Our Papa Puzzle
My mother often said that not knowing your father turns your whole life into a jigsaw puzzle that's missing a piece.
More than once, when my mom was alive, my New Year's resolution was to solve that puzzle for her.
Sadly, my quests to find her dad were no more successful than my annual proclamations about losing weight and exercising more.
The man remains a cypher. I remain, ah, well nourished.
The only thing we know for sure about my grandfather is where he is. His remains are in a cemetery in South River, N.J.
My mother's father died a few months after the stock market crash of 1929, when she was four. She had almost no memories of the man she briefly called "Papa" and just one photo: A black and white snapshot of a burly guy in a dark overcoat wearing a bow tie and posing in front of a monument. His thumb is looped into his belt. He is not smiling. He looked vaguely like Raymond Burr - in that photo, at least - which may have explained my mother's affection for "Perry Mason.”
Everything we thought we knew about this man was based on lore. Nothing he told my grandmother about himself ever checked out. It appears he never worked for the Secret Service and never attended Yale. If he really was a pal of Babe Ruth's, it was probably as his bookie, not as a Major League teammate. Even his age - he was older than my grandmother, probably a lot older - couldn’t be verified. He shows up in just one census. In 1900. In North Carolina.
There's no way we'll ever know whether he really was disowned by his devout Catholic parents in Massachusetts after he refused to marry a girl impregnated by their parish priest. But that’s what he told my gullible grandmother.
His people were wealthy, of course. Aren't all fictitious families?
When the bottom dropped out of the economy, he reassured my grandmother - pregnant with their third child - that they'd be all right. If things got bad enough, he'd swallow his pride and reconcile with his wealthy parents, he promised her.
Unfortunately, he dropped dead of a heart attack in their third-floor walk-up before he made that call.
My grandfather was laid to rest on a brutally cold winter day. The funeral director had tracked down his estranged family and several of his siblings arrived at the cemetery. They were well-dressed - the women were swaddled in furs, my grandmother recalled - and asked the young widow for photographs of their prodigal brother, promising to return them by post. My grandmother handed over every picture, except the one my mother came to treasure.
My grandmother, mother and aunt shivered in their thin coats in the biting January wind, dutifully posing for pictures for these strangers with cameras. Then the mysterious relations jumped into their shiny sedans and drove away.
My grandmother waited months for them to contact her. She was convinced they would help their brother's widow and his children in New Jersey as the Depression deepened. Eventually it became clear they came to the funeral only to be sure their brother was dead.
My grandfather's untimely exit unleashed a chain of events. My grandmother was forced to take a six-days-a-week job as a seamstress in a sweatshop; my mother and her sister were nearly placed in an orphanage and the baby who arrived shortly after his father’s death died at six months. Hasty pneumonia, the baby’s death certificate said. SIDS, said my mom many years later.
The little fatherless family never went on Relief, my mother always boasted. Whenever my grandmother was laid off from the Hercules Handkerchief factory, her brother - a merchant seaman - would pass a hat at a local waterfront saloon, “For Bert and the girls.”
It kept them off the dole.
As a girl, my mother longed for a dad. She told me she wanted one just like the father of her best friend, Charlotte. A father meant a protector, security, a house, an automobile. With a car came Sunday outings like the ones Charlotte’s family took to the Jersey Shore, a place my mother didn't visit until she was a teenager, even though it was just 25 miles away.
That longing to know her dad lingered into adulthood. My mother periodically cold-called people in Massachusetts who shared her Irish maiden name. She checked church records in the town where her father supposedly grew up. She joined ancestry groups.
When I lived in Washington, I tried to make good on my New Year's resolutions at the National Archives, looking for traces of the mysterious man whose DNA I carry.
I learned quite a bit in those stacks about my great-great grandfather on my father’s side who fought in the Civil War.
But my mother’s father led to nothing but dead ends.
My resolution for 2019? Not sure.
But I'm definitely not joining any genealogy groups. Not going to chase a ghost who’s been gone 86 years. Not going to track the man beside the statue who never came clean about his past.
Who has time for that?
Sometimes, when a puzzle is missing a piece, you put down the puzzle.
A version of this column ran in The Virginian-Pilot on January 4, 2015.