These days, when many of us are spending far more time at home than we might have planned – it’s an opportunity to clean up, sort through and toss out. I can attest that not everyone embraces this vision with vigor, but there is something about digging into old boxes that has always held a sense of adventure and discovery for me. Growing up, my Mom had a bedroom that was basically “off limits” – filled with boxes and old furniture, but more importantly I think for her, filled with memories she did not want to be reminded of, yet could not find a way to let go.
When her lifelong health problems ultimately reached a point where she was unable to care for herself safely, she seemed to be at the end of her days – and I went through a period of desperation to find a housing and care facility. Ultimately, she improved – and I felt the “right thing” to do was to sell my home and return to that childhood tract house, where so many of my formative years and experiences still hung in the air. Being raised by a disabled single parent who had no earnings, no car and little interaction with the outside world had shaped me in many ways, so returning to living alone in a home drenched in memories was not much of a change.
Surprisingly, Mom hung on for eight more years, and during that time, I took on what I came to view as a “redemption” of the house, which had always needed much in the way of repairs and care that was never without our means. I wanted it to be a home that someone would be delighted to call their own, knowing the time would come that she would move into eternity, and others would make the house their own. As I began digging through the closets filled with old clothes and more, I began to uncover something I had not expected – shadows of the past that had not been viewed in decades.
There were photo albums from my parents, grandparents and boxes containing images from unknown ancestors. I unfolded faded letters dating back decades (including my father’s as shared previously), greeting cards, travel brochures and more. Going through them with first my parents, then in time other cousins and family members, opened a window to my heritage but, in time, also to a fuller realization of my own worth, and hope.
But today I am sharing about a member of the family in particular who met me in my infancy and passed not long after – my maternal grandmothers second husband. Grandma Jean had divorced my grandfather Richard before WWII – a pretty uncommon act back then. High school sweethearts in Denver, they’d both lost their mothers as teenagers, and after marrying in Oregon, raised her younger brother and sister and had two children – my uncle, and then my mother. Sadly, Jean passed a year before my birth. My mother had issues with her father until his passing – he lived out of state, and I never knew him either. But Mom loved her mother dearly – in fact I am named for Jean’s younger brother Norman who died during the 1918 flu epidemic.
Mom had told me that at some point grandma Jean had remarried, and they were seemingly quite happy until her own passing in the late 50’s. As with her not so socially acceptable in those days divorce, she again made a choice that in her time was rare – as an Episcopalian, she married a man of the Jewish faith. There were photographs, and even color slides, of their many trips together and with families – including strangers that were apparently his own. Other than a few unfamiliar names mentioned in passing in those old letters – there was only one other fact that many in my extended family recalled quite clearly. And it was not a pretty story.
Grandma passed in spring 1957, and he remarried shortly thereafter. Following my own birth in spring 1958, he had stopped by my parent’s home in Vacaville, near where my father worked at the state prison. Less than six months later, at the mountain cabin where he, my grandmother, mother, cousins and other family members celebrated summer vacations and winter getaways, my mother’s uncle found his body, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. My mother’s cousin David, still alive today, clearly recalls the incident, but with more expressive verbiage.
It was just one of those family stories, about people I never knew. But I looked through the photos and slides to see strangers faces from 50 years ago or more, and wondered what had happened to them. Now, after retiring, and in this time of isolation where I finally am trying to piece together so many little fragments of my heritage, my family’s journeys, for those who will follow – I came across those color slides with strangers faces and unfamiliar names again. I thought of another cousin who maybe 3-4 years back had gotten a call from descendant of his 3rd wife – they had found some of our grandmother’s items in boxes and wondered if we wanted them. To my ongoing regret, that never led to us reconnecting and recovering those pieces of the past.
With all the amassing records and resources available to us online today, you’ve probably seen programs on PBS or elsewhere about “discovering family”. Well, perhaps at least part selfishly – knowing that it might possibly reconnect me with other records from my grandmother – I decided to see what I could learn about this gentleman and track down someone who might want to preserve these photos of strangers that I had found, who might be their ancestors. At this point, I should explain I am taking care to not mention names, due to privacy – I generally do not share photos of living persons other than myself (with one exception). However, I do feel the photos of those long gone, in many cases of family I knew little or none at all while they lived, bring the stories and discoveries that I share here a little bit more “to life”.
As I scoured Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com and other site, knowing little more than his name and profession, to see if I could find reference to my grandmother’s second husband, some interesting facts appeared about his subsequent marriage and death – social notices, mainly, but then – an obituary. And in time, another article – describing his death, not from self-inflicted gunshot wounds, but – “an overdose of pills”? I was not surprised that the harsher truth of his passing had been softened, but i was not expecting another revelation. The memorial service article mentioning and naming children from a prior marriage – one that neither my Mom, nor her cousins and family, ever knew of.
Among them, a son – and from the date, and with his name (because, of course, the daughters might have married, and I would not have as great a likelihood of finding their “trail”) – I found a high school yearbook from southern California with his picture. From there – articles about his life, incidentals really – and with a bit more digging, I find several addresses. I realize some percentage, maybe a high percentage, of you might think why I am doing this – reaching out to a stranger who is not a blood relative, may not even know my grandmother married his father, and that I might be opening doors that he or his family prefer to leave shut?
I can’t tell you for sure that I know reaching out is the right choice – but I did. I wrote a letter; I made a call. At this point, there has been no response – possibly by choice, maybe by chance. But I do know that if someone were to reach out to me with an offer of photos of family that I had never seen, and maybe to learn a bit about their lives from someone who knew them – I would jump at the chance. Would I bring up the circumstances of his father’s passing?No, I would not – but if he asked, I would share what I knew.
Because in my life, at least, learning the truth – the facts, the hard history rather than the pretty fairy tales – has given me strength. Courage – to accept myself, and others, imperfect as we are – working on that every day, believe me. Knowing that those who came before experienced not just joy and summer vacations and new cars and baby showers of the photos now faded, but also disappointment, uncertainty, and yes – failure – gives me hope, because I face those, we face those – every day. Especially now.
There is a conflict erupting in our communities, country and world, between so many fragments over so many divides. I understand, in part, the rage of those who see the emblems of a past that brings pain even now and want them to be gone. I can listen to the words, the hearts of others who truly believe that it is better to bury the past. Yes, the dead are gone from us- but while we have their memories, their past remains. We each must decide – for ourselves, and for those who follow, in our family whether of blood or of choice – what memories will we preserve. What steps will we take to pass on those pieces of the past – whether in our garage in a crumpled box, or in a remote corner of our memory? Will we decide to let them go? Or will we choose to let those who follow make that decision for themselves.
I am not ready to throw away these pictures of stranger just yet – but the time will come. It does not cost me to save them still; it is not a burden. But their knowledge will end with me, I am certain. My focus must be on preserving the lives, hopes, dreams and memories of those truly dear to me, for those who like me, one day, will look at them perhaps with a sense of awe, and wonder. Perhaps in time, even the lessons of my life will somehow speak, after I am gone, and as was the gift to me, provide a doorway to a greater faith, a stronger hope, and a deeper love.