Will I one day know the full story of my paternal grandmother’s disappearance?
She and my grandfather divorced and she died of tuberculosis when my father was still a child. The rest was a mystery.
Apart from his father and paternal grandmother, Dad has never met any of his other relatives; his family could have fit in a revolving door. My mom and I heard about Dad’s extended family from his cousins Joanie and Karen, whom my mom found through genealogy research. Last winter, we met for lunch in Waltham, and Karen handed us envelopes bloated with photos of aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, and my paternal grandmother.
A few months later, Joanie drove me to their old neighborhood in Nubian Square (formerly Dudley Square). Her aunt – my grandmother – had grown up on Leyland Street, but after returning from Indiana she remarried and lived with her second husband on Mt. Pleasant Avenue, where her abuse was an open secret. His family blamed him for his alcohol abuse. “It would have been his to bury her,” sighed Joanie, remembering the lonely headstone.
My grandfather, a consummate gentleman, would never have called dad’s mother a wonderful woman. I know they wouldn’t want me to harbor that outrage on their behalf, but every time I’ve tried to untie it, it’s overtaken by second-hand memories. My father gets angry at his classmates who complain about their mothers; her fear that my mother would leave when she gave birth to my oldest brother – their firstborn.
Joanie stopped in front of her childhood home. There she had camped outside on the balcony with her aunt – Dad’s mother – while Dad may have been staring at the same moon.
As we passed the historic Strand Theatre, Joanie suddenly remembered that my grandmother had taken her to see a black and white film about a boy who got lost at a carnival. As we continued north on Columbia Road past Uphams Corner, we wondered aloud if she had thought of my father then. Was she wondering if he was still looking for her?
I shared many memories of dad with Joanie. She deeply regrets not having known him, but imagines that he must have been strong. Witty too, I added. “He was a great dad. I wish I had told him every day.
I was afraid very early that the quarter of my DNA inherited from my grandmother could predispose me to some form of motherhood, but when I try to imagine leaving my children, my skin hurts. Maybe a whirlwind romance with a handsome sailor wasn’t enough for a Boston girl transplanted to her mother-in-law’s house on the edge of an Indiana cornfield? I will never know the whole story.
Unfortunately, my grandmother’s apparent reaction to motherhood is not unheard of, and the taboo of discussing absent parents can leave children feeling isolated, confused and, even worse, responsible. These parents may struggle with addiction, mental health issues, or other trauma, but their descendants may live with the mystery until they die.
But is it really an end? Sometimes the mystery can be resurrected later so cousins across two generations can share a piece of history in Nubian Square and become family.
Mary O’Reilly is a science writer at Arlington. Send your comments to [email protected] TELL YOUR STORY. Email your 650-word relationship essay to [email protected] Please note: we do not respond to submissions that we will not pursue.