News From Terre Haute, Indiana


May 12, 2013

FAMILY TIES: While searching for my grandfather, I found my mother

TERRE HAUTE — I remember the afternoon my mother received the chilling news from her nephew that her oldest sister and brother-in-law had been killed in a car/bus collision. Not knowing what was being said on the other end of the telephone, I did know by the tone of my mother’s voice, the few words she spoke, and her pale face, that it was serious. I watched her intently and after a lengthy conversation, I heard her say, “My father? Oh, yes, I would like that very much.”

When she hung up the phone, I pressed her for more information. Shaken, she briefly told me of the accident, but it wasn’t until I heard her relaying the phone conversation to my father that I learned the tragic news was peppered with some intrigue.

When my mother was born Nov. 23, 1916, in Newark, N.J., her father was “gone.” Mother grew up knowing nothing of him other than his name, Henry John Doelcker, and that he was “gone” before she was born. He was not discussed and apparently, in Grandma’s mind, he no longer existed. In reply to all of my mother’s pleas for information, Grandma’s uncomforting words to her daughter were simply, “he’s gone.” The end. Mother didn’t know if that meant he died or he just ran away. Mother’s two sisters, Tillie and Edna, had to have had some memory of him, as they were about 9 and 7 years of age when mother was born. But they weren’t talking either.

A week or two after that phone call, my mother received a package in the mail from her nephew. She was so excited, and I soon realized why. Amongst the pictures of my mother, my aunts, and my grandmother, were two pictures of a young gentleman.

My mother’s eyes welled up with tears. On the back of one of the pictures, handwritten in pencil, were the words, “Henry Doelcker 20 years old.” Finally, my mother got to see the image of her father. And the biggest surprise of all was that my brother looked very much like him.

My mother passed away on Sept. 19, 1984. And it always bothered me that she died only knowing her father by a name and two old photographs. Somehow, I wanted to find out what happened to Henry John Doelcker and to bring it all to a conclusion for my mother’s sake. What was his story? Why would he leave his wife, two children and an unborn child never to be heard of again? Or did he meet an untimely death? And if so, when and how — and why — did it have to be such a secret?

With the availability of the Internet and the popularity of genealogy, I quizzed a friend who had delved into her own family’s roots. She invited me to her home and we spent an evening accessing census records and making queries on her computer. Thus, I began my search for my grandfather. However, my enthusiasm soon waned. Having only dial-up Internet access at the time, my searches were slow and laborious. Fortunately, my friend kept up her resolve.

A short time later, she telephoned me and said, “You’ll never guess what I found.” I exclaimed, “Oh, you’ve found Henry.” Yes, she had found him on the 1910 Essex County, Newark, N.J. census, but she went on to say that Henry really wasn’t the reason for her call. She had found my mother and her two sisters listed on a census as — “inmates.” My blood turned icy cold. I began asking all kinds of questions, but she stopped me and said that she had printed out all of the information and would deliver it to me so I could see for myself.

My heart pounded rapidly when I opened up my friend’s envelope. I went straight to the census record she had labeled “1920 - 3 Girls.” A small arrow indicated the handwritten entries of the three sisters. Their last names were misspelled; the ages of Tillie and Edna were reversed; and my mother’s first name was spelled as Dorothea instead of Dorothy. But it was them. My mother was 3 years old.

Reviewing the entire Jan. 2, 1920, census brought a deep sadness to my soul. Even the name of the facility was gut-wrenching: “Home for the Friendless.” What kind of place was that? Except for the names of the head master, a nurse and her assistant, three caretakers, a janitor, laundress, cook and housekeeper, the names of 64 precious children were listed one after another, each identified as an “inmate.”

By the children’s surnames, you could conclude some of the children were there with siblings and/or other family members, but many were all alone. Thirty-nine little boys. Twenty-five little girls. All ranging in age from 1 to 14. The lone 1-year-old baby, named Milford, had a 3-year-old brother, named Halcyon. It broke my heart. Shamelessly, I shed a few tears.

My mother did tell me a little bit about growing up during the Depression. Grandma was very proud and didn’t want any of the family to stand in the soup lines, so Mother often took to the alleys in search of some fruit or bread someone might have thrown away in the trash. She told me how excited she was when she once found a whole orange.

There weren’t any birthday or Christmas celebrations, and there weren’t any toys — not even a baby doll. Mother only received a fourth-grade education, and she labored hard to help out her mother and sisters.

A few times, Mother mentioned being placed in a “home” when she was very young. Without a husband to help support the family, Grandma could not financially take care of her children and felt it would be best to place them in a “home” and put them up for adoption. To Grandma’s credit, she had the foresight to put a condition on their adoption. The girls were not to be separated. They had to be adopted together by one family. Laughingly, Mother told us they were never adopted because the families only wanted her and Tillie. They didn’t want poor Edna. Putting it as delicately as I can, Edna was not a rare beauty.

As a youngster, my understanding of Mother being in a “home” was like a fairy tale. She lived in a large, beautiful house, with just a few other children. The owners of the house were rich and kind, and the children were healthy and happy. And, of course, only wealthy families came to adopt the children, and the children willingly left with their newfound families to live happily ever after.

Of course, later I learned my mother’s story was a common one during the Depression. Unemployed parents, with little hope of finding work close to home, left their children at orphanages as a temporary means of ensuring their children’s well-being and education.

You would think an orphanage only housed orphans, but in reality, especially during the Depression, a majority of the “orphans” had at least one living parent. Most parents had every intention of returning to claim their children after they had improved their lives, but many ultimately abandoned their children, never to return.

Until that 1920 census revealed my mother’s plight, I really never gave much thought about how dire her circumstances must have been. And when I found a picture of the Home for the Friendless taken in 1910, it appeared to be the cold, dark, foreboding place its name suggested. The building could have been mistaken for the same warehouse of orphans run by that mean old Miss Hannigan in Little Orphan Annie.

An Old Newark orphanage website provided a contact name for records from the Home for the Friendless. I excitedly called and talked with a lady who actually had her consultation office in that very building. She took down the information I had from the census and said she would check the records she had in her possession and call me back.

I hoped she could tell me when the girls arrived, how long they stayed, and if there were any letters, reports, tests or other information regarding them. I was relieved when she called me back the same day. Unfortunately, her records were dated later than the time period I gave her, so she found nothing regarding the girls.

The records I needed were the handwritten ledgers housed in the Newark Public Library. The lady kindly gave me the name and telephone number of the library’s historian. However, when I called, I learned the historian had recently passed away, and the person temporarily taking his place wouldn’t be available for a few weeks. I was so disappointed that I didn’t call back.  

I tried piecing together long forgotten snippets of hazy memories, sketchy discussions with my mother, and trivial information gleaned from the few visits we had with my mother’s family. I searched my mother’s cache of pictures for clues, but what few pictures I have of her, she is in her teens. I found only one early picture taken of all three sisters together, without a date.

While re-reading the names of the children at the “home,” I tried to pronounce the last name of a little boy, age 2. Then, I remembered my mother saying that whenever a family came to adopt a child, all the children were lined up so they could be viewed one by one. Mother and a little boy she called “Chewie” would run and hide in a corner of the room. Frightened, they would hold hands and cry. How could I have forgotten that?

I regret that I did not take the time to ask my mother more about her childhood and her life before she became a mother. We were close. We loved each other as only a mother and daughter can love, so why didn’t I do that?

It bothers me that my mother never knew her father, but it bothers me even more that I never got to know the frightened 3-year-old living in a scary “home” for the friendless; that I never got to know the poor, hungry youngster who wandered the alleys during the Depression; and that I never got to know the daughter whose heart ached because her father was “gone.”

If I had known more of my mother’s story, I believe I would have been a more understanding daughter. I certainly would have been more emotionally supportive of Mother when my father died, as I’m sure she felt abandoned all over again.

A 1930 census revealed my mother living with her sister, Edna, and Edna’s husband, Jim. It confirmed my conclusion that Mother no longer lived in the orphanage by the time she was a teenager. I know the family ties between the sisters and their mother continued throughout their lives, but there are so many years that are still a mystery to me.

I’ll eventually get back to searching for Henry and learning as much as I can about him. I’m just glad I found a little piece of my mother’s story along the way, and I hope to add more pages to her unfolding story in the future.

This Mother’s Day, please take some extra time to “find” your mother. If you are fortunate to have a mother who is living, ask her questions and really listen to her stories. You may be shocked to learn the scope of her experiences and the depth of her emotions, and you just may be in store for a few surprises.

This Mother’s Day, I hold the memories of my dear mother close to my heart, just as I do every day. This Mother’s Day, I especially remember three little girls and their mother. And this Mother’s Day, I am grateful for my Aunt Edna, who unwittingly kept the family together.

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    March 12, 2010