The Roots of the Tree

A - Fam Stories 1

I started this as a response to Nikki’s “Family Secrets” post, and then realized that it was just too long for a response, and it would probably make a good post.

I come from a LARGE family.  My grandparents, bless their Catholic-bunny hearts, created 14 children, 13 of whom lived long and healthy lives.  They started this odyssey in 1912, so my dad, aunts and uncles grew up in the first quarter of the 20th Century, in the Roseland area of Chicago.  Back then, it was a great neighborhood, and the Dreger Kids were a wild bunch.

Because of the number of kids in the family, the older kids cared for the youngers.  They all pitched in and worked when and where they could – around the house doing the cooking, laundry, dishes, and cleaning, and when they were old enough, shoveling coal, working for the railroad, or whatever other jobs they could scare up.  When they weren’t working, they were causing trouble.  And when they weren’t causing trouble, they were playing music.  They’re a seriously talented bunch.

When the time came, the older brothers went off to war, first to WWI, then WWII, and finally the Korean War, which was the one that Dad served in.  He was the youngest male, so the Military Service ended with him.  Our family was lucky… everyone who went to war returned home, unharmed.

Oh, the stories they tell!  My family is a vocal one.  If we were Irish, it would be said that we have the gift of Blarney.  But we’re German, so we just talk.  A lot.  Every time the family gets together, mostly for weddings and funerals (both of which, right or wrong, are massive parties), the stories fly and the music flows.  And at every single get-together, my cousins and I would sit and listen to these stories, told first by Grandma (Grandpa died when I was five), and then by our parents, aunts and uncles, and we’d say to one another… “somebody should be writing this down”.  But no one ever got around to it.  Even when Grandma died in 1993, nobody did anything, and we thought her stories died with her.

Well, six years ago, my uncle Joe died, and his death was a slap to the back of the head for me.  It was like he was reaching out to me, saying, “Hey, dummy…. Get it done before it’s too late!!”  At the luncheon for his funeral, my cousins and I discussed a Family Reunion and we scheduled it for that summer, to be held at my house.  Well, I got started immediately.  Joe died in January, and we’d set the date for the party for July 17th.  As soon as I got home, I sat down and wrote a letter to each of my aunts and uncles, asking them to commit their memories to paper.  Or to tell them to their kids, and have a tape or video recorder going.  Or call me and tell ME the stories.  Somehow, I wanted those stories to get to me.  And each month after that, I sent a reminder.  Pretty soon, the stories started trickling, and then pouring, in.  My dad got into it and started writing, and then he and my mom started badgering the Siblings, fussing loudest at those who scoffed at the idea…

“I have no stories to tell,” they’d say.  “My life isn’t that exciting.”

“Oh, but you’d be surprised,” We’d reply.  “Once you get started, it will just flow.  Try it, please.”

Well, the results were staggering.

Not only did I receive pages and pages and PAGES of stories, I got pictures, pictures and MORE pictures!  My uncle Fred even recreated his famous Vanishing Devil painting (and perhaps I will blog that story someday, it’s a good one), and drew a few others.  I compiled, edited (just a little, for readability, I wanted to keep the tone of the person who wrote the story), and compiled some more.

The reunion was a smash hit.  An aunt and an uncle flew in from Colorado and California, respectively.  No one had seen them in ten years or more.  We were able to reach another uncle, living in Arkansas, who hadn’t been seen in more than 10 years, and he promised to not lose touch ever again.  Aunts and uncles brought boxes and boxes of family memorabilia, and I had The Book all ready to go.

It was 108 pages long!  I had put blood, sweat and tears into it, and the result was absolutely amazing.  I was even able to gather extra stories from the Siblings about their brother Joe, whose death prompted this project, and who, regrettably, was unable to share his memories.  Those memories went into a special book, presented to my aunt Irene and cousin John when they arrived.A - Fam Stories 2

That was six years ago.  The stories are STILL coming in, and I’ve done a second volume of the stories, and also,  a second topic  – The Military Files – which documents the brothers’ stories from WWI, WWII, and Korea.  There are stories in there of active battles, firefights on the high seas, G.I. antics, and even a surrender during the Battle of the Bulge.A - Military Stories

Somewhere, one of my cousins has tapes of my grandmother telling stories of HER childhood…. She grew up in New Ulm, MN, during the 1900’s, and was witness to at least one Indian raid on her town.  One of these days, I’m gonna get my paws on those tapes and transcribe them!

This project is one that’s near and dear to my heart, and a little twist on the subject of straight Genealogy.  It’s not just names and dates of birth/death, and family trees.  It’s a chronicle of a family, lives gone by, and where we came from, telling us how we got our quirky sense of humor, why we can handle stress as well as we do, and why every single one of us has some sort of artistic talent – some of us were blessed with multiple gifts – we’re painters, musicians, writers, photographers.

I highly recommend it for everyone.  As we move faster and faster into our future, it’s fascinating to slow down to look into our past, and see that “those people” really were REAL people, with real stories.

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14 Responses to The Roots of the Tree

  1. Joy says:

    This sounds really, really neat. I wish I’d done this before my grandparents died. My grandpa always had the best stories but like a kid, I usually only listened politely with one ear.

    After hearing you and Nikki talk about this, I may check it out more seriously. It’s such a fun subject to me and now with all the help you can get, I don’t think it’s as hard as it used to be.

    Thanks Laura.

  2. Sue says:

    What a fantastic thing you did! I loved hearing my grandpa tell stories and sometimes we hear them from my grandma, but she just doesn’t tell them the same way! My other grandpa is a great story teller as well and his sisters did put together a collection of family pictures for all of us at the last reunion. I was born and raised 2 hours north of New Ulm, MN and we have many stories of the Indian wars in our area also. The Battle of Little Crow probably being the most “famous” one. History is amazing and knowing family history is even better. Great post!

  3. SKL says:

    This is a great idea! With modern techonology, even lazy people like me could do it, a little at a time.

    When I was 13, I had a project where I was to interview an elderly person about what their job was when they were young. I interviewed my grandmother and the resulting story was published in an amateur book. Unfortunately, I have no idea what ever became of the tape of the interview.

    My dad’s brother was big on keeping track of family history, but he passed away, and I don’t know how much was preserved. My dad unfortunately is dyslexic and couldn’t really commit much to writing. Maybe we of the next generation could take turns writing down his anecdotes. Another thing I really want to write down are the bedtime stories that he passed down from his dad to us – really interesting stories that I’ve never seen anywhere in writing.

    My mom isn’t too proud of her ancestry and probably wouldn’t feel like sharing much in a book.

    I love the image of you all hanging out and chatting. My family is like that, too. None of my siblings knows how to shut up! If I go to my parents’ overnight around a holiday, my sister hooks me with a 5000-piece puzzle and I end up blabbing about everything and nothing until the sun comes up.

  4. pammywammy says:

    Thats so awesome.You should make them into a book and hand it out to al family members. 🙂 I no now that my parents are both gone,I am starting to forget the stories.But as someone recalls a story,I begin to remember.I do have alot in my head,I should write them down one day,so my kids and grandkids will no about there mom and nana.I love to read those kind of stories.I believe everyone has a interesting story to tell/As we are all different and unique 🙂

    • Laura says:

      I had intended to give everyone a hard copy, and at the reunion, collected $5.00 from each person that wanted one. Silly me, I thought that would cover the printing/binding/shipping costs!! Well, Office Depot had different ideas, and it was closer to $10-15 a book, depending upon whether I wanted color pictures, and what kind of binding I wanted. We won’t even discuss the cost of shipping that size book…

      So I did the next best thing. I saved the whole 108 pages as a .pdf, burned it on to a stack of CD’s, designed a CD cover, and sent it out. Family members could print and bind it for themselves, if they chose. The cost came in just under the $5 per person, when you include time, paper, ink, CDs, and shipping.

      And now I also have it in digital form, in case anyone loses their copy.

      I also spent $30, and (on the advice of one of my uncles) sent it to the Copyright Office, as a “compilation” with me as the “author”. I really don’t expect anyone to try and steal these stories, but the protection is there, just in case.

  5. WONDERFUL idea! I bet I can get my family members to do that too. It’s a wonderful opportunity to get to know our origins better. We’ll have lots of things to talk about during our reunions.

  6. Tony says:

    I have done a lot of family tree research over the past 4 years & it was very interesting to find out a lot of stuff about your ancestors. It is in the lost interest bag at the moment but will probably regain my interest at some later time.

  7. Just a Mom says:

    I am the keeper of my mom’s family pictures. Some of them date back to the 1800’s. My mom and I used to look at these pictures all the time when I was a kid. I knew the names of everyone in the pictures but they were never written down. My mom and I spent an entire week writting down all the names and dates if known on the back of the pictures.
    A year or so ago I scanned all of these photos and labeled them, saved them to CD and sent them out to my family. They loved it! Some of them had never seen pictures of our great grandparents and my aunts loved seeing pictures of old neighbors and childhood friends.

  8. nikki says:

    OMG Laura!! I wish I had the ambition you have to do that!!! What a great thing to do and have to hold for generations to come!! I love old pictures. The history behind them and the stories to tell about each one. It’s so interesting and exciting. Great job Laura, I hope each person knows and appreciates all the sweat and love that went into that!!!

  9. This is wonderful! It must be so amazing to be able to know so much about your family. I think your endeavor was WONDERFUL, and I’m sure that your compiled books of family stories will keep being added to and passed on through the generations. What a wonderful legacy!

  10. starlaschat says:

    Such a wonderful project! Bless your heart for taking it on and inspiring the rest of the family to participate. One of those things that you think of doing often when it is too late. Some of my all time favorite really funny stories are from my family. We have some video of story telling from a couple of family members. I’m so glad you did this with your family and documented and had a reunion to boot.

  11. nikki says:

    Oh hey, I have a friend named Jason (Jay) Dreger? Lives in Delano, Mn. Probably just a fluke huh?

    • Laura says:

      I’m thinking, yeah…. however, the Dreger clan stretches and stretches. He could be a second- or third- or whatever cousin.

      Two years ago (maybe three, now), my family did an AnySoldier campaign. We collected TONS of stuff, and once we got it all, I went to AnySoldier.com, and looked for soldiers from nearby. We ended up adopting a soldier named David Dreger, who lived in WI!! No relation to us, that we can find, but how small is the world?

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