Sunday, September 07, 2014

A well respected man

Above is a family picture I never saw until the 1980s when a lady loaned it to me for re-photographing. It's a picture of my grandfather and his family, including my father as an infant.

My grandfather is the distinguished looking gent with the high collar in the middle of the picture standing between the two ladies in white. My grandmother is to his right. My dad is the little boy in a cap being dandled on his grandmother's knee.

Based on the clothes and my dad’s apparent age I’d date the picture about 1921.

Before I got the picture I wasn't aware it existed. While on my route I used to visit a small market once a week for a cup of coffee. An old woman was usually standing behind the cash register, smoking a cigarette, glaring at everyone. The indoor clean air act was in effect by that time but she had always smoked behind that cash register and no law was going to stop her from continuing to smoke! Even the cops who stopped in for a doughnut wouldn't have dared tell her to put out her cigarette.

One day I picked up a few odds and ends and rather than pay cash I wrote out a check. She looked at it and said, “That's my uncle's name.” She was looking at my name. I'm named after my paternal grandfather and have the exact same name. As she explained it, she was my late father's first cousin, Lorna.

Lorna told me she had family pictures and for me to stop back the next day to pick them up so I could have copies made. I did. At that time she told me of the family secret: She said my grandfather had been the hidden family scandal. She claimed he had killed himself and it had been covered up.

To back up, my grandfather was a well respected man. In 1918 he quit a job teaching school and went to George Washington University in St. Louis where in 1920 he got his M.D. He came back to his small hometown in Utah to his wife, two daughters, and they soon had a son, who became my father. Grandpa practiced medicine for several years. Dad told me stories of him riding around with his father in his big sedan, making house calls on patients. (Ah, those were the days!)

Dad had told me the story of his father’s death in 1932. He said, “Dad went to a party. He felt sick. His way of dealing with stomach trouble was to drink a lot of water and vomit. He went home to do that and when my mother got home she found him in his chair, dead of a heart attack.”

Lorna’s revisionist version was that my grandfather was quite a ladies’ man, and had women all over the county. It put him in trouble with some of the local men. To avoid scandal he took some pills and killed himself. His friend, Doc Madsen, signed the death certificate. I was stunned, as was my brother when I told him the story. He sent to the Bureau of Vital Statistics for our grandfather's death certificate. It reads almost word for word what my father had told us…“came home from a party, drank water, vomited, died in his chair from apparent heart attack.” It was signed by Dr. Madsen.

There's a mystery there we’ve never solved. Which story is true? We don’t know. The year my grandfather died was 1932, the height of the Great Depression. Apparently he left my grandmother and his family pretty well off, because my grandmother never worked a day in her life and lived to be 93. My father went to a fancy prep school and then a private college where he graduated just as World War II broke out.

Over 80 years since Grandpa died is a long time, and all of the people who would know the truth are dead. I don't think my dad would have known his father was a suicide if it were true. His mother would have kept it from him, and taught him to say what he told us.

There’s just a bit more to the story, so hang on. When I was going to college I had an English teacher named Nell Madsen, who was pretty old. In those days she would have been called a spinster, never married. She saw my name on the first day of class and said, “I knew your grandfather.” She called me over after class. She said, “My brother was a doctor who worked with your grandfather. He had left his practice and was driving to Las Vegas to work in a hospital. He got to Southern Utah and felt something very strong, like he had to turn around and go home. He did, and that was the night your grandfather died. My brother took over his practice and lived many years afterward.”

I heard that story in 1965, and I heard the story about the suicide from Lorna in 1988 or thereabouts. I have a way of putting things together in my mind and when I thought of what Lorna had told me I remembered Nell Madsen’s story about her brother. If my grandfather had committed suicide then his friend could have easily suppressed the fact for the sake of my grandmother and her children. Suicides didn’t get insurance payouts. It would have been easy to do; in those days I’m sure that laws on autopsies weren't routinely enforced, if they even existed. We are talking about a rural Utah community in the depths of the Depression.

The story of my grandfather’s death has always been like a jigsaw puzzle to me. Many pieces have been put in place over the years, but the biggest pieces, the ones that complete the picture, are missing and may never be found.


This is a yearbook picture of my dad, Leon, taken when he was in prep school, circa 1936. He was about 15 or 16. He looks very mature for his age, but some of that is because in those days teenagers weren't a separate breed of human like they are today. The clothes they wore were cut down adult wear, not a completely different wardrobe with matching hairstyles, piercings and accoutrements.

My dad’s cousin, Lorna, gave me a print of this picture which I re-photographed. The details are a little murky but you can see right off that dad was a handsome guy.

When I first joined the school district where I worked for 32 years I met a lady named Enid. She said she was from my dad’s home town. She told me, “Your dad's family was well off compared to the rest of us. We barely made it through the Depression but your dad and his sisters seemed to have everything they wanted. Your dad even went to a private school.”

She added, “That Leon, he was the most handsome guy. I used to think he was the handsomest guy in town.”

I waited for her to say, “…and you take after your dad.” But she didn't. And I don't.


Eddie said...

Great picture and great observances. I think you would really enjoy genealogy research - and tons of information very near.... tch tch.

Postino said...

Eddie, recently I found a book tracing my mother's genealogy which my grandmother had worked on for years the old-fashioned way (before It was in storage since my mother took sick in 2004.