Looking at her young face staring back at me from the vintage, monochrome photograph it suddenly struck me how young she had been when her world fell apart. Her story was family folklore, passed down as one of those subjects discussed in hushed tones and only around certain family members.
Here she was, though, appearing to me younger than I had ever imagined her when I had heard the stories as a child, a teen and even as an adult. I saw in her eyes a bit of fear, maybe trepidation, but also a lot of grit mixed with the slightest hint of humor.
When she’d met the man she would one day married she was head over heels in love. He was handsome and charming, and loud and boisterous. Some, though, especially her family, called him trouble.
She wrote love letters to him and told him she couldn’t wait until they could be alone again, married and on their own.
The details are hazy, the story one fractured by memories not as strong as they once were, possible family biases, maybe a bit of resentment and a whole lot of “he said, she said.” What is known is they married, he did something that hurt her deeply, her family chased him off with a shotgun and she came home with a 2-month old baby and soon to be divorced, something not often heard of at that time.
The baby was born with the last name of Hakes, but a line was struck through that name and it was eliminated, one might say. When the divorce was final the baby’s last name became Robinson, his mother’s maiden name, and stayed that way, even when she became an Allen through a new marriage, years later. Family lore, accurate or not, says her family wouldn’t allow the little boy to have his father’s last name. So, the baby, my grandfather, was Hakes by blood but not by name.
Raising a son alone, so young, with a broken heart and maybe added shame, must have been close to impossible, even with the help of her family. I often wonder how those events shaped her inner being, how it maybe led her to throw up walls that it took years to let down, if she ever did.
It seems when we get older we are told new stories about family members, or more of the story or maybe we just listen better and find out what we had always thought was the full story really wasn’t.
More pieces to the puzzle of the story of my great aunt, taken away from her family to live in a mental hospital and then a nursing home were recently given to me, correcting my belief that she was placed in the home at a young age. Instead, she was apparently closer to 30 when her parents had her committed and one reason was the fear she would harm my dad, who was about three or four at the time.
And she wasn’t really abandoned there, as I had previously thought. Instead, she withdrew into herself after years of odd behavior and her parents felt she was safer in the hospital. They also had limited income and only one vehicle to visit her with or bring her home.
So while I heard new information about my great aunt’s story recently, the story that remains a mystery for most of our family is what really led to my great-grandmother Blanche leaving Howard Hakes. It’s not really a topic you bring up when meeting distant relations only at family funerals every few years.
“Hey, so whatever happened with that whole divorce thing with Blanch and Howard anyhow?” you can’t simply ask. Or, “Was that Howard a real jerk or what’s the real story?”
It wouldn’t exactly be polite dinner (or funeral) conversation.
There are the family “rumors”, of course. He liked his parties, women, and alcohol, was the one rumor. Blanche, had finally had enough, some say, and she left Waverly, NY, considered the “big city” back then in the early 1900s and returned to her family’s farm with her young son, Walter, who happens to be my grandfather.
It’s always a bit awkward to write about family drama when some of those family members who might know more are still alive so I will admit that I know very little about what led to the end of the marriage. Not too mention, because it was so long ago and I never met Blanche and was only about 2 when my grandfather died, I don’t have a “dog in this fight” so to speak. I don’t see either party as an enemy or at fault, simply because I wasn’t there, therefore I truly have no idea.
What I do have is a wonder about how Blanche felt about it all, and even how Howard felt. And when you get right down to it, what did Walter feel about it?I wish he was around for me to ask.
Whatever led to the failed marriage, it came and my grandfather was raised without knowing his father. It wasn’t until Blanche died, well after my grandfather was an adult with two adult daughters and one young son, that Howard showed back up. My dad remembers he was about 13, returning from a Boy Scout camp out, when a man approached him in town and told him, “I’m your grandfather.”
Later that day, sitting with my grandfather on the porch of my dad’s house, now remarried and a father of other children, Howard tried to make peace with his firstborn, asking him, “Well, your first born is always your favorite, aren’t they?”
“I don’t play favorites,” my dad remembers my grandfather saying in a deep, stern voice.
My dad was the baby of the family, his sister Eleanor was the oldest and sister Doris the middle. And no, Walter wasn’t going to play favorites.
Maybe Grandpa was telling Howard he wasn’t about to accept an attempt to suggest one child should be loved over another as any type of apology for being an absent father.
Even if my grandfather couldn’t accept the failed attempt of an apology that day, some sort of peace was made. Visits were had, half-sisters were met and Howard’s funeral was even attended many years later.
Two, faded and short, letters are tucked away in a jewelry box in my parent’s room and my parents aren’t even sure where they came from. It’s clear they were written by Blanche to Howard and start with “My Love.”
“They are heartbreaking,” my mom told me one day. “She really loved him.”
And she did. Telling Howard she hoped his new job was going well and that she couldn’t wait “until you are here in my bedroom with me again.”
Gasp! In her bedroom?
Scandalous stuff for 1900.
Maybe so scandalous some in my family might not think I should air the family’s “dirty laundry.”
But, if we are honest, every family has their own dirty laundry and some of that dirty laundry isn’t really dirty, but just heartbreak caused by broken people.
They carried the star up the steep, snow covered hill because the truck’s tires spun and sent the hunk of metal skittering sideways toward the old dirt road. In the end they left the truck in the field and slid the star, made of wood and strands of Christmas lights off the roof. Their breath steamed patterns out in front of them as they walked and the sun, a misleading sign of the outside temperature, cast long shadows onto the untouched surface of the snow that fell the day before.
Ropes were looped and tied and hooked on a pulley, the ladder was climbed and the star was hoisted with a couple reminders from father-in-law to son-in-law to “be careful of the lights! You’re hitting the lights on the tree!” But finally it was high enough and nails were hammered in to hold it in place.
Dad built the star several years ago and put it at the edge of the woods, at the top of the field and where people driving by on Route 220, across the Valley could see it. It has become a beacon, you could say. A beacon of good will, or peace, or joy or whatever it represents for each person who sees it. It can mean a lot of things for a lot of people but for Dad it is a sign of hope and the real reason behind Christmas. After all – isn’t that what the birth of Jesus was all about? Bringing hope to a hurting, fallen world?
So on this little hill, in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania my dad hangs his homemade, 50-some pound star, and with it hangs a little bit of hope – hope for health, for peace, for love for all, hope for the broken, the weary, the shattered souls. And it reminds us who is the hope of the world.
6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.