“Some secrets never leave us alone…” – Diane Capri
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.
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!)
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]
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.
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]
[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.