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Tuesday, 13 April 2010

A Knock on the Door

By Madonna Dries Christensen of On Worlud Pond

Years ago, researching family history, I learned that a cousin, Clem McLaughlin, had disappeared from Minnesota in 1924, leaving a wife and three young daughters. Having no further information, I fictionalized the incident in my book, Swinging Sisters, based on the true story of one member of the McLaughlin family.

The book’s publication brought correspondence with relatives I’d not previously known. One of Clem’s grandsons hoped I had more information about Clem. I didn’t, but I later learned that on the day in question, Clem borrowed his brother Eddie’s car and didn’t come home that night. Neither did Marie Lehrke, a young girl who cooked at the lumber camp where Clem worked.

He later telephoned Eddie and said he’d left the car at the Fargo depot. Neither family ever heard from the couple again. Eddie swore he knew nothing about their plans; he’d simply loaned Clem his car.

While gossip swirled, Clem’s wife told her daughters their father fell from the barn loft, hurt his head and wandered off in a daze. Beyond that, she refused to speak about him and soon moved away with the girls to live with her parents.

Years later, the youngest daughter, Vivian, told her sons, “I always day-dreamed there would be a knock on the door and a man would say, ‘I’m your dad.’” In 2000, the sons began posting inquiries on Internet genealogy message boards. Years passed with no results.

Meanwhile, in Montana, Jerry Burke, who’d grown up an only child, had long wondered why his parents wouldn’t talk about their past. When the boy questioned them about why he had no relatives, and got only vague replies, he realized this was a closed subject.

In 2008, with his parents deceased, Jerry began an online search. Using his mother’s maiden name, he tried Michigan records where she’d said she was born. Finding nothing, he switched to Minnesota which his dad had mentioned.

Of course, he was looking for Burke, not McLaughlin. But he found a message about a young woman from Park Rapids who had run off with a married man in the 1920s. That message led to inquiries from Vivian’s son about a man named Clem McLaughlin who had disappeared during that time period. A phone call came, and the pieces fit.

Clem had arrived in Montana with a new identity, Patrick Clement Burke, reversing his given name and middle name and taking his mother’s maiden name as his surname. Jerry, recalling his father as a good man, a rancher and respected member of the community, struggled with the knowledge that this same man deserted his first family. But the news was the beginning of an exhilarating ride for the retired rancher. He told me, “I went to bed one night having no relatives and woke up with dozens.”

His granddaughter added, “We’re excited to hear we have a family history and our family tree does not start in the 1920s. Try explaining that to your grade school teacher when you had to map out your family tree.”

Jerry’s daughter wrote in an e-mail to her new-found relatives:

“This has been an amazing and emotional time. I was very close to my grandparents. They lived, for the first ten years of my life, across the lane. Grandma taught me to knit, needlepoint, crochet, cook and play cards.

Grandpa Pat died when I was ten, so my relationship with him is hard to remember. I do know he was a loving and caring man. Grandma Marie died when I was older, so my husband and I had spent lots of time with her. We loved her dearly.

We always knew that what happened to them as young people was something painful. It makes me sad that the secret they kept was so difficult that they could not share it. I have very fond memories of these loving people.”

Not long after the discovery, Jerry took a brave step - he and his children attended a Lehrke reunion in Minnesota. He has since met relatives on both sides of his family, looked at photos of faces that resemble his and studied his extensive lineage on an ancestry site.

He has also met the half-sister who daydreamed about her father. Sadly, she now experiences memory loss and is unclear about what all this means. For Vivian, the knock on the door came too late.


[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Wow, what a story.

My mother also dreamed of a "knock on the door" and it came when I was 16 years old. It was the grandfather who had not seen his daughter (my mother) since she was 2 years old.

I thought of the old saying, "What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive." as I read your fascinating story. I'm glad that the children finally found each other and the family became reunited.

People get lost.
People get found.
I found a long lost niece at a
genealogy site where she was researching her ancestors, unaware of an Aunt who had done a lot of research of said ancestors, and who connected with said niece, who was/is overjoyed.
To quote said niece, "This is too much fun."

As someone said, we don't have a family tree, we have a family bush! So wonderful to hear that identities are known and connections are made. Congratulations to all. A wonderful story. Thank you.

Your story held my interest from beginning to end.

So sad that the knock on the door came too late for Vivian.

Great story! It gives me hope that one day I will also find some absent relatives.

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