Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Family Secret, Part III

The Secret Revealed

Fifteen 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.

Mary nodded.

"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


  1. We High WASPs were Jerry Springer fodder, not too long ago...I am very curious to see what happens next. And I hope your family finally found peace. These things ripple through the generations.

  2. Thank you for not making us wait too long for this installment. Just when I thought it was finished, I scrolled down to read the last sentence.

    1. Hello, My next post in this series is my last, so I promise -- no more cliffhangers!

  3. It is a tragedy what happened to your great-grandmother. She certainly was out of control, and I wonder if today there could be better help for her--drugs or other treatment.

    However, I am going to heed your series of cliffhangers and wait for the whole story before I make any final judgments.
    --Road to Parnassus

  4. How incredible! What a shock it must have been for you to hear this!
    I cannot wait for the next chapter, Reggie thanks for sharing your family's heartbreaking history with us.

  5. Parnassus is right — you do know how to write a good cliffhanger!

  6. Oh Reggie, what a story, can't wait for the next installment. Every family has its secrets, mine is 4 grandfathers who were alcoholics, yes, four. My paternal grandmother was quite the lady....

    1. Four alcoholic grandfathers? that takes the cake (or should I say, takes the Gordon's Gin?)!

  7. Reggie, I have to wonder if she suffered from bi-polar disorder. I had a close friend in NYC who did and refused to take her medication for it. She would do things like go to Saks and buy twenty wigs in one sitting. Then she would go to the grocery store and buy two dozen toilet brushes. That sort of thing. Totally nonsensical to everyone but her. I would imagine had she been a drinker, she, too, would have ended up on the streets.

    Your poor grandfather. What a burden to carry throughout the years. I'm glad that he left this information behind so that things could be better understood by his children and grandchildren. We've got some alcoholics in our family, too, with one ruining himself.


    1. Elizabeth, you raise a very interesting point here. Bi-polarism is something I don't know much about. thank you.

  8. agree with Elizabeth, seems like it could have been bi polar. But gambling itself is a severe disease, and gets little recognition of the consequences of it and on families. IF I had a lot of money, I would set up a foundation to research gambling... J

  9. An absolutely riveting story which hits extremely close to home with me. I too am in the process of piecing together my family's history of early tragic deaths, fortunes won & lost, alcoholism, insanity, triumph & shame, culminating with the WASPy tradition of silence & denial. I can't wait for the next installment! ~Gregory

    1. It's the denial part where we get into trouble, I find (and as you will see in my next -- and final -- post in this series). RD

    2. Oh,btw; there was a Pompey in our family too! He was a little French poodle whose full name was Pompidou and all us grandkids adored ol' Pompey who lived a long (15+years) happy life!

  10. My first reaction was poor woman, but it would have infinitely worse for her son. Did your grandfather have siblings?

  11. It is rather striking that FD and your Aunt, the children of this profound secret, seem to have been estranged and competitive throughout their lives. Surely this is part of the Legacy of the secret. Perhaps further chapters may include such reflections?

    1. Dear Anon: You raise a particularly interesting and thought-provoking point. I had never thought of that angle. Thanks, RD

  12. Reggie,

    I am on the edge of my seat...also thinking of how drinking and gambling for women in those days was so looked down on; however she also may have had an illness that would now be treated.

    Feeling so badly for your grandfather...he must have endured a lot.

    Art by Karena

  13. When my children were small, they would laugh and say why couldn't we have normal family members and they would say they came from a mutant family. As a therapist, I told them beware of the so called perfect families because secrets are usually being kept and covered. Often someone was being deeply hurt behind closed doors. Now as thirty somethings they can't believe how boringly normal we are compared to friends' families. Thank you for sharing as we must all learn from each other.

  14. What a ripping yarn! I am so sorry for the pain your grandfather endured! Meanwhile, I am now inspired to find an attractive old lockbox, fill it with evidence of a misspent, tragic youth, possibly alluding to some international intrigue, and leave it behind for my great-grand nieces to find. Everyone ought to have this kind of thrilling family history. thank you for sharing yours, Reggie.

    1. Oh! What an excellent idea! I've always thought about getting something (a mug, a vase, a drawing) and giving it a fake provenance to someone or something famous for my future relatives to sell for big bucks.

  15. No. Karena; you sweet girl!
    That kind of drinking paired with that kind of gambling (dogs and rabbits; or something like that.......) Is not curable to this day!

    Betting on dogs racing? This person was mentally disturbed. And, and I must say, that sort of drinking (all day long hard liquor) and that kind of gambling is still "looked down upon"! ( At least in these parts!)

    I feel sorry for his grandfather , too! But lucky for him his uncle and aunt rescued him and took him and brought him up, properly!!

    Otherwise; Guess what? We would have no "Reggie Darling" to keep up standards and tell all of us the right way to do things. He wouldn't know all that he does!!!

    And he does. Thank his Uncle and God for him.

    I like "standards" our grandchildren have "standards"........and then we look around at dinner at lovely restaurants......

    I have to devise some "blinder apparatus" to wear out to dinner. It needs to delete the cargo pants, flip-flops, dirty ripped jeans, gross athletic shoes, dirty hair.......oh dear.

    Isn't there some scientist who can invent this? Whatever happened to "looking nice" when we go to dinner, the theatre, or to church?

    It has nothing to do with money. It has everything to do with standards. That is my rant for the week!

  16. If you want my five cent psychiatric advise she was a depressed narcissist. I have a brother who is one and as I have learned through some research - well nigh impossible to treat - as they have no sense of personal responsibility and blame everyone else for their travails. They become fixated on certain repetitive things to get through the day (gambling is classic - my brother downloads music all day long....) They are continually angry and insufferable in any social situation. My 58 year old brother now spends his days in his boyhood room living with our 85 year old mother - as you may imagine - it ain't pretty to see or be around.

  17. Hello Reggie:
    Addictions of whatever kind are so incredibly difficult to deal with and the sad truth is that, as was the case with your great grandmother, although change may be promised the individual involved is just not capable of the self-discipline required to make the necessary adjustments to their lives.

    And, as you write here, the repercussions for all those connected in any way can be so very stressful and debilitating.

  18. well done-reggie amazing story


  19. Bravo !!! You have me sitting on edge waiting for more. Thank you for sharing your family history.

  20. Dahhling Reggie, I have been reading this tale in all it's parts waiting for the last one! How FAB! secrets, every family has them but it is what makes our lives that much more interesting no?

  21. Gail, in northern CaliforniaApril 29, 2012 at 2:01 PM

    Amazing story. I've met a few people (thank heaven it's only a handful) who seem to think no matter what they do or don't do with their lives, they are somehow "owed". I've never understood that but imagine the heartbreak for a child who tries and never gets beyond being a disappointment to his mother. What a crushing, and final, choice your grandfather had to make.

    I look forward to reading, and trying to understand present-day family dynamics. I take it that FD finally responded to the copies sent to him, and as you said, it's even odder.

  22. I feel rather guilty that such a tragic sequence of events has me so riveted and on pins and needles to hear more. You do have a brilliant way of keeping us all interested.

  23. Darling Brother,

    I always liked MD's story of our great-grandfather running into the men-in-white-coats from the asylum who had come to take him to dry out (yet again). As they came up the front stairs he was heading down. They asked him was this where Mr. Darling lived? Oh, yes, said he, you will find him up these stairs, and continued on his way...


  24. How thrilling, but so sad. I wish it hadn't happened to a real person.

  25. An interesting story, tediously spun out.

  26. I agree with LPC, these things do ripple through generations in ways that we don't even realize until we're able to put it all together into some cohesive story. I had to laugh at your descriptions of your wasp-ish upbringing, so similar to mine, and so different from how we relate to children nowadays. Looking forward to your next installment! N.G.

  27. Golly, What a story- I couldn't help envisioning your Great grandmother's fall from her gentile beginnings as Vivien Leigh's portrayal of Lady Hamilton in "That Hamilton Woman"


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