“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.” — George Bernard Shaw
I’ve been playing around in my family history for a good number of years now. I guess I was first bitten (just a tiny, shallow bite) as a child reading the 1941 Caldecott Medal winning book They Were Strong and Good, by Robert Lawson.
Then in the 1980s, when I was busy with young children, my Aunt Doris sent family members a questionnaire to fill out. She was working on genealogy for our Campbell / Newman line – my father’s family. That must have sparked a conversation with my sister, who sent me a copy of the letter that our grandmother – our mother’s mother – had written to her in 1966 in response to her query about family for a project she was doing in school.
I have always loved mysteries. As a child, a friend and I played detective – shadowing a hapless college student we found fascinating, learning all we could about him (he was local; it was a small town). Fortunately I don’t think we were ever discovered. My parents would have been appalled.
My grandmother’s letter started out saying “I wish I had talked more to my father about his family. The fact is I really didn’t know any thing about them until I was grown.” She goes on to state that her father was known as F. B. Kline, but “he had run away from home in his ‘teens, changing his last name – altho he kept the Frederick Bernard.” He was born in Ohio to German parents whose name was Eickholt.
Some of you may be old enough to remember genealogy before the internet. Before indexed searching made finding names in the census a breeze. You may remember going to state libraries, looking at a book that indexed the names in the census so that you would know which roll of microfilm to pull to scroll through. Heaven help you if you had no clue other than the state, and there were multiple spellings of the name, and to boot, to find that the state’s population consisted of HUNDREDS of that last name you’re searching for. Needless to say, I did not have much luck in the early 1990s with my search. That luck came later, and that is a story waiting to be told.
My grandmother’s letter and the mystery of who my great grandfather really was gave me permission to play detective. It started me on this fascinating journey of not only learning the cold hard facts, but in finding the stories of the people and the histories of the places they lived. Of discovering photographs and letters that had been hidden away for years. And ultimately following the lines forward to meet cousins who have enriched my life – people I would not have known existed if not for this passion for playing detective.
photo: my grandfather Brough Patterson and my great-grandfather Frederick Bernard Kline harvesting rice in Arkansas 1914