There are some wonderful stories in my own family. I don’t mean wonderful in the sense that they are about happy times or admirable people (although there are those stories, too.). I mean it in the literal sense. Full of wonder. Sometimes I have thought to myself that it sounds like fiction. But then they do say the truth is stranger than fiction.
A couple of years ago my paternal grandfather died. I had never met him. This is due mainly to my father. I have only inklings of how awful his childhood was. I know his mother abandoned him and his three brothers and sister when he was only five. Aunt Debbie was an infant. I know his stepmother was abusive. Reading her letters now, I have a theory that she has schizophrenia. At any rate, the way she strings thoughts together is not normal. I know he was so poor he only owned one shirt in fourth grade. He wore it every day and was teased. I know he ate rice with milk for breakfast, presumably because his family couldn’t afford commercial cereal. I know he has this weird name-brand transfixion that Mom explains by saying he always had to get the cheapest brand of whatever item when he was a kid. And, as kids will, he felt cheated by that. I’m sure back in that time the store brand or generic imitations were probably not as good as they are now. I know that his grandmother, the only person in his childhood who showed him love (so my mother says) died in as horrendous a car accident as you can imagine when he was around 14. I know his stepmother kicked him out of the house when he was 16. He had to fend for himself and try to finish high school on his own. He did. He was the only one of the boys who did. He had a full scholarship to go to college in Florida, but couldn’t afford the air fare. So he joined the Air Force. My father despises his stepmother and didn’t have much care for his father — at least that is how it looked to me. The way it has been described to me, Grandpa was extremely passive and did little to protect his children from the wrath of the stepmother. My mother keeps in touch with her. If this has ever bothered Dad, he never let on. But he won’t have a thing to do with his family. It’s like he took a chainsaw to his family tree and cut off his branch.
That is how I didn’t know about Grandpa’s life until he died. My mother sent me the obituary. I had always known my grandfather was adopted, but we always had the name wrong. His natural mother remarried a man with the last name Leidel (I think), so Dad always assumed that was his father’s last name. It wasn’t. I discovered my grandfather, whom I had always known to be David Edwin Swier was actually born Edwin Guy Gearhart. He was about 10 when he was adopted. I was astounded by this news. I had always assumed he was adopted as a much smaller child, and I never knew that his given name had been changed. According to his obituary, his natural parents had been Omar Alfred Gearhart and Gertrude Nettie Perkins.
I was fortunate to find someone who knew what happened at a genealogy message board. Her father had been one of my grandfather’s natural brothers. She had been to visit some of the other siblings. My great-grandfather, Omar Gearhart, had an accident. Head injury. He was never the same after that. He began drinking. He was abusive to his wife. If memory serves, he was abusive to the children, too. He was murdered by his business partner, leaving Gertrude alone and pregnant, with lots of children to feed. She wasn’t able to find work for herself. The older children got work where they could. But it was the Great Depression. The family began to starve. The younger children lined up, waiting for their turn at Gertrude’s breast. I’m not sure what the older children ate. Gertude was told Washington State authorities were going to come and take her children. She must have felt desperate and scared. It’s possible that the idea that they would be separated, live in orphanages, and never see her again was devastating. She met with her pastor. He brought the issue before the congregation. The congregation adopted the children. They were separated, but most of them allowed the children to remain in contact with their natural mother and siblings. My grandfather must have, because my father clearly remembers his natural great-grandmother and an aunt, an older natural sister of my grandfather’s.
After I found this out, I was asked why I kept the Swier line, which my dad’s second cousin Rick has meticulously researched back to the eighteenth century in the Netherlands, in my family tree. After all, isn’t genealogy all about who you are related to? Where your hair color and hands came from? Isn’t it all about whose blood flows in your veins? I guess it is. But it is also about family, history, and remembering. I personally think what the Swiers did by taking in a starving ten-year-old boy and calling him as much their own as their natural daughters was… wonderful. It speaks to the more admirable qualities of human nature. It speaks of love. And to me, it makes them as much my family as the Gearharts are.