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.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Frank and Helen, Part III

Frank Strukel outside 112 Jay Dee Street, Elkhart, Indiana, 1967

The mystery of Frank and Helen Strukel's sudden disappearance from the Elkhart records during my initial investigation was easily explained. In 1967, they had finally purchased a home to call their own at 112 Jay Dee Street. Although an Elkhart, Indiana, postal address, the home was technically out of the boundaries of the City of Elkhart, and therefore they failed to show up in the Elkhart City Directories I had researched earlier. The address remained a part of "rural" Elkhart County until 1974, when Helen Strukel returned to be listed in the directories of that time. They hadn't disappeared. They had simply moved less than three miles eastward.

Neither Frank nor Helen were out of their forties yet, but they were already empty-nesters. Helen's daughter Sandra Miller had married just shy of her twentieth birthday in 1962; and their daughter Dianne had married in 1966. Less than a week after his forty-fourth birthday, Frank Strukel had welcomed his first grandchild into the world. But now it was finally time for Frank and Helen to  benefit from years of struggled and enjoy their time together in their new home.

Frank took great pride in his home. It was small by modern standards - barely over 900 square feet - but it was a brand new construction lying on a little over a third of an acre. Frank planted shrubbery alongside the curving driveway that once matured would present a grand entrance to their modest home (see photo at Hoosier Daddy?: The Day Ends). One only has to peek into the garage in the photo below to see the meticulous order of the tools and utensils that allowed Frank to exercise the pride he had in his new home. After years of hard work, surviving the horrors of war, and conquering alcoholism, it was time to enjoy the fruits of his labors.

Dianne, Frank, and Helen picnicking in the garage, 1967 or 1968

But living out a life of puttering in the backyard garden and playing with grandchildren and dreaming of a far-off retirement with Helen was not in Frank Strukel's future. On the evening of 17 December 1968, Frank Louis Strukel suffered a heart attack in the new home he dearly loved. He was dead before he reached the hospital. He was forty-six years old. The very same age I am today. And I can tell you I have far too many things left to accomplish in this world. And so did Frank.

Perhaps somewhere buried deep in Frank's mind, he feared an early demise. The Strukel siblings were not a hardy bunch. Frank, the seventh of nine children, had already outlived five of his brothers and sisters, none of them surviving past their 50s. His brother, Tony, had just succumbed to a heart attack at the age of fifty-five barely four months before.

People scoff at the recklessness of youth and their daredevil antics, and they derisively state that they act as if they think they are immortal, that they will live forever. But aren't we all that way? At forty-six, I fully expect to live to see forty-seven. Frank certainly felt the same way. Unless stricken with a debilitating illness, we all expect to wake up tomorrow morning, so what flashes through your mind in the fleeting seconds or minutes when you suddenly realize this is not going to be your reality?

Did Frank selfishly worry for himself, as we all would do in his position? Was his first thought, "oh my God, what is happening to me?" After that, did he worry about how Helen would cope as a widow barely into her fifties? Did he worry about the fate of his daughter Dianne? She was only nineteen years old, married, and already a mother of a two-year-old; nearly the same age he was when he naively thought entering into the war as a soldier was a heroic and exciting and adventurous prospect. Did Frank have time to sadly reflect upon the fact that he would not see his grandson whose photo he carried in his wallet grow up, or to welcome new grandchildren into the family?

And did Frank's mind wander to the daughter he had given up years before? Carol would be turning twenty-two in two weeks. Unknowingly, both daughters had married less than two months apart, and both had given birth to sons merely thirty-five days apart. Carol had a second son (the author of this blog) nine months after the first. I would have been seventeen months old at Frank's death.

But if Frank had ever wondered about Carol's upbringing or her life as a young woman, or if he had dared to think one day he might find her and meet her, those dreams disappeared with his death. That would not happen for another fourteen years.

Frank Louis Strukel was buried 20 December 1968 in Prairie Street Cemetery in Elkhart, Indiana. Ironically, the Catholic church which had been so central to his family and his upbringing, and which had been the cause of worry for keeping an illegitimate child, and which had been a major stipulation in finding parents to raise Carol in 1946, denied him burial in St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Cemetery in Elkhart, Indiana, with the remainder of his family because he had the audacity to marry a divorced woman.

Frank Louis Strukel (1922-1968)

Friday, May 30, 2014

Frank and Helen, Part II

Frank and Helen (Timmons) Strukel, 1950s
Elkhart, Indiana

With the birth of their child, Carol Sue Miller, on 31 December 1946, the last forty posts of this blog have come full circle to where we started our journey (see Hoosier Daddy?: In the beginning...). But what became of Frank and Helen Strukel while their daughter was being raised by Ray and Rita DePrato just twelve miles to the west in neighboring Osceola, Indiana?

After their marriage in 1947, Frank and Helen moved into their first house together at 1418 Perkins Avenue, just a little over two miles south of where Helen had lived with her first husband, Eldon Miller. The home was a modest bungalow, a one-bedroom single story house built in 1930, but its 1300 square feet of space was enough for the newlyweds and Helen's young daughter, Sandy. Frank continued his factory work at the Northern Indiana Brass Company, and for a short time, Helen worked as a waitress at Boris Micoff's lunch diner on Main Street in downtown Elkhart. Just as a decade before, Helen was again a new bride, scrimping and saving to make her new house a comfortable and cheery home, and ensuring her husband was happy and content. But this marriage was not one entered into with misgivings and parental prodding like her first. This was a marriage forged on sacrifice and heartbreak, and its happiness was almost guaranteed after weathering its stormy beginnings.

It was not long after settling into her new home as Mrs. Frank Strukel that Helen became pregnant again. Shortly after her thirty-second birthday in 1949, Helen's awareness of a new baby on the way probably stirred up recently buried emotions and memories that her previous pregnancies had not. Somewhere, her daughter Carol had just passed her second birthday. Was she happy? Who did she look like? Looking around at her circumstances in her small but tidy home in Elkhart, did she wonder if giving her little girl up two years previously was the right thing to do? Did envisioning what might have been bring sadness or relief? Was she more overjoyed to tell Frank they were expecting a baby together, or saddened that there would be no older sister to greet her new sibling?

Upon discussing baby names, Frank had suggested naming their baby Carol if it were a girl, to honor the daughter he had lost. Helen quickly quashed the idea by reminding him that Carol was not gone from this world, only gone from their lives, and they still had a daughter named Carol out there somewhere. Having two daughters by the same name would just be silly. In the fall of 1949 they did welcome a new baby into the world - another daughter whom they named Dianne. Well into Dianne's childhood, Frank called her his "Little Duck," which was likely a reference to how she looked walking in her diaper.

The early 1950s brought a series of upheavals to the family. Helen had sent her daughter Sandy to California to visit with her father and two older brothers, Ted and Jerry. Eldon Miller, still using his daughter as a pawn against his ex-wife, refused to send her home. Helen immediately appealed to the county courts and local law enforcement, who readily recognized her legal custody. She was informed that they would promptly send county officials to California to retrieve Sandy and bring her home - and that the bill for such services and transportation would accompany her. Unable to pay an astronomical amount of money to recognize her legal rights, Helen lost the daughter she "bargained" for when she gave up her infant in 1946. Even though having two older brother and two older sisters - one of which remained unbeknownst to her - Dianne spent her early years as an only child.

Frank and Helen (Timmons) Strukel and daughter, Dianne
Elkhart, Indiana, mid-1950s

The Perkins Avenue home was also becoming too small for the family, and after a short stay with Frank's widowed mother, Rose Strukel, at 716 West Garfield Avenue in 1953, Frank and Helen embarked on a series of rental residences centered much closer to downtown Elkhart. Until 1957, they lived at 670½ Strong Avenue, a duplex house built in 1926 and split into four apartments. It was during this time that Frank took a job as a laborer with the Smith & Johnson, Inc., a construction company based in Indianapolis, where from 1955 to 1957 he worked on a construction crew building the Benham Avenue Railroad Underpass near Third Street in downtown Elkhart. He was familiar with the railroads, as his father and brothers had worked for them in some capacity for decades, and he also spent time working in the Robert Young railroad yards. In 1957, Frank took a job as a factory worker at Adams & Westlake, Ltd., a manufacturer of various products for the railroad and transportation industry. He eventually ended up in the maintenance department, where he was employed until the time he died.

Frank never shied away from hard work. He was frugal and resourceful, and he saw value where others saw garbage. He burnt the furring strips from some discarded aluminum windows so that he could sell them for scrap metal. He demolished an hold home slated to be torn down, and he gutted it for any scrap value that could be found within it. He made arrangements with local factories to pick up their left over wood scraps that he would use in the home coal furnace for winter warmth. But when he had time away from work, he could always be found with a beer in his hand, and he enjoyed playing shuffleboard and poker, as well as a day out mushroom hunting.

Frank and Helen (Timmons) Strukel
at Ted Miller's wedding, Los Angeles, CA, 1967

After a very brief stay at 419 East Jackson Boulevard, the Strukel family had moved to 169 North Sixth Street in Elkhart by 1959. Although an older home built in 1900, it had considerable more space and three bedrooms, as by this time Helen's daughter, Sandy, had returned home. After a few years held hostage in California by her father, Eldon had allowed Ted and Sandy to return to Indiana to visit their mother. Eldon's sister was driving from Indiana to California, and she was instructed to pick up the children and bring them back with her. When the sister arrived to retrieve her niece and nephew, both steadfastly refused to return with her to Monrovia, California. They remained in the maternal home, where Sandy Miller enrolled in Elkhart High School in 1956, and from whence she graduated in 1960. In 1962, the family moved down the street to 161 North Sixth Street into a similarly built, but more spacious house. Frank and Helen would live there until 1967.

As with all marriages, there were bumps in the road. In the early 1960s, Frank Strukel turned to alcohol more and more readily to cope with his problems. It wasn't until 1964 or 1965 that a psychiatrist explained to Helen that Frank was relying on alcohol to continue dulling the horrible memories of his war experiences. So little was known at that time about the chronic psychological manifestations of post-traumatic stress, and many veterans like Frank found substances that allowed them to cope or to wipe their minds of war atrocities, even for short periods of time. It was not until the 1960s that any information of his experiences in war were learned, of his hiding overnight behind a rock formation in the bitter cold of northern France with his dead buddy, or of his persistent teetering on death from starvation. He buried these memories, he shared them with no one, and they tortured him. But he found strength to successfully complete a detoxification program and never drink thereafter. He was one of the lucky ones, and his focus on his family was his motivation.

When we had first identified and located my mother's birth family, but before we met them and learned the details of their lives, the paper trail for Frank Strukel went surprisingly cold after 1967, and Helen did not resurface until 1974 (see Hoosier Daddy?: My Cup Runneth Over). 

I was finally to discover why.

Friday, May 23, 2014

A Baby and Its Consequences

A receipt dated 6 January 1947, presumably for hospital expenses incurred
by Helen Marie (Timmons) Miller upon the birth of her daughter the week before.
The original was in the possession of Raymond and Arreda (Dobyns) DePrato,
who reimbursed Helen for medical expenses upon the adoption of Carol Sue Miller.

Three months into Helen (Timmons) Miller's pregnancy, her husband Eldon filed for divorce. Perhaps it was the much needed, yet jarringly unplanned, impetus for Helen to end the miserable drudgery that was her marriage. Eldon would suspect the child was not his. After all, he had plenty of outlets for his sexual needs, and for quite some time his wife had ceased being one of them. Perhaps the unborn child making itself known via Helen's expanding waistline presented her with an all-or-none proposition, and she made it clear to Eldon that their marriage was over. She had fallen in love with the father of the child, and she wanted out.

Or perhaps she kept quiet, and when Eldon became cognizant of the all-too-familiar silhouette of his wife's pregnant form, he demanded an explanation and an end to the ruse of a marriage. In his mind, he had been free to sow his oats throughout his marriage, but his wife participating in similar behavior was completely unacceptable. No child of another man was to be borne of Helen while she was married to him. He filed for divorce in July 1946, and he made the distasteful situation evident to the court.

Eldon made sure Helen would pay for her sins. He requested custody of his two boys, Jerry and Ted, and while the divorce proceedings plodded through the courts, he procured a new job in Monrovia, California. Not only would he deprive Helen of raising her two eldest children, he would move them across the country and away from their mother's love. And what of his daughter, Sandy, who had just turned four years old the week Eldon filed for divorce? He would not seek custody of her if Helen rid herself of the child she was carrying - the child that represented her infidelity to him. Knowing the court would grant him custody of Sandy as well based on the superficial assessment of the situation, Eldon dangled the bait under Helen's nose. Pick a child. Which one will you choose, your daughter or your unborn child?

But the decision was not just a face-off between Eldon and Helen. Frank Strukel had a say in all this too. The horrors of war still fresh in his memory, it is likely that he was simply not psychologically ready to accept the unexpected birth of a child. But when questioned by a representative of the St. Joseph County (Indiana) Welfare Department a few months later, Arreda (Dobyns) DePrato recounted the discussion she and her husband Raymond had with the expectant mother and Frank Strukel:
"Mrs. DePrato was under the impression that Mr. Strukel and the mother of the child intended to be married after the baby was born. They had not planned to keep the child because Mr. Strukel did not want his family to know that he had gotten the mother in trouble and did not want his family to hold the birth of the illegitimate child against his wife. He said his family were very straight-laced and would not be able to accept the mother of the child as his wife if the family knew about the situation. Furthermore, Mr. Strukel had not been out of the Service very long and was not in a financial position to take on the responsibility of a wife with two children. The mother already had an older child by a previous marriage."

As discussed previously, the Strukels were strict Catholics, and the church played a very important role in their lives. They probably struggled enough with the idea of their son marrying an older, divorced woman. Rose (Stupica) Strukel, who had agonized for months over the fate of her missing son in the Prisoner of War camps in Nazi Germany, was none-to-pleased with the match her son had chosen. Knowing an illegitimate child was part of the package would have pushed her past her breaking point. And Frank was very much concerned about his mother's opinion. How ironic it would have been to Frank had he known that his own grandmother, Elisabeta (Cimperman) Strukelj, was born eighty-eight years earlier, the third illegitimate child of Marija Zgonc, who worked as a domestic in the port city of Trieste. Marija had married Anton Cimperman eight years later, and Anton had retroactively claimed Elisabeta as his own, therefore legitimizing her. Whether he was truly her father or claimed so only to reduce the shame on his new wife is unclear. Nonetheless, Frank Strukel would not be the first in his family to deal with illegitimacy, but he did not know of these shameful facts hidden from him within his family. He only feared the repercussions of his staunchly religious parents with whom he was living.

With the weight of Eldon's threats and Frank's reluctance, Helen decided to relinquish her unborn child to a suitable family. Although an obviously heart-breaking decision, Helen knew that bringing a baby into the volatile, tumultuous situation playing out before her would only compound her problems. This way Eldon would allow her to raise her daughter, and she and Frank could start life together without the scorn of her new in-laws. Under the pseudonym "Dorothy Turner," Helen placed an advertisement in The South Bend Tribune on Tuesday, 22 October 1946, seeking "any couple interesting in adopting a baby...immediately." Frank's only binding stipulation was that the couple who raised his unborn child be Catholic.

The closing months of 1946 brought on a flurry of life changes for all parties involved. Eldon Miller and Helen Marie (Timmons) Miller were formally divorced on 26 November 1946 in the Superior Court of Elkhart County, Indiana. In an ironic twist of fate, President Harry S. Truman proclaimed Thursday, 28 November 1946, the first national holiday of Thanksgiving. With her release from an unhappy marriage, was Helen thankful? Or was she overcome with remorse by the price it had cost her?

During that same month, Frank and Helen had met with and decided upon Raymond and Arreda (Dobyns) DePrato as the couple to raise their child. The DePrato's desire to have a child, and Arreda's inability to conceive, were certainly factors upon which they were chosen amongst dozens of couples who had answered the newspaper advertisement. But it was their strong Catholic faith that was the deciding factor. With four-year-old Sandy in tow, Frank and Helen and Ray and Rita finalized the details of adoption. The DePratos would cover Helen's medical costs, and Frank and Helen would sign away their parental rights immediately so that the adoption could proceed unhindered.

Helen, who had maintained residence at the Gladstone Avenue residence in Elkhart after her divorce from Eldon Miller, went into labor on the afternoon of New Year's Eve, 1946. Rather than deliver her baby at the nearby hospital in Elkhart, just three miles from her home, Helen opted to travel to Goshen General Hospital over twelve miles to the southeast. The child's birth would generate less attention in Goshen for those friends and family members who were unaware of Helen's pregnancy.

Helen's recollection of the labor was one of stoic determination. She uttered not a cry of pain or discomfort and asked for no means of consolation or relief from the hospital staff around her. She had reasoned to herself that any physical torment caused by the rigors of childbirth were hers to bear without complaint. It was her punishment for bringing a child into this world that she was unable and unwilling to care for. She was not deserving of any relief from that punishment. The doctors and nurses marveled at her silence.

After only three hours of labor, at 7:52 p.m. on 31 December 1946, Helen (Timmons) Miller gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

Six days later, baby Carol Sue Miller, went home with her foster parents, Ray and Rita (Dobyns) DePrato. Both mothers claimed to have named her. Until their deaths, neither would back down on those claims.

Eighteen days later, on 18 January 1947, Frank Louis Strukel and Helen Marie Miller were married in a simple ceremony in Elkhart, Indiana, by Jesse N. Myers, a Justice of the Peace. No friends or family attended the nuptials. Seventy-six-year-old Jesse officiated, while his wife, Elizabeth Myers, and unmarried sister-in-law, Margaret Meiser, served as the couple's only witnesses. Although it was a day to celebrate, it was done so with the somber realization of how much was sacrificed for this event to occur.

Frank and Helen (Timmons) Strukel would begin their journey together on this day at the beginning of 1947. Their infant daughter, Carol Sue Miller, was barely two weeks into her own evolving life path. It would take thirty-five years for them to cross again.