Thursday, April 26, 2012

As I time-travel without ever leaving my desk...

I spent a good chunk of the day yesterday playing in the past. In 1940, to be precise.

I found my family there, both sides, and some information about them that I didn't know before, or at least that I didn't realize. Stuff like the fact that none of my grandparents had more than an 8th grade education. And like that most of my mother's family was still living in Arkansas or Oklahoma in 1935...I had never realized that when they took the 1940 census, they asked everyone where they had been living five years earlier. And like that my mother was the only one of her siblings born in Oklahoma, while the rest were born in Arkansas. This goes along with a fact I already knew: my mom was the only one of her siblings born in a hospital. Which could explain a lot. But that's another story.

There were also a few mysteries. The 1940 census records claim that my mother was in 6th grade in 1940. However, I know that she graduated high school in 1945 - she is of that generation that lived pretty much their entire high school lives during World War II. All I can figure is that the census-taker wrote down the wrong grade level for my mother one of her sisters, who were in the same grade despite being about a year apart in age (actually about a year and a half). You see, when my mother's family moved to California from Arkansas (Bates, so the records say), my mother was held back a year in school because she had missed so much school in Arkansas. "Sick headaches" kept her out, my mother always said. Well, at least the move to California fixed that; she said she never had another one once they got here.

There were not quite so many surprises from my father's side of the family. I discovered that my great-grandmother Frei was already dead in 1940, which I didn't know. And that at the time of the census my great-grandfather Frei was 69 years old. Which means he was about 70 when he left the US not long afterward, to go back to Germany, where he was born, as the war was breaking out. He left by ship for Japan, then traveled across Russia to get to Germany. Family lore says that he left after the family had a falling out over the fact that he was a supporter of Adolf Hitler, which the rest of the family was most certainly not. This whole episode, which I didn't know about until a couple of years ago, always makes me queasy when I think about it. I knew that I had other relatives in Germany during the war, and that some of them probably had to fight for their country, whether they liked it or not (and I have no idea where they stood on the matter). But there is something, I don't know, unsettling, to say the least, about knowing that a direct blood relative of mine fled toward the Nazi regime willingly, because they supported it. It's like when I watch those genealogy shows on TV and people find out that their ancestors were slaveholders. You just kind of wish that you didn't have that in your family's past.

One of the delightful surprises was finding my great-great Uncle Jacob and my great-great aunt Catherine on the census rolls. I don't know why that surprised me. I knew they had to have been there, right alongside my father's immediate family and my great-grandfather. But I was surprised and delighted to see them there. I don't remember Uncle Jake. He died in June of the same year I was born in August, at the age of about 93 or 94, still doing farm work as he could, according to family stories. Certainly, he was still listed as working as a farmer at age 78 in 1940. But I do remember great-aunt Catherine, vaguely. I seem to recall being slightly afraid of her because she was so old (she would have been around 83 or 84 when I was born). I remember her mostly at family holiday dinners, but I must have been around her more than that, since she lived right next door to my grandmother. But, I couldn't have been more than about three years old when she died, so I suppose it is understandable that I don't remember her more vividly.

I come, the census information I found emphasizes, from the working class on both sides of the family. I had known that, of course, and have always been proud of that, but seeing it there on the page makes it a little more real and vivid...Grandpa Frei lived on a farm and worked as a packing boss at a citrus packing house. Uncle Jacob was a farmer. Most of the male relatives on my mother's side of the family were classified as some sort of farm laborer (they were Okies, after all) in the 1940 census; those who weren't working on a farm were doing some kind of labor as opposed to working in a store or an office. On the other hand, my Grandpa Minor held a number of jobs throughout his life. When my mother was born, he was a streetcar conductor in Muskogee, Oklahoma. He was, at one time a coal miner. He sharecropped in Arkansas for awhile. Then, after the family came to California, besides working on farms, he was a clerk in a grocery store and then, later on, night watchman at a packing house. A citrus house, actually. With both grandfathers working in some capacity around citrus houses, I guess it was inevitable that I love oranges and lemons.

Not all of this information, of course, came from the census rolls I spent time looking at yesterday. But just doing that brought to mind so many family stories, good and bad. It was like spending a day with family.

If you had relatives in the US in 1940, and you want to spend some time with them, I highly recommend going to the 1940 census site in the Internet. If you know where your family lived that year, it's relatively simple to find them. Although I will warn you, some of the census takers the government hired to go knock on everyone's door, on or about April 1, 1940, didn't have the best handwriting in the world. And you'll probably have to search page after page of census sheets to find them, because there is no way to search by name, but just by where your family lived. The upside of the deal is that you don't have to register or pay to use the site.

That was my big frustration yesterday in trying to find my mother's immediate family. They all lived in the same town, and I found most of them without really even trying. But it turned out - and I should have known this from family stories and knowing which grammar school my mother graduated from - that my mother's immediate family was still living out in the country, while the rest of the family were all living, with their various spouses and children, in town even though some of them still worked on farms.

Still, the effort, and the achy eyes at the end of the day, were worth it.

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