Everything written here is true to the best of my knowledge. All of these statements came directly from my mother or other family members.
Ever since I was a little girl, I was told who my grandfather was, what he did for a living and why he wasn’t in our lives. It didn’t really matter to me as he had died when I was too young to even know what a grandfather was. As a small child, I never questioned or challenged this explanation. I never really thought about it much to be honest, until I was older and my mother and her family explained more to me about it and the who’s and why’s of the whole saga that was my mother’s birth and early childhood. I’m sure there’s even more to this story but I will share with you what was passed down to me, as this is the “rest of the story” as “they” say.
My mother was born on August 12, 1923 in Toledo Ohio. All of her mother’s family were nestled in the Alleghany Mountains in Nanticoke, PA and had been since shortly after they arrived in America from Cardiff Wales in the late nineteenth century. They were coal miners. They were hard working, honest, first and second generation Americans and proud of it.
My grandmother was ahead of her time. Perhaps even a little too far ahead when it came to a slightly younger but very talented young man, whom she apparently had quite an attraction to and whom obviously felt the same way about her. This younger man was an accomplished musician and was for the most part self-taught and yet as a teen, he worked in the Pennsylvania coal mines. Not for long though. He was on his way to bigger and better things. However, one night or day or afternoon in December of 1922, he assisted my grandmother in conceiving a child who would end up being my mother, nine months later.
Did I mention they weren’t married? Did I mention that it was relayed to me by my mother by way of her mother and later confirmed by me through passport records found on Ancestry.com, that this young man’s parents were not fond of the idea of him having a child out-of-wedlock and therefore, he suddenly came upon the opportunity to marry someone else and was on a plane to Europe in what seemed like a whirlwind, with a fabulous opportunity to study music?
Well good for him right?
My grandmother was single and pregnant in 1923. Not so good for her. Luckily, she was a lovely young woman and as it was explained to me, a very nice young man who was a friend, with an already established family business and an already established affection for my dear grandmother, agreed to marry her and give my mother a “name” as they used to say. However, my grandmother ended up leaving her little home town anyway and moving with an aunt in Toledo…where nobody knew her.
That’s just how it was done in those days.
From this point on, I only know bits and pieces but I’m sharing them with you now. My grandmother worked nights and sometimes days and nights and she boarded my mother with babysitters. Apparently, throughout the years, they moved around quite a bit and then finally ended up in Detroit, MI for a while. My grandmother always had diamonds, furs and beautiful clothes. My mother truly did not want for anything. If you’re wondering how my grandmother could afford all of this on the salary of a hostess or coat check girl in a nightclub, you’d be correct to wonder.
As I said, she was quite the “looker” and was never at a loss for male companionship but much of these “gifts” were coming from one source and as much as it may pain some people to know these things, just because you don’t want to believe something is true, doesn’t make it a lie.
My grandfather was not only subsidizing my mother and grandmother’s living expenses, he was seeing them fairly regular on his travels around the country with his band. He was even inviting them to come and “stay” in whatever town he was in at the moment; usually New York. He was writing some of his most famous songs – about my grandmother. How do I know this? I know because my grandmother, my mother, my mother’s cousins all knew him and knew the truth about my mother’s birth and they told me. None of these women have ever lied to me but unfortunately now, all I have are letters and memoirs of first hand accounts of these truths as they’ve all passed on.
My mother told me of once when she was very young, playing in the front yard of one of her babysitters and in her words. “a big black touring car pulled up and some men got out. Then, I saw a man on crutches getting out of the car and he began talking to me and telling me he had been in a very bad car accident. He asked me if I wanted to come and live with him. Just then, my babysitter came screaming out of the house and snatched me up! Later, I overheard her telling my mother that a man had come and was trying to steal me away.”
They moved soon after that.
The stories of my mother were so bittersweet. She never knew that this man was her biological father until she was twenty-one years old. They didn’t speak of these things in those days “don’t ya know.” She only knew him as my grandmother’s “friend from home.” When my Mother and Grandmother would visit, he’d take them back stage and introduce them…as a friend from back home and her child. My mother recalls some very unfriendly glances and a feeling of not being welcome on more than one occasion by a woman, who was most likely my grandfather’s wife and rightfully so I’d guess.
For my mother, the happiest days of her life were spent in Nanticoke, PA, where she moved when she was a freshman in high school. Detroit had proven to be a dangerous place for a single woman and young girl and my grandmother felt it much better for my mother that she finish school “back home” with her cousins. However, my grandmother missed the bright lights and the big city and moved on, leaving my mother with her sister Mae and her husband, to finish school with her cousins. It was the best thing she ever did for my mother.
Her father popped in and out of her life with gifts or little bits of money but still, she only thought of him as a family friend. He’d show up at her aunt Mae’s with his band and entourage for a good homemade meal and apple pie and then be on his way to New York or Philadelphia or wherever he was doing his next show. I think that took a lot of nerve.
When my mother was twenty-one, she was “in the family way” with her first child. Naturally, the prospect of becoming a mother herself led her to begin to ask questions of “what if?” Her husband had left to go fight Hitler so she again moved home to Nanticoke to stay with her Aunt Mae to await the birth of her first child. One night after dinner, she and her cousins and her Aunts were all cleaning up after dinner. As they all stood in the kitchen washing dishes, my mother was speaking to them about how much she adored this man and how all of her life she had wished he was her father. She of course had always worn the name of the man who gave it to her but she never knew him and I believe that deep down in her heart, she already knew the truth, even before her Aunt Annie spoke up abruptly, “I’ve had about enough of this! Russ Morgan IS your father!” Aunt Annie was apparently the family equivalent of Maury Povitch in her day.
Upon drying the dishes, my Mother, heavy with child took a walk to the home of the man who gave her a name and boldly knocked on his front door. She was coolly greeted by the woman of the house, who had apparently received a phone call in regards to my mother’s visit, while she strolled alone through the quiet Mayberryesque streets of Nanticoke to face her destiny.
“I know why you’re here. No. Tommy Davis is not your father. Russell Morgan is.” was all the woman said.
My mother was oddly relieved and elated all at once. Her heart and her instincts had been correct all along. All she needed was DNA proof. Unfortunately, the real Maury wasn’t available and neither was DNA testing. However, the resemblance, the support, the obvious continued affection toward her mother, the dance lessons, the backstage passes, the hotels and the intangible human connection rushed over her. She finally asked her mother. The answer was of course, “yes.”
My mother idolized this man. She adored him. She loved him. She worshiped him. She had his picture by her bed side. She listened to his record albums until the day she died, regardless of his abandonment and much worse. Even during the darkest bewildered hours of her progressing Alzheimer’s and dementia, she asked me to not forget to pick up the ticket’s for his show because he was coming to town.
Unfortunately, my mother isn’t listed in any bio, liner note or memoir. My mother has never been acknowledged by his “family” as a legitimate child or even a possible love child. She was even called an obsessed fan at one point when my sister and I took her to see her father’s band in the 80’s when they came to Baltimore on tour. Her father had long since passed away but the music lived on and still does to this day. I’ll admit, we were furious over this. All my mother wanted was to meet her younger brother. He was very polite and even posed for photos with her but he did not then, nor has he or any of his kin ever thought of her as anything more than that “obsessed” fan.
When my mother became bed ridden, I reached out to her brother and received several responses from his daughter. I was less than kind in my first e-mail but later apologized. I hadn’t stopped to think that perhaps they thought I wanted something from them other than just the acknowledgement of my mother’s birth. At her request, I forwarded post cards, photographs and whatever else I had. Yes, I even saved my mother’s hair brush in case they wanted that DNA after all.
I’ve recently had my DNA tested by Ancestry.com. Low and behold, a second cousin did as well and showed up as an “extremely likely” match. We share a common grandparent by the name of Russ Morgan. She may have no clue who I am or my entire side of the family but I did reach out to her via Ancestry. My hope is that with this new information…DNA which as far as I know cannot lie, my sweet mother will at last be given the acknowledgement she has long deserved.
I still don’t want anything from them. I just want my mother’s story told.
For the most part, I just told it.
Did I mention I have a son who is sixteen? He is extremely gifted in music and for the most part is self taught and has already started to compose his own music. He picked up a saxophone 18 months ago and joined his high school marching and jazz bands as a junior. He is a senior in high school this year and guess what?
He’s the Drum Major and the leader of the band. I only wish my mother was alive today to live this with us but I know she’s watching and she will eternally have backstage passes.