What became apparent as the weeks and months rolled by was how the search for my father’s birth mother may not result in tangible conclusions.
Racing through old documents, photos, even interviews with family members whose memories were faded and flawed led me to conclude the likelihood of never having a full account of what happened, why it happened, and when it happened.
All I knew for the better part of my investigation was my 34-year-old grandfather, Bud, in 1956 carried on an affair with a teenage girl, who became pregnant. At some point after Dorothy gave birth, Bud ripped their baby away and forbade Dorothy from ever seeing him again.
Put aside for a moment the foolish hopes of ever finding out where Dorothy went afterward. No one knew. She may have even died long ago having never been reunited with the child she lost against her will.
Focus instead on investigating the circumstances surrounding my father’s abduction. What actually happened? As the investigation continued, as interviews were conducted, more than one version of events in 1956 began to emerge.
Three different versions — equally plausible, equally absurd — of how my father became the son of Bud and Mary Catherine Pidgeon (instead of Bud and Dorothy) took shape.
And no one alive could confirm any of it.
Here are the three versions of events and the sources who told to me during the search for Dorothy:
The violent way (My Father)
As told by my Dad on the day he revealed the truth of his birth, Bud likely engaged in an act of not just cruelty but violence against Dorothy.
Based on what my father told me, I imagine Bud driving on a winter’s night into a neighborhood in Cincinnati after working a conductor’s shift in the New York Central railyard. He smelled of railroad — a pungent mix of grease, rust, and body odor — and quite possibly full of alcohol.
He burst into the apartment, taking Dorothy by surprise. He announced the baby was “coming with me.”
The relationship between Bud and Dorothy was over, he declared. He was going back to his wife, Mary Catherine, and his infant son was coming with him.
I can see in my mind Dorothy pleading no, then struggling to stop Bud, pulling on his freckled arms, flailing with her fists, desperate, afraid.
That’s when Bud struck her. Or at least, as my father put it, “knowing my Dad, he probably knocked her out cold.”
Bud then turned toward Dorothy. “You will never see this child again,” he warned her.
Days later, according to my father, Dorothy’s brothers showed up at Bud and Mary Catherine’s house to reclaim the baby. “Dad said he beat the living daylights outta both of ’em being the big bad ex-Marine,” my father said.
There were no witnesses. No police report filed. Nothing could affirm this version.
“How do you know all this,” I asked my Dad.
It was what Bud told him. Could we trust his word? Or knowing the man as a serial liar, should we be suspicious?
The Surprise Party (Siblings of Mary Catherine)
I interviewed two surviving siblings of Mary Catherine, Bud’s wife and the woman who raised the baby as her own, even at times protecting him over the years from Bud’s explosive instincts as a parent.
Both told similar versions of what they knew of how their sister became the mother of a baby not her own.
The Duffy family, a close-knit Cincinnati clan of Irish-Catholic and German decent, held a party, a gathering of family when the drink and hilarious old stories flowed freely.
The oldest of the Duffy siblings, Mary Catherine, arrived with her husband, Bud. And in Mary Catherine’s arm squirmed a newborn baby boy.
“I remember thinking, who is this child?” Mary Catherine’s sister Betty told me.
Everyone asked. And as they turned their attention to Mary Catherine, as Bud stood by, Mary Catherine told them quite a shocking story.
A young woman in her teens arrived on the front porch holding this child and rang the doorbell. She was distraught. When Mary Catherine opened the front door, the young girl rushed to put the child into her arms.
“This is your husband’s baby,” the young girl said. “You have to take care of him. I’m going to jail.”
And in the same whirlwind manner in which she arrived, she turned and left.
Members of the Duffy family hung on every word. Unbelievable.
Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. Again, no one witnessed the alleged event on the Pidgeon’s front porch. Maybe it was real. Maybe it was a concocted story to protect what Bud had actually done.
A Most Unusual Thanksgiving (My Father’s Sister)
At the time of my father’s birth, Bud and Mary Catherine had a 9-year-old daughter named Kathleen.
When I asked my aunt what she remembered, she told me a tale vastly different than the two I thought I knew.
Bud, Mary Catherine, and Dorothy enjoyed a co-parenting arrangement. Dorothy would care for the child during the week, and on weekends, Bud and Mary Catherine would care for the baby.
Kathy recalled a most unusual Thanksgiving dinner in the Pidgeon house, in which not only was the nearly 3-month-old baby present for turkey and gravy, but so too was Dorothy.
Dorothy. My grandfather’s mistress. At the table. For Thanksgiving. With Mary Catherine.
As the weeks went by, it became apparent to Bud and Mary Catherine how Dorothy as a teenager was unprepared and unable to properly parent an infant. When it came time for Bud and Mary Catherine to care for the baby, Mary Catherine would notice his clothes were unwashed, diapers soiled, and sores all over his body.
That’s when the triad of Bud, Mary Catherine, and Dorothy mutually agreed on a new custody arrangement. Bud and Mary Catherine would adopt the baby. Dorothy would attempt to restart her life.
My aunt’s version seemed plucked from a fantasy. And yet, was this version any less plausible than the ones above?
The Space Between Fact and Legend
I couldn’t say. I had to take it and the others on face value.
For the duration of my search, I had to get comfortable existing in the space between fact and legend. Perhaps, I thought, the truth existed there.
Neither Bud nor Mary Catherine could confirm for me these events. Both died without ever leaving a trace of evidence — no notes, no journals, no photos — that would point to one of these versions of events.
Only one person could. Only one other person could with first person knowledge affirm or deny what had actually happened.
But where had Dorothy gone? What happened to her? Was she even still alive?
Dave Pidgeon is a writer and photographer from Lancaster, Pa. He writes about fathers of the past and his own journey into fatherhood here at CausingDadmage.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org