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Friday, September 22, 2023

A walk in the steps of ancestors

 The gazebo nestled on the green of the town square was a surprise at the end of miles of rural road that traversed the farmlands of south-central Illinois encased by a tunnel of corn stalks . Like Brigadoon, the buildings seemed to appear out of the mist. I wanted to walk on the streets of this village for many years after the discovery that my maternal grandfather was raised here by his grandparents. Peeling back the decades since he escaped, it was meaningful to envision the young boy walking from the farm into the town for church services as the family was devout. Driving slowly around the center of town, the buildings surrounding the square looked tired and lonely. Few children played on the grass even though it was still summer.

Life was tough for a boy born to a single mother in 1905 in rural America where school children called him names and he rarely saw his mother who left him with her parents to work in the city and then married leaving him behind. He departed Illinois soon after turning 18 joining the Marines to be stationed in Hawaii and then Washington, D.C. where he married and had two children. As he rose to a position of importance in a government branch of the Treasury, he traveled a great deal. Within a few years he escaped again and did not see his daughter for twenty-five years until just before he died.

The trauma of abandonment has trickled down through the generations in many ways and the tour of the Illinois village where it started was helpful in understanding and forgiveness. The study of family history for some researchers can teach and heal.   Walking through the cemetery at the edge of the village to discover, touch and photograph family grave markers I was struck by the silence. The village was too small to hide in all those years ago and the young boy was a target of harassment and shame. He never took his wife or children to visit although family members were alive for many years. He lied to his wife about his paternal roots and may not have ever been told the details of his birth or father or possibly he survived the bullies by creating a story he came to believe.  From the age of ten he was called by the surname of his stepfather although he was never adopted or lived with him.

DNA analysis over several years led finally to grandfather’s paternity with a robust family tree with many branches but came too late to enlighten either grandfather or his daughter who both struggled with identity and feelings of loss. Having trudged the sad, quiet streets of the Illinois hometown, the visit has added additional background to the story of the young boy who many years ago ran away from the farm and unfortunately for his children and grandchildren…never learned to stop running.