Sunday, October 14, 2012

After all, what could these women have told me?

When I was little and not so little, I didn't give a thought to my extended family members.  Not that I didn't love them.  I did.  I enjoyed seeing them.  But I didn't think about them.  I didn't wonder about them or their lives.  I mean, how interesting could they be?  They were old.  What an idiot I was.

Aunt Mayme and Aunt Dada were my grandma's two oldest sisters and the two eldest Geisen children.

Aunt Mayme and Aunt Dada, probably around 1890

I remember both of them very well since Aunt Mayme lived to be 97 years old and Aunt Dada was 103, and they were both "with it" until the day they died.

Aunt Dada (Charlotte Geisen)

Uncle "Zazzee" and Aunt Mayme, 1910

The sisters would be at every family event (the Geisens always loved a party), and I remember visiting Mayme and Dada at their home in Covington.  They became roommates after Mayme's husband, Uncle "Zazzee" (Harry Hunninghake) died in 1965.

Uncle "Zazzee" and Aunt Mayme at their niece Janet Purcell's wedding

Neither sister had any children (Dada never married), so they relied on each other and their other siblings.  All the Geisens were very close, but these 2 sisters especially so.

I remember being extremely bored when we "had" to visit these 2 ladies.  I certainly had better things to do, didn't I?  I wasn't bored because they ignored me.  They'd "make" over me, get me treats, try to talk to me, etc., but I couldn't wait to leave.  And those feelings multiplied when they went to live in the rest home.  I hated visiting that place.  But Mom would take us, and Aunt Mayme and Aunt Dada seemed to enjoy seeing us.

I'm ashamed now at how I must have acted toward them.  I wasn't a brat or nasty.  I was simply indifferent.  I never asked them questions about their lives or what interested them.  It never occurred to me to do that.  I never viewed them as "real" people with priceless knowledge and experience that they could've shared with me.  If only I had asked.

Once I began researching my tree, I kept coming back to these two women.  I started asking Mom questions about her aunts.  Because I realized that these ladies, especially Aunt Mayme, KNEW a lot of the personalities I was beginning to obsess over.

Aunt Mayme was held in the arms of our Union spy grandmother, Charlotte Brand Pistner.  They both knew their grandpa, Adam Pistner.  Oma Maria Susanna Schmitz Geisen would've held them, laughed with them, given them treats.  They even would've known and REMEMBERED their great grandfather, Johan Jodoc Schmitz, from Klüsserath.  They knew what his voice sounded like.  What his laugh was like.  Did they know why their great uncle, Jacob Schmitz, was only left $1 in his father's will when all the other Schmitz children were left equal share of the "estate?"

And all I would've had to do was ask.  Just ask them about their childhoods and their family.  Give them a drink or two, and they would've sung like canaries.

I had no idea that Aunt Dada had been engaged to a man who was killed in Europe in WWI.  She never fell in love again.  I just thought she was a "spinster."  It never occurred to me that this "old woman" was once young and in love.  Now I think of her in that moment when she found out that the love of her life had lost his in a foreign land.

I never thought to ask Mom if she knew why Aunt Mayme never had children.  And then during my research, I found out that Aunt Mayme had survived an ectopic pregnancy early in her marriage.  That, in and of itself, was an amazing thing.  Since Mayme and Zazzee couldn't have children of their own, they doted on all of their nieces and nephews (my mother included).  But according to Mom, her eldest brother was probably their favorite.  He was their first nephew, and they adored him.

With their first nephew, Brant Purcell

I still can't believe that I missed the many opportunities I had to get to know these women.  When I find "new" Geisens or Pistners and realize that Mayme and Dada would've known them, I could just kick myself.  They were my link to these previous generations, and I blew it.

But they weren't just my link.  They were amazing ladies!  Two more examples of strong women in my family tree.  And I completely ignored them.

If you're blessed enough to still know your grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles, great aunts, great uncles, etc., please do me a favor.  ASK THEM QUESTIONS ABOUT THEIR CHILDHOODS!  Ask them about their grandparents, aunts, and uncles.  What were they like?  What made them laugh?  Were they stern?  What stories did they tell?

Because one day, they won't be there to ask.  You can never go back.  Please learn from my painful lesson.


  1. Marti, try not to beat yourself up too much -- almost all kids are bored by the "old folks" and don't think they can tell them anything relevant.

    You are certainly researching and getting to know the family better now!

  2. Marti, I'll say the same: don't beat yourself up over it. As I go through researching my family--and comparing notes with others doing the same--I hear that refrain over and over again. Everyone wishes they had the sense to ask questions of their elders when they were children or teens. Sometimes, that perspective only comes with age. We grow into the wishing.

    On the other hand, realize that, just as you were when younger, your own descendants, nieces and nephews may not have the interest now--or later, as you yourself take your place as one of those "old" people. But now you can put yourself into their shoes and understand how they will feel in the far-off future. Preserve those stories on their behalf now--just as you're doing on this blog--so that when they wake up to the fact that they "blew it" and regret missing the chance to ask the questions they wanted to know, you will already have passed down some of the stories that will fill in the blanks for them. Not only will they want to know about your ancestors--which you can write out for them--but they will also want to know more about you and all the intricate facets of your own life. Be sure to prepare to pass that along, too.

  3. Thanks Missie and Jacqi

    I know Aunt Mayme and Aunt Dada understood then and certainly understand now. :) They really were great women, and I wish that I had taken the time to know them better.

    Jacqi, I constantly tell family stories to the next generation, wether they want to hear them or not! LOL! I'll have to start telling stories to my kids about myself and my hubby--e.g., how we met. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. I have nothing to add to Jacqi's comment, so true!
    And when you keep telling stories to the next generation, whether they are interested or not, you may hear them think that you are living in the past :) But never you mind, you know now that one day they will be grateful!

  5. Yep, I can certainly relate. I've had all those thoughts. But Jacqi makes a good point about recording our OWN story. As I look at mine, it surely is uneventful and I'm hard pressed to think anyone would find it interesting except as insight into the culture of the times.