Elmer AND Bill Died the SAME Day!

Obituary Notice, Lansing State Journal (Lansing, MI), 24 May 1971, pg 2

Having made a commitment to be more active here in my blog, and being really behind on SO many things, I decided that I would work at putting up family information more regularly. As I’ve written about RootsTech and other conferences, I’ve decided also to include content about our families – mine and Den’s – and information about my work in genealogy, I made the commitment.

So I truly KNOW and believe that our ancestors want us to find them (their information, records, photos, etc.) and know them – from what they did, what the records say, how their lives progressed and more …. it came as no surprise to me that, having made this commitment to myself and these ancestors, my return home from the National Genealogical Society’s 2022 Family History Conference included a discussion with my husband about my “take aways”.

The “take aways” is understandable for most folks … “what did you take away from that experience?”. Den and I, when completing a trip (the plane ride home or the final part of a drive home), will often have a conversation …. like “what were the top 3 things you will remember?” or “what are the top 3 images that will stick in your mind?” – that sort of thing.

Well, on this particular Sunday afternoon of Memorial Weekend, with the washing machine running after my unpacking the suitcase, Den and I were taking a moment for me to process the NGS conference and my experiences there. And our talk then moved further into “do we want to go to Ludwig’s grave tomorrow to honor him?” He’s Den’s Civil War ancestor who is buried in the Elmwood Cemetery here in Detroit. While we decided not to go, it began a conversation about ancestors in his family.

It evolved into this discussion about his grandfather Elmer and uncle Wilson/Bill. As the obituary pictured here states, they died the same day. I didn’t remember it that way …. and that’s a story!

You see, I met Denny in college, Michigan State University. It was in our sophomore year, and his Grandfather Elmer had died two years before, as had Wilson or Bill, Den’s uncle. As I got to know him and his family, I heard the story of Elmer’s death because Den and his parents and two brothers all lived on the same family farm in Alma, Michigan. When Elmer died, he had a heart attack in his home right next door to Den’s family’s home. Den actually heard his Grandmother Vera scream when Elmer dropped in the house and Den ran over to see what was wrong. He performed CPR on his grandfather but Den knew that Grandpa was gone.

The way I REMEMBERED the story was very different, although with parts of it factual and the same. BUT – and this is the key – even when someone tells us the story from their actual presence and knowledge, we can remember it wrong!

The thing about my memory was that there were parts that I remember coming from other people. So Den’s older brother Van and possibly Den’s mom, Melba, had told me their memories of what happened. Now, Van was not in the home or on the farm when Bill and Elmer died, so perhaps that is where my memory got jarred in the wrong direction. What I remember, was “someone” told me that Bill committed suicide and that, after his funeral, Elmer had come home, took a walk around the farm and then had his heart attack.

Well …. parts of that are true. Elmer DID take the walk around the farm just before the heart attack. Den knew that and had actually see Elmer walking around. Den remembered thinking that his grandfather perhaps was thinking through, reflecting on the fact that his eldest son had just passed away and what was the future of the farm? While the family had sold their dairy cows back in the mid-1960s, the farm was still operating but, since 1969, was leased to another farmer to plant, harvest while the family retained ownership and received annual checks from the crops sold. ANYWAY, I digress …

So what was TRUE was that Elmer died after taking that walk around the farm. What was NOT true – Bill died from lung cancer and Elmer died the same day, as you can see in the obituary. Where had I gone SO wrong on these memories? Did Van or Melba tell me elements that I confused? Apparently!

My point in offering this is that we can’t and shouldn’t fully trust our memories! Documentation of the elements of stories really helps and it provides some interesting lessons. In my case, I never documented the stories that I was told (by Van or Melba or whomever!) AND I clearly messed up parts of it. Suicide is awful and so is cancer but they carry a much different trajectory both physically and emotionally in a family! AND the fact that they died on the same day was totally missed by me until I found this obituary. While I have Elmer’s death certificate from our family, I didn’t have Bill’s (and yes, I could connect with his family). That said, I learned a lot on Sunday!

A genealogists, family historians or even just members of an extended family that tells stories and “embellishes” perhaps as the story evolves, please DO keep in mind that finding the key facts, documents and information is important in documenting our families’ lives and stories. I’m so glad that I dug into this more after that conversation with my husband as he was amazed by how much I had wrong. Good to be stopped before I’d shared it SOOO far off from the facts! Keep digging!

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