Family Photos

September 23, 2022

My Grandmother, Agostina Moreno Fisk (circa. 1900)

I remember seeing a black-and-white snapshot in one of my mother’s old photo albums of an older woman I did not recognize.  I believe the picture was taken in the late 1940s when my parents were living outside Washington, DC, and I was a baby.  I learned much later that the woman was my mother’s birth mother.  The woman’s existence was a secret kept from my siblings and me until I was 40.  It was then my mother disclosed to us the shameful fact that she had been adopted as a baby by the couple I had previously taken to be my natural grandparents.  Of course, social attitudes toward unwed mothers had changed markedly by the time her own children reached adulthood, and none of us felt the least stigma about our supposedly tarnished lineage.  We just felt bad that my mother saw the need to keep her adoption a dark secret all those years.

The woman I had previously assumed to be my grandmother had died of congestive heart failure when my mother was only 15, so I never knew her.  But I had a framed photograph of her hanging in my upstairs hall.  Judging by her hairstyle and dress, the picture must have been taken around the turn of the last century.  She was a Mexican-American beauty in a silk gown, standing by a lace curtain window. How had I failed to notice that this diminutive woman had somehow produced a tall, blond-haired daughter?

As it turned out, my mother’s revelation wasn’t the end of the story.  She and my father had tracked down her birth mother when I was still an infant.  My original grandmother had been a schoolteacher who had never married, a graduate of the University of Maine.  My parents found her through the alumni office.  The only information they had on the father was that he was been a sailor in the U.S. Navy during World War I.  Tracking him down took a bit more detective work, which my younger sister undertook much later.  She used her own DNA sample to identify him through   

What she found was also a bit of a revelation.  It turns out our grandfather was a very enterprising man, although not in a good way.  He had twice been convicted of bigamy, and none of the four women involved was our grandmother.  He did a stretch in Sing Sing after two of his wives found out about each other and turned him in.  Apart from his criminal record, the only other thing we learned about him is that he once lived in the same Greenwich Village townhouse later occupied by the novelist James Baldwin.

My mother never knew about any of this, thank God.  She passed away before it was possible for people routinely to uncover skeletons in their closets through DNA testing.  It was enough for my mother to deal with the fact that she was a illegitimate daughter of an otherwise respectable spinster schoolteacher from Maine. 

What do I think about this skeleton in my closet?  The fact that I am disclosing it here might suggest that I’m not overly concerned about this blemish on my family history.  You might even say it adds a certain colorful twist to a narrative that would otherwise involve a dreary fling between an unwed schoolteacher and an anonymous sailor.  I do not think their indiscretion reflects badly on me, my mother or even that poor young schoolteacher who allowed herself to get carried away by her feelings for a sailor who would go on to greater glory as a bigamist. 

My tangled family tree reminds me of a saying popular among born-again Christians: “God has no grandchildren.”  By that they mean what matters is your immediate relationship with God the Father, not who your earthly parents or grandparents are.  I can be the descendent of a saint and still be estranged from God.  This case is the reverse of that.  I can be the grandchild of a criminal and still be no less a child of God.

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