My earliest memories of my Grandpa include climbing into his lap so that he could read the “funny papers” to me out of the “Kalamazoo Gazette.” He smelled like Old Spice aftershave, Prince Albert pipe tobacco, and Clove or Teaberry gum – my choice, he always had sticks of both to offer me. He was balding with blue eyes that defined the term “twinkly,” hands that curved to fit naturally around any tool or the curve of an infant, a never-ending smile for his family, and a huge secret. I think my grandpa was a bigamist.
It’s true that I don’t know for sure, but all the evidence my mother found cleaning out his home after his death, years after my grandma had passed on, points to that conclusion.
Here is what I know about my grandfather. His name was Lyman Adelbert Havens and all our relatives called him “Del.” He was born in Byron Center, Michigan on September 27, 1898 and he died shoveling snow off his front walk on January 30, 1978 in Grand Rapids. He was 79 years old. I knew from childhood that he had grown up on a farm, because he had stories about bringing in hay, handling teams of horses, the hard winters. He loved to fish and hunt, and he taught me how to put a worm on a hook.
I knew that in 1919, he was 21 years old when he took a troop ship to Europe at the end of the First World War and changed his life. He went from simple farm boy to man of respect carrying precious cargo in an elegant machine.
He was a chauffeur for a number of officers, including (he claimed) General John “Black Jack” Pershing, who led the American forces to victory over Germany, a point of considerable pride for both him and the family. I know I loved him very much, and still do.
Here is what we found out about my grandfather long after he had died. While he was in Europe, he met a woman named Dora Gallner. Tucked away in a box long untouched, my mother found five pictures of Dora, one hidden in a frame behind a photo of himself. One of the Dora photos had words in German written on the back that shocked the family. Translated, they read “For my dear Dell – your abandoned bride, Dora.” One of the other Dora photos shows her staring mournfully at the camera. The text on the back reads, “A picture of myself in the month where I received my sad news from you. I nearly died from the heartache. Your lost bride, Dora. It is very sad.”
In addition, my mother unearthed three postcards written by Dora to my great-grandmother Grace, Del’s mother. The postcards are dated cryptically. One is headed “Frastang, 11. X 21.” It reads in English, “Dearest Mother! I shall fortnight ago of Bern to travel. It is excellent. Many greetings and loving kisses Dora” and something else we can’t read. Another reads, “Dearest Mother! From Feldkird, many greetings and loving kisses. Dora.”
So it seems he was indeed married. In May 1922, he was honorably discharged from the Army and returned home to Michigan from Europe, without Dora. One year later, he married my grandmother Ethel. In two words, what happened? But of course, a multitude of questions are huddled under that umbrella; was he denied permission to bring her home? Did my grandmother know about Dora? Could we have family in Germany we have never known?
This is the story my sister, Lynette, and I have decided to research. We are using the resources of the WKTV Digital Guild, which meets Tuesday, September 29 and continues every 2nd Tuesday thereafter from 7pm-9pm at WKTV, 5261 Clyde Park Avenue SW, Wyoming. If you have a story to tell, come check out this program. Get all the support you need as you think about how to tell your story and how to use the equipment you need. WKTV awaits!