The Phantom Patriarch

I can’t explain how the question was thrust into my consciousness that day. It could have been some subconscious subterfuge bubbling to the surface, but I like to think it was the phantom asserting his spirit, reaching out to thicken the family plot.

I was 11 years old; my family was enjoying a July cookout at my grandmother’s. While playing tag with my siblings, in the tears of a Weeping Willow tree, I suddenly felt compelled to approach the adults hovering over the searing meat and pose the burning question.

Why do my father and grandfather have different last names?

My query triggered puzzled glances and stammering responses, I was promised full disclosure – some other day; I knew right then that I had stumbled upon a family jewel.

Perseverance furthers, reminds the I Ching. In time, I was informed that our grandfather was really our step-grandfather, a loaded word that doesn’t explain the complexities of such relationships. Our hyphenated grandfather was kind to us, and was a good match for my grandmother, to a point anyway. He had a amicable relationship with my father, but displayed clear preference for his son from a previous marriage. He didn’t have the time, nor desire to fill the void left by the phantom, the one whose name was not to be spoken.

I found the lack of detail totally unsatisfying, the phantom had been summoned, but not allowed to speak. As time slipped onward, I pursued this shadowy being. I questioned my grandmother; she angrily refused to discuss him. My father, too, became agitated when asked and simply snapped “he’s dead, end of discussion”!

But, I had an informant who I could turn to for clues. My aunt Grace, was the story keeper of the family, and although, hesitant, about divulging her sister’s sensitive information, she eventually spilled the beans, recognizing that I had a right to know about my ancestors.

The phantom was named James Jefferson Gill. My grandmother married him at age 18 and moved to Chicago for all the revelry of the roaring twenties. My father was born in a downtown hotel room on a hot June night in 1927, and above the roar of the city, was given the name of his father.

It seems the phantom preferred whisky and other women’s company to that of his family, and so was written out of his role in the nativity scene. My grandmother resented him so deeply, she had my father’s name legally changed to James Jefferson Hale, erasing any reference to the Gill clan.

The phantom disappeared, I can only speculate it was to avoid child support. He was never to be heard from again, not even by his own family, and no one in my family had any interest in finding him. It was assumed he died anonymously somewhere in Chicago.

Fifty years, after my original question, I wrote a book of my family history and was fortunate enough to find info on the Gill family dating back to 17th century Scotland. I had photos of the phantom’s grandfather in the Civil War and even his father’s life story. Even more interesting was that my father was the fourth generation of men named James Jefferson Gill. The internet had opened crack in the phantom’s crypt but he was nowhere to be found.

I posted a PDF version of the book on my website thinking someone might find my family menagerie interesting; months later a message appeared in my inbox. A guy from California had read my research and revealed that the phantom was his father also, thus my father’s half brother. Two photos quickly followed.

With a single click, a 1948 photo of a moustached man in a zoot suit and dapper hat was looking right at me. I freaked out and sent the photo to family members. We were astonished that the phantom had been dragged into the daylight. More details followed.

Apparently, Grandpa Gill was an extremely violent, alcoholic who beat his kids and had started several families, at least 6 that we know of, with women around the California and Seattle areas. My new found half-uncle said that his only memory of his father, was a slap across the face. My father was an angry alcoholic and verbally abusive, occasionally whacking me. Since he never knew his father there must be a few troubled genes swimming in the pool. Comparing 23 and Me DNA tests, we confirmed our relationship.

Another woman, now in her nineties, contacted me through her niece saying that she had become pregnant from the phantom when she was 16 years old, during the same period he was married to my grandmother. She was spirited off to St. Cloud, MN to have the child as was done in those times. He vanished, but, she would never forget his name nor his sweet-talking manner.

The phantom patriarch was buried in Seattle, a city my father loved, and visited often on his business travels. Maybe they even passed each other on the street. I would like to believe that grandpa had some redeeming qualities; perhaps, not inflicting his wrath upon my father was one of them.

We’ll never know. My father died twenty years ago and the phantom, twenty-five years before that. One thing for certain, I would loved to have shown my father the photo and seen the look on his face as he saw the image of the man who had been a phantom in his life, but I’ll have to settle for their photos hanging side by side on my wall.

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