This history of my family’s house on Hull Street—a house I saw only once, in a city I visited just a few times—is never going to be as right as I would like. Too much has been lost in the half-century since my family moved away. Perfect is not an option.
My family knows this as well. They’ve been utterly patient and helpful as I ask them to put a shovel into their old memories. After I published my introduction post, their responses shone with appreciation and added details. But one of my aunts did have a gentle change: “I loved it. But the peonies weren’t along the fence in the yard. I don’t remember where they were, but it wasn’t there.”
So much for my opening line about the peonies starring along the sidewalk fence. I took this news back to my dad, who had drawn me a map of the garden with the peonies there. He shrugged in response, saying, “The peonies were everywhere.”
Perhaps they were. Maybe they’re both right. A garden is forever in flux; memories are only correct for a moment. Memoir is where fact is layered on certainty, at right angles with another half-memory. The stories mesh or they don’t. They run in reinforcing parallels—or they cross each other out and leave you standing in between. The best I can do is overlay fact upon conflicting fact, and hope some shadow of truth appears in the crossing.
As it happens, the intersection is where we begin.
Remembrance is the sweetest flower that in a garden grows. — Anon.
If Rose had any say in this, she’d want me to mention the peonies.
Hell: If Rose had any say, I wouldn’t be talking at all. As far she was concerned, old stories were best left in the ground. Life is hard enough the first time you live it—who would waste a moment being sad all over again?
She knew something about sadness.
Rose was my great-grandmother; the peonies were her pride at the Detroit home where she lived for almost 50 years. By the time I knew her, Rose was in a different house with a different garden. I’ve only seen the flowers in photos, and the house at 17210 Hull Street just once in the 1990s.
We did not get out of the car. It was already too late.
* * * *
From the early 1920s to the late 1960s, 17210 Hull Street, Detroit, was my family’s home. It was not fancy, but it was large. It kept my great-grandparents, my grandparents, my dad and aunts, extended relatives and barely connected cousins, safe and together for a long time.
The house at 17210, and many of its neighbors, have been brought down in recent years. The neighborhood was once closely packed, with house upon house upon house for blocks. Now, there are as many vacant lots as there are homes.
Reclamation is a brute’s business. Grass does its work to cover the scrape of the bulldozer, but there’s no denying the gaps.
I bring my own myopia to this. Pretty much every place I grew up in—homes, schools, stores, and neighborhoods—is still there. I could walk through those addresses today, followed by ambles around all of my schools. Even the grocery store where we shopped in the 1970s is open and still owned by the same company. The places of my life have always been valued and protected. Their advocates were heard, are heard today. The house where I grew up looks better than ever.
I don’t know how I would even feel if I saw my old neighborhood the way my dad sees his. To think of faces and see absences. To find grass growing over your remembered places. To wonder where the advocates went.
* * * *
After three years of writing biographies of people I never met, it feels strange to write about a house that I never walked in. But it’s in my life. The house stars in a half-century of family photos. I have pieces of its dining room set. Some of its traditions are my traditions even today. So why not write about the house, and the village of people around it? Because, for however briefly, a kind of village did connect in that neighborhood, and then just as quickly vanished.
The risks are obvious to me. I don’t have all my research done. My dad and his sisters have some great happy memories about the house on Hull Street, but their sadness about its end is very real. It’s hard to ask them: Can I open this file of yours, the one with the happiness and the pain all mixed together?
But I want to know what happened, mark what was lost, and see what remains. They gave me the OK. I will step cautiously.
So begin here: Every summer the peonies nodded in a heavy-headed line next to the low fence that ran along Stender Avenue. They were the summer stars in a garden show that provided a constant array of new things to enjoy, from spring through fall.
How to start with not even a name, and end up at a love story.
Last week my ancestors—probably in cahoots with the algorithm at FamilySearch.com—slid another surprise birth certificate in front of my face. “Let her try this one…” I’m sure they snickered.
Well they should, as it didn’t list a name or even indicate the child’s sex. It granted me only a birthdate from 1881, and the names of my great-great grandparents, at their home address. It was just enough information to get my attention, and not enough to exactly match any established relatives. The ancestors know what they’re doing.
But despite their best efforts, I found it, and fast. And then I discovered an array of records. Piecing those together revealed a life unlike anyone else I’ve researched so far, and unlike anyone else in my family.
A records search revealed a story I didn’t know was there.
Earlier this week my Twitter feed blew up. Reclaim the Records, a nonprofit advocacy group, announced that they had received access to the scanned birth, death, and marriage records held by New York City’s Department of Records and Information Services. A beta website would be immediately forthcoming.
Genealogists’ work is often done by inches, record by record, because municipal governments like to hold on to their documents very tightly. You pay a fee, and then wait 6 weeks, or maybe 6 months to get one piece of paper. If they can find it at all.
Watching a bunch of history geeks get unfettered access to thousands of scanned records, for free, RIGHT NOW, was like watching a pinata burst open. It’s just that the pinata was full of old, handwritten papers, and the kids were actually adults. For genealogists, this is the best kind of party.
I couldn’t give the records my full attention, but I was elated to find one thing right away. Based on other records, I’ve long suspected that two maternal great-grandparents lived next door to each other. I found the marriage record that confirms this.
This Brooklyn stoop romance of Willam and Elise features the great-grandmother I discussed in this post. Their marriage got a brief 7 years; the influenza took her in 1918. Piecing together her family line has been my proudest work, but also slow going. There have been many, many Brunjes (or Brunges, or Brünjes) in Brooklyn over the decades, and I’ve never been able to untangle their lines. With these newly available documents, maybe I could.
Elise was the first daughter of her parents, Arend and Minnie (Huppler) Brunjes. She had one younger brother, Herman. I also knew from the 1900 census that Minnie and Arend had lost a child at some point before then.
When I finally had time to dig in on Thursday night, I started opening Brunjes birth certificates one by one, logging births, dates, and parents into a spreadsheet. Like in Whitman: “… the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me.” I work better that way.
I found their boy. A son was born to Minnie and “Ahrent” in the summer of 1893. There was no name on the certificate, but now I had a solid birthdate.
I also uncovered a death record that seemed to match his age, a six-week-old baby boy dying in August 1893. The vague blur of a child comes into focus: Benjamin Brunjes. Born June 22; died August 1.
His life was cruelly short – by the time the city finalized his birth record, he was already gone. He spent the last two weeks of his life sick with cholera infantum (which is not actually cholera), which ran rampant those years. So many were lost. Poor Minnie; poor Arend.
I logged about 50 entries, searching under every variation of spelling. It got late. My eyes were tired. Our kitten was bored and wanted attention. I must have been tired because here was the baby’s certificate again, but I had already logged it.
This was a second certificate, for a second baby.
Record 9913… and record 9914. Mother of child: 2… and mother of child: 3. Same day, same place, same parents, same doctors.
Minnie had given birth to twin boys that summer afternoon.
No wonder there were no names on the certificates – Minnie and Arend were probably too surprised. Their joy, but my confusion. Why would Minnie tell the 1900 census that she had lost one, when it was actually two? And who was this? Where was he?
I took a night to regroup and consider my resources. The next morning, armed with fresh coffee, I started at the NY records site. Perhaps his brother’s death certificate was close by in number? It was not logged within 20 certificates of his, so I moved on.
My greatest stroke of genealogy luck has been to have relatives interred at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. The management of Green-Wood, bless them and keep them, has a useful burial search tool on their website (not all cemeteries do).
There is Benjamin, buried on August 3. Two days later, a Theodore Brunjes was buried in the same lot, same section, same grave. Also nearby: the boys’ grandfather, their uncle, a cousin.
His name was Theodore.
Municipal offices want to treat records as bricks: discrete and identical, to be moved or sold as needed. But where they see bricks, genealogists see a wall, or a home, or a church. We see what results when you put those bricks together.
When I put those bricks together, I can see stories. I see parents who had to put their babies in the ground, twice in one week.
And I see them years later, in their living room, congratulating their daughter and new son-in-law.
Finding one bluesman was easy. Doing it again is a lot tougher.
All week, I’ve been thinking about this line from the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers,” which follows the paratroopers of Easy Company in World War II. It’s a moment at the end of episode 4. Operation Market Garden, a massive attempt to invade Germany through Holland, has gone spectacularly badly. The troopers that managed to survive are in a weary retreat, defeated and beaten down. As they leave, Lewis Nixon tells his friend, Capt. Dick Winters, ruefully: “I think we’re gonna have to find another way into Germany.”
Some weeks ago, I had a really meaningful research success. Following it up has brought almost no reward and almost entirely frustration. Nothing is working as I’d hoped. My expectations and anticipations aren’t being met. My standard research techniques are no use.
I don’t like trying to find another way into Germany. Having to spend my time devising alternative research strategies offends my desire for efficiency. Why can’t it all work the way it did before?
It’s not working because… well, for a lot of reasons.