Before I go, I have something to say

Climbing my Family Tree

I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has seen my work nametag and asked if I’m related to another Kress in the greater Dubuque area. It usually happens on the elevator. My favorite is, “Are you related to Father Kress?” Nope, sorry. Not even Catholic.

Sometimes, when the question comes up, I say, “I wish I was!” But my Kress relatives all hail from farther south, around Maquoketa. Or was that the Clarks, my mother’s clan? The thing is, while I can trace my maternal side practically to the Mayflower, my dad’s branch comes to a screeching halt with his own father. I’ve written about him before, about the photo I grew up wondering about, showing young John Julius Kress standing in front of an orphanage, a good foot taller than the other children. I knew this home was in Dubuque, of all places, but that was all.

I felt so sorry for him. Family lore had it that he was put there even though his parents were still alive. How could they do that? As a parent myself, I can’t fathom such an abandonment. Maybe they couldn’t afford to feed and clothe him, so this was the most compassionate thing to do. Or maybe his mother died, and his father was at his wit’s end. I have no idea. I never pressed my dad for answers, and by the time I thought of asking his younger brother, he was felled by Parkinson’s.

Let this be a lesson to you: if there are things you want to know about your family, ask your parents, your aunts and uncles, NOW. The holidays are a good time to have these conversations.

As it turned out, this “orphanage” was actually the Home for the Friendless, now known (thank goodness) as Mt. Pleasant Home. At some point, this boy was taken in by a farm couple, who, my father told me, treated him like an indentured servant. He ran away and ended up in Red Wing, Minnesota, where he started his own business making harnesses.

Of course, every family has its secrets, and some are too painful to probe. It’s sad, because so often the reason for all the secrecy is shame or embarrassment, emotions blown way out of proportion with the passage of time. I heard on NPR that as recently as the 1950’s, when someone wanted to place an ad in the New York Times inviting women to join a breast cancer survivors’ group, the newspaper wouldn’t allow it, because you couldn’t say “breast” and “cancer” in the paper. So many taboos, so much useless silence.

What I really want is to meet another Kress who has a family tree that shows some connection to mine. After all, Dubuque and Davenport (where my Grandpa Kress eventually settled) aren’t that far apart. I could be bumping into first cousins twice removed all the time, without realizing it.

As I write this, Thanksgiving is bearing down upon us. Many households in Dubuque will be jam-packed with relatives, three and four generations gathered around the groaning table. The streets will be choked with cars, and the houses will be redolent with the odors of turkey and cigars. At our place, it will be a much smaller gathering – my husband and I and our four kids, one son and daughter apiece. It’s fine, it’s just right, but it does make me a little nostalgic for those days when the whole extended family would descend upon one generous couple’s home.
So I look for clues. I have pictures of people named Stafford, my dad’s middle name and his mother’s maiden name. I checked the phone book, but there are only two of those in Dubuque. Another dead end. After my parents died, I found an article in their files about my Uncle John, the oldest son and the one who inherited the family business. It tells me that his father gave up harness making for tents and awnings, when horses began to be replaced by cars. Here’s a cool tidbit: While their house in east Davenport was under construction, the family lived in three tents, one for dining, one for cooking, and one for sleeping. My dad was always proud of how practical the Kress clan was.

Another paper in the file says Grandpa Kress was married three times, first to Matilda Cook, who bore him two sons, and later died; next to Maude Stafford, who had five children, including my dad, and died when he was 21; and finally to Mabel Schwieger, who outlived him by decades. I was three when he died, and don’t remember him at all.

So that side of my family tree is more like a sapling. A twig. Who came before John Julius? Did he have any brothers or sisters? And why did his first two sons, Melvin and Rankin, run away and change their last names to Grant? Therein lies a tantalizing family secret, I’ll bet.

It’s not like I’m going to turn into one of those insatiable genealogists, though I can understand the impulse. It’s very satisfying to have all your ducks – or in this case, your cousins – in a row. And I’ll confess, I’ve been to a little cemetery just north of Maquoketa called East Iron Hill many times, just to stand before the graves of Tolbert and Jennie Aminda Streets and their unnamed infant son, who died just days after birth. Why? Because Tol and Minnie were my mom’s favorite aunt and uncle, and because, well, as Arthur Miller said in “The Death of a Salesman,” attention must be paid. With no child to remember them, I feel compelled to do what I can.


Leave a Reply