The Dilemma

Paternal grandfather with children.

Paternal grandfather with children.

Although an intriguing story told to my children by my paternal grandfather sparked my interest in family history, I found myself unwilling to fully research this part of my family. My grandfather was a repulsive man - liar, thief, convicted criminal, child molester, and adulterer. I remember clearly the first time I heard the term, sociopathy, in college. I sat up straighter and hung on every word, for it was the first time I had insight into the cruel, destructive manipulations of the sociopath who terrorized our family and chipped away at trust and self-esteem.

And yet, the intrigue around my paternal great grandmother finally drew me in. My grandfather’s wild tales couldn’t be believed, as he’d lie when the truth would serve him better, but my grandmother, who I’d always found to be honest, had described her mother-in-law as “part Indian” and the gentlest, kindest woman she’d ever known. I remembered her stories about her mother-in-law’s treatment at the hands of relatives who’d taken her in when she was orphaned, saying that many times she’d been forced to clean and sew until she’d collapse in a heap, waking up in the same clothes and in the same position on the floor. Being an animal lover, I was especially fond of the story about a time when they were moving into a new house and one of the dogs tried to sneak inside. My grandmother described how she kicked at the dog to keep it away from the door and how her mother-in-law softly scolded her, saying that if she’d ever been treated like a dog, as she had been, she could never harm a living thing.

I tried to avoid it, but I just couldn’t get my great grandmother out of my mind. Was she really Native American? Did she and her children flee to her family on the reservation whenever her husband would abuse her and the kids? What happened to her parents - how had she become an orphan? Why did relatives abuse her? If relatives had abused her when she was growing up, why would she seek sanctuary among them when escaping her abusive husband?

I called my grandmother to get more details, but she referred me to my aunt who could give me contact info for a great aunt who was the family historian. Subsequent conversations with my aunts revealed that my great grandmother’s father was accidentally killed on his way to summon a doctor when an Army troop mistook him for a deserter. This puzzled me - how did the Army mistake a Native American Chief for an Army deserter? I asked what happened to her mother, suggesting that she wouldn’t be an orphan if her mother was still alive. My questions were shaken off impatiently. It became pretty clear that I would have to dig deeper if I wanted to get to the truth. But digging deeper would require me to get much closer to the story of my grandfather than I was comfortable with. What a dilemma. How badly did I want to know?

The Spark

I have always been interested in the past. Historical novels, old buildings, and cemeteries captured my childhood imagination and filled me with longing for something I could never quite identify. While siblings and cousins rolled their eyes and plotted an escape from elder relatives spinning tales, I settled in and begged for more. My maternal grandmother’s stories of mining camps and covered wagons (not Calistogas, she would remind me when my eyes flashed wild) left me breathless imagining the exciting life she had lived. Although the stories included scoundrels and heroes, romance and bitter betrayal, I never gave much thought to actually researching and discovering more about our family characters until I took a memorable ride to Phoenix with my paternal grandfather, a world-class scoundrel.

That day began with a call from one of my aunts saying, “Shannon, Daddy escaped and we think he’s coming to Prescott. He has a gun and said he’s going to kill your Aunt #####. Now you keep an eye out and let me know if he shows up at your house.”

Looking back, now, I am amazed that I took a phone call like that in stride. I don’t recall now if he was coming from New Mexico or Oklahoma, or why he would come to Prescott, when the aunt he intended to kill lived in Mesa, but I do remember that I just calmly went about preparing to deliver my grandfather to one aunt’s house to keep him from killing another aunt. All these years later, with an education in sociology and crisis training under my belt, I recognize that the insanity of our lives in those days was our normal baseline, but at that point in my life, this was barely a blip on the family Richter scale.

As predicted, my grandfather arrived in a big boat of a car with $8,000.00 in cash in his glove box and a pistol sitting on top. I told him I was driving him down to Mesa, locked his gun in the trunk, loaded my kids in the car, fought him for the driver’s seat, and headed for the valley.

On the drive down from Prescott, my grandfather entertained the kids with stories of his childhood, growing up with a mother who was Native American and a white father who was a violent drunk. He told of the times when his mother would gather up her kids and flee to her family’s land on the reservation where her father was a chief. “A chief!” my boys exclaimed, spurring their great grandfather to relate all kinds of horror, including terrifying nights spent clutching his pillow, sure that the “Indians” were going to scalp him. “Wasn’t until I was a growed man I come to realize those Indians was my own family,” he told them.

I grew up on those stories, but knowing my grandfather for a bald-faced liar, I’d learned not to believe the specifics of anything he said. I sighed and tried to give the kids eye signals in the rear-view mirror, but they were hanging on his every word and determined to ignore mom.

We arrived in Mesa, delivered my grandfather to my uncle and sat down to visit with my aunt while we waited for my husband to arrive and take us back home. A few minutes into our visit, my uncle rushed in, saying that my grandfather had escaped.

“Escaped?” my aunt shrieked as she jumped up to run outside. “What do you mean?”

“Well,” my uncle responded, “I turned my back on him for a second and the next thing I knew, your dad drove his car right through the fence and took off.” My grandmother told me later that my grandfather had rattled around Mexico for several weeks, arriving home $8,000.00 poorer with a pile of old saddles in his trunk.

On the ride back up to Prescott, I couldn’t get the thought of my great grandmother out of my mind. What had she endured, living with a violent drunk who terrorized her and her children? What reservation did she come from? Was her dad really a chief? No! I kept scolding myself, my grandfather was such a liar, I couldn’t believe a word he said. But I did believe my grandmother, and she’d told me stories of her mother-in-law as “part-Indian” and the gentlest woman she’d ever known.

The spark was lit . . . I had to know more!