Growing up, I knew absolutely nothing about my paternal grandfather. I was told he died, which was true. What I didn’t know was that in 1941 he abandoned his wife and 5 children (with one on the way), left them in Idaho and went off to start a new life in California. His name was Carrol Raymond Messler and he died years later in 1959.
I knew very little about Carrol, in fact, I had never even seen a photo of him. I didn’t know what kind of work he did, I didn’t know about the events that led to his leaving. I didn’t even know what he looked like.
I grew up calling my grandmother Mildred’s second husband Percy “grandpa”. They married in 1956, long before I was born, so he is the one who I remember. Percy died in 1993 at the age of 91. I traveled back to Idaho for Percy’s funeral. Understandably, my grandmother was having a difficult day and it happened that for a short time, it was just the two of us in her house.
She sat on the sofa and pulled out an old cigar box that held photos and pulled one out and handing it to me she said, “That’s Carrol”. Oh my goodness, it was like looking at a photo of my own father. As I looked at the photo, grandma began telling me stories. Stories that I had never heard before. She talked about the difficulty of caring for six children, feeding them and clothing them during the 1940s. She shared memories of situations she faced.
And then she walked into the kitchen and sat at the old Formica table. Grandma’s kitchen was the center-piece of the house. Only guests used the front door, friends and family always came in through the back straight into the kitchen. Even now, as I write this, I can still picture the kitchen. As we sat at the table, drinking our Cokes, Grandma pointed over to the wall next to the basement door. “See that hammer? Hand it to me will you?” I reached over for the hammer and gave it to her.
She looked down at it as she turned it over in her hands and told me the story of how the hammer came to be.
“I was over at my folk’s house one day, out in the barn with my father, when Ramon found this old hammer head in the dirt.”
“Mommy, mommy,” he said, “I’m going to take this home and Daddy can make me…”
“He stopped talking and threw the hammer head down. After he left the barn I picked the hammer head up and stuck it in my pocket. Years later, Percy made this handle for me and put it together.”
I looked at the hammer. A normal, every-day hammer that was always leaning in the corner behind the basement door. But it held secrets. The secrets to a little boy’s pain at knowing his father was never coming home again. The secrets to a mother’s pain. And it held understanding for me.
I think about the secrets that families have. As researchers secrets are our goal. We dig into newspaper articles and birth, marriage, and death records looking for the secrets. How much easier our jobs would be if people didn’t keep secrets. Life is painful, life is beautiful and messy. Must secrets play such a big part?