When a Discovery Halts Your Writing

Today I started writing again on a story about my grandma on my dad’s side, Myrtle. She died when my dad was just 16 years old, so we never knew her. From when we were little, though, he told us stories about her strength and love.

As I became more interested in family history, I knew I wanted to write her story. Last year, I had blocked time on my calendar for 1.5 days each week to work on the book, and started sifting through the letters, documents, and pictures that gave me glimpses into her life.

I was on a roll, piecing together all I knew, creating a story for me, my siblings, and future generations to know the story of Myrtle rising up from a west Texas ranch girl in the 1910s, who had overcome serious illnesses, to a California suburban mom in the 1940s, who was raising a gentle and loving boy.

After exhausting all of the information I knew, I started looking into a part of her life that had been hidden for nearly 80 years – the birth father of her son, my dad. She had told my dad a name, but never offered proof. Last year, my sister and I decided to ask for my dad’s sealed records from when his stepfather formally adopted him.

We were hoping to find out the name of my dad’s birth father, and assumed the records would simply confirm that the name she had told my dad was true or it wasn’t.

We didn’t expect to find out that she had been married six years before; our dad was given her maiden name at birth; and no father was listed. We were a little surprised at this new information, but it wasn’t crazy news.

What I found out next did shock me. She said she had been married just over the border from El Paso, Texas so I decided to look at local newspapers from 1931, when the marriage took place. That’s when I found multiple articles about her having given birth just after she was married, but gave the baby up for adoption after the father abandoned her.

Wait? What?! To say we were floored is a gross understatement!

I found all of this out in the span of twelve hours. It was overwhelming and turned everything I had thought about Myrtle and her life upside down. I had to set it all aside for awhile to process what this meant for me, my family, and the story I was telling.

Mostly, I just felt for Myrtle, and how difficult it must have been for her.

Nearly a year later, I feel like I’ve made peace with the information, and understand how the times, Myrtle’s circumstances, and her desire to protect her family, influenced her decisions.

As I start again on her story, I’m planning to tastefully incorporate the new found information and highlight the strength and determination that Myrtle showed as she moved forward from tragic events in her life.

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