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?