Sunday, May 4, 2014

Helen, Part V: The Divorce Revisited

Elkhart County, Indiana, Superior Court, Cause 17194, Miller vs. Miller, 1946

The details surrounding the divorce of Eldon Duane and Helen Marie (Timmons) Miller are summarized in Eldon's complaint filed on 10 July 1946 in the Elkhart County, Indiana, Superior Court. But this meager document barely runs one-and-a-half pages. Can nearly a decade of marriage, the birth of three children, and the collapse of a family be summarized in just a few words?

Eldon's complaint was divided into six key points. Firstly, he was presently and had been a resident of Elkhart County in the State of Indiana. Secondly, he was married to his present wife, Helen M. Miller, on 30 March 1937, and they had ceased cohabiting together the day before. The fifth and sixth points merely stated that they were co-owners of the home at 625 Gladstone Avenue in Elkhart, and that he desired the court grant him a divorce. The third and fourth segments of Eldon's complaint summarized why he wanted such an action and what he future he desired or his children. And so therefore this complex, emotional saga is reduced to a mere two paragraphs.

And in the matter of a few words, we learn that Helen had been seeing another man, and when Eldon "remonstrated with her, she [had] told him that it was none of his business." She was pregnant with another man's child. And that of their three children, Jerry, age 8; Ted, age 6; and Sandra, age 4; he desired custody of the two boys.

For Eldon's desired outcome, there really was no need to go into several paragraphs and numerous pages of detail to document the causes and behaviors and incidents that led to this action on 10 July 1946. As far as the judge needed to know Helen's behavior was reprehensible, and it defied the norms and expectations within the boundaries of marriage. And it did. Being pregnant by a man who is not your husband is a pretty good reason to seek a dissolution of marital bonds. Helen did not countersue, nor did she file a counter-complaint. She did not deny the allegations in Eldon's complaint. The divorce was granted with little fuss on 26 November 1946. 

This is all that is left in the historical written record of the divorce between Eldon D. Miller and his wife, Helen M. Miller.

And from a genealogist's perspective, had this been a document regarding a far-flung ancestor in 1846, rather than 1946, I would have been ecstatic to find the date of marriage of the parties involved, where they resided at the time of this document, and the names and ages of their children. And I would have snickered at the "shameless hussy" of an ancestor who had the temerity to carry on promiscuously with another man behind her husband's back. And perhaps I would have gasped a little, envisioning her defiance when her husband found out: "It's none of your business!" And I would have told the story of my brazen ancestor and her poor put-upon husband to all my genealogy buddies at the next conference or online in a Facebook post. And we would all have a good giggle at the faults and foibles of those who had gone before us.

All because our knowledge of a messy, complicated, enraging, sad, difficult, emotionally-trying event in the lives of two people - and all those affected by it - was relayed to us in two paragraphs or less.

But it was not 1846. It was 1946. Today the events that led to this particular divorce are now nearly seven decades in the past. The primary participants are dead, as are the vast majority of those who were witness to it, as well as many who were affected by it. Soon, our only knowledge of the details of this divorce will be the 104 words on a faded document tucked away in a tri-folded case file. A packet of miscellaneous documents that smell faintly of sweet vanillin given off by the aging paper, overpowered by musty smell of mildew and age. These documents have likely been untouched since they were unfolded and photocopied for me in 1982.

But in November 1982, Helen Marie (Timmons) Miller was still alive. Eldon Miller had died in Portland, Oregon, in January of that year. But had he been alive, it would be unlikely that the fifteen-year-old version of myself would have sought out his version of events thirty-six years before. But I heard Helen's version. And this version, as well as the version of many, many others in similar situations, will never be found in the records we scour in the county courthouse.

Eldon Miller and Helen Timmons were likely mismatched from the beginning. At least on hindsight, Helen blamed her mother for forcing the marriage to happen. It is more likely that the marriage began with subtle misgivings. Helen probably experienced cold feet as a nervous bride, and her mother insisted that Eldon was a good man, and would make a good husband and father. And so they married. And children were born.

But there were no stories of picnics in the park, or vacations filled with fun and laughter, or the blessings of three children born to a doting, loving couple. The country struggled through an economic depression and then hurtled into a violent European war. Helen's happiness came through her children, and as a couple they likely were more thankful for a steady job, a dependable income, and a father that was not sent into war. Their happiness was likely anchored in the mundane appreciation of having food, water, and shelter - but it was certainly not found within the love that Eldon and Helen held for each other.

Eldon was ecstatic with Jerry's birth in 1938, but his joy diminished with each subsequent child. Like many men that came generations before him, he not only viewed the birth of a son as more "important" than that of a daughter, he reveled in the idea of a first-born son who would be his heir and successor. Where he failed, he would see his eldest son succeed. Perhaps Eldon felt inferior to his own elder brother, Russell Martin Miller, born in 1912. Russell lived at home until his late-twenties caring for his aging parents, then graduated from the Fort Wayne Bible Institute in 1942, after which he ministered to many churches in the Goshen, Indiana, area. Perhaps Jerry's importance as the eldest son grew out of Eldon's insecurity as the younger son who would never achieve the status of his sainted, successful older brother.

Nonetheless, as three children were born in rapid succession between 1938 and 1942, and the country entered into World War II, Eldon became disenchanted with life as a family man. He embarked on one extramarital affair after another, but he needed Helen to stay at home and take care of his children. So he repeatedly told her this was the life she deserved, and nobody else would want her. After all, what could a single mother of three small children do to survive without him? She best endure his whims silently and without complaint.

As war raged in Europe and Eldon took on a new job, he also took it upon himself to "comfort" the lonely, frightened women at work whose husbands were overseas. It was not uncommon for Eldon to bring some of these women home for Helen to cook them breakfast mornings after he had "kept them company." Helen sadly held her tongue, did as her husband demanded, and spent her days caring for her children. What else could she do? As Eldon repeatedly told her, nobody else would want her.

World War II ended, the family moved into a new home in Elkhart, but as 1946 dawned, Helen crossed paths with a young handsome soldier returned home from the war. Eldon Miller let Helen believe that nobody would want her. But he was wrong. Frank Strukel did.

2 comments:

  1. Oh, my goodness! This certainly shows the two differently-viewed sides of an unfortunate marriage situation. Wonderful post, Michael. Wonderful.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for another "installment" Michael. I so enjoy reading your blog posts. I am glad your Mom won't tell me anything ahead of time so each new post is filled with surprise for me. Poor Helen!!!

    ReplyDelete