What Is Family?
While our main purpose for going to California last week was to watch our great-nephews while our niece participated in a relay run, we had some other objectives as well.
About nine and a half months ago, I discovered that my grandfather had fathered an illegitimate son when he was in Nicaragua in the early '40s. Through Ancestry.com, this son, a man named Jack, had discovered my family was related to my grandfather.
Jack first got in contact with my sister and brother-in-law, who referred Jack to me because they felt I might have more knowledge of my grandfather than they did.
Truth be told, I did not know nearly as much about my grandfather as I would have liked. He was the only grandfather I ever knew, although he was not related to me by blood. He was my mother's stepfather and married my grandmother when my mom was 16.
Mom's father divorced her mother when Mom was about 13 or 14. He died when I was a baby, so I never knew Mom's biological father, although what Mom told me about him did not impress me. He was physically abusive toward my grandmother, and Mom often mentioned that as a child, she was sometimes scared of him.
Dad's dad died four years before I was born, so I never knew him either. Mom's step-dad, my Grandpa Ralph, was the only grandpa I knew, and he died when I was six.
Still, I have very positive memories of my Grandpa Ralph. He spoiled us grandkids, and I remember him as being kind and loving.
My mom had a much more complicated relationship with her stepfather than a young, naive, innocent grandchild like me did. She found him overbearing, domineering, controlling, manipulative, unethical, needy, and terribly insecure.
When he came into my mom and her brothers' lives, Mom felt like he was trying to take over and had all these rules, and Mom was nearly an adult by that time and simply was not in the mood to have this controlling man tell her what to do.
When Mom was able to do so after she graduated from high school, she moved out into an apartment of her own, so fed up she was with my grandfather. In her words, he was "a hard man to live with."
Her brothers also eventually grew to resent him. By the time he died, Mom's brothers were pretty much estranged from both Ralph and my grandma. I think they felt that Ralph did not treat Grandma very well.
My grandma loved Ralph and missed him terribly when he died, but I have grown to learn that their relationship, especially in its last years, was not without tension and conflict.
After Jack contacted me, I went in search of any information I could find about Ralph. Newspapers.com was actually very useful in helping me piece together some of the mysteries of my grandfather's life. I also discovered some journals my grandmother had written while she was taking care of Ralph, who was ailing due to various health issues.
I was surprised to learn that Ralph wanted a divorce, something I had not previously known. It seems to me that Ralph had a toxic personality and that perhaps my grandma suffered from battered-wife syndrome. I don't think Ralph ever physically abused my grandma, but he was certainly guilty of emotionally abusing her.
Grandma was married three times. She was only married to her first husband for a short time and did not talk about him. In fact, I don't believe Mom even knew about him until later in life. But from what I know, I sense it was not a good relationship. It was a very short-lived marriage.
Grandma's second husband was Mom's dad. He worked for the military in some top secret capacity, and Mom never really knew what he did. Both he and my grandmother grew up in the same small rural town of Panguitch, Utah but moved to San Francisco for his work when my mom was three.
From what my mom said, there was a lot of fighting, and when they divorced, Grandma had to go to work to support themselves, and Mom was kind of a latch-key kid who took care of her younger brothers.
Ralph was the third and final marriage. I do believe they had happy times, but by the time Ralph died, it seemed like my grandma was experiencing quite a bit of sadness.
I get the sense from Grandma's journals that perhaps she suffered from a low self-esteem and maybe did not know what a healthy marriage relationship was supposed to look like. I don't think any of her three marriages were ideal, although I get the sense that her marriage with Ralph was the happiest.
It does feel like she put most of the blame for the faults in their relationship on herself, like if she were a better wife and partner, Ralph would treat her better when it seems to me that Ralph's self-centered treatment of her was the real issue.
In her journals—to me, at least—he comes off as cruel, overly-demanding, and unreasonable. And yet it is my grandmother who seems to feel she is at fault, while at the same time understanding that they way Ralph's treating her is not cool. Nevertheless, Grandma loved Ralph very much and was devastated when he passed.
There are still many things about my Grandpa Ralph I do not know, but I have learned some things that have enlightened my view of him.
I learned, for example, that Ralph's father committed suicide when Ralph was 18, about a year and a half before the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Apparently his dad had suffered a bout of influenza and was unable to recover from it. He became despondent as a result and ended up shooting himself shortly after the rest of his family had come home from an outing.
Imagine that. You're 18 years old, just a young man, and you come home from some sort of family activity, and your father shoots himself (presumably in the head) and kills himself. What must that do to a young man's psyche?
And then a year and a half after that, the Depression starts. You're the oldest child. What must that be like?
I know little of what Ralph's relationship with his parents was like. By the accounts I have read, his father was a well-liked man who worked for the American Railway Express Company as an express agent. His mother was a district court clerk (an elected office at a time when I imagine there weren't a lot of women in elected positions and only a few years after women even had the right to vote), so I picture her as a strong woman. I also know she remarried about nine years after Ralph's father's death.
I do not know how Ralph felt about his mother, but my impression is that he loved her and thought fondly of her. I know Ralph had two brothers and a sister plus another brother who died as a baby.
I know Ralph's uncles were firemen, and one uncle died fighting a fire in 1954 when Ralph would have been about 45.
How many times Ralph was married is still a bit murky to me. I know he got married in January of 1932 when he was 23. I also know he eventually moved from Kansas, where he was born and raised, to California. And I know when he was in California, he and his wife had a daughter named Vera. But I am unclear if the wife he had in Kansas and the one who had the daughter were the same women. Without having any solid proof at this point, my impression is that they were two different women, but I may be wrong about that. In any case, he divorced Vera's mother, and it is my understanding that their relationship was a bit volatile and acrimonious (or at least was when he met my grandmother).
Mom always felt Vera was spoiled and self-centered. But she also wondered if maybe she was that way because she was playing one parent against the other.
I came into contact with Vera's son and daughter-in-law not terribly long after Mom died. Vera had also died by then, and I get the impression she was possibly estranged from her children or at least that their relationship had been tenuous. I also get the impression that maybe Ralph and his daughter were estranged when he died as there is no mention of her in my grandma's journals.
One of the most interesting things I learned about my grandfather was that he worked for Pan American Highways and helped work on the Inter-American portion of the Pan American Highway which runs from Mexico City to Panama City. It was at this time that he had the affair with Jack's mother while working in Nicaragua. I believe my grandfather was working in Central America from at least 1941-1944.
I get the sense that Grandpa Ralph liked the ladies and maybe was a bit of a womanizer. In my grandma's journals, she talks about how he seems to have feelings for another woman, although Ralph was too ill at that time for it to have been sexual. But it would not surprise me if Ralph cheated on my grandma nor did it surprise me when I found out he had fathered a child while in Nicaragua.
I do not know how many romantic relationships my grandfather had with women, but I would not be shocked if it were many.
Jack, as I said, did not know much about his dad. His mom did not talk much about him, and after Ralph left Nicaragua, it sounds like Jack was essentially raised by his grandparents.
In two photos Jack gave me, my grandfather has his arm around Jack's mother. Inscribed on both photos in my grandfather's handwriting are the words, "To Victoria, Love Ralph."
They look happy in these photos, and yet, when Ralph left her to go back to the US after finding out about her pregnancy, I would imagine it was terribly hard for Jack's mom and, eventually, Jack. This is a part of my grandpa's life I never knew about.
There is some mystery surrounding my grandfather. Jack's DNA does not seem to match the Prather line, and yet it is almost certain that Ralph was Jack's father. A curious thing Jack discovered was that in the 1910 census, Ralph does not appear, and yet, he had been born the year before. Was he somehow overlooked or was he adopted? Ralph's parents had a female boarder. Could that be his mother?
Or is it possible that Ralph is not actually Jack's father? Based on the evidence Jack has provided, I believe Ralph is Jack's father, and so does he. But I've also realized that even if he isn't, Jack is still my family.
Isaias and I got to meet Jack and his family in person while we were in California watching my nephews. Jack and his wife, Louisa, had invited us to eat at a Nicaraguan restaurant. I had never had Nicaraguan food before but discovered I quite liked it.
When we arrived at the restaurant, I gave Jack a hug and became really emotional. It's strange. I am not related to either Jack or my grandfather by blood, and yet, there is this immense shared bond between the three of us. He is my family, and in knowing him, I have learned more about my own grandfather.
Jack and I have only known each other a relatively short time, but I feel a deep love for him. He and I are connected by a man who, for better or worse, in spite of—and maybe because of—his flaws became a part of our lives.
Jack never got to meet his dad in person, but I did, and in sharing what I knew of him, what kind of man he was, what I have learned about him, Jack is able to know better where he comes from, which is something he seems to have been seeking. And in knowing Jack, I have learned more about a man I never truly knew but one who had a deep and positive impact on me as a child. And that makes us family. We are connected.
Our lunch with Jack, Louisa, and their daughter and grandkids was delightful. I learned Jack immigrated here in after a major earthquake in Nicaragua in 1972, I believe. I would have been nearly one year old. Who could have predicted our lives would have intersected all these years later and all because of a man both of us barely knew and yet who deeply impacted us?
After lunch, we took a photo together.
Then we went to Jack and Louisa's house where we met their other daughter and family members. We commiserated, shared stories, and I downloaded some of my mom's old photos of Ralph for Jack.
It was a really great time. Jack and I talked a bit about how we never know how much time we have, and I am glad that the two of us have found each other while we are both still here. We are eager to get together again the next time we can.
Family isn't just blood. It's connection.