Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Interview

The DePrato Home, 11620 Lincoln Way West, Osceola, IN

After my initial unsuccessful attempt at finding my mother's birthparents, I had decided that it was best to go back to the only people I knew that had actually met them: my grandparents. Over the last few days the readers have been able to glimpse a little bit of who my grandparents were and what events shaped their lives up until their marriage in 1939, and their adoption of daughter (and my mother) Carol Sue in 1947.

At the time my mother was born on 31 December 1946, my grandparents had only recently begun living in their new home on Lincoln Way West in Osceola, Indiana, having moved there from my grandfather's paternal home in Mishawaka. According to the social worker's report of 1947, "the home was a newly constructed story and a half dwelling which at present was covered with tar paper, but would eventually be faced with brick. It had been constructed within the last year and Mr. DePrato had done a lot of the work himself. There were four rooms and bath downstairs and space for two bedrooms upstairs. A gas furnace was used for heating and there was gas for cooking. The living room was large and had three windows, two on the west and one on the north. The kitchen, which was immediately behind the living room, was large enough to accommodate dining space for the family. Furnishings in the home were attractive and in good condition. There were pretty drapes at the windows and a number of attractive pictures. In one corner of the living room was a large cabinet radio. The living room floor was hard wood and throw rugs were used instead of a full sized rug. The home had a comfortable cheerful appearance and reflected an unusually good standard of housekeeping."

The area in which the house was built was at the time semi-rural, about five miles east of Mishawaka but on the major east-west highway that connected South Bend, Mishawaka, Osceola and Elkhart. The bus line from Elkhart to South Bend, which has long since ceased to exist, passed in front of the house. Synder's Grocery was just a quarter-mile to the west. At the time my grandparents purchased the land, many families headed by factory workers had been purchasing property and building modest homes upon them. One of the other home builders were John and Carolyn (Jennings) Michele who were my grandparents neighbors immediately to the east. Like my grandparents, John was the son of Italian immigrants, while Carolyn was a Kentucky-born girl who grew up in Mishawaka and worked at Ball-Band.  Carolyn's father and Arreda's aunt had married siblings, and although they were not acquainted as children, they knew many of the same people. The Micheles and the DePratos had become good friends in Mishawaka in the 1930s, and continued as such in Osceola. The couples had spent New Year's Eve, 1946, together when my grandparent's received the phone call telling them that their daughter had been born. 

Raymond E. DePrato, 1981

But of course, I did not know these people in 1947. My conscious recollection of my grandparents are of two people whose lives intersected with mine when they were entering into their 60s. I have fond memories of my grandparents, but they were not "active" in any sense of physicality or sportsmanship. They attended every school event, and they were part of every holiday. Every Independence Day I would celebrate my birthday along with my brother and grandmother with a cook-out, cake and presents at my grandparents' home. Every Christmas Eve my grandparents would come to our house to open gifts, while every Christmas Day was spent at my grandparents' home where the big Christmas dinner was served. Every Sunday, my grandparents would come to see us after they had gone to church. They were an integral part of my growing up, but without any better word that comes to mind, they were "quietly" so. By the time I began my search for my mother's birth parents, my grandfather was seventy years old. He was slower, quieter, perhaps a little crabbier. I still loved him as much as I ever did, and I never went through any teenage angst where I was "too cool" to spend time with family, but the majority of my visits to my grandparents would usually find my grandfather napping on the couch. He would be gone barely seven years after this visit.

Michael D. Lacopo, 1982

In 1982, as mentioned in earlier posts, I was well-ensconced into my "nerd-dom." Of course I look back at the fifteen-year-old me, and beyond an enormous amount of hair, I cannot add much to my personae then. I mean really, who has a personae at fifteen? But the very fact that I was intent on discovering the identities of my mother's birth parents probably indicates I was not really into the average fifteen-year-old things. I had only recently been relieved of a leg brace I had worn for the previous eighteen months, but at least my eyes were aligned, having been surgically repaired in 1980. I no longer had to wear the impossibly thick (and heavy) lenses to bring my eyes into focus, and I was still not near-sighted enough to require glasses again. But it is obvious that I was no teenage heartthrob. I can identify my classification as an introvert today and revel in it, but human interaction was painful and awkward then. I was far more content reading the census.

Dean W. Jr. and Carol S. (DePrato) Lacopo, Christmas 1980

In 1982, my mother was desperately clinging to an unraveling marriage of sixteen years. Unraveling is probably an ideal descriptor to use. To unravel is to undo, but to ravel still means to untangle, unknot, confuse or complicate. And when my parents' marriage wasn't unraveling, it was usually raveling. My desire to find my mother's birth parents was borne out of a number of desires. I wanted to test my skills as a budding genealogist. I loved a challenge that required intellectual pursuits (yes, I even loved those crazy logic word puzzles). And I wanted my mother to be happy. 

I do not recall any conversation that started the search for her birth parents. It was probably something I initiated with my recent genealogical obsession. And I know she had always held a desire to know who they were. As I stated earlier in this blog, I cannot speak for my mother as to her motivations for finding her parents or as her feelings as an adoptee, but I can probably safely say that it involved a much deeper, emotional and psychological component that did not drive me. In a time period where one relationship was coming to an end, I think it was almost tantamount that another relationship take its place. Many adoptees have told me that there is a sense of loss with adoption. Even though the story behind every adoption is different, and many adoptees experience wonderful childhoods, there is always the nagging question: "why would someone give me away?" Perhaps my mother was tired of being given away and needed to be found. My parents' marriage would end the following year.

So with my pen and notebook in hand, my mother and I visited my grandparents in Osceola to go over the details of the events of 1946. My mother had been told about her adoption since she was able to comprehend it, and the story she had been told for thirty-five years was always the same. I believe she thought the visit to be a bit futile, and perhaps a little uncomfortable. After all, she was trying to ask one set of parents questions that would help her find another. Although my grandparents were never obviously or visibly disturbed by this, I am sure there might have been a simmering sense of anxiety, perhaps even resentment. But I was a good genealogist, and I was ready to solve this mystery.

My grandparents' home was not so much different than what the social worker described in 1947, although the cabinet radio had long since been replaced by a television. I believe the hard wood floors in part of the house had been carpeted by this time, but I recall distinctly the clomp-clomp of my feet on wood floors as a child. No additions or remodeling had been done to the house and from the outside it looked much like it had in 1947. The trees in front had grown incredibly large and obscured a lot of natural light from entering the north windows, but this was the only house my mother and I would ever associate with my grandparents. My grandmother sat in her chair by the north window of the living room that faced the street. My grandfather was napping, as was usual. He was lying on his side, body facing the back of the couch and to the wall. It was not a means of ignoring us. If I recall, that was always the side he slept on. I doubt that he napped at all during the interview, but he was silent throughout most of it. Silent, but listening.

And so the story of my mother's adoption that I had heard countless times was repeated. Her mother had been married before, and she had a four-year-old daughter named Sandy. She was unable to keep my mother because she was not yet married to the father, although my grandmother believed they had intended to get married sometime soon. My mother was born in Goshen General Hospital in Goshen, Indiana, although I think they believed that one of the parents was from nearby Elkhart, Indiana. My mother's birth father was Catholic, and that was the primary reason they chose my grandparents to adopt their child, as they wanted her raised in a Catholic home. My grandmother remembered that the birth father was skinny, and that he was in the service. She thought that they were all roughly of the same age at the time, around thirty, perhaps younger. They had answered an advertisement in the South Bend Tribune regarding adopting my mother, and they had agreed to pay for all the birth mother's hospital bills. They took my mother home when she was ten days old.

"And the mother's name was Marie Miller, right?" "Yes," replied my grandmother.

"And the father was Frank Krueger?" Again another yes.

"STRUKEL!!!"

The meaningless word came booming out of my up-to-then quiet grandfather, although he had not bothered to change his position and was still motionless on the couch. It startled us all because by this point we were all somewhat lulled by the rote repetition of the same story that had been recited for years.

"His name was Frank Strukel!"

Since my grandfather's back was still to us, my mother silently looked at me with this quizzically irritated expression that was equal parts "where the hell did THAT come from?" and "the old man is losing his mind!" You can picture it best as a cocked head much like an inquisitive cocker spaniel would have whilst rolling her eyes in agitated disbelief, accompanied by a slight shrug of the shoulders. As I started scribbling down this new piece of information, my mother's expression changed as if to wordlessly say, "why are you even writing that down?" At no time in over three decades had she ever heard the name Strukel, so it was likely the result of the creaky cogs of an aging man's mind.

But as a good genealogist, I wrote down the name. And I even checked the Elkhart phone book before leaving my grandparents' house. It was a surname found in Elkhart, although no Franks existed. I jotted down the listings into my notes, but we left on that early autumn afternoon in 1982 thinking we knew about as much as we did when we had arrived.

We were wrong.


11 comments:

  1. You're not only a good genealogist, Michael, you're a very good story teller. I'm very much enjoying these posts.

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  2. Wonderful writing! I'm enjoying this series so much.

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  3. Thank you so much Donna and Wendy. I am enjoying it immensely!

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  4. When is the next installment, Michael?

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  5. Loving this series of posts, Michael. Your family come alive to me from your descriptions.

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  6. The story just keeps getting better and better.. Thanks

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  7. I am liking your story very much! You have a fine sense of pacing and good eye for detail. You really know how to keep the reader engaged.

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  8. I've just started reading your blog thanks to a post on a FB genealogy group. Very engaging.

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  9. This is a fascinating story....After 2 years of having my father's DNA and nearly 30 years of searching for my Dad's birth parents, I feel like I am so close. I too could probably write a book. It's been an exciting and frustrating ride with highs and lows that have consumed me nearly every day. It has morphed from a curiosity into an exhausting challenge. But I have met many new friends and many new cousins along the way. So, very much worth it. Thank you for sharing your story. Melanie

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