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.

2 comments:

  1. this chapter of your story made me cry....what an awful choice Helen was faced with and what could she do....I can imagine she carried that pain with her the rest of her life, beautiful story....can't wait for next chapter

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  2. I too was the product of an affair. My birth mother was basically given the same choice. Give up this child or lose your older son and daughter. No mother should ever be forced to make that type of decision. I was relinquished for adoption on the 5 of June 1958 in Fort Worth, TX. Due to Texas adoption laws concerning"closed/sealed" adoption I didn't even know my sibling existed into the mid 90's.

    Great story, can wait for the next one.

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