Mother used to say that things happen in groups of 3. These past couple weeks have proven her old adage to be true. What an emotional roller-coaster!
Sooner or later, every genealogist meets an ancestor they really don’t like. One whose personal values are diametrically opposed to their own in a way that causes the genealogist some amount of…well…let’s just say consternation. Maybe even soul searching as you struggle to understand. And maybe you can’t understand and you wish the ancestor just wasn’t yours.
I met one of those when I wrote about Thomas Day, the probable wife murderer. When I discovered his murderous history, which looks very much like he beat his wife to death, given that he was found sitting by her dead body, I even checked my pedigree chart to see how far back he fell. The answer is 9 generations, meaning that if I carry any of his DNA at all, today, it would be on average 0.195% of his DNA, less than one fifth of 1%. I felt like I dodged that bullet. Whew!!
It’s interesting to see how people cope with revelations like this. This ancestor is so distant that you can emotionally distance yourself in many ways – by saying he might not be a murderer after all, by compensating for his behavior by making excuses, by minimizing the negative information, by emotionally divorcing yourself from him, or by accepting the evidence, feeling empathy for his spouse and realizing that he, 9 generations ago, really has nothing to do with you today.
But let’s face it. Who wants an icky ancestor?
Each of the ancestors in our tree has bad and good, some more bad than good, and some vice versa. We know so very little about any of our ancestors that we define them by the snippets, good or bad, that we do know. Keep in mind that each of those people did indeed do one thing that was very important to you – and that’s to beget your ancestor who begot another ancestor who a few generations later had one of your parents who had you. You would not exist, as you, without them – regardless of anything else in their life. You are their legacy every bit as much as what they did when they were alive.
We can simply hope we don’t “inherit” the “murderous” proclivity, genes, or whatever brought that person to that place in time in a way that led to that behavior – whether the driving factor was some something social, situational or genetic. We hope that the trait or tendency was not passed to us, today, either through genetics or family dynamics, meaning learned behaviors by example.
Whatever it was, we don’t want it!
Mental Illness – The Untouchable Topic
Of course, there is the possibility that mental illness was involved. Mental illness tends to be the topic that no one, and I mean no one, discusses.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that, in my family line, a descendant of Thomas Day, Joel Vannoy, Thomas Day’s great-great-grandson was in fact committed to the Eastern State Mental Hospital for the insane in Knoxville, Tennessee. Joel was my great-great-grandfather.
The people in Tennessee who told me all kinds of things when I first began visiting and talking about genealogy never revealed that. They talked about wife cheaters and wife beaters and women having children not fathered by their husbands and “carrying on” with the preacher, but no one ever talked about mental illness. That was THE taboo subject.
After I made that discovery, quite by happenstance, in the court records, it turned out that people knew. Then the uncomfortable discussion immediately turned to which side of the family the “crazy came down from.” Everyone was very anxious to distance themselves not from Joel himself, but from the possible spectre of mental illness – and by virtue of the unsaid, that it was or could be found in their line as well.
Joel wasn’t dangerous, just “preachin’, swearin’, and threatenin’ to fight,” according to his hospital paperwork, but his grandson, my grandfather might have been a different matter.
Smoke and Fire
My grandfather, William George Estes, seemed to have a somewhat distant relationship with a moral compass. He not only cheated on my grandmother, Ollie Bolton, but with her own young cousin. After my grandmother divorced him, he married that cousin. They moved to Harlan County, Kentucky where he was a moonshiner and then cheated on her with her cousin. See a pattern here, perhaps? Divorced and married again, he treated that third wife very poorly, according to my mother who visited a grand total of one time. Mother was horrified and did not wish to discuss the situation.
Sometimes oral history is right, and sometimes it’s wrong, but there is often some sort of fire where there is smoke. In the case of William George Estes, there are troubling whispers about the murder of a revenue agent. I have no idea if that story is true, but I do know that one of his children starved to death, according to the death certificate. No one talked about that either. In fact, until I found the death certificate quite by accident, I never knew the child existed. I wanted to believe that the cause of death was wrong, but then I recalled that my father’s sister reported that when they were young, they didn’t have enough food and the children were fed moonshine to keep their hungry stomachs from hurting and so that they would sleep.
Imagine hearing this about your parent and grand-parents. Imagine living like that as a child. Imagine being my father.
Then, add to that the fact that the Aunt, who was somewhat inclined to embellish, said that when your grandparents divorced, when your father was about 12, neither parent wanted your father or his brother who was younger by two years. The boys, desperate, hopped on a freight train with the hobos, finally making their way back to Tennessee, from Indiana, to their grandparents’ home. They arrived very hungry and dirty. I didn’t want to believe that, but after being told the same thing by three different people with personal knowledge, I realized it was true.
Mind you, the mother who didn’t want him is the mother my father cared for, at home, for months, in her final lengthy illness in 1955. He did not betray her as she had betrayed him.
That unwanted 12 year old child turned into a 14 year old who lied about his age to enter the service in World War I. Anything was probably better than trying to scavenge. It’s no wonder he spent the majority of his life, “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places” and trying to pretend everything was OK when it wasn’t.
I have never believed, nor do I believe today, that the past is necessarily a predictor or deterministic of the future. I don’t believe that parents’ actions dictate what the child will turn out to be, either bad or good, although they certainly have an influence. The world is full of examples that disprove that logic, in both directions. I fully believe that nurture can either overcome or mediate nature – excepting of course for barriers like Down’s Syndrome that people are born with – and that our own personal decisions are what drives and determines our lives. Of course, sometimes there seems to be no nurture, but still, we have the ability to choose and to change – to create our own destiny.
My father was no angel. He was human. I have no idea how much of his behavior sprung from his early environment, but I know that later he made choices that were not in his own best interest and he paid dearly for them.
The Father I Knew
The father I knew loved me, doted on me in fact, for just short of 8 years. He was killed in an automobile accident in 1963.
He spent quality time with me when I did see him. He made special meals and I got to have special “coffee” with him. Coffee parties instead of tea parties. Of course, “coffee” was really warm milk and sugar with enough coffee to look like today’s latte. He played dolls with me, pulled me in my red wagon and often held me as I slept. I have no bad or negative memories of him.
My parents separated when I was young. While my father was a doting father to me, he was also doting in a different way, it appears, on women other than my mother. A long-time pattern with my father it seems, as with his father.
My “half-brother,” Dave, who also knew my father, remembered him in the same affectionate way.
The father we knew took us fishing and was a man we adored. Our father rescued animals in need, a raccoon whose mother was killed on the road, an orphan duck and a little dog named Timmy. He rescued people too, including two orphan children from the orphanage in Knightstown, Indiana with his last wife, Virgie.
Dave and I who were born when my father was in his 50s have very different memories about my father than my sister, Edna, who was born when my father was in his 20s.
Edna did not know our father as a child and her opinion of him was formed entirely from her mother’s perspective.
My father did find Edna as an adult and tried to establish a relationship, as best you can after a prolonged absence. Pictured above, my father with Edna’s children between about 1958-1960.
I surely don’t blame Edna’s mother for how she felt, as my father was anything but a model husband – at least until his last marriage.
His last wife, Virgie, a lovely woman, knew him, understood him and loved him. In a letter to me after his death, she wrote that no matter what anyone said about him, no one knew what he had survived as a child and that he was not all bad. Perhaps he at last finally found the love he sought so desperately. I hope so. He was killed two years and 3 days after their marriage.
Our identity, in many ways, is tied to our family – to our parents. It’s tied to knowing that our parents are our parents, that our father is our father, that our siblings are indeed our siblings. It’s rooted in what we believe to be true and in good memories that make us feel warm, wanted and loved.
Our identity is uprooted when we discover something that contradicts, challenges or disproves that identify, and to say it’s upsetting is just about as big an understatement as can be made.
It shakes our very worldview, of ourselves and our place in the family. It makes us question if we are somehow less worthy because of circumstances beyond our control. We wonder if we were unwanted, a mistake, or an inconvenience.
We question who we really are. These types of discoveries are life-shaking and life-altering.
I’ve always felt that many times, I’ve been brought to and through something to provide me with perspective so that I can help others. Perhaps that’s one way of making bad things alright – of finding a plateau for acceptance – or maybe it’s just my justification for why bad or painful things happen. The silver living, so to speak. Regardless, it’s a way of helping others through situations that are almost impossible to understand without having walked a mile in those shoes.
Sometimes that mile is awfully long, uphill and freefalling at the same time, and treacherous, let me tell you. The worst roller-coaster ride you’ll ever experience.
Such was the case with the discovery that my brother, Dave, wasn’t really my brother. I then spent months doubting that my father was my father, only to discover that he was my father, and not Dave’s father. It was a miserable few months filled with doubt, dread and anxiety. The end was a mixture of relief for myself and anguish for Dave’s loss – information I never shared with him because he was terminally ill at that point.
In essence, I twice, within a few months, lost the brother I so loved.
That experience gave me the opportunity to experience the agony that others would as well, but also to learn that love really has nothing to do with biology. The depth of suffering is equal to the depth of love.
When we lose what we believe, there is grief involved. Grief over the lost truth, over the part of what we believed ourselves to be that isn’t, doesn’t exist, and dies before the rebirth of a revised identity.
Sometimes grief over the fact that someone lied to us, or hid the truth – even if they believed it was for our own good or their own protection. Grief has many reasons and many forms. But when we lose something we held dear, in any form, we grieve.
The Double Whammy
When grief is mixed with betrayal, it’s even worse. Betrayal takes a couple of forms too. Betrayal of oneself, of a moral compass, or personal betrayal by someone we love and thought we could trust.
Think of betrayal of a moral compass as occurring when someone does something that they know they shouldn’t – and do it anyway. And I’m not talking about eating chocolate here – but actions that are socially, culturally or legally unacceptable – generally addressed by legal or severe personal consequences.
Think of personal betrayal as when you discover that your spouse cheated on you.
Sometimes betrayals involved both kinds of issues. Those are particularly ugly.
This past week or two, I’ve gotten to experience up close and personal three different betrayal/grief situations – although they are not all three mine. Two belong to close friends, which means I share their pain as I have been involved in their respective journeys.
In one case, a woman accidentally discovered through DNA that her mother and her uncle are half instead of full siblings. Yes, there are all kinds of reasons why that might be, but the first assumption out the gate is always that grandma cheated. That may not be the case, but other options, like the possibility that nonconsensual sex might be involved is also disturbing. Most of us clearly know what is involved in begetting, but we really don’t want to know the details of grandma’s sex life. TMI.
Regardless of why, the revelation that the person you grew up with believing was your full sibling is not, and the entire family lived in ignorance, except for one person, who probably lived a lie – is very disturbing on several levels. It means rethinking everything and everyone involved. It also means you’ll probably never know what really happened, but you get to deal with all of the possibilities. A homework assignment no one signs up for.
Been there, done that. It’s ugly and it takes time to get used to your new identity that you don’t like nearly as well as your old one. Your family members get new identities too. And grandma? You’re just confused about her, at the same time remembering that women at that time had very few options. All I can say is try not to judge.
It takes time to process through all of this very emotional high drama, especially when you suddenly realize you’ve spent several decades working on the genealogy of a line that isn’t yours. One more thing to grieve.
In the second case, a friend discovered the identity of his father, after decades of looking, being one of two brothers. Along with that, he discovered why the secret was closely guarded by his mother for her entire life. It’s one of those stories that would make a wonderful soap opera or reality TV show – so long as it’s not your own story. It’s also incredibly sad on so many levels.
My friend is well adjusted. He’ll absorb this, he’ll deal with it and go on. He now owns the truth he sought for so long. However, I know he was hoping that maybe his father had “only been a married man.” At one time, his mother having an affair with a married man seemed scandalous, but compared to the truth, it’s the tame option.
While these types of events are extremely interesting and colorful if they aren’t your ancestors, they are far from amusing when you discover that they pertain to your parent.
Which leads me to the third situation. My own.
Let’s just say that sometimes you have to go through a really dark tunnel to emerge into the light.
The Dominoes Fall
There is a great irony to the fact that I am probably the only person, ever, that knows, or will know when I’m finished, the truth about my father’s life. Except for my father, William Sterling Estes, himself, of course.
The dominoes began to fall a couple weeks ago. And they haven’t stopped. Just when I think there can’t possibly be any more left to discover, there is. It there a bottom to this barrel?
While the two circumstances with my friends involved DNA, one as the accidental medium of discovery, and one as the solution to the long-standing question of paternity, my situation, ironically, has nothing at all to do with DNA.
What are the chances, right?
Sometimes people think that only DNA reveals unsettling surprises, but that’s not the case. Unmasking the truth is as old as genealogy and research itself.
I’ve been prepared for years to find an unknown sibling, or two, or maybe three. Kind of hopeful, actually, since all of the ones I know about are deceased. Nope, that didn’t happen via DNA.
What I have discovered is why there was such a big gap in my father’s life.
Let’s just say I’m struggling through this. I am extremely grateful for the woman who sent me the information, but man alive, has it ever opened a Pandora’s box. Like my friend who unveiled the identity of his father, I got what I wanted but the situation discovered is very disturbing on several different levels – which is obviously why it was hidden by anyone who knew.
The information revealed that my father was using an alias, and was prosecuted for statutory rape after marrying a 15 year old girl. The female in question had listed her age on the marriage license as 18, and had previously told him she was 24 when they met. The testimony asserts that the girl’s mother told my father that the female in question was 15 five days before they were married, which means that he committed statutory rape, because he was an adult. And yes, he went to prison for a felony – for having sex with his wife, who was less than 30 days away from being 16 which was the legal age of consent in that state at that time.
Scratching your head as to how that makes sense? Me too.
The first thing I did was to have a huge meltdown when I saw the words statutory rape. I mean, the second word is horrible enough, before the addition of the first word. That was before I discovered the details, almost two weeks into this nightmare, specifically the age discrepancy issue and the fact that the wife lied about her age on the marriage license – and that the “event” was consensual. I breathed a huge sigh of relief about the consensual part, because I really did not want to think of my father in the way I typically think of a rapist.
There had been vague rumblings in the family about a situation like that, but I thought I had disproved those rumors years ago, based on when and where my father applied for his Social Security card. I was wrong. This was something entirely different. The original rumbling was probably two stories conflated together or someone who only knew a tidbit. That old smoke and fire thing again.
I found it difficult to believe that my father was sentenced to prison under the stated circumstances, so I talked to a historian at the archives in the state where this occurred and then visited the county where the trial proceedings remain. The verdict; yes, that is exactly what happened and why. If a male over the age of consent had sex with a female under the age of consent, it was considered statutory rape. There was absolutely no legal differentiation between that and forcible rape, and the mandatory sentence was the same too.
The woman who sent me the original information assumed I knew about “it” and had omitted the information from his timeline because of what “it” was. Believe me, “it” was news to me.
If you’re saying “Holy Cow” or the same phrase with another word in place of cow, so was I. I walked around for days shaking my head and doing the facepalm. I desperately want to grab ahold of my father, shake him, and scream, “What the hell were you thinking?”
An alias and an underaged girl – what was he thinking? My mother had a saying about that kind of behavior too – something to do with thinking with the wrong body part.
Of course, I’m assuming here that my father did in fact know her true age, but I suspect that he had no idea he could be prosecuted if they were married. Perhaps that’s why they married. Or maybe he believed the girl’s version of her age. His testimony is not included in the case because he changed his plea from not guilty to guilty.
Why did he do that, considering the length of a sentence for statutory rape? Perhaps to spare his wife from having to testify about very private things? Maybe he didn’t fully understand. We’ll never know, because I clearly can’t ask him what he was thinking.
I do know, based on his letters, that he didn’t realize that his wife divorced him a couple years later. How sad is that?
And in the greatest of ironies, the judge who sentenced him wound up trying to help him, saying that his hands were tied in the situation by the guilty plea and the mandatory sentence required.
I feel like I’ve spent the past two weeks or so living in a twisty-turny maze that rivals any spine-tingling gripping can’t-put-it-down novel I’ve ever read. Except this is no novel.
As any good genealogist knows, there are clues to be followed. And yes, because I can’t not know, I dug into every clue with the tenacity of a beagle after a fresh bone.
It’s been a productive search too, finding records at state and county archives. Many records. Some with depositions and testimony. Some include heartbreaking letters…from my father.
My father did go to prison, but he was not a violent man. He seemed to have been somewhat impulsive and he loved too many women, the wrong women, too closely together. I can’t help but wonder if there are more wives and marriages yet to be discovered, but because he was using an alias or aliases, I’ll likely never know. If you’re up for some high drama entertainment, you can read more about my father’s story here.
I’m guessing alcohol played a part in his errant decisions too. I’m not surprised, given what we know about his childhood. Both of his brothers had alcohol issues as well. Maybe nature and nurture were both stacked against them.
My mother and others said that my father fought with the demon, alcohol, and tried repeatedly to “get clean.” Those were the days before AA. At his death, Virgie, his wife at the time, said he was clean and had “dried out” in the VA hospital in Fort Wayne. Her daughter said he had fallen off the wagon. Regardless of whether he ultimately won that battle in his 60s or was defeated one last time by alcohol, alcoholism surely informed many of his decisions and negatively affected the relationships in his life in the years my mother knew him – and probably earlier as well.
Yes, my father’s life was “colorful” in a very sad way and the price he paid was heart-wrenching and dark. I shudder to think about his life in prison. I’m still struggling with the reality of my father and prison and all of the associated connotations and baggage.
A history of prisons in the state where he served exists, and it’s so horrid I haven’t been able to read more than a few paragraphs at a time. Yes, prisoners deserve to serve time, but they don’t deserve to be chained together for up to 18 hours a day, working on road construction in the unrelenting heat as, one by one, they fall and die. That’s torture, not punishment or rehabilitation. He served during that time. Is it any wonder that the prison’s detailed inmate records for this time period have somehow disappeared over the years?
More than once in these past couple of weeks I have wondered if it would have been an easier discovery to find out he wasn’t my father at all – rather than to discover my father was not quite who I thought he was.
I will be sharing more with you as I can, while respecting the privacy of people who may still be living. When you’re doing genealogy, you really never expect the big reveal to be your parent – and certainly not in quite this way.
But first, before I can share more, I have to finish the research and get through this dark space and out of the tunnel into the light.
I’m both very angry with my father for his behavior that can’t be called anything but massively stupid, at best, and predatory at worst. It’s very difficult to wrap my head around that and to know that I’ll probably never really know whether he was in some ways a victim himself or whether he was, in truth, a slimy bottom feeder. Or some combination of both.
At the same time, my heart aches terribly for him based on some of the evidence that has come forward. He was, after all, my father, the man I loved and adored. The thought of him being tortured, for years, tears at the very fabric of my soul. Yet, he survived, and so will I.
It’s hard to feel this conflicted about someone you dearly loved and idolized as a child and who was ripped from your life by death. It’s also very difficult to reconcile the man I knew with the man in the impersonal black and white words of the legal proceedings staring back at me resolutely and unblinkingly from paper yellowed with age.
I am sharing this most difficult journey because I want others who find themselves in this darkness, regardless of the details of what put you into this space, to know that you are not alone.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
For all of you who might make or have made an inconvenient or unwelcome discovery – through DNA or through traditional genealogical records – there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And yes, it’s really dark and ugly and lonely in the tunnel, because it’s a tunnel you have to walk alone.
As you struggle in that dark place, I want you to remember something.
You are YOU, not someone else. You may be a biological product of your parents, but more so you are a product of your own hard work and your personal decisions. Your accomplishments and your decisions are yours. Parents don’t get the credit and they don’t get the blame.
Whatever the dark space, you are the awesome outcome, regardless of anything else. You have the opportunity and potential to shine.
Unwelcome discoveries like this may cause you to doubt or devalue yourself. Don’t.
Just. Don’t. Go. There.
There is a fork in the road, multiple forks in the road, for all of us, and it’s the choice you make at those forks that matters. Those forks define your life. Your forks – your decisions, not theirs. Their forks do not reflect on you.
Your life is your book. Your parents only get an opening chapter. You get to write the rest. Those are your blank pages to fill. Yours. Only yours.
You are only in control of you. Your ancestor’s decisions, while they clearly affect your life in terms of your existence, where you were born and your economic circumstances, do not define who you are or dictate the kind of person that you evolve to be or the choices you make.
Regardless of the creepy critters in the dark haunted tunnel, the trap doors and the spider webs, there is a light at the end and you will emerge a better and more empathetic person than you entered. It’s painful, but not fatal.
Just keep walking, putting one foot in front of the other, and don’t be afraid. The discovery is the worst part, and by the time you’re walking in that tunnel, the discovery is over. You’re now in the healing process. Your wounds will become scars that testify to your strength and survival. Be proud of your resilience.
Just. Keep. Walking.
As I used to say to my kids, “the only way to it is through it.”
Feel the feelings you need to feel, but don’t let those consume you or define you either – and don’t wallow there. No good will come of that. Purposefully walk through the tunnel and out the other end into the warmth and light. The rest of your life is waiting for you, and you ARE the light for others.
Easter is, after all, a time of resurrection and redemption – of the earth when flowers joyfully spring from their long sleep and as our souls emerge from colorless hibernation as well.
Take heart, spring always arrives, no matter how long, cold or bleak the winter in the tunnel!