Monday, June 9, 2014

A Walk with Aaron

Under the stunning shadows of the Grand Teton mountain range, along the banks of the Snake River, I’ve decided to take a walk with my grandfather. Yes, the man had been dead for close to fifty years, but I picture him by my side as we meander along the rock and sand landscape bordering the river. This man is a mystery to me – gone long before I was born and rarely talked about. Aaron Westley Moore isn’t remembered with fondness; and yet, my maiden name comes down through his shadows, through that murky past. I want to know more about this guy.

I actually have a lot of information about Aaron discovered through the flotsam and jetsam of living in a bureaucracy. Census records, birth and death certificates, court records – all of this digital or microfilm information can flesh out many holes in an ancestor’s life. I’ve been trying to sort out the circumstances of Aaron’s life for years. Having a handful of facts doesn’t tell the complete tale and no one is alive to explain what happened approximately a hundred years ago. Wandering along the trails that follow the river, pausing to admire the elk across the wide expanse, I talk to Aaron as if he was right there with me, sharing with him what I know.
And so I say out loud for all of nature to hear: "I know that within six years of your birth, your father was gone from your life and you, with your mother, were living once again with your mother’s parents. With that information in hand, I tracked down your birth certificate and what I got was a delayed birth certificate that your mother filled out close to fifteen years after your birth. But Aaron, here’s what is odd: the name of your father on that birth certificate doesn’t match the name that is on your mother’s marriage license - yeah, I dug that up at the court house in Modesto. On the delayed birth certificate it has your father’s name as Marvin Albert Moore. The marriage license says his name is Richard A. Moore."
I walk – we walk – in silence.
There are a handful of pictures of my paternal grandfather, Aaron Westley Moore. He was a handsome man with an easy smile. My grandmother told me that they met at a dance in the early 30’s and she thought him handsome and charming and "with lots of experiences". He must have fascinated the Hollywood princess that she was. Well to do, studying teaching at USC, Maxine was probably all of twenty when she met Aaron who was so much more worldly at the age of 28. I fancy there is a sparkle in his eye as he smiles for the camera. He looks like he stands maybe six feet tall, fit and strong but hardly carefree. A photograph captures the moment, a handsome face, a piercing gaze. I picture that young man next to me. Stoic, an enigmatic smile on his face. None of this background information matters to him but he is a patient ghost of my imagination and waits for me to continue.
"What you may not have ever known, grandpa, is that your father’s name was Richard Albert Moore. The marriage certificate he signed said he was born in California in 1875. The only Richard Albert Moore born that year in California happened just north of Modesto in Green Valley. Your mother may have purposefully changed the first name on the delayed birth certificate – but she got the middle name right. I just don’t understand why she did it.

The wind whispers back to me – she had her reasons.
"What reasons? What did she not want anyone to know?" Aaron smiles at me and shrugs. He doesn’t care, why do I?
Because I want to understand.
Aaron’s half-sister, Marjorie, told my grandmother that Aaron’s father’s name was "never mentioned in front of her" and she suspected there had been a divorce. But Aaron and Marjorie’s mother had secrets of her own – when she had married Richard Moore in 1903, she had been married before as well. That wasn’t her maiden name on the marriage certificate. Laura Albatine Turpen Elkins Moore Sherman had a bit of a story all her own. I share that with Aaron – did he know? According to my father, no one knew.
"Grandpa," I said, "You were born into a world of secrets and lies."
His parents were first generation westerners – families that pioneered Oregon and California. This was a world that secrets could actually flourish – if you wanted to lie about the father of your child – you could. If you wanted to change your name, you could. In the west, disappearing off the face of the planet wasn’t that hard when all you had to do was leave town and head to a mining camp or another state. According to court records, there is no divorce on record for Laura and Richard but she could say that she divorced the man and for reasons that no one will ever know – Richard wasn’t going to be saying anything different. And just because I can’t find a divorce decree in Modesto, California circa 1910 doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. These old paper records get ruined all the time. It might still be there.

Why do you care, child?
I walk with that question. The wind is blustery, a touch of the winter only weeks away, while the fierce blaze of autumn colors shimmer in the fading sunlight. Wyoming, with the backdrop of jagged mountains and sage hills is the perfect place to hold this question.
I answer, grappling with my own thoughts.
"I could say that I am simply trying to trace back the surname that I carry with me – to find the Moore’s that came to California with the restless expansion west. But it’s more than that. I think about my dad and how he was formed as a child and young man. You, Aaron, left a mark on your son and I don’t know quite what it is. Legacy, I guess. Families pass down legacies in all manner of ways and I’m trying to figure out what yours was."
The wind sighs, brushing my hair back from my face.
Many of the pictures I have of Aaron are on the decks of various ships as he was a merchant marine during much of the 1940’s. Other pictures show him with his soon to be bride and later with his baby sons. The pictures grow less frequent as his three sons grow into young adulthood and the story goes on to tell how he died alone in Modesto from complications due to alcoholism. Separated, reunited, - and separated again – the rift between him and his family is acutely apparent as my father at the age of eighteen legally changed his middle name from Aaron to Alan.
There are the requisite photos with wife and children by his side and then, probably somewhere around 1950, an interesting picture comes to light where he is trying to share the chair with his wife. My grandmother looks like she is in pain, squished up against the wall of the chair doing everything to make sure that her body does not intimately touch his. Aaron doesn’t look much happier – the cocky young man has aged, looking tired and bloated. I imagine by this time his drinking had already crossed the line into alcoholism and the marriage was a fragile, brittle thing.
What are missing from the pictures are the experiences and emotions that were woven through his life. The fights, the tension and then the abrupt departures. All that exist are the stories as either retold to me by my mother - who was retelling what she had learned from her mother-in-law - or my father’s impressions that he finally shared because I kept asking him about this man who was his estranged father. The tale in its many permutations has taken on the mythic qualities of a simple fable of anger and abandonment. The storytellers in the family seem perfectly content with this abridged version of a life, content to put Aaron on a shelf marked Alcoholic and Black Sheep. It’s taken my own experience with aging and relationship to know how deeply complicated and entangled Aaron was with his own history and that of the other people around him. So who the hell was this guy?
Interestingly enough, it was Maxine, my grandmother and Aaron’s widow who shared some of the most perceptive information in a letter that she wrote me around 1998. She reminisced about the wartime depression and how Aaron built their house in Alta Dena, California with his step-father, Ray. She wrote about how Aaron went back to the merchant marines during WW2, ferrying troops back and forth across the Pacific. And then there is an observation that stuck with me. She says, "As to a legacy to him, it would be that Aaron gave more than received. As to my father, who was a very successful contractor, he had a very strong dominating personality causing pros and cons in my life."
Gave more than received. A man who would rather give everything he could but had a harder time receiving help or support from others. That just might have driven Maxine’s father crazy. His daughter had married a man who would resent his support. My dad remembers the fights that his parents had. Maxine wrote about hitting financial hard times. His older brother was sent to boarding school and there was a time when my dad and his twin brother lived with their mother’s parents. He would tell me later that his mother and father separated numerous times – and reconciled just as many. Funny, I don’t think I ever asked what happened to send his father out the door for good.
All that I knew growing up was that this man, Aaron Moore, was not an elder to be honored. He had forsaken his family and they literally cut ties with him.
As I walk with Aaron, I think about this world that he grew up in. He was a child born into a lie and something so deeply shameful that no one would ever speak of his father. His own father abandoned him and he became a step-son to another man, whom he loved, and watched his mother forge a new life with another child. He thrived enough to go to college and become an engineer. As I picture the young man walking beside me, I wonder what led him to Los Angeles and the Merchant Marines.

"What were you yearning for, grandpa?"
I ask him after a long pause why he chose to marry my grandmother. They seemed so different – as if coming from two different worlds. And then I start to get an inkling as to what had really attracted Aaron. This woman, could she have possibly represented what he wanted in himself? To win her hand, so to speak, meant that he, himself, was worthy? Educated, poised, wealthy, she lived a privileged life in Hollywood. And to top it off – what a father she had! John Breedlove has wrestled his fortune out of Arizona’s fading Wild West. Being a powerful, self-made man meant something a little different in a part of the world where the veneer of civilization was pretty thin. He made his own rules. He wasn’t an easy father. He wouldn’t have been an easy father-in-law. Aaron was a self-made man in a booming new world. Had he rescued Maxine? Giving her a way out from under her father’s thumb? Was she the unattainable that he attained?

"I married up," he says with that careless charm - but I see the sardonic gleam in his eye. Guess all you want, child, that looks says, those and a hundred other reasons are why I married Maxine.
The shadow of my grandfather walks softly beside me as I think about what happened in the ensuing years. His was not a generation of men who spoke about emotions and it is most likely that the tensions of relationship were different than what both of them had thought in the beginning.
"Marriage is like that", I say to him, "We have all sorts of ideas of what we think we want and it can be quite a surprise when that other person doesn’t fall in line with what we think appropriate."
Knowing my grandmother for many, many years, I’d say that he would have been hard pressed to live up to her family’s expectations. On the other hand, maybe her bitterness was crafted out of that simmering quagmire that had been her marriage. When he was home, he and Maxine fought bitterly – and off he would go again. Theirs was a brittle relationship, fragile and fraught with continual abandonment. Aaron’s life was a loop of trying to find home and yet continually leaving home for new ports of call. Coming and going.
Much as his father had?
I would pretty much guess that Maxine’s parents were still very involved in their daughter’s life which may have made it even more difficult for Aaron to find his sea legs when he was on land. And so this man, whose life had begun under a shadow of disillusionment, found his own world unraveling deeper and deeper into the bottle.
The man who smiles back in all of those pictures never knew who he was.
"I knew who I was, girl," There’s a bit of snap in what is now a deeper, older voice.
I smile because I’ve been psychoanalyzing a ghost.
Walking along the Snake River, I know that my interpretation of Aaron is simply that: a story that I am actively building. I ask my questions out loud and let the tumble of water in the river answer me as it can. I sit with the silence and a deep compassion for this man who stumbled and then crippled himself with alcohol and probably never believed (or allowed himself to even think it) that he was truly worth loving. I wish I could have loved him even if just for the fact that he brought my father into this world.
Aaron would never know that he had an uncle and grandparents up in Green Valley, CA. He would never know that his father and grandparents were miners who had come over from Cornwall, England with the rumors of gold in California. Perhaps if my great grandmother had known that she couldn’t completely control the flow of information, she might have not perjured herself by falsifying his birth certificate. Perhaps she had very good reasons to do so. Yes, that has crossed my mind. There are reasons that may go far beyond the embarrassment of divorce to explain why Richard Moore was gone from her life so quickly.
There is no one living who can refute my story about Aaron’s struggles. My father remembers the fights, his brother will not speak of anything to do with his childhood. Their older brother is gone. My father never knew about the falsified documents or about the marriage records. He finds it all very interesting – in an anthropological type of way.
You could say to me, well, that’s an interesting story you have there, Jennifer, but what bearing does it really have on anything you are doing today? Leave the past alone and concentrate on the future.
There is some wisdom in that advice.
But it’s not what I believe. The powerful cultural and family influences that have been with us since the first breath are pieces of the lens through which we look at the world, relationships and yes, our selves. If we don’t dissect, untangle and poke around in those influences, we run the risk of not ever being able to determine who we want to be and how we want to live our lives. As a woman, I am pretty clear on a great many of the messages that I received growing up about what it means to be a woman. I watched and experienced my parent’s marriage as the way that couples interact and I took in strong messages about what being a family (or tribal) member meant. There were roles to play, feelings that had to stay hidden, rules about emotional outbursts and pain that had to be managed. My father did not fight with my mother; he did not yell or shout – he held it inside, fiercely controlling his temper. I can imagine that watching his parents fight indelibly marked him and he tried to craft a relationship with my mother that was the exact opposite of his parents – one of stability and civility. My mother, a rather emotional, head strong woman, was looking for stability for different reasons. And so, when life intervened in all its messy, horrible glory, our world felt like it was ending. Anger and arguing meant that someone was out of control. Out of control meant that all hell was going to break loose. And when it did, because inevitably something comes along that pokes that kind myth hard enough, the fragile at-all-costs-stability shattered.
The story of my grandfather has haunted me for years. The mystery and the shadows that swirled around his birth as well as the way he died ‘buried in a bottle’ with good riddance have bothered me. He is more real to me now – complex, imperfect - which in turn brings compassion and acceptance. I can see the influence Aaron’s life had on my father and I can claim my own legacy through his story – not only because I was born – but from my sense of how he struggled with worthiness. He turned away, time and time again, from the harder choices that might have given him a longer life and sons who honored him instead of literally writing him out of their lives.
I’m moved and surprised that creating this space for Aaron has brought his presence into my life. My ancestral stroll out in the wilds of Wyoming with him puts his ghost to rest. There is peace in that. My heritage feels richer for it. I worry that my father will not appreciate my re-visioning of history. But then, re-storying the past is something we humans do so well. I haven’t whitewashed Aaron Westley Moore. I haven’t allowed the harsh experiences he wrought in his children’s lives to vanish. Instead, I’ve simply allowed him to be yet another flawed human being who grew out of his own roots and time period.
I let Aaron go as I step back on to the trail leading to my cabin. The breeze has died down and instead of the chill of winter to come I feel the last warmth of yet another summer day


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