Sunday, August 31, 2014

Bothersome Acceptance

Carol Sue DePrato, 4½ months old
May 1947, South Bend, Indiana

That damn 1982 Jackson Browne song often returned to haunt me in the years that followed the release of the original birth certificate for my mother, Carol Sue Miller, in 1992.
"She's got to be somebody's baby;
She must be somebody's baby;
She's got to be somebody's baby..."
But nobody else in the family was terribly concerned with the findings on the birth certificate. My mother was disappointed. She wanted to finally have that sense of identity that comes with the tangible record of your introduction into the world. Something solid and official that finally tells you who you really are. And in her mind, the information she was presented with on her birth certificate was erroneous, so it sadly still clouded the events of her birth with deception and falsehoods.

As stated numerous times in this blog, everyone has a story to tell. And the unfortunate reality is that the storyteller is not a perpetual resource. Those who were present to witness the events of my mother's birth were now gone. "Mrs. Helen Miller," the informant and mother who provided the information on the birth certificate on 1 January 1947 was no longer living to question when these findings came to light. We were only left now with conjecture.

Helen had told my mother that the nurses and attendants were shocked at her level of composure and stoicism in the face of the pains of childbirth on that New Year's Eve evening in 1946. Helen felt that she had no right to indulge herself in the pity and concern of those assisting her when she was bringing a child into the world that she was not taking home with her. She had carried this precious living being inside her for nine months. This child represented the love she finally found in Frank Strukel and the courage she found to leave Eldon Miller. This child marked a tumultuous turning point in Helen's life, and in a week's time, she would have to say goodbye to this child. Forever.

Would a woman carrying this much guilt and sadness mixed with joy and hope for the future then divulge the story of this child's conception to Mary Bartholomew, the attendant that took the information for the birth certificate on the day following Carol's birth? 

Probably not. 

Would a woman who checked into the Goshen General Hospital as Mrs. Helen Miller on that winter night in 1946 while others were preparing to ring in a new year supply a name for the father of this child with a surname that did not match her own? 

Probably not. 

And although Indiana state law then (and now) legally recognizes a woman's current husband as the father of her child, regardless of the circumstances of the child's conception, was Mrs. Helen Miller ready to divulge to the hospital staff that she was divorced from Eldon Miller as of the month prior to this baby's birth? 

Probably not.

In July 1946, Eldon Miller claimed his wife was carrying a child that was not his own. In October 1946, Helen Miller placed an advertisement in the South Bend Tribune seeking a couple to adopt her unborn child. When Ray and Arreda (Dobyns) DePrato replied to that ad and met with Helen shortly thereafter, they also met Frank Louis Strukel, who admitted to being the father of the child. Frank Strukel signed away his paternal rights to this child in 1947 so that she could be formally adopted by the DePratos. From 1982 to her death in 1987, Helen Strukel often discussed the details surrounding her daughter's birth with no hesitation or doubt that her second husband, Frank Strukel, was the father.

This information was enough for my mother. It was enough information for the rest of the reunited family. And in a methodology lecture I have given to genealogists for years regarding evaluating evidence, I have use my mother's birth certificate as an example of evidence and legal documentation that can be proven to be incorrect by ancillary information. After all, the information provided by the welfare department report of 1947, an acceptance of paternity by Frank Strukel, a denial of paternity by Eldon Miller, as well as information provided by those interviewed who were alive at the time of the event, including the birth mother, should trump a single birth certificate whose information was collected during a time of intense emotional trauma, correct?

Not to a genealogist who doubts everything.

But even if I was 99.9% satisfied with the premise that Frank Louis Strukel was the father of Carol Sue Miller, what could I do in 1992 to put that bothersome 0.1% doubt to rest?

Nothing.

At least nothing in 1992.
"She's got to be somebody's baby;
She must be somebody's baby;
She's got to be somebody's baby..."




Monday, August 25, 2014

Doubts

Birth Certificate of Carol Sue Miller, 31 December 1946

After the November, 1982, reunion of Carol (DePrato) Lacopo with her birthmother, Helen M. (Timmons) Strukel, many questions were asked. Of the many pressing question that all adoptees have swirling in their heads, the biggest one has to be "Why?" In my mother's situation, some of the basic story regarding the circumstances her birth was relayed to her by the parents that raised her. Since hers was a privately arranged adoption, both sets of her parents had met, and the life circumstances of all had been discussed. My mother always knew that her birth parents had not been married, but there was the supposition that they had intended to do so shortly after her birth. My mother always knew that her mother had been married previously to a man named Miller, and that the surname given to her at birth was her mother's married name at the time, and not that of her true father. And although she was unaware that she had three older half-siblings, she did know of the daughter four years her senior by this first marriage, Sandra Kay Miller.

From 1982 up to Helen Strukel's death in 1987, the story had been rehashed and picked over numerous times. A handful of minor details were sprinkled here and there, but the basic storyline never changed. So trying to find documentation of these details scattered among several governmental offices was never a pressing issue. Unlike many adoptees who beg agencies for the tiniest scrap of non-identifying information in hopes of locating their birth parents, my mother had already found hers. Why should I work backwards to locate the paper trail already attested to, discussed, and witnessed by living individuals?

Because I am a genealogist.

And because I alone had doubts. If Helen was living with her first husband, Eldon Miller, when she became pregnant with Carol in the early spring of 1946, could she positively, unequivocally, and without any doubt whatsoever state that he was not her father rather than Frank Strukel? Eldon and Helen obviously shared a bed within their marital home. Although Eldon had his string of very visible affairs, and Helen was secretly hiding her recent infatuation with Frank Strukel, was it not possible that despite their mutual disregard for each other, that Eldon required her to submit to her "wifely duties"? Even once?

Of course, this was never discussed, and any time I raised such a doubt, I was dismissed with a flippant wave of a hand. After all, everyone who would listen to my story would emphatically state that Helen would KNOW who she slept with. Eldon Miller proclaimed with little doubt in his divorce petition of July 1946 that his then-wife Helen was pregnant with another man's child, so he obviously had no reservations about the child's paternity being his own. Frank Strukel signed away his paternal rights when Carol was relinquished to Raymond and Arreda (Dobyns) DePrato, thus acknowledging fatherhood. And in five years of telling the story repeatedly, Helen never wavered in her stance. So why would I feel the need to question the events of 1946 over forty years later?

Because I am a genealogist.

I have before me a copy of a letter that I wrote from my apartment in West Lafayette, Indiana, on 31 October 1988, while I was in my second year of veterinary school. It is a letter sent both to the St. Joseph County (Indiana) Department of Public Welfare and to the Indiana State Department of Health requesting that the adoption records and original birth certificate of Carol Sue Miller be released.

Of course, opening records sealed by a state law takes a lot more effort than writing a letter requesting it to happen, but it did provide me with information regarding the recently passed legislation known as Indiana Code 31-19-18: "Establishment of an Adoption History Program Administered by the State Registrar."

The construct of the program is quite simple. Identifying information regarding an adoption can be released if the State Registrar receives the appropriate application and registration submitted by both the adult adoptee and the birth parent. Once a match is made, information is released. For adoptees and birth parents seeking each other independently, this state-run agency provides a perfectly structured avenue for a reunion. In my situation, information I had already discovered six years previously could be used as a tool to release the records regarding my mother's birth and adoption.

Unfortunately, my studies and graduation, my mother's remarriage, the death of my grandfather, and life in general proved to be roadblocks toward accessing this information. Additionally, there was apparently no rush on anyone's part to help me obtain information that would just retell the same story we already knew. But after I had graduated with my doctorate and settled into a new job in Granger, Indiana, I was close enough to home to pester the appropriate parties into action. 

On 11 June 1992 an "Adoption History Information Release" was provided to three consenting parties who had filed petitions regarding the adoption of Carol Sue Miller in 1947: Mrs. Carol Sue Crumet of Niles, Michigan (adult adoptee); Mrs. Rosie A. DePrato of Osceola, Indiana (adoptive parent); and Mrs. Dianne L. Moore of Elkhart, Indiana (birth sister). It is this release that allowed me to receive the many pages of documents made by the St. Joseph County, Indiana, Welfare Department  during its investigations that I have used in the earlier narratives.

And with the release, my mother was provided with a copy of her original birth certificate. This was the one document she had wanted to see for forty-five years. And upon this precious document was inscribed the name of her father:

Eldon Duane Miller.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Epilogue... or Prologue?

All of Helen's kids together for the last time, c2002
Sandy, Jerry, Carol, Ted, Dianne

So what has become of the major players in the narrative drama that has been unfolding for the last several months?

I never knew the version of this story as would have been told by Eldon DeWayne Miller, the first husband of Helen Timmons (see Hoosier Daddy?: Helen, Part III: Eldon Miller). When the lives of several families collided on that cool November evening of 1982, I was merely fifteen years old. Although mature enough to tackle this research dilemma, I lacked the life experience to realize that everyone has a story to tell. And everyone's version of that story differs based upon their viewpoint and their perspective. I have over the years wondered what Eldon Miller would have said about his first wife. Helen spoke little of him, and although her comments were not venomous nor ugly, they were not overly friendly, and he was nonetheless a man she was glad to be rid of. Eldon took his two boys immediately after his divorce in 1946 and moved to Monrovia, California, where he was a salesman and field representative for the Auto Club of Southern California. He married a second time in 1949, but that marriage too failed. He took a third wife in 1955, and later moved to Portland, Oregon, to partake in the business venture started by his sons. Had I wanted to know Eldon's story, I would have never had the chance to ask. The unborn child that factored into Eldon's divorce in 1946 had returned ten months after his death. Eldon DeWayne Miller died in Portland, Oregon, on 17 January 1982, at the age of sixty-five. Since he seemed to use his children as pawns for revenge against Helen, I have always wondered why he did not use the knowledge of Carol's birth and adoption as a verbal weapon against her. It surprises me that his sons who maintained close contact with him throughout his life never knew of her existence.

As mentioned in recent chapters, Helen Marie (Timmons) Miller Strukel, died in Elkhart, Indiana, on Christmas Eve, 1987, at the age of seventy after a prolonged struggle with breast cancer. Even though she had only entered the lives of my mother and myself five years earlier, she left her mark. She was a determined, yet comical and kind woman. She became "Grandma Helen" quickly and easily.

Raymond Ezio "Ray" DePrato (see Hoosier Daddy?: Grandpa) died at his home in Osceola, Indiana, on 8 January 1990, at the age of seventy-seven. He was the grandpa I grew up with, and he was the man who desperately wanted to be a father when Carol Sue Miller became his adopted daughter in 1946. I could add many memories to those I have written before, but any grandchild who has lost their beloved grandparents understands that those special memories will remain indelibly etched in one's heart and head. If I were to start reminiscing now, I'd likely never stop.

Charles John "Bars" Strukel (see Hoosier Daddy?: Helen, Part VII: Another Strukel) became Helen's brother-in-law upon her marriage to Frank Strukel in 1947. But in their senior years, he became her companion and housemate. Bars took care of her and watched over her and protected her, especially in her final days. He lived at the Elkhart home on Jay Dee Street when Carol and Helen reunited, and he was present on that emotional November evening. A diabetic, he was often unwell, and his devotion to Helen during her illness is all the more impressive knowing how sick he was becoming. He was hospitalized several times in 1992, and his health declined rapidly. His legs became gangrenous, and he fought the doctors who told him amputation was his only option. I did not see Grandma Helen in her final days, because I was urged not to do so. I did not see my grandfather in his final days, because I was too afraid to see him ill. As a consequence I was left with the guilt of not saying good-bye, and appearing callous and uncaring for not visiting him during my Christmas break from college. I tried to make amends for that by visiting Bars as often as I could. I remember sitting in his hospital room filled with the stench of his rotting legs while he drifted in and out of consciousness, wondering how much misery one man could take. On one visit, he awoke to see me, smiled, and said "Hi Mike" and held my hand. He slipped back into unconsciousness while we sat in that position for quite sometime thereafter. He died in Elkhart on 24 May 1992 at the age of seventy-two. He was buried in St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Cemetery with his parents and most of his siblings. Most of them... but not Frank Strukel, whose burial there was blocked by the church for having married a divorced woman.

After Rosie Arreda (Dobyns) DePrato (see Hoosier Daddy?: Grandma, Part I) lost her husband of fifty years, she never was quite the same. She became more sedentary, and she never really adjusted to the everyday chores, tasks, and responsibilities that Raymond had taken care of during his life. When I procured a loan for my first new car in 1990, I asked her to cosign for me. I was informed  by the bank that she did not exist. Like most women of her era and those before her, she was an extension of her husband, and generated few records in her own name. I was given the loan on the credit rating of her deceased husband. A mass in her abdomen led her to exploratory surgery in 1994. I was there when she was taken into surgery, and I was there in the waiting room when the surgeon informed the family she was filled with cancer and there was nothing that could be done for her. On hindsight, I must have been just blind to the seriousness of the situation, as I remember my grandmother chiding me while being wheeled into surgery because I was misbehaving and goofing off with my brothers. She awakened on a respirator and was confused as to the reasons why, as she had signed paperwork to avoid such things. The hospital staff explained that there was a fine line between what constitutes "post-operative care" and what was deemed "support of life."

Remember, by 1994 I had received my doctorate, and I was working full-time as a small-animal veterinarian. I was well-versed in medical procedures. Yet as we all stood around my grandmother in her hospital room in Mishawaka, Indiana, to turn off her ventilator, I have no idea what I expected to happen. I am sure I didn't expect her to get up and walk out the door, but when her sister Eunice looked down at her and said, "It's okay. You can go to Raymond now," I was flabbergasted. What the hell did she mean by THAT? And with that, my grandmother looked at us all, held our hands, closed her eyes, and died. It took barely a few minutes. She was gone at the age of seventy-eight, and on 14 June 1994, the last of the four people whose lives intersected with the birth of a baby girl in 1946 was gone.

Jerry, Dianne, Ted, and Carol, c2007

Of Helen's five children, the boys remained in Oregon, while the girls remained in Indiana, for several years after the 1982 reunion.

Of the girls, Dianne and Carol quickly became the sisters both had wanted as children, and their ties remained strong. Sandra (Miller) Canen, the eldest sister, was a working mother with a young daughter that came late into her married life, and she was less available to forge strong ties to her new sister. But as time passed, her daughter grew up, and she retired in 2003. Sandy made time with her sisters and renewed the familial connections that had been put on the back burner. Sadly, this time of reconnection was cut short. Stricken with lung cancer, Sandy died on 16 September 2006 at the age of sixty-four. She lived to see her daughter, Michelle, marry three years before. Michelle currently lives with her husband in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

The eldest son, Jerry Duane Miller, sold the marine in Portland, Oregon, he had managed with his father and his brother after the death of his wife, Nell, in 2005. With two adopted children of their own, Nell had made reference that her mother-in-law had told her many years before about giving up a child for adoption. It was apparently not an outright confession, but more of a cryptic statement, so it was not a surprise for her when Carol resurfaced in 1982. Jerry remarried, and he and his second wife Arla moved from Portland to Tigard, Oregon. He was diagnosed with cancer shortly after his seventy-fifth birthday and died soon thereafter on 18 October 2013.

When Ted William Miller met his new sister in 1982, he was five years past the divorce of his first wife. Shortly thereafter he married his second wife, Darlene, and sold his interest in the marine he managed with his brother. Ted and Darlene moved to Sedalia, Missouri, where they currently live  on and manage a small farm.

Dianne Lynn (Strukel) Moore resides in Elkhart, Indiana, with her husband of forty-eight years. She is the grandmother of six, and being the baby at sixty-four, she is preparing to retire.

Carol Sue (DePrato) Lacopo Crumet was divorced from her husband in the spring of 1983 following her reunion with her birth family. She was kept busy working and raising three boys for six years thereafter, but remarried in 1989 to a widower, Thomas E. Crumet. They began their married life in Niles, Michigan, but soon thereafter built a new home in rural Edwardsburg-Niles, Michigan, just north of the Indiana-Michigan state line. Moving to a smaller home in Granger, Indiana, afforded them more time to travel and see the country, particularly the southwest which they both loved. Tom was diagnosed with a brain tumor in the fall of 2012 and died shortly after his seventieth birthday on 23 May 2013 in South Bend, Indiana. Adjusting to being alone for the first time in her life, Carol receives tremendous joy nagging me to write more frequently for this blog.

If you have been reading from the beginning, you have taken the journey with me as I have relayed the story of Helen Timmons and her husbands, Eldon Miller and Frank Strukel. You have learned of the daughter Carol born "too soon," given up by her parents during a time of struggle and turmoil. And you have become acquainted with Raymond DePrato and his wife Rita Dobyns who took Carol into their lives to raise as their own.

These are the facts I have gathered regarding my mother and her two sets of parents. These are the facts I have painstakingly documented over the past thirty-two years as a dedicated genealogist.

But in the words of William Faulkner, "facts and truth really don't have much to do with each other."

Because the story is wrong.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Reunion Revisited

Helen (Timmons) Miller Strukel and her daughters reunited;
Sandra (Miller) Canen, Carol (DePrato) Lacopo, Dianne (Strukel) Moore
Elkhart, Indiana; November 1982

So many things could have happened after that momentous, emotional evening in November 1982 when Helen Strukel met her daughter, Carol, for the first time since giving birth nearly thirty-six years before (see Hoosier Daddy?: Reunion).  Reunions like these can be tear-jerkers from the start filled with questions and wonderment and newness, but they can easily and slowly devolve into a sense of apathetic attachment. After all, living locally were three adult sisters who were women with separate busy lives and six young children between them. Additionally, there were two adult brothers living over 2,000 miles away in Portland, Oregon. Tying the five together was sixty-five year old widowed mother in Elkhart, Indiana. It could have been very easy to make tearful introductions and then let everyone fade back into the routines of their lives.

But quite the opposite happened. Carol, who was raised an only child, and Dianne, who despite a number of half-siblings mostly did the same, found in each other the sister they longed for growing up. The following month involved spending Christmas time in Elkhart with new relatives. When Carol turned thirty-six on New Year's Eve, 1982, she received thirty-six birthday cards from her brother Ted in Oregon: one for each birthday he had missed growing up. Looking back, I do not recall a transition phase, an awkwardness, or a period of politeness and niceties. These people were truly family in every sense of the word, and joking, ribbing, teasing, swearing, crying, ranting, supporting, nurturing, laughing, chatting, visiting, and loving each other came quickly and easily. Helen became Grandma Helen to me, and calling her such wasn't forced or odd.  I grew close to her by spending many hours pestering her for genealogical information. My ancestral fervor sparked interest in Dianne, and together we dragged Helen to Rensselaer, Indiana, where her parents grew up and married, and we listened to her tell tales as we traipsed through cemeteries. In the summer of 1983, I accompanied Dianne and the rest of her family on a vacation to Washington, D.C., where we pored over passenger lists looking for Strukels coming to America.


Helen, Dianne, Sandy, and Carol
Elkhart, Indiana, 1983

For Carol, Mother's Days brought lunches together with both Rita and Helen. I never asked my grandmother directly how she felt about "sharing" her daughter with her newfound mother. She was supportive of the endeavor when we began our search, but looking and finding can be two entirely separate entities. I never sensed any jealousies or awkwardness. I think Rita was happy that Carol found the answers that she had sought, and I think Helen was happy that Rita provided a loving home to the daughter she gave away in 1946. So I never felt any competitiveness between mother, but to be truthful, I do think my grandfather was secretly relieved and a bit glad that he was the only father in the picture.

In 1985, Helen was able to gather all her children together for the very first time. As I write this I wonder what Helen was thinking or how she felt during this time. I was still a teenager, and although there was certainly a sense of excitement, I lacked the life experience to understand the magnitude of it. And never being a parent, even know I cannot imagine what it meant to Helen to have her five children around her. Unfortunately, genealogists all to often become so obsessed with the past, we forget to document the present. Trying to unravel the mysteries of our ancestors is a challenge because they are no longer present to provide us the answers we seek. But we forget that the relatives living and breathing around us have stories too. And we unfortunately treat those people as renewable resources: "Oh, I'll just ask her tomorrow." But there comes a day when there are no more tomorrows, and we are left with many, many unanswered questions.


Back: Ted Miller, Helen (Timmons) Miller Strukel, Jerry Miller
Front: Carol (DePrato) Lacopo, Dianne (Strukel) Moore, Sandy (Miller) Canen
Elkhart, Indiana, 1985

For me, 1985 brought a graduation from high school and a move to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Visits home were frequent enough because of proximity, but they largely involved holidays and weekends with little socialization with extended family. Thus visits with Helen were brief and infrequent due to distance and timing, and my memories of her are few once I entered into my college years. 

Helen was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 1987, and her health declined rapidly. "Bars" Strukel stayed by her side and took care of her night and day despite his own poor health, even when the cancer spread to Helen's brain and made her difficult and confused. By the time I had returned home for the holidays, her condition had deteriorated considerably. I did not get to see her in her last days. I was told that I would not want to see her in her condition, nor would she know who I was, and  I was secretly relieved. Helen (Timmons) Miller Strukel died at home on Christmas Eve, 1987, at the age of 70 years. Instead of reveling in holiday good cheer, I was frantically searching for a suit jacket and tie to serve as a pallbearer for the funeral of my grandmother. She was laid to rest in Prairie Street Cemetery in Elkhart next to the husband she lost nineteen years before.

Helen (Timmons) Miller Strukel lived a remarkable life in relatively unremarkable surroundings. She experienced the whole range of human emotions and conditions that we are all susceptible to, and yet despite their commonality, hers were unique. Her story, like everyone's story, is a fascinating one, but the one thing she took the greatest pride in was being a mother. And in the end, she was able to have all her children together. And even though it was only five short years spent with her entire brood, it was one of great joy and happiness for her.

But as I mentioned, when those around us die, they take with them their stories, their feelings, their memories, and their perception of the world and people around them. And when they die, they take their secrets with them too.

Yes, they take their secrets to the grave.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Helen, Part VIII: Grandmother

Michael D. Lacopo and Helen Strukel, Elkhart, Indiana, 1982

As Helen (Timmons) Strukel entered into her senior years, she was finally in a good place. She continued her clerical job at Long's Lock Shop in Elkhart, Indiana. She shared her home with her brother-in-law, "Bars" Strukel, with whom she shared a mutual, meaningful affectionate relationship. Two of her daughters lived locally, and she had grandchildren to spoil. By 1982, a third daughter would be added to the fold.

Unfortunately, I did not have the benefit of growing up with Helen as a grandmother. I was fifteen years old before I met her. Biologically she was my grandmother, and a bond between us formed very quickly. This was borne out of my role as a budding genealogist, as I was constantly nagging her for information. Although I look back now with amusement, I would often ask her questions of long-dead relatives of which she had no answers. And after ferreting out the information and sharing it with her, she would usually respond, "Oh yeah, I knew that." Helen helped me hone my skills as an interviewer by learning what tactics did NOT yield information.

But there are bonds that form between a child and his grandparents that are forged from infancy. The maternal grandmother that was an integral part of my upbringing was Rosie Arreda "Rita" (Dobyns) DePrato. When I think of "my grandma," I think of holiday dinners, birthday cookouts, and watching passing trains in her back yard in Osceola. Even now, when I want to make sure my writing is true to the memories of others, I ask about "Grandma Helen." She truly did become a grandmother to me quickly, but childhood reminisces of her just do not exist. For that I recruited my cousin, Lisa, who was born in 1970 and whose childhood was greatly influenced by Helen. I wanted her to relay some of her memories of Helen as a grandmother, which she did so graciously for me.

"Grandma Helen and I had a routine, one that never wavered. If I were spending the night with my Grandma, I knew it was going to be a good weekend. My mom would drop me off at her work just off Main Street in Elkhart at Long's Lock Shop. I don't know what she did there, but I assume it was to make keys for customers that walked in. The shop was a ten-year-old's dream. Lots of hidden rooms and places to explore. The "guys" were always working in the back of the shop, and I did not like going back there. They scared me. Noontime would soon come and Grandma and I were off to start our afternoon. We would head to Mishawaka to explore K-Mart at the corner of Grape Road and McKinley Avenue. After making some purchases it was off to eat. I never remember going anywhere else except Jenny's Smorgasbord. It was an all-you-can-eat buffet and for me that meant an unlimited supply of mashed potatoes. It was later that our family learned that Helen's daughter Carol lived only a couple blocks away." 
"After dinner it was back to Grandma's house to start our evening activities. Her house was small with just three bedrooms, one bath, a kitchen and a living room. Her washer and dryer were in her kitchen as there was no laundry room. That was odd to me. The kitchen also had the most unusual red indoor/outdoor carpet." 
"Grandma and I would settle in by putting on our silky pajamas. I don't know if I just purposely forgot my pajamas, or just insisted on wearing one of hers, but either way I wore one of her pink silky nighties every time I was there. We would prop ourselves up at the kitchen table and paint our nails on those Saturday nights. Grandma Helen had the nicest nails. They were always pretty long, but I did not like the yellow color. I know now that was from consistently wearing nail polish and never going without." 
"After our nails were beautifully polished, we would retire to the living room. She would fire up the television, and we would spend the next two hours enjoying new episodes of Hee Haw and The Lawrence Welk Show. I can't believe I really liked those shows, but I only have fond memories of them, so it must not have been too bad. After dinner, but before Lawrence Welk, we played Yahtzee. She played a mean game of Yahtzee and taught me the game well." 
"Grandma would lay out our favorite candy to snack on: those orange circus peanuts. You know, the ones that made your teeth squeak when you bit into them! I cannot eat them today; they are so unappealing. When it was time for bed we would go into her room, and I would jump on the exercise machine for a couple of minutes. It was definitely not exercise, as it was one of those bands that connected to an arm, and once you placed the band around your backside and turned it on, it would shake your fat away. I loved that machine and could just stand there for an eternity letting it shake my back side along with my pink, silky nightie!" 
"Once I had cuddle into my bed with Grandma Helen, she would pull out a collection of National Enquirers. We would read all about the up-to-date Hollywood gossip and who was dating who. I truly believed everything those magazines said, and I think my grandma did too." 
"Once I could no longer keep my eyes open, Grandma would massage my face with her nails to put me to sleep. She would make swirly patterns around my forehead, down to my cheeks, and on to my lips. This got me every time. She had the most unusual way of sleeping - one arm straight up in the air. I am not really sure what that was about, but it was funny to me." 
"On Sunday morning we would enjoy cups of coffee with lots of cream and sugar, and peanut butter toast. If I were lucky, there might be time to sit outside on the porch swing before my parents came to get me. That was my childhood, always the same, never any different. It was our routine, and I would not have had it any other way." 
"Grandma Helen was very ornery. She loved to tell jokes and pull practical jokes on people. She loved to laugh. She would often take out her false teeth, or just slide them onto her tongue while speaking, mid-sentence, just to catch me off guard. I thought it was so gross but so cool at the same time." 
"Freshly cut keys, circus peanuts, The Lawrence Welk Show, silky jammies... to this day if I encounter any of these things, they stop me in my tracks. I think back to a time when I got to live the best childhood, with the most amazing grandma ever."

Helen (Timmons) Miller Strukel holding Lisa Moore
Sandra (Miller) Canen at sink, Dianne (Strukel) Moore seated
Elkhart, Indiana, c1978

It is interesting to note the similarities in childhood memories that Lisa and I share with different grandmothers. Or does every child of the 1970s have grandparents that watched Hee Haw and Lawrence Welk? Did they all shop at K-Mart and eat at buffets? Did they all play Yahtzee and read the National Enquirer?

But my grandmothers were substantially different in several ways as well. Rita wholeheartedly embraced her Roman Catholic faith that she converted to upon marrying Raymond DePrato in 1939. The woman would break out her rosary and say a novena for anyone that needed divine intervention. And interestingly, although Frank Strukel had insisted that his unborn child be adopted by a Catholic family, religion played a relatively small role in their lives after their marriage. Helen would not convert to the Catholic faith until the 1980s.

Helen definitely had a slapstick sense of humor. From sliding out her teeth to sticking out her tongue to poking and prodding and tickling and giggling, they are all traits shared by my extended family. Although Rita could laugh, she was far more restrained. There was always a sense of decorum that one must maintain, regardless if it be in public or in private.

And so, when my family reunited with Helen's in 1982, I was privileged enough to gain a third grandmother.

Unfortunately, that was a very short-lived privilege.




Friday, July 25, 2014

Helen, Part VII: Another Strukel

Helen Strukel, c1980, Elkhart, Indiana

With the Elkins marital debacle behind her, Helen Strukel settled into her routine life in her little bungalow home on Jay Dee Street on the outskirts of Elkhart, Indiana.

I did not have the fortune to meet my grandmother in the 1970s and to know her while I was growing up, but this was apparently a decade of routine. Helen continued to work at Long's Lock Shop in Elkhart, Indiana, and she maintained the same residence she bought with her late husband, Frank Strukel, prior to his death in 1968. There were no more husbands and no more relationship fiascos, and the "man of the house" duties fell to Helen's brother-in-law, Charles Strukel, who took up residence at the Jay Dee Street address in the late 1970s.

Charles John Strukel went by the nickname "Bars." It was a nickname that he carried as early as his teenage years while working for C. J. Conn in Elkhart and playing on the city baseball leagues. In a 1939 newspaper article from the Elkhart Truth praising his ball-playing prowess, even Charlie stated he was unsure exactly why the nickname had stuck, but it was likely due to his insatiable habit for munching candy bars while out on the baseball field.

"Bars" Strukel was born 15 August 1919 in Coal Creek, Colorado, a mining town very near to where his brother Frank would be born three years later. The two youngest boys of John and Rose (Stupica) Strukel, they were just children when the family moved to Elkhart, Indiana. Although not native Hoosiers, Elkhart would be the only home they would remember. Like Frank, Bars was drafted into service during World War II. But unlike his little brother, his life circumstances were quite different. 

In March 1942, Charles Strukel had married his teenage pregnant bride. Five months later he was a father to a baby boy. And two months after that, he was enlisted into the United States Army from Toledo, Ohio, and sent away from home and his young family for training. Although like his brother Frank, Charles was sent overseas, much of his active duty was done in England, and he did not see combat like his brother. Back in Elkhart, Indiana, by 1946, Charles's military service had ended. So had his marriage. He remarried in 1950, and became a father again in 1956 and 1962, but that marriage too ended when his children were young. His ex-wives both remarried quickly after their divorces, and Charles's children were raised by stepfathers. He unfortunately failed to forge a strong paternal bond with any of his children and like Helen, he entered into the 1970s unmarried with the full intention of remaining that way.

I do not know how the living arrangements came to be that Charles moved into the Jay Dee Street address, but in "Bars" Strukel, Helen was able to gain the companionship she needed with the perks of additional household income, maintenance help with the house, and a reminder of the husband she had lost too early in life. And although the relationship was platonic, they were well suited for each other. My relationship with Helen and Bars began in 1982: she was 65; he was 63. And I was a mere child of fifteen. But it was easy to see that they both had a similar sense of humor: teasing and blunt with a deadpan delivery so that often you were left wondering if they were being serious or not. Had I been older, I am sure I would have appreciated their humor more, as it certainly bordered on bawdy and crude. It is not surprising then that the only picture I have of "Bars" as a younger man is in knickers and bows posing with a man in drag. The story behind it is unknown, but nothing regarding the circumstances would seem shocking or surprising. Neither of them would fit the mold of a prim and proper cookie-baking Grandma, nor of a scholarly gentleman quietly studying the Sunday paper. They were real people. They were fun. They were relatable, reachable, and down-to-earth, and for me it made slipping into this family without the benefit of a childhood spent knowing them as easy as slipping on a pair of well-worn, comfortable slippers. 

Charles John "Bars" Strukel (right)

A perfect example of Charles Strukel's sense of humor involved a brief tale he would tell of his military service in World War II. He would relate how the Nazis cut off his tongue because he refused to speak after they had captured him. He would illustrate this by just barely sticking out his tongue to indicate the stub they had left behind. Of course, this was all foolishness, as he never fought in Germany, and his tongue was totally intact. But he said it seriously enough that my 43-year-old cousin asked me if I was also going to write in this blog about Bars' torture at the hands of the Nazis after I had discussed the military service of his brother Frank. His delivery was flawless enough to keep a great-niece believing his tall tales long after his death.

But for Helen Strukel, this time of her life was dedicated to home, work, and family. In her youngest daughter, Dianne, she had a best friend, and she adored the grandchildren she had provided her: John in 1966, and Lisa in 1970. Her older daughter, Sandy, who also lived in Elkhart was surprised by the birth of her only daughter, Michelle, in 1979, after seventeen years of marriage, thus giving Helen another grandchild to care for locally. 

Helen's sons, Ted and Jerry Miller, had left California and had settled in Portland, Oregon, where they together ran a marine with their father, Eldon. No less important were the three grandchildren she had by her sons on the west coast, but her ability to be much of an influence in their lives was minimal.  Ted had a daughter, Laura, in 1968. Her son, Jerry, adopted two children: a daughter, Karen, in 1964, and a son, Robert, in 1966. It would be interesting to know what went through Helen's mind at this time. Did she think about discussing the other side to adoption with her son, feeling the torment of not knowing what happened to the daughter she gave up for adoption two decades before? 

This was the life that Helen (Timmons) Miller Strukel was living when her missing daughter surfaced in 1982. After a miserably failed first marriage, a second marriage cut short by death, and a third marriage that was an enormous mistake, Helen had finally found the peace and happiness that had often eluded her in the past. 

The final piece of the puzzle that would make this happiness whole was soon to be found. 

Or should I say it was to find her? 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Helen, Part VI: Life After Frank

Helen Marie (Timmons) Strukel, c1970

Barely two months before her fifty-second birthday, Helen Strukel was left a widow. She and her husband, Frank, had settled into their routines in their brand-new house for barely over a year. The home that had represented their future together was now an all-too-silent reminder on the outskirts of Elkhart, Indiana, that she was to grow old alone. Frank Strukel's death at the age of forty-six likely brought as many thoughts of disgust and disbelief to Helen as it did grief and despair. Would they had saved and scrimped and worked so hard to plan for a comfortable future had they known Frank would have none? Were there vacations and trips dreamt of that were put off for their retirement years? Was living life postponed in exchange for planning and saving for living a life?

Although Helen had faced her share of obstacles, she never had to do so alone. Like generations of women before her, she transitioned immediately from the daughter of William Timmons to the wife of Eldon Miller to the wife of Frank Strukel. During her journey she had become the mother of five children, and at the time of Frank's death at the end of 1968, they ranged in age from nineteen to thirty years old. But unfortunately, few of them were readily available to help her adapt to an unexpected widowhood. Her two boys, Jerry and Ted, lived in California near their father. Her eldest daughter, Sandy, was married and living in Elkhart, and working for Miles Laboratories (later purchased by Bayer). Although their relationship was not one of alienation, it was nonetheless not a close one. They were living in the same city, but in completely different worlds.

Helen's daughter Carol was nothing more than a secret that she carried alone now that Frank was gone. Perhaps losing her husband brought back the pangs of despair at losing their daughter decades before. How nice it would be to have another reminder of Frank near her, yet how devastating knowing that there would never be a chance of the two ever meeting.

Helen's support during this time came from the most logical source: her youngest daughter Dianne. Helen lost a husband, but Dianne had lost a father, and that shared loss required they both be the support for the other. At nineteen years old, Dianne was already married and the mother of a two-year-old son. She needed the help and guidance of a mother, as much as Helen needed the companionship and support of a daughter. In less than two years' time, Dianne would provide Helen with another grandchild to spoil. Although Ted and Jerry had children by this time, Dianne's son, John, and daughter, Lisa, were the only grandchildren Helen had complete access to as she forged ahead as a young widow on her own. Her clerical job at Long's Lock Shop in Elkhart gave her the structure and routine to get up every morning and interact with the world around her. Helen Strukel was no shrinking violet. The loss of her husband was a jarring shock to her world, but she had survived adversity before. This was just a bump in the road. A mighty sizable bump, yes, but Helen was determined as ever to move forward. Work and family provided the road map for this part of her journey.

But even with a job and family she enjoyed, Helen's busy days still ended in lonely nights. Much like the mystery surrounding Helen's first chance encounters with Eldon and Frank, the details surrounding James Wardell Elkins' entry into her life in 1971 are obscure.

Frank and Helen had known James Elkins during their marriage, although how and when their paths crossed is unknown. James, born on 17 April 1923, was a native of Grantsburg, Johnson County, Illinois, the eldest son of James William Harrison Elkins, an illiterate farmer, by his second wife, Inez M. Robertson. As a child he was called Wardell, and he completed a grade-school education in rural Grantsburg.

Wardell's mother, Inez was sixteen years old when she married forty-three year old Will Robertson in 1922. After bearing him seven children, she divorced him in 1941 while the youngest was still an infant. She brought her children to Elkhart, Indiana, and three weeks after her divorce was final, she married Willard Barnum who had been widowed just two months before.

It was this home that James Wardell Elkins left and enlisted into the service of the United States Army on 19 March 1943 at Fort Benjamin Harrison. He was a Navy combat veteran during World War II, and participated in the Normandy landings in 1944 and the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. Even after his return stateside and his honorable discharge, James served in the Marine Corp Reserves for several years. At the war's end, he came back to Elkhart and made his home with his mother and stepfather on Middlebury Street.

As the 1950s dawned, James was living the life of a bachelor. He was employed performing factory work at the Buescher Band Instrument Company in Elkhart and living at the Hotel Bucklen downtown on Main Street. It wasn't until his early thirties that he decided to settle into married life with Dorotha L. Weaver, a woman just under three years his junior. Through their union, he gained a young stepson, Randy, and welcomed his own son, James David, in 1957. The family moved to 1115 Davis Street in Elkhart in the late 1950s. James left Buescher Band Instrument in 1962 and began selling shoes for the Charles Chester Shoe Company. Dorotha worked for C. G. Conn Ltd., a band instrument manufactory in Elkhart.

But selling shoes and domestic tranquility was not the long-term plan for James. He and Dorotha divorced in 1964, and ironically James returned to living downtown in the Clifton House Hotel - which was the rechristened Hotel Bucklen after its much needed 1958 renovations and facelift. He did not remain single for long. In 1967, he married Della Bradley. In 1969 his forty-three-year-old first wife died, leaving him sole custody of his young son. The chaos that ensued likely contributed to his divorce from Della in 1970.

So this was the James Wardell Elkins that entered Helen Strukel's life in 1971. They both had been previously married twice; and they both had spouses who died in their forties. James was working as a machine operator at Northern Indiana Brass Company in Elkhart - Frank Strukel's old stomping grounds. Moreover, they were both single, middle-aged, and desired companionship. Helen struggled to maintain the property of her modest home, but that was not only Frank's domain, it was his pride and joy. James had discussed putting a swimming pool on the property, and he was eager to have a house and yard in which to tend, tinker, build, repair, and maintain. There were many reasons why the two of them needed each other. The courtship progressed at breakneck speed, and despite the misgivings of those around her, Helen Marie Strukel and James Wardell Elkins were married in Elkhart, Indiana, on 27 June 1971.

Helen realized her grievous error immediately. Once James had moved into the house, he made it clear that the money he made was his money, and his money only. Helen made her own money, and she could continue paying for the household expenses as she had done before their marriage. But he also made it clear that those expenses now included those involved with taking care of a new husband and stepson as a dutiful wife was required to do. This was not what Helen had signed up for. The iron-fisted rule of a domineering husband ended with her marriage to Eldon Miller in 1946. She was not going to assume that role again. Ever.

Tensions were high from the beginning. A July cookout seemed a good idea to help ease the frustration and provide some recreation for the newlyweds. After all, they were both thrice-wed and set in their ways. It would take time to navigate the choppy seas upon which this ship had sailed. While Helen busied herself preparing food for dinner and setting the table, James masterfully prepared three steaks on the grill. James took one and gave the second to his son. When Helen reached for the third cut of meat, James reprimanded her. "I bought those steaks with MY money. Those are for me and my boy. Not for you."

Helen responded by asking him to leave. Forever.

James Wardell Elkins moved out of the modest little Strukel home at 112 Jay Dee Street on 20 July 1971 after twenty-three days of marriage. Three days later, Helen filed for divorce in Elkhart Superior Court #1. James never responded to the divorce petition. He never appeared in court after issuance of a summons to do so. The court granted Helen a divorce on 8 October 1971 after declaring James defaulted in the matter.

Life without Frank created a momentary lapse in judgment for Helen. She thought she needed a husband to make her life complete and give it meaning. Life with James, albeit brief, brought clarity and strength back to her world. On hindsight, her life as Helen Marie Elkins brought a roll of the eyes and wave of her hand as if to casually brush away a foolhardy decision of the past. I had heard the story only briefly, and even as a genealogist, I had never bothered to seek out the details of my grandmother's third marriage until recently. I couldn't even recall the man's name nor find it in my notes. But what I once thought to be an insignificant footnote to her life, I believe now that it served as a reminder to Helen that she was a strong and capable woman who could make her way in the world without having a man to guide her.

The last chapter of her life would not be about the daughter of William Timmons, nor the wife of Eldon Miller, nor even the wife of Frank Strukel. It would be all about Helen.