The Secret RevealedFifteen years after the conversation I had with MD, in which she explained why I should never ask my grandfather about his childhood again, I was living on my own in New York and working in a large commercial bank, embarking on my career in finance. During the intervening years both of my grandparent Darlings had died, my parents divorced, I graduated from college, and life continued apace.
One day I received a telephone call from my mother, MD, asking me to come and visit her the following weekend. My Aunt Mary (my father's sister) was going to be staying with her, she said, and Mary had asked to see me during her visit. Although MD was no longer married to my father, she maintained a friendship with Mary, who made a point of vocally taking MD's side in all matters, much to her brother's annoyance.
FD (as my father was known) and his sister had a difficult, competitive relationship growing up, and neither had much good to say about the other as adults. When I was growing up they had little to do with each other, and when they did spend time together, their old rivalry would routinely (and rather tediously) flare up. They didn't like each other.
I liked my Aunt Mary well enough, and I was pleased (and flattered) that she had asked to see me during her visit with my mother. I looked forward to spending the weekend with the two of them. After dinner on the day I arrived, MD, Aunt Mary and I sat in MD's living room, finishing our glasses of wine. After a few minutes Mary turned to MD and pointedly asked, "Is now a good time?" My mother drew in her breath, gave me a look, and answered, "Yes."
Mary turned to me and said, "I have something to tell you, Reggie, that I think you should know. It's about your grandfather."
"What is it?" I asked.
"I've learned what happened. I know why Grandfather left England after his father's death, and why he didn't stay on there, with his mother."
"Really? What happened?" I asked, my heart racing.
Mary looked at me, took a sip from her wine glass, and began her story.
"Five or so years before your grandfather died, I asked him if he would once and for all explain to me why it was that he moved to this country after his father's death, and why he didn't stay with his mother or maintain a relationship with her after he came here.
"He told me that it was a painful and upsetting story, and that he couldn't bring himself to discuss it with me, but that he had put aside a set of papers that would 'explain everything.' He said the papers were to be opened and read only after his death."
"Oh!" I said, "How exciting!"
"It was exciting," Mary responded. "In fact, it was thrilling news to me because I had never known what happened. Your grandparents never spoke of it, and I was forbidden to ask about it, even though I was always very curious to learn what had happened.
"A few years later, after Granny died and Grandfather was living in the hospital wing at Duncaster Hills, I asked him one afternoon where I could find the papers. I said that I would respect his wishes to wait to read them until after he died, but that I wanted to be sure I knew where they were, so I could read them when the time came. Much to my dismay, he said that he had changed his mind and destroyed them, because he thought it was best that the information they revealed die with him."
"Oh no!" I said, "How disappointing!"
"Well," Mary said, "it turns out he hadn't destroyed the papers after all."
"Yes, really. After Grandfather died, I was going through his things and I found an old metal document box with a fat manila folder inside it with the words 'Only to be opened in the event of my death' on it in his perfect handwriting. It was stuffed with letters, documents, and telegrams, and also had a typewritten account that Grandfather had written in the nineteen sixties. Reading through it all I finally learned what happened after your great-grandfather died, what became of your great-grandmother, why your grandfather emigrated to this country, and what his relationship was with his mother after he left. It explained everything!"
"But why do you suppose Grandfather told you he'd destroyed it, when in fact he hadn't?" MD asked Mary.
"I'm not quite sure," she said. "He was very old when he told me that, already ninety, and he often got confused towards the end about people and events and what did and did not happen. I suspect he thought he really had destroyed the papers."
"That must have been quite a surprise, then, when you found them," I said.
"You bet it was, Reggie. I was very surprised to find them. And I am very happy that I did, because now I know what happened."
"So, what happened?" I asked.
Mary took a deep breath.
"Well, in the first place your grandfather was not sent away. His father's brother, your great-great-Uncle Percy, who was living in Massachusetts at the time, went over to England to get him, and rescued him from a truly desperate situation. It turns out that your grandfather's mother was seriously disturbed—mentally ill, really—and she was as severe an alcoholic as her husband had been."
"You mean both of his parents were drunks?" I asked.
"Yes, Reggie. But that's just the start of it. Not only was she an alcoholic, but she was a gambler, too. Within only a few years after your great-grandfather died she ran through almost everything she inherited. Apparently she had been left reasonably well set up after he died. She had enough assets and life insurance proceeds for her to be quite comfortable for the rest of her life. But she squandered every penny of it by gambling it away, and within several years she was destitute."
"My God! Was Grandfather still living with her then?"
"No, thank goodness, he was already here in America. After your great-grandfather died, Uncle Percy went to London, got your grandfather, and brought him back here to get him away from his mother."
"So, then it's not that Grandfather's mother sent him away, which is what I've always thought," I said, "but rather he was taken away from her to protect him from her!"
"That's exactly right, Reggie," MD said.
"After your great-grandmother had run through everything she had, she then borrowed substantial sums of money from her husband's former business associates, claiming that she was coming into nonexistent annuities. But, of course, there were none, and she had no way of paying the money back. She had spent all of it on gambling, going to the dog and horse tracks.
"By then Grandfather was married and starting out his life as a minister, and he didn't make the kind of money to be able to bail her out. But Granny had some money of her own and she and Grandfather repaid his mother's debts—at least the ones they were aware of—at great sacrifice to their own financial well-being."
"How did they know about her debts?" I asked.
"Because your great-grandmother was constantly after him for money and to support her. Also, some of the people she had borrowed from contacted him, sending him dunning letters when it was clear that she had duped them. When you read through the materials you'll see the letters and telegrams, which he saved."
"Then what happened?"
"Over the years Grandfather made numerous trips back to England to straighten out her affairs. He would set her up in an apartment or a boarding house with a modest allowance to live on, but as soon as he returned home she would spiral out of control again, sometime within just a few days, running up bills and creating havoc wherever she went. At one point, after he could no longer find another place that would take her, he brought her over to America to live with him and Granny, with disastrous consequences. It almost destroyed his marriage. Granny had even packed her bags and said, 'Either she goes or I go!' Needless to say, your great-grandmother was booked on the next available boat to Southampton."
"Do you remember her?" I asked. "Do your remember that visit?"
"I was a little girl then, in the nineteen twenties, and I have only the vaguest memory of her. She didn't stay with us for very long, no more than a couple of weeks. My parents never spoke of her in front of us afterwards. Not a single word."
By this point Aunt Mary, MD, and I all agreed that we could use drinks of our own, and stiff ones at that. Cocktails safely in hand, we settled back down in the living room and Mary continued her story.
"Your great-grandmother remained unrepentant and difficult throughout all of this. She bitterly blamed Grandfather for mistreating her, complaining to anyone who would listen to her. She sent him dozens and dozens of letters and telegrams over the years accusing him of unspeakable cruelty, all the while constantly begging for more money. But as soon as she could get her hands on any money she would spend it, drinking and gambling away.
"Grandfather even had her institutionalized several times, once in a place rather colorfully called the "Home for Indigent Gentle Ladies." But after years of unsuccessfully trying to put her on solid ground he decided to sever all ties with her, in the early nineteen thirties. He could no longer bear the emotional turmoil and financial burden of having anything to do with her. He was a minister, after all, living on a modest income with a young family of his own to take care of, and it was during the Depression, no less."
"So what happened to her then?" I asked.
"She wound up living on the streets of London as a bag person, Reggie, where she begged and stole to get by. We know this because Grandfather got letters from people who knew her, who had come across her begging for handouts. She blamed Grandfather for everything. The police also contacted him a couple of times after arresting her for making herself a public nuisance. She disappeared altogether sometime before the War, never to be seen or heard from again. She's likely buried in a pauper's grave, if even that."
I was stunned by what my aunt had told me. "What a horrible, awful, shocking story," I said. "It's even more incredible than I could have possibly imagined."
Both my aunt and mother agreed. We also agreed that this tawdry saga explained everything that had been so mysterious to all of us for so many years.
"Did you know any of this before you read through the folder?" I asked my aunt.
"No. Not a thing," she said. "My parents shielded both me and your father from all of this. We never knew any of it."
"Does FD know about this?"
"I sent him Xeroxes of everything a month or so ago, but I haven't heard anything from him yet."
"Really? How odd," I said.
As I was to learn later, Dear Reader, it was even odder than I thought...
Next: The Secret Denied
Photographs by Boy Fenwick