My parents hosted in their western Ohio home a wake for Mary Catherine, my father’s mother who passed away that week.
My wife and I attended the funeral mass in Cincinnati that rainy March 2012 morning, during which our newborn son promptly spit up on my suit coat as my father delivered a eulogy.
The pervading ache over Mary Catherine’s death had as much to do with losing my grandmother as it did with being unable to introduce her to her great-grandson. She passed at the age of 88 before we could bring the baby to meet her.
“As many of you know,” my 55-year-old father said, “She was my protector.” I heard his words float through St. William’s and sensed many gray heads nodding in acknowledgement, but I was too busy cleaning baby vomit off my lapel to hear more.
But the way he said the word “protector,” slowing each syllable for emphasis, was my first indication something lay hidden in the hearts and minds of just about everyone in the church. I didn’t know exactly what he meant. And yet so many in the sanctuary did. What didn’t I know?
Later, as the rain departed Cincinnati and left a warm fog for the afternoon, I held my son and chatted with family and friends gathered in the kitchen. I thought about my father’s words. I knew his dad, Bud, had proven to be a Janus-like figure in the story of our little clan. Bud, who passed almost 20 years earlier, had been incredibly generous to his children, and also manipulative and abusive.
Dad didn’t talk about it much. What was implied, however, always suggested something terrifying. Perhaps what Dad meant by calling Mary Catherine his “protector” hinted at a broader story.
It did. Just not the one I expected.
What to do with Family Secrets
Our journeys into the past begin somewhere, fueled by curiosity blended with sometimes with a need for something more than just identifying people in an old sepia tone photo.
Some of us have secrets to uncover and mysteries to solve.
Caution, however, is merited because although the adage of the truth setting us free is largely, well, true, it can also cause much heartache and anguish should what we thought was true about our stories turns out to be false.
Some of us who spend time and resources dipping into the well of Ancestry.com’s and other springs of genealogy know the legends we’ve been told about our relatives — grandparents, aunts and uncles from long ago, the first immigrants to arrive in America — may turn out to be only that: a legend without a factual foundation.
If I can encourage you to do one thing as you begin or continue a journey investigating the past, it’s to thrive in the space between factual truth and legend.
Expect to upend what you know about your family history. You might confirm those old stories. But maybe not.
You might have to accept questions whose answers will forever elude you. Some documents have disappeared, like so many military records burned in the National Archives fire of 1973, taking with them the facts and confirmation we so desperately seek.
You might also discover stories more thrilling and confounding than anyone today knows. They might even shape your present in the most unexpected and inspiring ways. So go and go bravely.
Such is the story that began in March 2012 with Mary Catherine’s funeral.
“I Need to Talk to You”
As I stood in my parents’ kitchen holding my newborn son, and even after just three months as a new Dad I could never imagine life without him, my own father entered with an earnest look on his face. He signaled to me. “I need to talk to you,” he said.
I handed the baby to my wife to hold and followed Dad into a bedroom and was joined by my younger brother, also a new father. A strange but playful look draped across his face. A smirk teased “I-know-something-you-don’t-know.”
“Now, I know this ain’t gonna be easy for you boys to hear, given your grandmother just died and all,” Dad began, “But now that the funeral’s over, there’s something I want you know. Let me get through saying what I want to say and then I’ll answer all the questions you have.
“The woman we just buried, she was not your grandmother.”
What he told us proved shocking, disheartening and would reorient our lives forever. My grandfather Bud during the mid-1950s had engaged in an affair with a girl about 15 years younger than he. She became pregnant, gave birth to a baby boy, and expected Bud would divorce his wife, Mary Catherine.
That didn’t happen. What did instead would be horrifying for any new parent to hear. According to my father, Bud, who reconciled with Mary Catherine, snatched the newborn out of the arms of his mistress. “You will never see this baby again,” Bud declared to the girl and promptly took the baby home.
He and Mary Catherine raised him without telling him the truth. The boy grew up believing Mary Catherine to be his true mother. That boy was my own father.
And what about the girl? What was her name? “I think it was Dorothy Lipp,” Dad answered. “But I’m not sure.” Nearly six decades had passed since anyone had heard from my father’s birth mother. No one knew where she was or even if she was alive.
It was possible Bud had even lied about her name to hide the true identity of his mistress.
“Now, you should know,” Dad continued, explaining how he learned the truth in his early 20s. And when he did, Mary Catherine warned him. “She said, ‘Don’t go looking for your real mother. You won’t like what you find.'”
“What did she mean by that?” I asked.
“Dunno,” my father replied. “I never asked.”
Quietly, in my own heart and mind, a burning desire began to flame. As a new parent, I kept thinking about the girl and the soul-tearing experience of losing her child.
I wanted to find out what happened to her.
This post is part of Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge, a year-long blogging project focusing on family history stories. This week’s prompt is “first.”
Dave Pidgeon is a writer and photographer who lives with his wife and their two sons in Lancaster, Pa.