Saturday, August 11, 2012

Old Documents and Flesh and Blood

Today I want to tell you a story about a woman I once knew and a girl I never met. The woman and the girl were the same person. The story is pieced together from memories and from a string of documents gathered over the years on a genealogy website. This week a page from the 1940 census inspired me to dig deeper, to find out more, and made me long to travel back in time and wrap my adult arms around that girl and tell her--even if it would turn out to be a lie--that everything would be all right.

The girl was born in 1923 in the same East Texas town where she would die, too young, in 1972. Her father was artistic and made his living as a sign painter. I found his World War I draft registration online, and I imagine (don't know for sure) that he met and married the girl's mother, who was born in Wales, when the war took him to Europe.

I've learned from an old city directory that in 1929 the girl's family, including her paternal grandmother, lived together in the Texas town where she was born. The girl had an older brother. Their younger brother had passed away in 1924 at the tender age of six months.  In 1929, probably about the time that city directory was distributed, a fourth child, their baby sister, was delivered stillborn.

Months later, at the time of the 1930 census, the family--minus the children's father--lived in a different house. I've never been able to determine where the father was or why he was absent. The girl's mother had bravely returned to work after the loss of her two babies, working as a saleslady at a variety store, but by the time Thanksgiving of 1930 rolled around, she herself had died. She was only 31 years old.

A 1931 city directory shows that the girl's father and his mother were living together again. I assume the children lived with them. Then, in April of 1932, the grandmother died. How much loss can one child bear? The girl would have been almost eight at the time, her brother only eleven. Ever since I discovered those documents I've wondered what happened to the children. Oh, I know they survived, because the girl grew up and married my uncle, and I know from published records that her brother survived to the age of 73. But what about those interim years? Was their father able to care for them? I've learned that he lived long after his children were old enough to be on their own, so maybe he did. At the time of his death in 1949, he was unmarried, residing in Louisiana, and still painting signs.

By the time I met the grown-up little girl in the late 1940s, she was already my uncle's wife. Both of them had joined the military in World War II, and they met and married in England. In the early 1950s they and their three young sons lived just three doors up the street from us in Missouri.

I probably saw my aunt at least once a day in those years, but it never occurred to me that her life had been anything other than ordinary. The only tragic thing I ever knew about her childhood was that she had been attacked by a dog when she was very young. It was a German Shepherd, she told me when I asked out of childish curiosity about the scar that began above one eye, crossed at an angle over the bridge of her nose, and continued across the opposite cheek. I never thought to ask another question, and if she ever told any other stories of her early life, I don't remember them.

We still lived in Missouri when my aunt and uncle and their boys decided to move away to the East Texas town where she'd grown up. A few years later we took a road trip to visit them there. It was on that vacation that my mother met the man who'd soon become my stepfather and changed the geographical course of my own life.

Time passed, and on a late-spring day in the mid-1960s, when I was a young mother with two babies of my own, one of my aunt's sons called me on the phone. "I just wanted to tell you we have a new brother," he said. He went on to explain that a young man and his wife had surprised my aunt with a visit a few days earlier--on Mother's Day. That young man, in his 20s then, turned out to be my aunt's first child. My cousin stated matter-of-factly that his mother had gotten pregnant when she was young, that her baby had been adopted at birth, that my uncle had known the whole story since before they married, and that their whole family was thrilled to welcome the young man into their midst. My cousin also said--I remember this clearly: "She says they forced her to give up her baby for adoption." That part of this story did not have a happy ending. My aunt's firstborn son, lost to her for so many years, died of leukemia about a year after their reunion.

My first marriage ended not long after I was told about my aunt's long-lost son. Later, during my second marriage, my  husband's work kept our family moving around the country. During those traveling years I rarely saw the Texas portion of my family, and I never saw my aunt again. She died at the age of 48 from a brain hemorrhage, I believe it was. The exact nature of her illness didn't stick in my mind as soundly as the fact that it had gone largely untreated. A few years earlier my aunt and uncle had become involved in a religious movement that forbade medical treatment. My uncle would follow her down a similar path six years later.

And so we leave the story of the grown-up aunt, knowing what ultimately happened to her, and we return to the story about the girl. I found that girl this past week in the 1940 census. That year she was 16 years old and living in a convent in Houston, Texas, with eight nuns and 103 other girls and women listed in the census as "charges." Through further research I've learned that the nuns who ran the convent were from an order known for its work with "wayward girls and fallen women." Given the circumstances of my aunt's early life, I find it difficult to think of her as wayward. Or fallen. Broken maybe. Lonely, for sure.

I will probably never know, nor is it any of my business, the circumstances surrounding the conception of the child born to the girl. That act may have been tragic, too, but until I learn otherwise I will refuse to think of it that way. I want to believe that the girl met a boy, her first love, someone who would finally hold her close and make her believe that good times lay ahead of them. Maybe that's wishful thinking. If not my aunt, though, then certainly there were others among the "charges" in that convent whose stories began with love and ended in loss and shame because of the mores of the time. So many young women. So many different stories.

Life can be cruel sometimes.


And what of the boy, the father of that baby? When a certain old song shuffled up on my iTunes playlist this morning, I thought for the first time about his role in this story. Except for the fact that my aunt's name was not Joanne, the song made me imagine that boy as he might have been in later years, grown well into manhood and maturity, remembering the young girl and wishing he knew what had happened to her.

The song is "Joanne" by Michael Nesmith.
Thanks to Margaret Chaplynski for posting this video on YouTube.
Click here to read the lyrics.


  1. Linda,
    This post was so beautiful; it made me tear up. And that song ... it was always one of my very favorites. I can remember listening to it over and over, my teenaged heart filled with angst because of the poignancy of the story. You blended it perfectly with your tale and I loved it!

  2. Thanks, Annette. I love the song, too, and still listen to it often. There's a haunting quality about it. As for my aunt's story, I wonder if her sons can fill in any of the holes in it. We haven't been in touch for years, but maybe I'll try to locate one or more of them and find out what they remember. Someday.

  3. This was beautifully written, and a beautiful story...I love how all of this matters to you :)

  4. Thanks, Sandy. I wish it had mattered to me more when I was younger and could have asked questions. That's one more lesson I've learned the hard way.

  5. Linda,
    I read this story with great interest, first for you writing and story-weaving skills and then at the mention of the nuns and the home in Houston. I was adopted from DePelchin in '62. This was the only non-denominational adoption agency in Houston at the time (perhaps Texas, not sure). DePelchin was never a home for wayward girls but it was a shelter for girls in trouble. The way it worked was that potential adoptive parents worked with the young girls (a small group) and taught them life skills, which at the time were typing and caring for a home, that sort of stuff. As I recall the story, my Mom knew by birth mother was one of the six or seven girls in her group, but not which one. Anyway, some of those places were I imagine real life-changers for their young charges, helping them get on their feet and get a shot at life. I think those young women were quite brave, and I think the adopting mothers were brave as well. DePelchin is still standing, they do so much for women and children and even young parents who need to learn the basic skills of parenting. Anyway, your story made me think of this and I wanted to share it with you.

  6. Duly Inspired, I'm so glad you commented here because I thought of you while I was writing this post. I knew your adoption experience had been a positive one. As far as I know, my aunt's first son was happy in his adopted home as well.

    In regard to the pregnant teen girls, there was still a stigma in the early 1960s but not nearly so much of one as there had been twenty years earlier. I think the advent of the birth control pill, followed in the mid-60s by TV coverage of the "make love not war" movement, finally forced people to acknowledge that unmarried people were having sex in greater numbers than polite society wanted to believe. Obviously, that knowledge led to more unmarried sex, which today seems to be the new normal, and I'll let historians decide whether that's a good or bad thing. I do think it's good that young women today have more choices available to them, including keeping their infants if they have a support system in place to help them.

    Ever since my cousin told me "they" made my aunt give up her baby, I've wondered who "they" were. Her family or what was left of it? The nuns? I hope it wasn't that kind of place. Records of my aunt's military enlistment (when she was 20) show that she had experience as a stenographer and typist, so she did have some work skills that I expect she acquired at the convent.

    As far as I can tell, that convent still exists in Houston. I'm very curious about it and wish I had access to newspaper archives to see what has been written about it over the years and how the place has changed from then to now.

    At the time of the 1940 census, the youngest girl there was 11. Her name, ironically, was Innocentia. The oldest of the charges was a 47-year-old widow. (Some people just can't catch a break.) There was also a one-year-old girl, the only infant listed, who had the same surname as the 14-year-old (probably her mother) listed immediately above her. Again, so many stories. I wish I knew them all.

    Anyway, I'm really glad your personal story turned out as well as it did, and I appreciate your chiming in. I would feel better if I knew for certain that my aunt got the kind of compassionate care and assistance your birth mother apparently received.


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