Never mentioned

“Some secrets never leave us alone…” – Diane Capri

Opal Young (1895-1978)

In my father’s house, there was a subject we were forbidden to speak of. This was the subject of my grandmother’s adoption and her biological mother.[i] Under pain of reprisal, we were told never to speak of it – or of her. We didn’t even know her name, and what leaked through the hushed whispers of grown-up conversation was not murmured with much kindness.

The secret of grandmother’s adoption was the order of the day as long as my adopted great-grandmother was living. My great-grandmother was greatly revered, so for us to cause her any duress would rank as an unforgivable transgression. These “never to mention” rules stayed in effect long after my great-grandmother’s death in 1970 – though this maxim certainly didn’t stop the budding genealogist in me from finding new angles to find out the truth behind the whispers.

My father, who originated the ‘gag order,’ found out about his mother’s adoption while doing his own eavesdropping sometime in the 1940s. I suspect his willful act of defying his mother and my great-grandmother with “the truth” led to our family being silenced in subsequent years. Dad did confide how he’d learned about his parents moving from Kansas to California to look for “her” – and how his mother had met with only more disappointment.

Opal’s daughter, my grandmother, in the 1940s.

Like many of us, I love finding clues in the things put away for safekeeping. And while my grandmother never knew it, once while visiting her in the 1970s I went exploring high up in the rafters of her garage. There, tucked away in those beams (almost) out of sight was a box within a box – with the last box being a cigar box full of letters dated from the early 1930s – from a “Mrs. Opal R. Porter.” I quickly put everything back as I had found it. I knew I had literally discovered the mother lode.

“I quickly put everything back as I had found it. I knew I had literally discovered the mother lode.

By the late 1980s, my now elderly grandmother took me aside and asked me if I would like to know “about her real mother.” Heck, I had waited a lifetime to ask questions, so I was happy to have her “open up” about this somewhat feckless woman. (I never did have the guts to tell Grandma that a decade before I’d rummaged about her personal correspondence and already knew some of what she would be telling me. This time, I had to impose my own gag order!)

Opal’s letters to my grandmother.

My grandmother told me how she had found her mother “Opal” and how she and my grandfather had come to California in 1937 to build a relationship with her. There were ‘rumors’ that Opal worked at the movie studios as a manicurist, and with return addresses from Beverly Hills and West Hollywood this correspondence would have enticed a small-town Kansas girl west. While the letters were true enough, my grandmother’s hopes were short-lived. Opal disappeared from my grandmother’s life again in 1939. Sadly, Opal lived for decades not thirty miles away with her new husband Henry Everett, by all indications never mentioning any small town Kansas girls.[ii]

When my grandmother passed away in 1993 I wanted only one thing – Opal’s letters. I knew that they had been my grandmother’s lifeline to a woman and family with whom she had never been able to truly reconcile. And while I knew that my grandmother had found Opal once, I resolved to find her again, or, to at least understand what had happened to her and just who she was. So I went looking for Opal.[iii]

Opal Young with her first husband, James Asbury “Joe” Porter.

I read the twenty or so letters from start to finish, transcribing them as I went. I searched for any clues that might tell me anything about her. Buried in one letter was a statement that she had turned 39 “last Sunday.” The letter was dated for January 4, 1935 – I instantly had a birth date. I learned she had married a really good guy by the name of “Joe” Porter.[iv] I read how joyous she was that my grandmother had found her. I read how happy she was to learn of the birth of my father, and how excited she and Joe were to be grandparents. And then the letters just stopped.

Opal in later years…

I like to say that I found Opal, but the truth is I just rediscovered her. I wanted to claim from Opal everything she hadn’t been able to give my grandmother in life. To this end, I believe I have been successful. I have knocked on the doors of the Young family and watched their surprise as they learned of my grandmother’s existence – almost 100 years later. I have reclaimed Opal’s Mayflower ancestry, and with the help of my NEHGS ‘family’ I am finally able to tell the whole story.[v] [vi]

Notes

[i] Jeff Record, “Closed doors,” Vita Brevis, 16 March 2017.

[ii] State of California, Orange County, marriage certificate for Henry L. Everett and Opal Rae Porter, 25 August 1939.

[iii] Jeffery A. Record, Looking for Opal, privately published; compiled 1995.

[iv] Oklahoma, County Marriages, 1890-1995, Ancestry.com, re: marriage of Joe Porter to Opal Young 5 March 1917.

[v] Mayflower Descendant 64: 2 [Summer 2016].

[vi]  Mayflower Descendant 65: 2, forthcoming, Summer 2017.

Jeff Record

About Jeff Record

Jeff Record received a B.A. degree in Philosophy from Santa Clara University, and works as a teaching assistant with special needs children at a local school. He recently co-authored with Christopher C. Child, “William and Lydia (Swift) Young of Windham, Connecticut: A John Howland and Richard Warren Line,” for the Mayflower Descendant. Jeff enjoys helping his ancestors complete their unfinished business, and successfully petitioned the Secretary of the Army to overturn a 150 year old dishonorable Civil War discharge. An Elder with the Mother Lode Colony of Mayflower Descendants in the State of California, Jeff and his wife currently live with their Golden Retriever near California’s Gold Country where he continues to explore, discover, and research family history.

12 thoughts on “Never mentioned

  1. This is a great story. Family secrets… My Dad’s closest (only!) mitochondrial DNA relative was a man who was adopted in Oklahoma in 1921 who knew nothing of his birth family. The cousins and I are all knocking ourselves out trying to figure out which sister, cousin or aunt was out there having a baby. We are all in Pennsylvania or New York. Farther back everyone was in Wales. It is fascinating now that the people who were directly involved are long gone.

  2. Thanks for this inspiring story, as we have somewhat a similar circumstance in the family. Child raised by a father who was his grandfather, and grandmother. The mother was known, the father- unspoken of all of his like. No one in the family spoke of it, or will speak of it now. Some secrets live on long past the point of death, simply because they are secrets, perhaps. DNA may change some of those, for better or for ill.

  3. Loved this!
    While touring in England a few years ago, I stopped to admire a flower garden. The owner of the house came out. And for some reason told me his story. He was the child of a WWII romance. Somehow a few years ago the man’s son went online through Facbook and located the biological father’s family. He and his biological sister had named their children the same names. And he said as he flew into Chicago for his first ever visit, where the biological father was from, he felt like he had come home.

  4. My maternal grandfather was born in WV in 1884. In the 1890 Census, he as listed with the surname Robinson, but in 1900 he as using the name of the family he’d lived with his whole life, Wellen, and he married using the name at least twice.

    My grandmother met his “foster-father” early in their marriage, but Grandpa had forbidden him to speak of his past. But he told her that his biological father died six months before he as born in a train accident, as an employee, not a passenger. His mother died peripartum.

    That’s all we know and I havet been able to discover more.

  5. My parents divorced when I was 6 months old. Later my new “Dad” married Mum and gave me his last name. I found out that I was adopted when I was 15 while applying for a passport and also found out it was never to be spoken of in front of my Dad. I’d grown up 1 1/2 miles from my birth father, Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles and cousins – and never met them. Ahh families.

  6. This is so many of our stories. Nice to read Opal kept in contact even if it was short lived. Can’t wait to read the chapter in your journey of discovery. Thx for sharing!

  7. I love this! I remember this story when you told it to us and am so incredibly grateful that you are preserving our family history.

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