The Withered Leaf: An Ancestry Story

I met my mother’s father once. I was very small, he was very quiet and together we sat on a piano bench as he played a tune. I was told he was rather brilliant and could play multiple instruments. When we parted, I went back to my home where my parents watched over me and he went back to his home, where attendants and orderlies and case workers watched over him. He was institutionalized most of his adult life.

No one talked about him. No one really knew him.

I went looking for him.

On my journey I discovered his mother, her name was Ruth or maybe it was Katie Ruth or Catherine, but my guess is she was more commonly known as Ruth. I had always believed she died in North Carolina an elderly woman. In fact, I believed my grandfather and his siblings had moved to Dallas while their parents remained back in their home, several states away. I had it all wrong. Through a small amount of research, it turns out she was born in Texas, as were all her children, and she actually died a building or two away from a building I once worked in. I never had any idea she was in Austin. It was strange to think about. She spent her remaining 5 years here in an institution and died at the age of 49. Recently, I was on that campus for a meeting and my stomach flipped as I looked up at the windows wondering if she had ever looked down on the spot I stood on. In the 1930’s, was she ever allowed to walk where I walked?

I had been told no one in the family liked to talk about her. Not even her other children, so I know no stories other than what I can glean from a census or two.

I found her father’s, my great-great-grandfather’s, death certificate – also institutionalized. He died of exhaustion after a manic bout. Our history unfolds.

I grasped at the names of Ruth’s siblings and landed on Winnie. Oh dear Winnie! The newspaper articles my co-worker found chronicled her singing in the town’s glee club. She was an auditor at a hotel. Not a teacher or a secretary, which I would expect to find. Winnie. Doubtlessly smart and clearly talented. Finally, someone in this family was ok. Unfortunately, she died at 38, her death certificate said, a head injury sustained “in public”. A young divorcee dying “in public” had to be news worthy. I went searching for an article about it. This was 1935 when the paper seemed to think “Mrs. Miller was visited by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Patterson” made for an interesting piece. Sadly, I couldn’t find one. This was probably a cold case! Before I could even begin to spin-up an amazing tale of murder, betrayal and likely choral glee jealousy, my co-worker came across her obituary. It said she had died in a sanitarium. My face fell when I heard the news. My only rational thought on the matter is that perhaps the head trauma lead to her being briefly in a hospital before she passed away, because it was the 1930’s, maybe it was just called a sanitarium.

(Around this time Jay asked me to see if he was related to Seco Smith. You know, good ol’ Seco. A pioneer’s pioneer. A real Texan whose adventures were chronicled repeatedly in the Frontier Times. I looked, and of course he’s a great-great-more greats nephew of this larger-than-life feller. I gave him the stink-eye. Ancestries are clearly not fair.)

I’m still trying to wrap my head around this awful legacy. These people we don’t talk about.

In this ancestry search, the kind they don’t show on the commercials, I’ve chatted with some of my third cousins on this side. They’re very polite and very curious. “We don’t know about your side, please share what you can.” To which I’ve honestly replied, “neither do I, but when I do I’ll be glad to pass on the information” knowing there’s some I never will.

So, last night, inspired by one of these third-ish cousins, I reached out to my second cousin – my grandfather’s sister’s granddaughter. I awkwardly explained who I was and told her I was researching our family. I asked if she’d be willing to share information. (I would just like to know what our great-grandmother’s full name was or even have a picture of my grandfather’s siblings.)

The only photo I have of this side of the family. Taken around 1900. The gentleman in the middle row, third from the right is my great-great-great grandfather, Daniel. His second wife sits before him and in front of her my great half aunts and uncles. His brothers, my great uncles are the two men that stand next to him.

I can’t possibly convey how that simple request has my stomach in knots knowing that my grandfather’s siblings, including her grandmother, did not like talking about my grandfather. His illness was an embarrassment to the family. And despite being cordial, they never had much to do with my mother or her sister. How do you bridge the shame? Do you say, “Hi, I’m Beth – Jim’s granddaughter, you know “that” Jim. So far I’m asymptomatic for crazy and am allowed to roam “mostly” unattended outside of the house. I even hold down a job! Please be nice to me and tell me what my great-grandmother’s full name is. Do you like hugs? I don’t. I was just curious. Is this weird for you? XXOO Beth”? (Ok, I may not have put it quite like that since I do actually want information.)

You see, I’m the family they don’t talk about trying to ask the “good” side if they’re willing to have a conversation. My pedigree, as it were, from the other sides of the family doesn’t matter. What apparently matters is that I’m descended from a crazy man, who was born to a crazy woman, who was born to a crazy father and because of a chemical imbalance, there are stories of how they damaged their families – stories I played no part in.

Each hour that she doesn’t respond heightens the anxiety. I want to know these people (within reason and that doesn’t involve a BBQ or slumber party), I want to see these people (a picture or two?), but I know I’m marked by this terrible stigma of insanity and it weighs heavily on me.

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3 thoughts on “The Withered Leaf: An Ancestry Story

  1. Roanna says:

    Reblogged this on The Life and Times of Legs Magee and commented:
    Family stories are fascinating, particularly the ones families don’t like to tell. And every family has more than its share of “things better left unsaid.”

  2. Do hope someone responds with some useable information.
    Life is funny about what stories get told. I hardly knew my mother’s half sister and those half cousins – actually didn’t know they existed until I was in high school – although they lived in Dallas/Austin. Their mother died in childbirth and my grandfather married my grandmother – which apparently caused a big bitter scene in Georgetown. My half cousins have a whole different version of their mom’s and my mom’s lives as they grew up. Oddly they much closer to my grandmother(who moved to Austin) than my mom and us in later years. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle between our stories. She lives on the other side of the lake now.
    If it makes you feel any better, back then people were institutionalized for various reasons ( and the places then really made then crazy). Sometimes women were sent there because they were too creative/sensitive/ rebellious or even sickly and couldn’t be cared for at home.
    It is strange how sometimes we end up so close to places of our unknown relatives.
    Fingers crossed you get some useable information

  3. Beth says:

    Still no word. I’m trying to apply Occam’s Razor when I speculate on reasons why she hasn’t responded and doing so should make me say she simply hasn’t seen the request, but I’m a natural born pessimist. I do completely believe that many women were committed against their wills for being strong willed – Frances Farmer comes to mind. In fact we had a relative on a different branch who was this brilliant, creative, talented soul (you should hear her demo records – amazing boogy woogy – incredible artist) who as a teen was rebellious. They threw here into Parkland Hospital in Dallas and administered electrode-shock therapy. My mother was a candy striper there as a teen and found this woman’s letters to her family while she was there – mostly letters pleading that she was ok and that she really just wanted to come home. This woman is now in her 80’s – still beautiful, still talented, still polite and poised, but you can see the long-term effects of the damage to her brain. In her case, I completely believe that it all came down to her parents needing to control her. (Her father was a dreadful man.) Unfortunately, because of the nature of this mental illness on my mother’s grandfather’s side, I’m about 95% sure my great-grandmother was genuinely mentally ill. You see it all through her line and it continues past my grandfather. (Though so far our beagle hasn’t shown any signs. Hooray for adoptions! 😉 )

    Families are so interesting. Although, I wish mine were more interesting along the lines of Jay’s Seco Smith. I could use a Texas legend right about now.

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