Deciphering the code

dna-strand-mary-anne-erickson

Deciphering the code

I’ve been fascinated by my families stories since the late 70’s when I first decided to record my great Aunt (“Auntie”) on tape. What a blessing that recording is to me now – considering she’s been gone since 1985 and was born in 1894 in Bonanza, Idaho (now a ghost town). When I was pregnant with my son Chris, I read a book on collecting family history, and that’s when I got much more serious about the whole idea. We had just purchased our first video recorder, to capture every moment of Chris’ life as a baby – and what better adjunct purpose than to record some of my family’s stories when I went back home to Seattle?

With pages of questions in hand, I gathered my Mom (the oldest child), her five siblings, and one cousin together for several video sessions where they talked about their life growing up. I also took each person upstairs to a quiet bedroom and recorded them sharing their feelings about everything from religion and politics to what kind of food they ate. Needless to say, these tapes are now priceless as all but one of my aunts, uncles, and parents have long since passed on. I have been involved in the tedious process of transcribing the tapes and marking them with time annotations for a film I hope to make at some point in the future.

I was thrust even more passionately into the quest for my family stories after reading a fascinating and insightful book by Jane Kirkpatrick called “A Sweetness to the Soul”, which weaves Oregon history together with my own family history! Who knew that my ancestors were actually original pioneers in the state of Oregon?? With this radical piece of information I set out on an old fashioned quest to discover more about my Grimes heritage when I took Chris out to Mt. Hood for snowboard camp. I spent several weeks over the course of two years researching my great grandfather Clayton Monroe Grimes and his father Edward Langley Grimes (who I later discovered was on the Oregon Trail of 1853 with his wife Mary Smith and young son Claymore).

I visited the town of Scio, Oregon where they had their donation land claim and after a fair bit of poking around actually found the land claim itself and took a number of pictures there – allowing my imagination to roam back in time, picturing them first arriving there, building a home and working the land as farmers. What struggles they must have endured. I also found the homestead where my mother was born in Grass Valley, Oregon and fell in love with the treeless fields of wheat that stretch from one horizon to the other. I’ve been in the process of designing a large coffee table book about my family that I intend to self publish once I get to the “end” of finding all the information I’ve hoped to find! And there lies the rub!!! I fear (or take joy in the fact) that the end may never come!

Another milestone in my quest for my family stories occurred last summer as I scanned and transcribed the letters I had found within a small box that miraculously survived our house fire in 2003. The letters were all addressed to Annie (Watson) Turnbull and at first I had no idea who they were from or what their stories were about. As I got further into the process of appreciating the content of the letters, a portrait of my great grandmother began to emerge, as well as images and impressions of the letter writers. I pieced together the best chronological survey I could of where Annie lived with and without her husband James W. Turnbull (a miner and sometimes farmer), and her growing family of children (my grandmother and favorite uncles and aunts). The stories that her parents and siblings wrote from their homes in Manitoba primarily in the years 1889-1890 were truly heart-wrenching! Tough times for farmers, not enough money from their crops, lack of food and water – and yet doing the best they could to live, laugh and love.

The monumental moment¬† marching toward “the never-ending story” occurred when I signed onto ancestry.com! What an amazing and essential tool for anyone who chooses to take on this passion and addiction – tread carefully – your life may never be the same!! Minutes, hours, and days can fly by as I’ve searched for more and more information on my ever-widening group of family members. Perhaps if I keep at this I will discover that I am actually related to everyone in the world!

All joking aside, I have now made some of the most exciting connections with people who were once strangers and now we’ve discovered we’re “cousins” – perhaps removed 3 or 4 times – but blood relations none the less. Enter Barb C. who contacted me last summer and after looking over her info I discovered that we are indeed Turnbulls together! Our great great grandfathers were brothers born in Scotland – hers was the youngest and was a brilliant architect of Windsor Castle and is buried there! Mine (Thomas) was a pioneer who came to Canada, started a family and became a farmer. So much more to know about him.

Barb was compelled to come visit me in December after I was given the gift of a lifetime by my second cousin Norma: my great grandmother Annie (Watson) Turnbull’s family photo album from 1876. (Yes, the same Annie from the letters – voila – another connection!) What a feeling of excitement as I waited in my car at the airport to pick up Barb. We had never spoken on the phone or even seen each other’s photographs – she said she’d be carrying a red suitcase, wearing a black coat and has gray hair. We greeted each other like long lost lovers: family!!! All this time I thought I was an only child and most of my relatives had passed, and now a new cousin, related to a big big family that I’m just discovering. We spent three glorious days together frantically scanning the photographs from the album, doing our best to identify the recognizable ones – and then of course, posting them to ancestry!

Barb’s knowledge of the Turnbull clan is vast, and she has helped me fill in so many gaps dating back to the 1300’s in Scotland. Our connection has been invaluable in unlocking some of the secrets. Then, along came Peggy W. who contacted me on ancestry when she saw some of the photos we had posted of her family! (this is how it works!) My great grandmother Annie was her great Aunt and she actually lived on the farm in Alberta that Annie’s grandfather first homesteaded! And even more amazing, an album had been discovered by a contact of hers in a Vancouver, BC antique store that appears to be a companion album to the one I have of Annie’s. Many of the photos appear to be the same people! The mystery deepens! She just wrote me an email yesterday saying that she now has the album in her possession and is scanning and identifying as many pictures as she can.

Now, bringing this up to my “mystery du jour” is a woman who has just contacted me on ancestry who claims to have been looking for me for years! and is demanding that I call her! Hmmmmmmm??? She appears to be related to my father’s family (Neibauer) and back to the comment of being related to everyone, I wasn’t even researching this side of my family! So now I’ve found myself thrust into several more hours of cruising around ancestry looking for hints and connections to see if this person is indeed who they say they are. I think I may have satisfied my research intentions and found out she is who she says she is (thanks to another person researching the same branch of their family history – again how it works!). So what to do? I don’t know why I’m hesitating in calling her – perhaps it’s just that I’ve never had someone be so insistent about speaking to me. Most fellow researchers are happy to just share information – this feels much more personal – do I feel invaded? or is it possible that this will lead me deeper into understanding the code that lies beneath it all?

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