Wednesday, October 1, 2014

"You've never spoken of your people -- who you came from -- so perhaps it's natural...."

"You'll never be anything but a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing..." -- Veda Pierce to her mother Mildred in Mildred Pierce, 1945
Well, it wasn't quite that bad. My mother did speak of her people. She just didn't know all that much about them.

She said she knew very little about her biological father, she hardly remembered him at all. He was a streetcar conductor, killed when she was five, she said, "crushed between the cars" in a streetcar accident in Indianapolis -- this would have been late in 1916 or sometime in 1917 -- and she could no longer even picture him in her mind's eye. Her memories were so few.

But there was a scandal, she recalled, when, at his funeral, it was discovered he had another family at the other end of the line. Therefore he was a bigamist. And in those days such scandal was enough to drive one or another of the households he maintained out of the city, and so it would be.

My mother said that her mother married a friend of her father's after a suitable interval, and they all packed up and moved to California where my mother grew up and lived most of the rest of her life. She knew the man her mother married was not her father, but he was a good man just the same and my mother used his last name as hers until she married. The end.

Not quite. Over the past weekend, Ms Ché and I attended a number of events involving Jimmy Santiago Baca and his personal and family story, and Nasario Garcia and the stories he collected from the viejitos of the Rio Puerco Valley before they all died off, and for whatever reason, these stories triggered in me questions about my own family's unknown past and heritage.

I wanted to know particularly about my mother's biological father.

I thought I'd found him a number of years ago, but it was after my mother died and I couldn't ask her about him. I found a record of a man in Indianapolis named Frank, whose last name was the same as my mother's father's last name, married to an Edna, which was my mother's mother's first name, and they had a daughter whose name was Florence around the same time my mother was a little girl. My mother's first name was Virginia, though. I thought that perhaps my mother's name had been changed after her father died and that she'd been born "Florence." But I couldn't find out, not easily at any rate.

I assumed that I'd found my mother's biological father, and that was enough to carry on. I didn't think about it much after that, at least not until this past weekend when I made a commitment to find out for sure who her biological father was, to find out as much as I could about her step-father, too, and to see if I could piece together something of a life-story for them.

Now, I almost wish I hadn't. The story may be fascinating, but it's not quite what I expected, and there are elements that are not at all pleasant when you get down to it.

The Frank and Edna I found years ago, who I thought were my mother's parents, were not her parents. And apparently Florence wasn't their daughter. She was my mother's half-sister, though. And Frank and Edna were their aunt and uncle.

Florence was apparently the daughter of my mother's father's previous marriage to a woman named Maud. Florence was being raised by my mother's father's older brother Frank and his wife The Other Edna (who wasn't my mother's mother). This was a common enough arrangement in those days, especially after a family breakup.

For my mother's father (his name was Laurence or Lawrence, both spellings were used) and Maud were divorced sometime between 1900 and 1910. I'm not sure when. I found a marriage record for them dated 1897, and their first child -- a boy, George -- was born in 1898. They had Florence in 1902. And another child, David, came along in 1905.

In 1910, my mother's mother, Edna, was living in a household with her mother, a brother, a cousin, and a couple of aunts. Her mother and aunts were widows, but Edna claimed to be married, though she was using her maiden name; her husband's name was signified by the middle initial "O" which she used instead of her actual middle initial which was "A" for Alice. Her aunt Lillian, who was the head of the household, worked as a laundress while her mother, Ida, Lillian's sister, was a seamstress. Her cousin, Lillian's 17 year old son Harry, was a machinist apprentice. Edna, then 20, worked as a telephone operator. Her 22 year old brother Ralph was a railway fireman.

Edna said she'd been married for three years in 1910, which meant she'd been married since 1907 or thereabouts, but I've found no record of it, nor has a divorce judgement turned up between Laurence and Maud. Maud, however, claimed she was divorced in the 1910 census, as did Laurence. So let us assume there was a divorce. Maud at the time was said to be a servant in the household of some pals of Laurence's, pals he'd apparently run around with since he was very young. There will be more about them in due time.

Laurence was living with his parents in 1910, along with his two sons and a brother. They were living not too far away from Edna and her mother and aunts and brother and cousin. Assuming there was a streetcar available (and in Indianapolis at the time, that would have been likely) it would have taken all of ten minutes to get from Edna's place to Laurence's and vice versa. They weren't close neighbors, but they were close enough.

Florence, Laurence's and Maud's daughter, was living with her aunt and uncle in a much nicer part of town. Frank, Laurence's older brother, was a well-known and respected attorney, quite fancy indeed.

Laurence had other brothers. One was an up and coming CPA; another was a renown botanist who'd got his PhD at Harvard. His father was a pension clerk for the Federal Government. So far as I can tell, they were a pretty solid middle class family.

Well, except for Laurence. He was the Black Sheep. Oh my, was he ever.

Laurence was first arrested, so far as I could find out, in 1893, accused of a string of robberies and burglaries with a pal of his, the family of whom his ex-wife Maud would be living with in 1910. I don't know whether he was convicted. However, Laurence's accomplice in the string of robberies in 1893 was not part of the household in 1910 when Maud was living with them.

Laurence would later be accused of robbing and burglarizing many of his friends, neighbors and colleagues, and in 1912, about six months after my mother was born, he was chased down the streets of Indianapolis by a "merchant policeman" who was firing his gun and yelling up a storm until Laurence was apprehended by a couple of regular city police who knew him. I'm sure they did.

Laurence went to a hearing in police court a few days later, waived "examination" -- whatever that means -- and the judge turned the case over to the grand jury. Laurence was accused of burglarizing a drugstore, though according to the proprietor, nothing was taken and the only witness was the merchant policeman who'd chased Laurence through the streets and shot at him.

At the time, Laurence was a conductor for the street railway -- the most extensive streetcar system in the nation. He'd had a number of different positions over the years since coming into adulthood, most having to do with the railway, but he was also a milk inspector for the city of Indianapolis for a time, and did other odd jobs, including, apparently, petty crime.

Oh, and womanizing. Let's not forget that. So far as I've been able to find out, Laurence had at least six children by four different women, two of whom I'm pretty sure he was married to. I suspect he was never actually married to my grandmother Edna, though, and the real scandal in her case was that my mother was illegitimate.

I don't know that for sure, but that's what I think after all the information I've been able to find out about Laurence.

By 1914, Laurence was in St. Louis, where at least one uncle and a brother were also living and working on the Wabash rail line. He took a job as a switchman in the freight yard. He married a woman from St. Louis named Marie and fathered a daughter Helen who was born in November of that year.

On December 19, 1916, he was killed when a refrigerator car crushed him as he was switching a freight train.

He's buried in St. Louis -- actually a cemetery in Bellfontaine Neighbors. His marble headstone appears to have been toppled and the year of his birth is incorrect, but every report of his death is larded with misinformation, probably because those who were interviewed didn't know the truth and he had probably lied anyway.

As far as I could figure it out -- and of course I could be wrong -- he was "sent" to St. Louis by his family after his 1912 burglary arrest, whether or not he was convicted of the crime he was accused of, with orders to straighten up and fly right or else. In other words, get out of town and get your life together.

Well, except there was Edna and my mother still back in Indianapolis. There were Maud's children, too. What happened to them? Florence may have been living with Frank and Other Edna -- apparently she stayed with them throughout her childhood as they had no other children. Florence died at a ripe old age in Florida having never married.

George and David, Laurence's sons by Maud, may have stayed with Laurence's parents, but I'm not sure of that. Laurence's mother, Caroline (Carrie), died in 1918 -- Spanish flu victim? -- and Laurence's father, David H., died in 1921. George would have been 20 and David 13 when Caroline died.

George and David both moved to California at some point in their lives, George to Los Angeles by way of Idaho, David to San Diego.

George, my mother's half-brother, would have been the one she eventually tracked down and met with in our home in Southern California in the mid-1950s. His story is pretty interesting, too. He had changed his name "professionally" due to all the hooey and scandal he and his siblings had been through. He'd served time in Folsom and San Quentin in the late 40s and early 50s for check-kiting. Before that he'd been a deputy sheriff of Los Angeles County. He sold refrigerators and other appliances, was for a while in insurance. He had a large family of his own and lived in a nice place in LA. It's on the market if anyone's interested. I recall him as being quite pleasant, and he and my mother got along well. They had never met before, and they talked for hours and hours. I was probably seven or eight at the time and was quite occupied with whatever children do at that age, but I do recall his visit.

There was apparently another woman in Indianapolis who Laurence was seeing at the same time he was supposedly married to my grandmother Edna, for there is a record of a boy born to her in March of 1911, eight months before my mother was born. The boy's father is supposedly Laurence, at least that's what his descendants think. I have no idea whether it's true or not, but it wouldn't surprise me a bit. And there may be others. Who knows how many and where they are?

Laurence had a very active social life, at least according to the newspapers -- he was mentioned a lot, and not always for criminal activity. He was frequently visiting friends and relations around the Indianapolis area, and apparently his presence was newsworthy. There was one news item I found that was a little strange, I thought. He and his wife and daughter Florence had gone to visit relatives in Mechanicsburg in 1912. What wife? She's not named. And just a few minutes ago, I found a filing for divorce, dated 20 August 1912. Edna vs Lawrence R. in Marion County Superior Court.

I don't know whether the divorce was granted. I haven't seen a final decree. No grounds are mentioned, but the indications are that Laurence was gone from Indianapolis, possibly in jail, or already headed to St. Louis by the time Edna filed for divorce.

I know that Edna would marry Laurence's friend Leo in California in October of 1917, because I've seen their marriage license, and she would list her status as "widow." So apparently she never seemed to think her divorce from Laurence -- that until now I didn't know anything about -- was ever finalized. I'm not sure my mother ever knew anything about it, either, or I think she would have mentioned it. "She tried to divorce the cad but she couldn't find him."

Yes, well. All this was a long time ago, of course. Laurence was killed almost a century ago, and from every indication, my mother never really knew him at all. I don't think she ever mentioned his first name. She may not have known it. Or if she did, it didn't make an impression on her. She didn't use her step-father's first name either. Nor did she use the first name of her first husband. Maybe there's a reason for it. I don't know.

What I do know is that life was tough in those days, especially for women trying to make it on their own, with or without children in tow. My mother was very proud of being from independent female stock, and the stories she told of the women in her family who made independent lives, stories in which men hardly figured at all or only peripherally, were something to hear. Her step-father was a fine man, but her mother and grandmother were the strong ones she would say.

I've found much more information in the last few days than I can possibly process so quickly. There are many more stories to come from this research, some of which will be pure fiction, but that's often how people engage the past. At least now I can say I know something specific about my mother's father. Something I didn't know before. I didn't  -- for example -- know he'd died in St. Louis. Who'd a thunk?

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