Again, a bit of a warning on content, these posts are kind of dark. I’m writing about the people, events and circumstances that conspire to hide information.
In part one, using my aunt as an example, I talked a bit about how a little fudgery goes a long way and can have unintended consequences. A minor conspiracy to conceal the truth in order to meet social norms, can spider out doing long-term harm. The conspiracy gets a life of its own, enveloping co-conspirators both willing and unwitting to its cause.
Without the benefit of a time machine, and alternate universes to peer into, I have to wonder how things would have turned out without the conspiracy. Would there have been less hurt and bitterness? Would people have been their better selves if they didn’t have to cover up their humanity and their feelings for the rest of their lives? Was there really any other choice to be made in 1947?
My guess is that there was not really a better option than a quick and speedy marriage between two people whose outlook had suddenly become very poor, one a minor criminal and a survivor of Polio in a manual labor world, and the other an educated, employed and heretofore “well to do” unwed mother. Were they both trapped by the best solution that presented itself and forced to live out the reality they had crafted?
They wouldn’t have told me if I’d asked.
For my part, I know the conspiracy started back in 1947, but the real crime has been in letting it continue. At a certain point, we’re all adults and it’s not 1947 anymore, so who does this misrepresentation continue to serve? People, like my aunt, deserve to know how they got where they are, don’t need it for protection from society anymore. Maybe it was just old hat, or maybe it was left in place to protect my grandfather (who outlived my grandmother by a few years). In any case, the time to let go of the lie came and went and it remained intact. That is the real tragedy for those left behind.
Part 2: A Conspiracy Compounding
This is an old story and perhaps I’m getting punchy and don’t remember all the details, but it begins my journey into genealogy. I’ve always wanted to know where we come from. We had vague family stories, but I wanted something more concrete. So, as an adult, on a visit to my grandparents and prompted by a failed attempt at a family tree for my son’s elementary school class, I just asked. Who are we, who are the Thompsons? Who are your parents?
My grandfather just sort of stared at me and my grandmother said “They don’t have any money for you”. that was the beginning, middle and end of our conversation about Thompson family history. I had some wispy notion of her family, the Seelyes, from family reunions and photographs, but it was apparent that the Thompson family was off-limits.
So…why is it off-limits and how can I get around this road block? I began with the Lord. My dad has this big bible that I don’t think anyone has really leafed through much, but stuck inside it is a birth certificate, my Grandfather’s. On the birth certificate is Bishop, Ray Thompson and Orvetta, Ina Finks (pictured with my grandfather and baby aunt above).
That seems straight forward enough, so why not just tell me? Why go through the machinations to hide such simple summary information?
That bit of withholding is the story you see unfolding here on this blog. It begins with a simple denial of information most people would take for granted and..it hasn’t ended yet. That denial is the first layer, a minor and probably needless conspiracy to keep me away from basic information about my own family. That layer is just a speed bump, but it becomes more of a trigger that would expose another layer of deception.
The second layer of this conspiracy is the unfinished story of Charles Thompson and who his father actually is. This is an older layer and all the original conspirators are long dead. I didn’t know about this layer until I started taking DNA tests to try to get past my paper trail brick wall (3rd great-grandfather Levi Thompson). I don’t have living sources like my aunt to talk to. I have to put this one together based on clues.
Of course, as you can read in this blog, we’re not Thompsons. It’s very unlikely that Charles Thompson was the son of Ray Bishop Thompson (pictured above in the back row, the dark-haired grumpy looking young man on the right). We’re Elmores, somehow.
As sometimes happens, our DNA has exposed some elements of the hidden story of how we made the switch from Elmores to Thompsons. I believe, based on the best evidence I have, that this layer of camouflage was put in place by Orvetta Finks.
Charles Thompson’s mother Orvetta had a nervous breakdown when he was a toddler. I don’t know what led to the breakdown, only that she had one, that she was still living with the Finks family and that it was decided that Charles would go live with his father in Indiana. He was then sent away to live with Ray Thompson, who wanted nothing to do with him. All I know about their relationship is that they hated each other (normally a sure sign of relatedness in my family).
Ray left Charles to be raised by his sisters (the aunts) and, as far as I know, had general disdain for his son. From the age of two to adulthood, Charles was a Thompson with all the benefits and detractors of that affiliation. He was reckless and spoiled by the resources the Thompson family then had. The story goes that he was eventually run out of the county by the sheriff. Charles moved to Michigan. He then returned to his mother later in life and they reconciled.
Did Ray know that something was not right? Was he a co-conspirator with Orvetta or just an average bad father? Was he trapped in a shotgun wedding then saddled with a kid he didn’t want? What was Ray’s relationship with Orvetta and why was it so short-lived? What events caused her breakdown? What causes a mother to send her only child away until he is an adult? Was his relationship with Ray Thompson painful enough that he did not want to talk about it ever again?
What did all of this do to Charles and how did it affect his decisions and course of his life?
Of course there are other nagging questions about Charles Thompson that are now personal to me. What Elmore family do we belong to genetically and who is my biological great-grandfather?
If you’re keeping track at home, you will see that these conspiracies also had unintended consequences. The minor denial of basic information about our past from my grandparents, turned me to alternate sources of information and led ultimately to consumer DNA testing, which then revealed another hidden, dark and painful mystery in our family.
One generation before the conspiracy to hide my aunt’s paternity, we have a young woman, Orvetta Finks, and what appears to me to be a hasty marriage to Ray Thompson (under similar circumstances to my grandmother I’d guess). I can imagine a young unwed mother to be, frantic to find someone to make everything okay and somehow picking Ray Thompson. He was an employed man from a fairly well to do family and seems like a reasonable choice. America in 1925 was probably even less forgiving of unwed mothers than America in 1947. It may have seemed like the best option for her and for Charles, or maybe it was the only option. I won’t ever really know.
I think everyone probably did what was expected of them in 1925. They did what society needed them to do to conform. They conspired to cover something up (just what that is..I don’t really know) and crafted a family from that. Again, like my grandmother’s choice, it was probably the right decision for the time.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out and nothing was okay, not for Orvetta or Charles or Ray.
Next up: It’s just a hobby.