As I watched my mother use a credit card to scrape lichen from the gravestone, I wondered what I was supposed to feel. My father had died five months earlier at age 70, and we’d just found his enigmatic mother — my grandmother — buried in Mattapan, alone and with a different last name.
She’d met and married my grandfather after he returned from World War II, stopping in Boston on his way back home to Indiana. Nine months and three days after the wedding, my father arrived. The young family was living in Indiana when my grandmother left to visit her family in Boston. My father, still just a toddler, never saw her again.
She and my grandfather divorced, and she died of tuberculosis when my father was still a child. The rest was a mystery.
Apart from his father and paternal grandmother, Dad never met any of his other relatives; his family could’ve fit in a revolving door. My mother and I learned about Dad’s extended family from his cousins Joanie and Karen, whom my mother found through a genealogy search. Last winter, we met for lunch in Waltham, and Karen handed us envelopes bulging with photographs of aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, and my paternal grandmother.
A few months later, Joanie drove me to their old neighborhood in Nubian Square (formerly Dudley Square). Her aunt — my grandmother — had grown up on Leyland Street, but after returning from Indiana she remarried and lived with her second husband on Mt. Pleasant Avenue, where his abuse was an open secret. Her family blamed him for her alcohol abuse. “It would have been up to him to bury her,” Joanie sighed, recalling the solitary gravestone.
My grandfather, a consummate gentleman, would only ever say that Dad’s mother was a wonderful woman. I know they wouldn’t want me to harbor this indignation on their behalf, but every time I’ve tried to unmoor it, it gets caught up on secondhand memories. My father’s seething at classmates complaining about their mothers; his fear that my mother would leave when she gave birth to my older brother — their firstborn.
Joanie stopped in front of her own childhood home. There, she’d camped outside on the balcony with her aunt — Dad’s mother — while Dad may have gazed at the same moon.
As we passed the historic Strand Theatre, Joanie suddenly remembered my grandmother taking her there to see a black and white film about a boy who got lost at a carnival. As we continued north on Columbia Road through Uphams Corner, we wondered aloud if she’d thought of my father then. Did she wonder if he was still looking for her?
I’ve shared many memories of Dad with Joanie. She deeply regrets not getting to know him, but imagines he must have been strong. Witty too, I added. “He was a great Dad. I wish I’d told him every day.”
I’d worried early on that the quarter of my DNA inherited from my grandmother might predispose me to a certain brand of motherhood, but when I try to imagine leaving my children, it makes my skin hurt. Maybe a whirlwind romance with a handsome sailor wasn’t enough for a Boston girl transplanted to her mother-in-law’s house on the edge of an Indiana cornfield? I’ll never know the full story.
Sadly, my grandmother’s apparent reaction to motherhood isn’t unheard of, and the taboo of discussing absentee parents can leave children feeling isolated, confused, and worse — responsible. These parents might struggle with addiction, mental health issues, or other trauma, but their descendants may live with the mystery until they die.
But is it ever really an ending? Sometimes the mystery can be resurrected later so that cousins spanning two generations may share a piece of history in Nubian Square, and become family.
Mary O’Reilly is a science writer in Arlington. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. TELL YOUR STORY. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to email@example.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.