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?


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


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 second wife. Shortly thereafter he married his third 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  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 now I cannot imagine what it meant to Helen to have her five children around her. Unfortunately, genealogists all too 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.