Letter to My Grandfather

Merry Christmas Eve!

After what might be the longest break ever between two posts on the same blog, I’ve returned. For a night, at least.

Actually, I have plenty of information that I hope to eventually share here (it’s just a matter of getting it all organized).

Meanwhile, I came across this letter that I wrote a few years back for (of all things) a journal swap at Swap-bot.com, and I thought that this blog might be a fitting place for it.

***

Dear Grandpa Tilly,

I guess this is what I would have called you had I known you. My siblings and I always referred to our grandmother (our dad’s mom, your wife Susie) as “Grandma Tilly”, so it seems fitting that you’d be called Grandpa Tilly.

I never knew you, Grandpa; I never even met you. You died long before I was born. Two days before Christmas in 1958, you took your own life at the age of 44.

For years, this fact was one of the very few things that I did know about you. I knew, too, that my dad was only 6 years old when it happened; his brother, my Uncle Steven, was just a few weeks shy of turning 4.

I’m not sure if Steven remembers anything, but my dad still recalls your coming into his room that night to say goodbye.

The next morning, your body was found hanging from a tree in your backyard.

The only other thing that I feel like I’ve always known about you, Grandpa, is that your name was George. Your oldest son was also named George. It was fairly recently that I learned that he and your daughter Sharon were the ones who found your body. They were teenagers at the time.

*

Everything else about you remained a mystery up until just a few years ago. And to be honest, Grandpa Tilly, this was fine with me. I didn’t really want to know you. I wasn’t angry at you or anything; it’s hard to be angry at someone whom you’ve never met. It just never really occurred to me to think of you as anything other than a sad shadowed figure from before my time whose decision to end your own life that night will likely cause my father grief for the rest of his.

Ever since my childhood, I’ve been aware that you were the reason that my dad still has a hard time getting through the day each time December 23rd rolls around. Even now, more than 50 years later.

He very rarely talks about you. Whenever he mentions his “dad”, I know that he’s not referring to you — but to your brother, Harold. His uncle, and later his stepfather, who married my Grandma Tilly about five years after your suicide.

Harold and my grandma stayed married until 1976; that’s the year that Harold died at the age of 70 during an operation to repair his heart. Grandma Tilly lived for another 24 years; she and Harold are now buried next to each other at Silver Creek Cemetery in Randle, Washington (where they moved, along with Uncle Steven, in the early 1970’s).

Harold and my grandmother were the ones who really raised my dad and his siblings. Well, at least my dad and my Uncle Steven, who were both so young when you ended your life.

My mom once told me that when my dad was a teenager, he and Harold would often butt heads. But around the time that my dad graduated from high school, he wrote a letter to Harold and thanked him for being such a good father. According to my mother, Harold carried that letter around with him until the day he died.

I’m not telling you this about Harold to taunt you so much as to hopefully give you some kind of assurance that (from everything I’ve heard) your brother took good care of your family.

*

In 2011, I became curious about my family history. I’ve always been proud of our last name — Tillinghast — and that was the year that I finally decided to explore my background in depth.

My search began on the Internet (I don’t suppose you’d know what that is, seeing as how you’ve been gone over 50 years now) and led me to a website called Find A Grave. Basically, the purpose of this database is to list the name and burial location, along with biographical information and other relevant details about each and every person who ever existed.

Of course, it’s impossible for a database of this magnitude to ever be truly complete. But for now, its records number in the millions. So there’s a pretty good chance that if a person chooses to look, they’ll find at least some of their ancestors and other deceased family members listed there.

Still, when I entered the name “Tillinghast” in the search engine, I was surprised to see your name included among the results. There were other George Tillinghasts listed — but only one who died on December 23rd, 1958 in Sebastopol, California.

Overwhelmed by curiosity now, I clicked on your name. And right there on the page were several more facts to add to the short list of things that I knew about my grandfather.

I learned that your middle name was Horace.

I learned that you were born on September 14th, 1914 in Pennsylvania.

I learned that you were buried at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, California.

And I realized that I liked knowing more about you; I wanted to learn even more.

*

For the next several months, I immersed myself in family research. It wasn’t difficult to uncover more about the Tillinghast side; our family history has been quite well documented by various other Tillinghasts. After contacting and introducing myself to some distant cousins, a few of them helped me trace my line all the way back to our immigrant ancestor, Pardon, who came to America from England in the 1600’s and helped found the First Baptist Church in Providence, Rhode Island.

I’m sure you must have heard about Pardon from your father; I found out a few months into my research that my great-grandfather, Bill, also very much enjoyed family history.

Before I became interested in it myself, I didn’t even know your parents’ names. Now I know that you were the 6th son (and 7th child) of Wilmer Atkinson Tillinghast, Sr. (“Bill”) and Daisy Mae Richards. Both of your parents were born in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania — she in 1880, he in 1881. They married when they were 19 years old.

Your older brothers were: Wilmer, Jr.; Richard; Harold; Stephen; and Robert. You also had an older sister, Harriet, and a younger sister, Frances (known as “Lottie”).

In the 1920’s, your whole family left Pennsylvania and traveled across the country to Sonoma County, California, where they settled. Your grandfather, Isaac Fred Tillinghast, also moved to Sonoma County around this time per the advise of his friend and fellow seedsman — noted horticulturist Luther Burbank.

I’m not sure when you married my grandmother. However, I do know that your first son, George, was born in November of 1942. Sharon followed in 1944.

*

The more I learned about you, Grandpa Tilly, the less I thought of you as this depressed shadowy figure whose memory should be kept at a distance, and the more I thought of you as a real person — somebody I’m linked to, whom I’ll never meet, but who’s shaped my identity just the same.

I may not ever be able to understand what made you decide to leave your family that evening  in December of 1958. But I thought about it when I visited your gravestone at Golden Gate National Cemetery (just outside the San Francisco Airport) in November 2011, some 53 years later.

My husband and my sister (your granddaughter, Missy) were with me the day that I visited. We didn’t stay for very long.

As I stood in front of your gravestone — almost identical to the thousands of neat white gravestones surrounding it — and realized that this was the closest I’d ever get to you, I tried to put myself in your head the night that you ended your life. I concluded that you wouldn’t have made such a drastic choice unless you felt that it was your only choice.

This was a state of mind that I thought I could understand — at least to an extent. It made me sad to picture you that way, Grandpa, and despite myself I hoped that the result of your decision to leave this world was what you presumably determined it would be; I hoped it freed you of the pain that must have engulfed you.

I hoped that you found peace.

But I also wished that my dad didn’t have to be permanently scarred in the process.

*

A few months after I visited your gravestone, I finally saw a picture of you for the first time. Well, technically for the second time — at Grandma Tilly’s funeral in 2000, there was a photo of you in your military uniform displayed among other photos, but I only saw that one for a split second.

This time around, however, my Uncle Steven and Aunt Darla were kind enough to share several photos of you — and of other members of your family — from the vast collection of pictures that they’d inherited from Grandma Tilly after she died. They told me that I could borrow the pictures for as long as I wanted.

I’m not sure what I expected to see when I glanced at your first photo. Somebody with a stern frown? Someone gloomy-looking?

Instead, what I did see was a handsome young guy with a kind face who clearly loved the dark-haired woman standing next to him in many of the photos (my grandmother). I even detected a vague resemblance to Ozzie Nelson in a few of the pictures!

In the later photos, you’re with your kids — and again, the love you had for your family is evident. In some of the pictures, you’re celebrating what looks to be Steven’s 2nd birthday. If you knew at the time that you only had one more birthday left to share with him, it certainly doesn’t show on your face.

There’s also a photo of you and your children standing on a boat — along with your brother, Robert (“Uncle Bob” to my dad) and another kid whom you probably knew well at the time (but now, so many years later, nobody seems able to identify). You are frowning in this photo, although the kids and Uncle Bob sure look like they’re having fun.

In none of the photos do you “look” like a guy who’d hang himself in his own backyard just a short time later.

*

These pictures didn’t answer my questions about what led you to your final decision, Grandpa; but they did allow me to put a face to your name, which felt very satisfying.

A short time later, I was informed by some of my dad’s older cousins — who are still alive and well — that not only had they known you, they remembered you. And they had some lovely memories to share.

Harold’s son — your nephew, Bud — recalled visiting the store that you worked in and how you always let him take a free ice cream bar from the freezer. He said that you were great with kids.

Your niece, Marlene (your brother Bill’s daughter) still remembers you as one of her favorite uncles. She said that she was a shy child, usually overlooked by other relatives, but that you always made a point to notice her and chat with her.

Either Bud or Marlene (possibly both of them) described you as “soft spoken.” This really stuck with me because I, too, have a quiet voice; I’m often accused of “mumbling”, or asked to repeat myself or speak up.

It still gets frustrating sometimes having to say the same thing twice or more; but now that I know that you also had a quiet voice, I’m kind of proud to think that I might have inherited this trait from you.

*

I feel connected to you in other ways, too, Grandpa Tilly.

In September of 2012, I traveled to Santa Rosa to try and find out a little bit more about your family. There’s a genealogy library located right in downtown Santa Rosa. It’s only open for a few days every week; despite this limitation, I managed to spend an hour or so there during my stay. This wasn’t really enough time to do much research, but I thought it was worth my time to at least stop by.

Indeed, I only found one relevant source of information during my short visit; however, it was an important one.

Using an old microfiche reel, I tracked down a 1958 newspaper report of your suicide; this was where I learned for the first time that your two older children were the ones who found your body.

The brief article also informed me of something else that I hadn’t yet known about. It included a statement from “the family” that suggested  your suicide was the result of stress caused by “health problems.” The article didn’t elaborate on what those “health problems” were — other than to note that you’d been struggling with them for about three months.

But, Grandpa, this bit about your health — it gave me an entirely new perspective on what factors might have influenced your suicide.

Before I read that article, I’d just kind of assumed that you killed yourself because you were “depressed”. Of course, this might very well have been the case. Although not everybody realizes it, depression itself is a health issue that can be as serious and fatal as any other.  It still carries a stigma today; and I can only imagine how much worse that must have been back in 1958.

So perhaps my original theory was true; perhaps “health problems” as used in the article was simply a less stigmatizing way of saying that you killed yourself because you were depressed.

But the vague phrasing of “health problems” opened up the door to several other possibilities — some of them very familiar to me. If there’s one thing I can relate to, Grandpa, it’s health issues.

My father can relate, as well. Without going into detail, we’ve both faced — and continue to face — some pretty significant health issues of our own. Both of us are cancer survivors; we’re also both currently free of active cancer, but I know that it can recur in either one of us at any given moment (if it doesn’t strike another member of our family first).

My dad promised me years and years ago that no matter how bad things might get for him, he’ll never take his own life.

After I read the article about your death — and learned of the associated health angle — it made me wonder: perhaps it was cancer that you struggled with in those three months before your suicide?

I hoped not. I’m all too aware that it’s hard enough to face a cancer diagnosis these days; and back then, I imagine the prospects were bleak at best.

On the other hand — if it was in fact cancer that brought you to the point where you felt like killing yourself was the only option, it could almost make sense to me.

Because I know firsthand the fear of facing a future that’s beyond your control.

I know what it’s like to want to spare your family from seeing you suffer. I’ve felt the guilt of knowing that I’m one day going to leave my family behind — and the frustration of knowing that I’m powerless to stop it.

So if this is what you were faced with the evening that you died, Grandpa — I still wish that you hadn’t made the decision that you did, but at the same time there’s a part of me that would fully understand where you were coming from when you made it.

*

A few months after my visit to Santa Rosa, I returned to Sonoma County yet again — this time, with my husband in tow. There, in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, we met several of my newly acquainted distant cousins, many of whom you might have met in their younger years — including Harold’s daughter Linda and some of your brother Richard’s grandkids.

On the way home, we stopped in Mendocino County for an overnight stay; our motel was in Willits but we spent most of our afternoon and evening in a nearby town called Laytonville. That’s where we first met Marlene and her husband, John; I’d corresponded with Marlene several times and I’d heard about John, but before that night I hadn’t met either of them in person.

They were both delightful. It turned out that Marlene and John both knew and remembered you and they remembered my grandmother. For the first time, I learned that you were the one who nicknamed my grandma (born Clara) “Susie.” She kept that nickname for the rest of her life. I always assumed that Harold was the one who gave it to her.

Marlene showed me photos of you and your parents and siblings; she even had some pictures of your grandfather, Isaac Fred, whom I’d read plenty about but had never seen a photo of until our visit to Laytonville.

Marlene also repeated the memory that she’d shared with me in an earlier email, about how she always appreciated that you made a point to engage with her — even when other relatives overlooked her in favor of her more outspoken siblings and cousins.

Finally, Marlene and John solved a mystery for me: the mystery of the “health problems” mentioned in the newspaper report I’d read about your suicide.

They more or less confirmed that you did in fact have health issues; more specifically, they seemed to recall that you’d fallen from a ladder and hit your head a few months before you died. And that the injury “affected you mentally”.

They repeated this several months later when we visited them again — and elaborated on a few details, such as the fact that you were working on the roof of your home when you fell from the ladder.

I don’t see any reason not to believe them.

*

And I’ve come to the conclusion that it wasn’t you that night, Grandpa Tilly. Not the real you.

The man with the kind face in the photographs I’ve saved of you wasn’t the same man who tied a noose around his neck two nights before Christmas and hung himself from a tree for his family to find.

The man so good with children that over 50 years later, the much-older children still remembered his kindness, wasn’t the same man who consciously chose to leave his own children without a father.

I wish that things had turned out differently.

I wish my dad had known his blood father; I wish he didn’t have to grow up with that void in his life, and that he could be happy on December 23rd.

I wish that Sharon hadn’t followed in your footsteps and taken her own life in 1966.

I wish I’d been able to meet my grandpa — and my aunt.

But it wasn’t your fault that you suffered a traumatic brain injury any more than it was Sharon’s fault that she suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or postpartum depression.

*

As for my father — despite struggling with health issues for as long as I can remember, he’s taught fifth grade for over 20 years, raised five kids, and is now the grandfather of seven boys.

I’m honestly not sure if he ever forgave you — or can ever truly forgive you — for leaving him the way that you did; I’ve never experienced that kind of life-altering loss that he went through at age 6.

However, if it’s possible to offer forgiveness on his behalf, then I offer it. Along with hope that the two of you can one day, somehow, embrace again.

Thanks for giving me my dad.

Love,
your granddaughter,
Tamara Tillinghast Haskett

(a fellow second-youngest child, just like you and my dad)

1940squestionmarkgeorgeandsusietillinghastwhoaremypaternalgrandparents

My paternal grandparents — George Horace Tillinghast, and Clara Ann “Susie” Cornwell.

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