In 1934, my great-great grandfather Sam rewrote his will in order to write his children, grandchildren and first wife out of it. The reason why is a story of betrayal, heartache and conflicting loyalties that cycled out of control.
Sam married Ella in the summer of 1905 and loved her quite ardently. They had two children – Stanley and Rona – and a pretty nice life, it seems. Secretly, though, there was a dark underbelly to all this – secrets that both Sam and Ella knew but apparently never acknowledged to one another in the spirit of preserving their marriage, their family, and their dignity. The secrets were Sam’s girlfriends.
Their grand-daughter Dione says it was because Ella was obsessive-compulsive about cleanliness and would rather scrub the floors than have sleep with her husband and so even though he loved his wife, Sam looked for physical affection elsewhere. Ella knew it and pretended not to – I don’t know if Sam knew that or didn’t – but their lives continued on as if there were no secrets. Until one day when their son was a teenager and angry at his father for betraying his mother, confronted her with another woman’s hairpin that he’d found in his father’s car or somewhere in the house. Having her husband’s infidelities literally shoved under her nose left Ella with no choice – she couldn’t ignore it anymore, she couldn’t pretend she didn’t know what was going on – and they filed for divorce.
The divorce – like the secret of the mistresses – was also nothing if not complex. I can’t decide if it was another matter of saving face or something else entirely but the divorce papers allege that Sam was divorcing Ella because of she threw things at him. Maybe she did throw things at him when she finally confronted him about the other women. Or maybe he concocted this story of abuse in order to keep his girlfriend from being named as a co-respondent. But in the end, the result was the same: their divorce was granted and Ella moved to California with her adult children, while Sam married his mistress in Chicago and died 5 years later.
In those intervening 5 years, Sam had little to no contact with his children because this series of betrayals escalated into a taking of sides wherein his children both took their mother’s side and he could never forgive them for it. And so, when he died in 1936, he left his children and grandchildren each a dollar so they couldn’t contest his will and left the rest of his estate to his second wife, Lola. My grandmother likes to end some tellings of this story by quoting “whatever Lola wants, Lola gets,” but in my piecing together of the story, Lola is only a shadow figure who helped to set this chain of events going and not the real heart of things at all. She may have been a central player, but in the end whatever she wanted or got has nothing to do with the real tragedy of this story, which simply boils down to what happens when a father betrays his son and a son betrays his father. This is the guilt and hurt that Sam lived with every day of his final 5 years, and the guilt and hurt that his son Stanley has thought about and regretted every day of his last 77.