I was told my grandmother was born to one of the wealthiest families in the country. She was the illegitimate granddaughter of one of the so-called Robber baron industrialists of the early 1900’s. He was a hard-working, self-made multimillionaire from austere origins. Disliked, but respected for his money and success.
His daughter was an educated, well-traveled philanthropist. Barely twenty, she found herself in a position no unmarried woman of her era and social standing would admit. I’m told that by the time she realized her dilemma her lover had married another woman, and so, to hide the pregnancy she “went abroad”.
That is the family secret no one kept.
I realize that in those days it was not only a sin but a crime to be an unwed mother – she did what she had to do. However, I can’t help but think there must have been some way to keep the child close, to insure safety and love, to be sure she had all she needed, even after my grandmother was living with her new family. Her adoptive father was severely abusive, which set her up for a lifetime of hardship.
There are countless ways that my great-grandmother’s wealth would have prevented a myriad of Dickensian-like tragedies and heartbreak through the generations, but it’s not only the money that would have changed all of our lives for the better, it was – and still is – family presence. That lost family connection has left a big empty space in my life and heart. To know I have relatives I may not meet leaves me with an indescribable longing and sadness for the bond that only blood creates.
I’ve always felt as if I’m living someone else’s life. It’s as if I took a detour, a wrong turn somewhere into a life that I don’t belong. That my life was supposed to be better, different. So did my mother, who had the natural beauty of a movie star and a pedigreed decorum. I can’t shake the fact that all of our fate was unmistakably altered with the decision to put my grandmother up for adoption.
When I was a child in the 70’s, I went out of state with my parents to the home where my great-grandmother lived. My mother was already unable to walk by then, due to advancing Multiple Sclerosis. Her mother died before I was born. She wanted to meet her grandmother and be acknowledged. She wanted that family bond too. When she rang the bell at the gate, a voice on the intercom stated the mistress of the house was not at home. She never did meet her grandmother who died several years later and, like my mother, I deeply regret not having known her. Even as it was not in my power to make it happen at that time.
My great-grandmother’s name has been passed down for three generations in my family to honor her. There are many shared physical features between our families, and I imagine our personalities and sense of humor are similar too. I can see old family possessions in a museum or two, but to not be allowed to touch or hold the personal items of my ancestors is a profoundly odd feeling. I even see relatives in the social pages, in evening wear at parties and galas. I always feel that I belong there with them, arms linked as we smile and pose for the camera.
They must know about my grandmother’s birth. If we know, they must know. They must know there are other descendants alive and well who know the family secret that no one kept.
Quite often I want to contact them, but how do I approach this delicate subject? I always stop myself in fear of not being well received – or worse – ignored. They may even think I’m a scam artist, but I carry the truth in my blood and have no ill-intent. Would they welcome contact from me? Or, would they deny any relation?
These are the questions that have burdened my hopeful heart and mind for years. I am paralyzed at this point of non-action while always bursting inside with determination to just do something. Pick up the phone, send an email, write a letter. The fear of the unknown is powerful and the fear of rejection out-weighs all else. But, one question is relentless: What if they welcome me with open arms and set everything right again?
This I continue to ponder as the days turn to years and my children grow up as I did, deprived of their birthright while seeing relatives in possession of the family legacy, watching from a distance like ghosts from the past, not sure how to make their scandalous presence known, or if they would frighten everyone away.
Or, are these all simply stories created to hide an unspeakable, tragic truth ?