So, I've written before about my father and his wretched childhood. It's the stuff of family lore -- too miserable to be believed, and too sad to make a really good story. (Here's a little bit about how we're trying to do it differently.)
You can't really dig your teeth into my father's childhood as a story because there's no hero, no happy ending, and no lessons learned.
Only a miserable, wicked childhood, unending abuse, and a brilliant, beautiful boy who was broken by it.
In a nutshell: My father, Don McGovern, was born in 1932, in Pittsfield, Mass., to a woman named Maggie Elser, who was married to a man named Bart McGovern. Apparently, Bart had married Maggie out of sympathy, or pity, or a sense of honor, because she was already pregnant with another man's child when he married her.
And Bart, who was a mean, nasty, miserable drunk, never let Maggie nor her child forget that Bart had taken pity on a whore and her bastard son.
He beat them both, called them names, and made sure my father knew that he wasn't wanted. Then Bart had three more children with his poor wife, and made them just as miserable, while making sure that they all knew what a terrible woman their mother was. The stories of what happened to all of their children are grim, stark and ugly. My father might have had it the best of all of them.
My father left home at 12 or 13 to escape being beaten to death, and pretty much never went back. He joined the Navy for a while, lived on the streets, lived in Chicago, New York, San Francisco. He was an actor, a writer, a con man, a husband a few times over.
His one dream, though, was to know who his "real" father was. He was sure that his father was a gentleman. A good man. Not a drunk, or an abusive, uneducated boor.
My father asked, and asked, but Maggie would never tell. Finally, at one point, Maggie's sister told my dad what she knew. The sister said that his "real" father had been a handsome man, an engineer, traveling through town. He was charming and funny and educated, and had a quick fling with Maggie. He did tell her that he had a sister who was a doctor -- quite a feat for 1931. And when my father found out that Maggie had died, he grieved doubly, for when he asked his aunt for a name, she said, "I'm sorry, Don. That's a secret she took to the grave."
I've always wondered, too. I mean, how can you not? This is my grandfather we're talking about, and it would be fascinating to learn the real story.
But she took the secret to the grave with her, and it was one of those things that we'd never know.
She died in 1975 or thereabouts -- forty years ago. This is one of those things that you just have to let go, right?
My mother called and said that my father's last sibling, Terry, was going through a box of his mother's things.
And there, written on a piece of paper, was the name of my grandfather.
Frank Filian. An engineer with the Massachusetts railroad, she thought. And that was it. Just a note. A letter. Something she'd decided to write long ago, and something that no one ever thought was important until now. Terry called my mom and mentioned it. My mom called me. And presto, instant grandparents. Probably cousins and aunts and uncles, too, if I look hard enough.
I've been poking around ancestry.com for an hour or so, and I've found a couple of Frank Filians. I have no idea if they're the right ones. I have no idea what, if anything to do with any of this information.
But you know, just when you think my family can't get any damned weirder, relatives start coming up from the grave.
We'll see where the search for Mr. Filian goes.