Friday, July 31, 2015

A Tomb With a View

This installment of my saga is true.

When my big trip is under way, I will have lots of time for reflection and meditative thought while driving. I love the way my mind takes off while the car follows the open road. Wanting to shore up the foundation for my musings, I drove to Oakland yesterday to visit places that loom large in my thoughts and to clarify some cloudy memories of my first twenty years. The grave site of my grandparents was my first stop. 


Ruth H. Anderson was my maternal grandmother. John J. was her husband, but not my blood grandfather. My paternal grandfather, Franklin Howard Hatch and Ruth were divorced in 1920, she became Ruth H. Anderson the next year when my mother, Ruthanne, was around two years old. He was the only father my mother knew and my grandfather in every way but blood.

The grave of my grandparents (Mimi and Bobo to me) sits at the highest point in St. Mary's cemetery in Oakland, California, literally beyond the pale of the adjoining and more beautifully kept Mountain View Cemetery. In fourteenth century Ireland, the pale was a line of fences that separated the part of Ireland that fell under English rule.  In Ireland, it was pickets that followed the contours of the land. Here, in the cemetery, an unattractive cyclone fence ranges up and down the hilly landscape. The ghosts of the Catholics stick to their own kind in Oakland, while the interdenominational, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and atheistic remains lie in integrated society.


On a clear day, you can see San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate through that break in the trees. During the course of their stormy, passionate marriage, Mimi and Bobo lived in a house with a similar view. Their first home was built for them in the '30s and was located on Cochrane Avenue on a steep and sparsely populated hillside. The astounding view from their living room and dining room looked out on the unbridged San Francisco Bay. Later, they watched as construction of the Golden Gate and Bay bridges added a new dimension to the vista.

They sold the house during a tempestuous passage in their marriage and then lived in a series of rental duplexes, a tract home in Concord, and finally in another home they built on Wilding Lane just off Broadway Terrace. And I know they always mourned their Cochrane Avenue home and the beautiful view.

He was an Irish immigrant, one of the middle children in a large brood who had fled poverty to make better lives for themselves. I believe fear of poverty was a driving force throughout his life. She was a flirtatious woman, strongly influenced by the glamour of Hollywood. They were always either passionately in love or on the brink of homicide.

When Mimi died in 1970, he continued to live in their home on Wilding Lane until it was destroyed in the Oakland firestorm, October 19, 1991. He and his girlfriend came to live with me from then until his death February 3, 1993. At the time of his death, he was worth just about a million dollars; thrift and prudent investment had lifted him out of poverty. I was the executor of his estate, most of which he left to various Catholic charities, but there was one very interesting and revealing bequest. He left a sum of money to "Kenneth Nielsen, the son of Kathryn Nielsen, a former secretary at P G & E." To distribute the estate, the attorney located Kenneth Nielsen. Kenneth in turn contacted me and we had an interesting, but not altogether surprising, conversation where Kenneth revealed that he was the illegitimate son of my grandfather. We further agreed to meet for lunch.

Kenneth wanted information about who he was. I brought about twenty photos of Bobo through the years and a copy of a brief biography my brother had written about him.

Kenneth was very pleased with my offerings and with any information I could provide. Then I asked him to tell me his side of the story.

He told me he had experienced "Uncle Jack" being a part of his life from his earliest memories until he was about twelve years old. Then he abruptly vanished and except for one brief conversation, was not heard from again until the will, about twenty eight years later, . When Kenneth was in his early 20's, he and his mother were drinking wine together and truth was revealed. Kenneth was told Uncle Jack was his father. Apparently during Kenneth's younger years, Uncle Jack was a regular in his life: often bringing toys, clothing, taking him to ball games, and just hanging out with him. However, one day Kenneth complained to his mother that he didn't like Uncle Jack's sloppy kisses: they made him feel uncomfortable. I could understand this. All my siblings and I shared a horror of those wet kisses (they weren't salacious, just gross). Kenneth's mother, in turn, reported this to Uncle Jack who apparently got his very tender feelings so deeply wounded that he abruptly ended all contact with the boy.

So, years passed, and when Kenneth learned the truth about the identity of his biological father, he confronted him via telephone, saying, "I understand you're my father." This occurred just about the time my grandmother was hopelessly ill from a heart attack and stoke. My grandfather was consumed by his love for her, fear of losing her, and the burden of her care.

 His response to Kenneth was,"I don't know what you're talking about. That's the craziest thing I ever heard." And he hung up on him.

Kenneth was crushed, but did nothing about it and just lived with his wound for the next 23 years until contacted by the attorney and meeting with me.

When I heard Kenneth's story, I was enraged. It took me a long time to come to terms with the terrible behavior of my grandfather. I could not believe this dimension existed in a man I loved, respected, and grieved: the man I had taken care of in his terminal illness. I too, felt betrayed. And yet, of all the adults in my life, he's the only one I ever heard tell me, "I'm proud of you." He made me feel beautiful and smart. I struggled to balance this out. All I have been able to do is realize we all have a dark side and we can only know the part of a person that is presented to us. I knew a different facet of a smart, loving (to me, anyway) accomplished man. That is still imprinted on me.

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