Grandfather & Barbara ~ Dennisport, Massachusetts
photo of Grandfather & me, taken by Larisa

When we went down to visit Larisa & Dima last month, I was pleasantly surprised to find this picture of my grandfather and me pinned to their wall. Larisa must have taken it on one of our many trips to Cape Cod to see him, sometime between 1996 and 2001, I suspect closer to 1996. In either case, Grandfather was in his 90s when this was taken.

John E. White, my grandfather
John E. White

But I want to tell a story about a very special time Grandfather & I had together, after my grandmother died and he came to visit me.

Grandfather had a mystery in his family history, a well-guarded secret that I discovered while doing some research. His father, Samuel, who married and settled in Abington, Massachusetts, would not answer any questions his sons asked him about where he was born or who his parents were. But, one day, he relented a little and decided to take his sons to meet their grandfather, William White, who lived in Old Mystic, Connecticut.


Grandfather remembered coming to Mystic by train, as a small boy, with his father and his two brothers. From Mystic they took the trolley to Old Mystic and then walked “a great stretch” to his grandfather’s house. The boys slept in the attic and they saw a sextant stored there. The next day they went clam digging. Their grandfather, William, had a wife who was not their grandmother, and they were instructed to call her, “Aunt Martha.” It was the only time they ever went to visit their grandfather.

When Samuel was a child, he was told his mother had died. He did not get along with his stepmother (Martha), so he ran away as a  teenager. But doing some research I discovered the following about his mother, Ellen, in The Stonington Chronology 1649-1949, August 1865:

A scandalous month-while Wm M White of Wolf Neck, Stonington, was on a fishing voyage, his wife eloped with a gay deceiver named Pendleton who is also a deserter from the regular army. She left 2 children, one 6 mos. old, and took with her $500.

Samuel M. White, my great-grandfather
Samuel M. White

This was at the end of the Civil War. It seems William & Ellen reconciled for a while after this incident, and had three more sons, but were finally divorced on 26 September 1876, when Samuel, the youngest was three years old.

I also found Ellen four years later, on the 1880 census, age 38, living in the Poor House of Stonington, claiming to be “a widow,” and living there with her were two young illegitimate children, born after she was divorced from William. Their birth records contain statements from William denying paternity.

I often wonder what my 2nd-great-grandparents were like. I don’t feel I can judge Ellen – perhaps William was cold or abusive and she felt driven to find love and comfort elsewhere. Or perhaps she was the irresponsible one, or most likely, they were poorly matched. It’s all very sad and Grandfather was not too pleased to hear about it.

1958 ~ Barbara & Grandfather
Barbara & Grandfather

William White’s house is just a few miles from where I live now. When Grandfather was visiting me in the summer of 1999, I asked him if he would like to see the house and he was thrilled with my proposal. After we drove down the driveway I decided to knock on the door and ask if the owner would mind if we took some pictures of the house, hoping they might offer to show us the inside, too. No one answered the door but I could hear two women’s voices in a nearby swimming pool. I tentatively found my way over to the pool and did my best not to startle them with my presence.

At first they were puzzled but when I finally managed to explain why we were there they were very excited to come meet my grandfather, who was waiting patiently in the car. They graciously invited us inside and showed us around and explained what changes and additions had been made in recent years. I could tell Grandfather was taking it all in and was deeply moved.

A few days after I drove him home I received a wonderful thank you letter from him. He said his whole being was bubbling with gratitude for the gift I had given him that day. It seemed like a dream to him and he couldn’t believe he had actually been there.

I still miss my grandfather terribly – losing him was one of the hardest things I ever went through. He was the adult who understood me the most, who supported me when I was a passionate, naive and impulsive teenager, and who would listen to my spiritual longings and doubts without judgment. He was a man of quiet strength and wisdom, a gentle spirit.

Happy Birthday, Grandfather!

11 thoughts on “Grandfather”

  1. Barbara – I find it so interesting that with few exceptions, most of us have chapters in our family histories that many wish weren’t part of the “manuscript” (so to speak). To my way of thinking, it’s part and parcel of the texture — the layering, the ingredients — that make for well-rounded character.

    Thank you for sharing your family’s history. And what a beautiful tribute you penned for your grandfather.

    1. You’re welcome, Laurie. One must expect to find a few surprises when one starts digging around in the family roots. In our times divorce is no longer a scandal to be covered over. To tell the children their mother was dead seems crazy to me, even if the lie was probably thought to be in the best interest of the children. I wonder if Samuel ever found out the truth. If he did, he never shared it with his sons.

      It’s always interesting to see how our ancestors responded to the culture and times they found themselves living in, whether they tried to fit in or chafed against the status quo. And how, as you say, their experiences and examples eventually influenced the characters of their descendants.

  2. This is an amazing and interesting story, Barbara. I am so glad your grandfather appreciated the trip and was so grateful. Worth so much…

    1. Thank you, Kathy. When I told Grandfather about his grandparents he became so quiet I regretted sharing the “facts” with him. It taught me to think twice before sharing certain sensitive findings. But I am happy we had a pleasant genealogical experience together later on to leave things on a more positive note!

    1. Aw, shucks, Rosie. Sometimes I wish I still looked like I did back then! I’m glad you enjoyed the story – it’s fun to share the results of my research with an interested audience.

  3. I see you do the same as me when you make unusual discoveries in your family tree Barbara, you try not to judge and try also to imagine what the situation may have been. All we can do is guess though, as they are no longer here to tell us their stories, but oh, don’t you wish they were?

    Having your grandfather so close must have been a blessing to your life. He sounds like the best grandfather to have and I wish him a very happy birthday in heaven. And what a fabulous photo you have there of the two of you, you look so happy with him <3

    1. It’s been said that every time an elderly person dies we lose a library of information about them and the times in which they lived. You’ve probably seen this quote on my family history website:

      “Moreover, my ancestors’ souls are sustained by the atmosphere of the house, since I answer for them the questions that their lives once left behind. I carve out rough answers as best I can. I have even drawn them on the walls. It is as if a silent, greater family, stretching down the centuries, were peopling the house.” ~ Carl Jung

      The best we can do is carve out some rough answers, unless someone leaves behind a memoir or diary. But there will always be more questions!

      Grandfather was the best grandfather for me – I was richly blessed! Thank you for all your kind words, Joanne – they mean so much to me. 🙂

  4. You are so very fortunate to have had such a wonderful relationship with your Grandfather. I am happy for you at this good beginning.

    1. Thank you, Susan – I do feel very fortunate to have known him for 44 years – not everyone has a grandparent for so many years.

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