Monday, March 3, 2014

The Divorce

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

Once we had raced to the Elkhart County (Indiana) Courthouse on that mid-November day in 1982, my head was spinning with all the different directions we needed to go with this information. Of course, I was a budding genealogist, and I was just as intrigued as to where these new branches on my family tree came from as well as where they were now. I have always been intrigued by the stories. What motivated these people? Why did they do the things they did? What were their loves, dreams, aspirations, failures, miseries and triumphs? And thirty-two years later, I still want to know the "why" and the "how" as much as the "who," "what," "when," and "where." It is a passion I try to preach in my genealogical lectures.

And certainly there was quite a story unraveling here! But even with all the new pieces of information being processed, there were more and more questions begging to be answered. We had found the marriage date for Frank L. Strukel and Helen Marie Miller only eighteen days after my mother was born, and there was no doubt in my mind that this was the correct couple. My grandfather's earlier revelation of the surname Strukel had to be more than mere coincidence. Helen Miller's identification was a little sketchier. With our time in the library limited, I had only surmised that the Helen, wife of Eldon D. Miller, was the same person as the Helen Miller who married Frank Strukel, only because she was the only married Helen Miller in the Elkhart city directories that disappeared after 1946. But Eldon Miller disappeared too. So for all I knew this was just a couple that moved away and had nothing to do with my mother's birthmother. The request for a divorce between Eldon Miller and Helen Miller was purely based on a guess, and my stomach knotted in anticipation when the clerk actually found a divorce action for this couple.

Looking back at this with a few decades of hindsight, the amount of luck involved was enormous. In my many years of working in Indiana courthouses, I know that a great number of them have destroyed their loose files. Neighboring St. Joseph County, the county in which I grew up and the county in which I live today, no longer has the complaints for divorce or the loose paper files, merely the final court order in the large order books. The files have been destroyed. And even Elkhart County later microfilmed a good number of their loose files and either destroyed their originals or put them in storage. So the fact that this county clerk could stroll into the next room and hand us the original case file within minutes was something I did not appreciate then as much as I do now.

The work day was coming to an end, and the divorce case file was full of motions and petitions and receipts, and I was still a novice at all of this. We needed to work quickly and get to the good stuff, so we finally located the "Complaint for Divorce" of Eldon D. Miller vs. Helen M. Miller, July Term 1946, and settled in for a good read.

And now that I have you on the edges of your seats, I will break for a Public Service Announcement. And it is one that I give all my students and those who hear me lecture. Although I long for the stories of our ancestors and of our families, and I try to instill that passion into others, I always warn them on two major points: (1) we must resist judging people of other eras with a 21st century mentality, and (2) we must realize that every story has hundreds of different viewpoints. The good, juicy, scandalous stuff we find as genealogists makes for fascinating reading, but we have to remain cognizant of who is telling the story and what their motivation is for telling it.

The first point made in the above paragraph may not be as important in this situation, but even so, how society viewed divorce and illegitimacy in 1946 is different than how they did in 1982, and even more so now in 2014. The second point is of most importance. As in any divorce proceeding, the plaintiff is seeking to end a marriage from the defendant. The plaintiff will always be a saint, and the defendant will always be a sinner; that is how it works. The plaintiff is telling a story in hopes that it is persuasive enough to allow a judge to grant this dissolution. To get to this outcome, the story has to be compelling. He or she is not going to file a complaint stating the defendant is an overall nice person, but he or she refused to roll the toothpaste from the bottom of the tube. In Eldon D. Miller vs. Helen M. Miller we hear Eldon's version of events. We do not hear Helen's. We do not hear Frank's. We do not hear the versions of the parents, siblings, in-laws, neighbors, friends or children, all of whom saw a sliver of the married life of this couple. Some of those versions would come later.

All lecturing aside, these were NOT points crossing my mind as five o'clock approached on 15 November 1982. I wanted dirt!

"...for some period past, the defendant has been openly and publicly running with another man, and when the plaintiff has remonstrated with her, she has told him that it was none of his business; that for several months past she has been pregnant with child, and that this plaintiff is not the father thereof..."

My mother thrust her finger into the paper as we read the complain aloud, "OH MY GOD, THAT'S ME!" The clerk smiled. She had read that far as she was retrieving the documents.

"That there were three children born to plaintiff and defendant, namely: Jerry Duane, age 8, Ted William, age 6, Sandra Kay, age 4;..." 

There was the four-year-old sister Sandy my mother always knew existed! That moment of clarity and affirmation reading Sandy's name and age was immediately accompanied by an open-mouth gasp and silence.

"Does this mean I have brothers, too?" 

The question was one not needing an answer. There they were in black and white, but their existence came as a complete shock. When a story is repeated in your head over and over again for over three decades, the cast of players is always the same. My mother's hands were shaking, and she started to cry again. She was the younger of four children now, not just a pair. But why had she not heard about them? And where were they now? That was at least partly answered as we read further.

"...that the plaintiff desires the custody of the sons, namely, Jerry Duane, age 8 and Ted William, age 6, and is willing that the defendant may have the custody of Sandra Kay, age 4."

My mother's adoptive parents, Ray and Rita, never knew about the elder sons because they were never a part of the interaction between the two couples. Only four-year-old Sandy remained with her mother. And as far as we knew up to then, Eldon Miller appeared in no printed resources for Elkhart or Goshen after 1946. Wherever he went after this divorce was final, he took his sons - my mother's half-brothers. The court order finalizing the divorce was dated 26 November 1946, barely a month before my mother's birth.

We also received a copy of Helen Marie Miller's marriage application, license and certificate to Frank Louis Strukel, all occurring on 18 January 1947. The child she had given birth to just eighteen days before was starting a new life in the home of Raymond and Arreda (Dobyns) DePrato, less than ten miles away. Helen, just shy of her thirtieth birthday, was barely a week out of the hospital. The event was likely filled with joys of a new future together as well as profound sadness that it could not be shared with their first-born child. 

The shadowy figures of Frank Krueger, Marie Miller and Sandy Miller that had lurked in the corners of my mother's mind now had definitive identities: Frank Louis Strukel, Helen Marie (Timmons) Miller and Sandra Kay Miller. New players were added: Eldon DeWayne Miller, Jerry Duane Miller and Ted William Miller. These were real people now. People of flesh and blood. And people who hopefully had answers to more and more questions.

It was time to visit Long's Lock Shop in Elkhart to have a key made, and to check out the sixty-five-year-old woman behind the counter.


  1. ahhhhh!!! Stop stopping!

  2. OK, I am loving this...mainly because I also got into genealogy to solve the riddle of who my grandmother's biological family was. I was also successful (I'm assuming that's where you're headed). Looking forward to reading more!

  3. I wish I had found this blog later so I wouldn't have to WAIT :)

  4. Ditto Pam's comment! Love the story details and the cliffhanger endings. The themes of family interactions echioing through the generations are universal and universally interesting. I will be back!

  5. What a great blog! Waiting for the next post!

  6. Your Mom is a treasured friend Michael and I am so grateful to be able to read this! I hate having to wait for the next "installment" but I am sure it will be another great read! Your style of writing makes it all the better! Thank you Michael!

  7. I'll have to slow down my reading I don't want to get to the point of waiting for the next installment.

  8. Pretty fascinating breakdown you've laid out there. Those kinds of case studies are important, especially to those who aim to pursue the paths in the face of their domestic situation or relationships. If anything, it equips their mind about certain pieces of wisdom, which they can take into account, as well as all the possible interventions that may get in the way, so they can ably adjust and legally maneuver accordingly.

    Howard Kurtz @ Kurtz & Blum, PLLC

  9. Every family has a great story to tell. It just sad that in your quest in finding your family’s history, you found a divorce paper from your grandparents. A divorce doesn't usually leave a good memory; but in your case, it served a good lead to your mother’s siblings. I just hope it will help your mother to finally reunite with her long lost brother and sister.

    Sammy Jackson @ Ken Phillips

  10. Here staying warm reading your blog. So far I'm liking this.