Tonight I was watching a new show on PBS — Genealogy Roadshow. There were several short segments with people seeking to find something out about their respective families. Then came a young woman who’d never known her father; apparently he and her mother had not married, and he died shortly after her mother had become pregnant. This story stopped me from looking at my email or from thumbing through various craft books on precious metal clay.
It was so close to the story about my mother — up to a point. But I couldn’t stop watching, and listening, and imagining my mother as this young woman related her story. I’ve been thinking of Mother ever since.
When I was 7, when my younger sister was born, Mother had some allergic reaction to a medication she was given. She nearly died. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the hospital “lost” the records, or whatever — but never could anyone find out what Mother was so dangerously allergic to.
Shortly afterwards, within months, Mother began having panic attacks, severe ones. In the terminology of the 1950s, she suffered “a nervous breakdown” within the year. A psychologist became part of our weekly routine; she went to her psychologist, came home, and Dad would take me for a long truck ride to try to explain to me what was going on. The psychologist worked in tandem with a psychiatrist, and he prescribed a tranquilizer that Mother took without fail for nearly eighteen years. There were years, though, when I didn’t trust her or her “moods”; I was much closer to Dad, who kept the family together when many men would have left her and the three of us children. He explained to me, at age 8 and 9 and 10, what I could barely really understand, but he wanted me to know that she didn’t hate me. I grew up in a lot of ways, and had to be a little adult. I resented that she was different, that I had a different mother from the one I’d known before the breakdown. I loved her too, but I was too young to really understand or comprehend my own emotions, much less hers.
She improved over time, functioned, and never had to be committed. Our relationship through this is another story altogether. By the time I left home to go to college, we were both glad, and our relationship improved greatly. We became closer, and talked more. We were friends. In my 30s, I was old enough finally to let all my negative emotions about her go, to just love her and see her as a person.
Why do I bring this up? Well, when I was 21, my mother’s step-father died. She went through another near-breakdown and I learned the truth about her own background. My perception of her changed and over time, I’ve come to see her so differently. This is where tonight’s Genealogy Roadshow connects.
Until I was 21, I believed that my mother and aunt were both daughters of my grandmother Ella and my Grampa Charlie, a Swedish immigrant. He and my grandmother divorced and she later remarried Glenn, my mother’s step-father. When Glenn died in December 1972, the story I’d grown up with changed.
My grandmother Ella had been married not twice but four times. Her first marriage, at the age of barely 15. This marriage produced my aunt. My grandmother Ella left her husband when, we were told, he’d thrown battery acid at her. She was maybe 16 1/2 by then. Young and striking, with dark auburn hair, she remarried soon. This second husband disappeared when she was pregnant with my mother, who was born a few months after Ella turned 18. Ella was pregnant when his car was found by the Neches River, abandoned, with his lunch still on the seat. The story went that he was in trouble over gambling. Or perhaps had been the victim of union problems. The mystery shaped my mother’s entire life. Thus my mother never knew her biological father.
When Mother and my aunt were still toddlers, Ella married a third time — she was perhaps 21 by then. This was Charles Steele, the man I knew as Grampa Charlie and thought was my biological grandfather. So the family story went, Charlie didn’t want to settle down in one place and by then both the girls were ready for school. My grandmother moved home to Beaumont, and Charlie didn’t. They divorced but remained friends. Ella remarried when Mother was in junior high school; this was Glenn, her fourth and last husband. They were married until Glenn died in December 1972.
Glenn’s death apparently meant that for whatever reasons (and I don’t know and can’t ask Dad now because he’s dead) Mother had to pull out her adoption papers. This is when I learned that when she was 18, Mother had her name changed and had Grampa Charlie legally adopt her. Since my grandmother was apparently the black sheep of the family because of her four marriages, Mother was always afraid of people knowing “the truth.” Yet we’d moved to Egan when I was 5 1/2, and Egan was where my grandmother’s family was from. I’m sure that moving there in 1957 had been difficult because Mother was moving into a very small town, one where everyone knew Ella and her history.
Mother was afraid of my reactions; she knew that Dad had told me so that I’d understand why Mother was having the most difficult time I’d seen in over a decade. I didn’t care — in fact, I told her, I thought her biological father was just a son-of-a-bitch. My words without embellishment. It made no difference to me in how I thought of her or Ella. I didn’t think less of them. In fact, I thought much more of my grandmother than ever before. (Oh, she could make me angry, too, don’t get me wrong. But maybe that’s because, as my sister often says, I’m a lot like Ella.)
A few years later when I moved to Beaumont, where my grandmother lived, she was very careful to sit me down and tell me “the truth,” expecting me to be shocked. She was surprised, to say the least, that I knew already. Why was she so careful to tell me? She was afraid that someone in Beaumont would spill the beans, would be cruel. She was also quick to assure me that she and Mother’s father had been married; she brought the marriage certificate with her to prove it. Once more, I told her just what I thought of him, and told her that I loved her and was proud of her.
Only after that did I begin to hear just how cruel some of Mother’s family had been to her. Some of Ella’s brothers, and other cousins, had ridiculed Mother and her sister over and over. They were made to feel ashamed. When they went to school — a parochial school — they were further ridiculed by nuns.
So by 1978, I’d come to understand my mother on a very different level. The deeply rooted anxiety disorder that plagued her for her entire life, that could shake her to a nervous breakdown, had a context now that made sense.
And then in the fall of 1979 or spring of 1980, her world and Ella’s changed once more. And not in a good way.
That’s when Ella decided to write to get my mother’s father’s service records. He’d been a Marine in World War I. In a very typical fashion (for our family, at least), Ella wrote the letter pretending to be Mother. The response shook her and broke her heart — and, I am convinced, made her give up on some level. Ella became an old woman in ways I’d never thought possible.
My biological grandfather had not died in 1926, but in 1956, in Oregon, where he had a heart attack while working for the railroad. My grandmother had the service records, with the facts, and also learned that he’d remarried. Since he’d been married once before he married Ella, this was his third wife. Yet on his service records, he claimed only two wives, not three, and claimed no children.
My parents came to see me in College Station, where I was in graduate school at the time, and told me what had happened. Mother was very disturbed, and I was angry.
For years, Mother knew that her biological father’s family lived in the Beaumont area. They’d in fact given my grandmother $1000, I’d been told, for the baby. They perpetuated the belief that he was dead.
In truth, he’d left a pregnant wife who was barely 18. He was somewhere in Texas for a while. I have found him listed in the 1930 census as living in Houston. At some point he moved to California. At all times, though, his family knew he was alive and they kept in touch. Apparently he even returned to Beaumont at times for visits.
Tonight’s story of the young woman brought all this back to me. Here she was, talking about a father who’d not married her mother, who’d died before she was born. Yet at no time did she show any sense of being ashamed — and she shouldn’t have. Whether she’d experienced anyone who ridiculed her or her mother, or made them feel ashamed, I don’t know — this wasn’t part of the short segment. That in itself was striking.
What a contrast to my mother and grandmother. Both had been made to feel ashamed of something that was not their doing, or their fault in any fashion. Ella had survived being abandoned, pregnant; she had less success at 70 or 71. I wish I’d been able to talk to her more about this, but that wasn’t possible. What I could and did do, though, was — for the rest of my mother’s life — let her know I was neither ashamed nor embarrassed by her history.
In fact, as I have said, I found even deeper love and greater pride in my grandmother’s ability to take care of herself and two small girls, to make a living, to work and be a smart businesswoman. She was a waitress; then she was a manager of the diner; she was once held up by Bonnie and Clyde. She then ran a boarding house. When she married Glenn, she continued to work. During World War II, she worked in a munitions plant and drove a forklift and heavy equipment. By the time I was 10, she was the manager of an elementary school cafeteria. This was no weak sister, believe me. And her advice to me, all my life: be able to take care of yourself, even if you marry.
As for my relationship for Mother, this only made me see her quite differently yet again. I think our relationship deepened, and I could talk to her about her father as I couldn’t bring myself to talk to my grandmother.
I’m curious about him, about his family and background. I’ve done some research; I know, thanks to the internet and genealogical databases, far more than I did ten years ago.
And frankly, my opinion of him hasn’t changed. He was a son-of-a-bitch.
The young woman tonight didn’t have quite the same story. Time and culture had changed so much between her birth and my mother’s. During her segment in the show, there were photographs of her father. Near the end of the segment, she was told that the photographs had come from her cousin, who then was brought out and introduced to her. A family connection was made.
That I was in tears by the end of that young woman’s segment might not surprise you. It surprised me, though. Why, I’ve since wondered, did it move me so?
Because my mother never got the kind of recognition that she needed and deserved from her own father’s family. She had to live her entire life in the aftermath of abandonment and denial. And in her forties, having adapted to what she had believed for her entire life was one reality, she had to deal with a heartbreakingly different one.
All families have stories. Many also have secrets. And family stories are important. They might get changed or embellished or kept secret for many reasons. But at some point, they need to be told. Secrets can be devastating. The aftermath can resonate for generations.
So this is for you, Mother. Your story is nothing to be ashamed of. I am proud of you and Ella. And thankful to be your daughter.