch at our house. Grandma was in on the planning, as was Hilda's daughter.

The long lost cousins knew what was happening, and they were excited. While the Peter's children had never been informed of their family, the cousins had always known about them. They'd not known why the rift; but they assumed that John and Hilda knew about them but didn't want to associate. Therefore, they'd never tied to make contact. But the cousins had told their daughters, and when one daughter mentioned my mother being a part of Birthday Club...well, that's when the puzzle pieces began falling into place.

No one seemed to know why the rift. An old family photo album belonging to Hilda showed a few photos of Martha with her sisters; it had been taken while the family lived in the Dakotas. And interestingly enough, there was a photo showing six people, three women seated with three men standing behind them. And they Now, we found this odd, that a German immigrant family would have, tucked into their family album, a photo of three black couples. At first we thought one of the men was white, but a close look showed that he was of fairer skin. There was no name, but the photographer, if I recall, was in Ohio.

We looked at photos of Martha...and of Hilda...and we began to wonder to ourselves...was Martha of African decent? Had the fair skinned man passed himself off as white? But no...that didn't seem to fit into the puzzle. Unless Martha was illegitamate? Of course, there is no one to ask...

A few years ago I was teaching a soapmaking class in town. A woman came and was very enthusiastic. A few weeks later she was shopping in the store with her daughter. I told her I was about to begin another class on toiletries, if she were interested, so she and her daughter signed up. During the course of the class, I mentioned homeschooling Darling, and she said she was homeschooling her daughter as well. After the class was over she stayed and we talked about some of the things we were doing; which is when I mentioned that Darling didn't enjoy writing, and to encourage her we were researching the family tree. And of course, I mentioned the mysterious rift between the Knirck sisters.

At which point, the woman nearly fell off her chair, and when she righted herself she could barely get the words out. "I'm a Knirck! My grandmother was a Knirck!" I was stunned. Her daughter lit up like a firecracker on the fourth of July.

And so it is, another generation has found itself mending the old family rift. Still, no one knows exactly why the Peters and the Knirks never spoke all those years; I suppose we never will. The Family Secret is hidden safely in the grave, buried beneath the soil. I wonder if Erdmund ever considered that despite the best efforts of his generation, that his offspring would someday meet their cousins, and that the family would once again be joined?

My new found cousin on the left. Her daughter is pictured below.

Do you have a family secret?


Leann said...

thanks for sharing this with us.I enjoyed reading it alot.

yes everyone has family secerts.some day Ill write my life story and then some will come out.but for now I just write my childhood storys.
God bless you .love the pictures.the wedding picture is so cool.handsome couples.

Jean said...

What a great story! What a blessing to find relatives you didn't know you had. Your imagination is probably much more interesting than the actual answer to the secret. Love the photos!

LBP said...

What a great story! And how lucky to meet up with a cousin. I have enjoyed reading your blog. I am in the process of writing stories about our family. I am calling it "Stories that can't be forgotten"

Midlife Mom said...

I think we all have some family secrets or skeletons in the closet as they used to say. I know my family does in the great grandparents day but I guess they will stay right there in the closet. Very interesting story, glad you finally met up with your relatives! Love the pictures!

Yellow Mama said...

Very interesting. Who knows what lies beneath our family tree. On my hubbies side there is a great, great...etc. grandfather who was one of the signers of the Magna Carta. I know I have some american indian blood somewhere down deep and the stories are few and far between. That is one reason I have "made" my almost 90 years old dad start I can have some stories to keep and pass down...good reading!

Tracey said...

Yellow Mama, you're going to have share your dad's blog with us! That is, if it's for public viewing and not just family. I've got a bit of indian blood also; Chippewa, also known as Ojibwe.

RoseMary said...

Plenty of secrets to go around in my family! We're still trying to unravel a few of them, but I'm afraid that like yours, they were buried long ago! Have a great weekend.

PEA said...

Oh wow, what a terrific post and you're so lucky to have all those old photos of some of your relatives!! I've always been interested in my family tree and often pump my mom for information...she's 75 and her mind is still sharp so she can remember a lot still! lol As for family secrets, I'm sure there are some but none that I know of...YET! Your grandmother was gorgeous!!!