I have a sub-heading for the title: Stories Never Told
We’re all story-tellers here, right? We make up stories in our heads and write them down, and then share them with other people, to entertain and inform them.
But over time I’ve come to realize that my mother edited her stories, selecting what she was going to tell and how she was going to tell it. We all do, to some extent, but there are some curious omissions in her history, that I discovered only after she had passed away. Genealogy research is a double-edged sword: sometimes you find things you might not want to know.
Brief background: my mother’s father was the only child of a fairly wealthy couple, and he was born to them fifteen years after they were married. His father, from what I know, was fairly distant, and died when his son was 15.
My grandfather was still under-age when he married my grandmother. It was an unlikely pairing, since my grandmother was a penniless orphan, but (after checking her background), my great-grandmother approved of her, and in fact they became something like friends.
My great-grandmother died in 1935, when her son was 34 and my mother was ten. And then things got a little odd. My grandfather—prep-school raised, and not particularly good at anything, decided he wanted to be a dairy farmer. He took at six-week course on animal husbandry at Rutgers, bought a played-out potato farm in Maine, and bought a herd of Guernseys (or maybe it was package deal and the cows came with the farm), and was living there by 1939. My mother would have been 14 then.
He was a bad farmer. He built a state of the art barn, and it burned down just as it was finished—and he’d neglected to insure it. He made it through the early war years by raising green beans for the Army. After a few years of that, my grandmother decided she’d had enough of farm life, and left for New York, where she joined the war effort, leaving my mother with her father and a failing farm. Needless to say, my mother was not happy.
What is interesting is which parts of this story my mother chose to bury. The stories she told my father and me and later my sister about the farm years were deliberately edited.
–She claimed she had attended Colby College and left before getting a degree (her excuse: all the local men had gone off to war). After her death I checked with Colby: wrong. She’d taken a couple of classes as a day student, a townie.
–She was always a bit evasive about why she chose that particular time to head to New York and join her mother at a women’s hotel there (although they didn’t room together). My take: if you look at my grandfather’s death certificate (he died at the age of 44, of a heart attack), the person who reported his death, and who was identified as his “wife” on the death certificate, was not my grandmother. I have a feeling my mother was not happy at having to share her father with another woman.
–My mother never talked about the happy days on the farm. Any time in later life we’d go driving and marvel at bucolic countryside views, she’d say “I hate the country.” Period.
But another aspect was driven home to me just recently, after I’d spent two weeks on a dairy farm in Ireland. I watched the whole milking process, start to finish, twice a day. I had to wade through liquid cow by-products to get out of the driveway. I saw a newborn calf learn to stand. Okay, I’m a lifelong suburbanite, so this was all new to me—and in fact I kind of loved it, muck and all. (BTW, dairy farming is a big business in Ireland, so this was not a quaint operation aimed at tourists.)
But my mother never mentioned any of this, either the good parts or the bad. I assume she had to help out on the farm, at least some of the time, but she didn’t say a word about the mess and the smells, or what happened to the milk, or birthing calves. The only thing I ever remembering her saying about the cattle was that her father had a stud bull named Governor that he adored and had no trouble managing. Maybe he had an innate talent with animals—but not a head for business.
That entire period of her life, from high school until she fled to New York, my mother concealed or lied about. All her life. I don’t think my father ever knew she hadn’t attended college.
But that’s the story she chose to tell. Like us writers, she edited to create the character she wanted to be. She rewrote the past. What about you? Which parts of your life do you edit out?
So interesting, Sheila! I certainly edit out particular things I did in the past – unless I’ve known you for years, you are not my children, and we’ve been drinking wine into the night.
I’m pretty sure my daughter hasn’t figured out a number of things about her father and me and our pasts. And as for her sharing? Don’t ask, don’t tell. (There’s this tattoo she doesn’t talk about…)
The opposite is true, too. I have several old obituaries of family members where the person giving the information invented descent from someone famous with the same surname. My husband’s grandfather, for one, always insisted he was a direct descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Not only not possible, but our Emerson line isn’t even connected to that family. In some cases it’s obvious the information is wrong. In others it’s a real challenge to find the real story. Always fun solving the mystery, though.
You are so right! I think family stories get polished up a bit as they pass from generation to generation. But there’s usually a clue buried in there somewhere.
Very interesting post, Sheila. My grandparents all lived in Japan and passed away when I was a teenager, and I only visited them a few times as a child. So frankly, I don’t know much about my parents’ and grandparents’ past. They were very reticent to speak about what it was like to grow up/live in Japan both before and after WWII. I wonder what I would find it I decided to look up my families on a genealogy website? As for me, not too much to edit except for some wild antics at university…pretty tame stuff.
It’s always up to you, how much you want to know. I’d guess your grandparents had no wish to revisit the difficult times in Japan, much less share them.
As I mentioned, my grandmother was orphaned young and never knew her parents, not even their names (although her future mother-in-law probably managed to find that). But the odd thing was, she never mentioned she grew up in Providence RI, even though I’ve lived in Massachusetts for many years. We knew her adoptive parents’ surname and that was all. I’m still hunting for details.
What an interesting story, Sheila! It would make an excellent mystery!
There are a lot of loose ends in all parts of my grandmother’s story, and pitifully few documents that prove anything. I think I can safely say she wasn’t a kidnapped royal baby or anything that exotic, but a recent DNA test I had done through Ancestry points to her being 100% Irish. Didn’t see that one coming! I don’t think anybody had a clue (or didn’t ask, since it wouldn’t have been much of a plus around 1900). Genealogy is indeed great training for mystery-writing!
I did a talk about this once, focusing on mother-child respect and what is yours to share and what is not. I write personal essays and creative non-fiction, so sharing is necessary in that, but I had to determine the lines I would cross with myself and with other people.
But I once had the experience of going through someone’s grandmother’s personal letters (not my grandmother), after the grandmother died. In the letters were…revelations. Be careful what you leave behind!
That’s a whole other category: the evidence you choose to keep. It can be revealing, and troubling, and moving. My mother kept the last letters her father wrote to her, literally weeks before he died, and he was still talking about rebuilding his dairy herd and getting back together with my grandmother. And then there’s a letter written to my grandmother by a married European gentleman who was obviously her lover (long after my grandfather died, at least). He sent her a bottle of expensive perfume every Christmas until he died. So many stories, and we have only fragments.
If I told you what parts of my life I edited out, then they wouldn’t be edited out, right?
Seriously, I like to think I’m an open book and don’t really have anything like that I’d like to forget anyway.
(And yes, I’m back from my family vacation!)
Welcome back, Mark!
Sheila, loved reading your post. I don’t know why, but as I was reading, I was casting Joan Fontaine as your mother! Mothers are quite odd creatures. They tell you nothing and then spurt out the oddest information at the most peculiar times. My mom’s history is spotty and she only reveals the minimum amount of information. She announced once in a doctor’s office that her brother had shot their father in the kitchen when she was a little girl. That was it, no other details. I know it didn’t kill him, but there was never anymore talk about it. I, on the other hand, am an over-sharer. My kids know just about every detail of my life including the time I was thrown out of a biker bar. They bring it up every chance they get!
Wow! That story of your mother’s is hard to beat. And no one in your family every asked about it, at a better time? (Actually my husband’s family has an odd story about a bloody pillowcase, that may or may not have been related to the murder of a family member.) You must share the story of the biker bar!
My mom won’t talk about her father at all. Just this summer I asked my uncle (not the one who shot his father, he died before I was born) and his only response was, “oh, that.” That’s all I’ve got. As for the biker bar, I was about twenty two and living in a rather rough side of Baltimore City because it was within walking distance of the school where I had recently been hired. The bar was a few streets over and a few of my friends insisted we stop in for a “happy hour.” One friend, a guy, began talking to a man who ended up in a fist fight with another man. The bouncer came over and insisted my friend was involved in this fight and needed to leave. I, forgetting how small I was, jumped to my friend’s defense. I gave a long-winded speech (imagine!) to the bouncer about treating people fairly. He was about 6’4 and stood there with the palm of his hand on my forehead as I continued to get more worked up. Finally, he just picked me up under my arms and sat me in the parking lot on the hood of a car. No good deed goes unpunished!
Last year, almost by accident, my husband discovered a murder in his family. He had no idea, but when he asked his aunt about it, her response was the same as Kim’s uncle, “Oh, that.” Some other cousins seemed to know more than my husband did, but not much.
As a child I heard that we were descended from George Ross, a signer of the Declaration and brother-in-law to Betsy. In fairness, this information was always passed along with major caveats. Now that I’ve done a little exploring, I can say my Rosses were certainly here in the 1770s, but I can’t find any relationship to old George.
I think we all edit our stories. Part of it may be image management, but much of it is just trying to provide a narrative structure to the random walk that is life.
My mother did a lot of editing. After she died, my dad didn’t seem to feel the need. He gave me the box of letters they’d exchanged when they were newly married and he was overseas (WWII) which opened my eyes to a lot of things but in the weeks before he dies, he wanted to get a lot of things said. Sure filled in a lot of gaps for me. I guess it was a good thing.
How lovely that they kept the letters. My father was pretty upfront about things. Although his marriage to my mother fell apart, he never said anything negative about her (and weirdly enough, he and my grandmother became good friends after the divorce).
Loved your story. I would say rather than hide things, my mother always spoke the truth about everything, good and bad. She didn’t make it worse or better, just told it how it was, and it was always backed up with others stories, so I am quite sure they were accurate.
Thank you for sharing,
I wish my mother had shared. In hindsight, I think she was a deeply insecure person, but she could never admit it. She always insisted that my sister and I tell her the truth, but we didn’t know how much she held back. I’m still not sure how much my grandmother knew about her own story–maybe some degree of secrecy ran in the family.
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