This story—the mystery I’ve stumbled across. Like Alice, I’ve tumbled into the twisting, gravitational pull of someone else’s rabbit hole and I have no idea where or when I’ll land.
Thrilling, captivating, and surprising, I’ve been stunned and shocked by what I’ve discovered. But there are still too many gaps to reveal whether he was a hero, a zero, or just another human being with feet of clay.
I blame it on that photograph.
It’s just a simple framed picture of my great-grandparents on their wedding day, taken more than one hundred years ago. Which sounds like forever until I stop to realize that, if life had not been so hazardous at the time, they would have both lived long enough for me to have met them. After all, my grandchildren still have three living great-grandparents and will always have their very own, personal memories of them.
All I have is a faded photograph. And the internet.
The wedding portrait hung in Grandma’s bedroom. For a few years following her death, it hung in my dining room. Eventually, I gave it to my aunt in exchange for a smaller version, and now it adorns her wall. Ironically, it’s traveled almost as many miles as the couple who gaze out stoically from within its frame.
Grandma told me she barely knew them. Her parents, the couple in the photo, both died of tuberculosis by the time she was nine years old.
“I was born in South Carolina,” she said. “My mother was disowned by her family when she married my Irish Catholic father, because he was divorced. I had no siblings and, when mama and daddy died, I was raised in Arizona by my foster parents,” she said. “Now eat your potatoes.”
Grandma rarely minced words, so I thought that’s all there was to the story. She was born. She was orphaned. She was adopted. She grew up. Life was hard, but she got over it. End of story. End of questions.
But one afternoon, years after I passed the portrait on and settled for its 5x7 facsimile, I ran across a handwritten family tree that Grandma gave me forty-five years ago. Then I sat down next to my husband, Rob, plugged some of the names into Ancestry.com, and out of Pandora’s internet box tumbled hundreds of puzzle pieces—completely out of order—containing a fascinating story of Grandma’s parents.
It’s incomplete, though.
It reminds me of bagged yard sale puzzles I’ve bought a few times—lots of pieces, no idea what the end result should resemble. If not for a couple of facts in the family tree Grandma gave me, we’d have never discovered anything about her family. She didn’t say much about it when she gave the booklet to me, but I think she knew that, someday, I’d go looking for another picture of her parents and I’d need a little help.
So far, I’ve spent about four months coaxing my computer to spit out their records. And while the internet plays a mean game of cat and mouse, I’ve earned its respect by being tenacious. All I knew of my great-grandfather before Ancestry.com came along was his name and birthdate. And that he was from County Cork, Ireland.
But he wasn’t from County Cork.
Nor did Grandma’s own grandparents disown their daughter for marrying him.
I assumed he was an only child, just like Grandma, since all I knew was his name and birthdate. But imagine my surprise and delight the evening the names of his eight siblings surfaced on the internet and revealed that he was from Galway County, Ireland.
But here’s the thing—Grandma wasn’t an only child, either.
Her father was married once before marrying Grandma’s mother and fathered five children, including two who died as infants. Also, Grandma’s parents lost a baby boy the year before she was born. In all, her father welcomed seven children into the world. So while she grew up as an only child, and though she knew of them but never met them, Grandma actually had three half-brothers. Somewhere.
Guess who now knows where they grew up?
Oh, internet. You are a remarkable, magical thing.
You are also my tormentor. You supply the facts but make me analyze their hidden meanings. You prove existence but not intent. You name names but hide hopes and dreams. You expose heartache but ignore conclusions.
How can I assemble a jigsaw puzzle when all I have to go on is speculation?
He was always a shadow of a man to me, just one photograph away from being invisible. Now I have over a hundred documents proving his existence but no explanation of his choices.
Except for one. The one where he adopted out the only child he ever had a relationship with—because he was dying of tuberculosis.
In all the years he spent in America’s military and all the years he traveled the world, the most important act of bravery he ever exhibited was when he found a family for his daughter, my grandmother, in the months before he passed away. He gave up all his rights to her while he was still living, but found a family to love and protect her at the end of his own life.
In the end, he died alone and uncelebrated, two thousand miles from his wife’s grave in South Carolina, five thousand miles from his childhood home in Ireland, his name mentioned in dozens of newspaper articles but missing from his own headstone. Today his body rests under a eucalyptus tree in an unmarked grave in Phoenix, Arizona.
I don’t know why I know more about Grandma’s father than she did. I don’t know why her story was so condensed as to blur the lines of reality. Maybe it’s because I was a kid and kids don’t need to know the pain their grandparents experienced when they were kids. I bet the internet won’t explain any of that to me, either.
For now, I have that photograph. And the internet. And my own speculation. And gratitude to the man whose protection of my grandmother led to my own birth and the powerful bond I once shared with her. He was not a zero. He was a hero.
That’s a pretty good piece of the puzzle.