White lies

“She tells white lies to ice a wedding cake.”  - Margot Asquith

My grandmother Alta Sage Lee with her second husband, Clifford Dixon.

As students of family history, we spend our time and curiosity trying to discover the reasons why our ancestors kept so many secrets! Often the brick walls we encounter are based on a clandestine confidence or an unsteady truth, or on those things that simply refuse to be told. In light of this, I thought I’d take a look at some of my family’s inadvertently pernicious ways and in particular one of their better-intentioned “white lies.”

While I am not especially proud of it, many in my family were raised in the school of the white lie. Indeed, such lies grew up alongside us like some form of familial paternoster.[i] The notion of the white lie was something we were taught to at least tolerate and always to understand. Given this, as kids we had the sense of the white lie being akin to some sort of magic spell.[ii] (The idea of this in my bloodlines gives me pause when I consider my maternal grandmother’s direct lines to Rebecca Nurse and Martha Carrier of 1692 Salem fame.)

 “… A white lie is that which is not intended to injure any Body in his Fortune, Interest, or Reputation but only to gratify a garrulous Disposition and the Itch of amusing People by telling them wonderful Stories.”[iii]

I think one of the better white lies my family has conjured up through the years was the one told by my maternal grandmother Alta Sage Lee (1909–2004). I believe it was a lie she didn’t mean to tell, but one that just got away from her – you know, the way most lies do. This white lie had to do with her marriage to her second husband, Clifford Dixon (1912–1985). The marriage was a “destination wedding,” possibly in Las Vegas about 1962, with my parents standing up for them.

Prior to this event my grandmother had been divorced for better than a decade, and Mr. Dixon had been unhappily married for years with his wife Edna refusing to grant him a divorce. Exasperated and in love, Clifford had decided to take an alternate route obtaining his 1961 divorce in Mexico – though there was some discussion at the time that the divorce would not be valid – and that it was just a ruse to trick poor irascible Edna. Indeed, by all accounts my grandmother and Clifford’s Las Vegas nuptials should have stood out as a longstanding if not ill-begotten betrothal “hit” – but karma often has other plans.

In about 2008, long after my grandmother and Mr. Dixon had passed away, a confidential marriage license was discovered amidst my grandmother’s papers. Curiously, it was dated 1979 – a good seventeen years after the presumed event in Las Vegas. Finding this document just didn’t make any sense. For some still unknown reason the 1962 marriage “didn’t take” – as it appears to have never been recorded.[iv]

I am not sure how my grandmother and Mr. Dixon discovered the invalid nature of their marriage. By the late 1970s they were well past applying for Social Security or pensions, or for some other application that might have required proof of their marriage. Whatever the circumstances, I believe my grandmother must have been unnecessarily embarrassed to discover that she had actually been ‘playing house’ with Cliff for so many years. They found their best solution straightaway by visiting Long Beach’s discreet and budget friendly La Petite Wedding Chapel (now a barber shop) to tie the knot confidentially –  like a couple of teenagers eloping without their parents' consent – and, of course, never telling a soul.

After all, in 1979 the irascible Edna was still living – thus making a questionable foreign divorce and an unrecorded marriage from 1962 a bit of a dilemma…

And so the case of this “white lie” would begin. My grandmother was a wonderful woman, but she remained a mistress of many white lies to the bitter end. By all accounts she and Clifford loved each other very much – so perhaps the intent behind their white lie was somehow pure enough that it really didn’t matter. It is hard to know. Clifford wouldn’t live too many more years after that second (?) wedding, but Alta Sage would live another 25 years and never utter a word about her faux wedding in Las Vegas, nor her secret one almost two decades later.

My wife often says that “the truth will out.” To this I have to reply, “Honey, have you met your in-laws?”

My grandmother knew how tell a lie and to keep a secret – especially a passionate one. In light of this, who knows where all of our other white lies just might be hiding?


[i] Fr. Stephen Freeman, Ancient Faith Ministries, blogs.ancientfaiths.com, November 2007.

[ii] Eileen Johnson, The Children’s Bill of Emotional Rights: A Guide to the Needs of Children (Lanhan, Md.: Jason Aronson, 2012), 37.

[iii] The Gentleman’s Magazine, London, December 1741, 11: 647.

[iv] Nevada and Arizona Marriages Indexes, Ancestry.com, along with the family recollections of my father Jack L.  Record. The California Divorce Index at Ancestry.com indicates that Cliff and Edna were divorced there in 1979.

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. A former 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.View all posts by Jeff Record