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 beome 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 aun'ts 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.