Today we all rely to varying degrees on search engines such asGoogle to help us find whatever we are looking for online. But sometimes we find more than we were looking for. Certainly that is what happened to me when using Google one day, and in the most profoundly imaginable way.
Before I share this strange tale, let me first provide a little background. My mother, Joyce B. Devine, passed away in May of 2003, on the morning of her 70th birthday. Yet, somehow it wasn't until the Fall of 2005 that I first thought of using her name as a search term in Google. I don't recall exactly why I googled my Mom, it was just something that occurred to me in an idle moment while sitting at a terminal in the computer center at the University of Massachusetts library. It's really just the nature of the age we live in - to know a name is to eventually google it and there need be no specific reason. But what Google delivered to me that day as search results was the emotional equivalent of an atomic bomb.
Perhaps the most notable thing about my mother's Google returns was how few there were. Like most people of her generation, my mother died a computer illiterate. Not much that she did during her life required anyone to put her in their database. She was a member of the now vanishing pre-computer generation, and that fact was reflected in her minimal, uninteresting Google returns. I mean uninteresting except for this one exception:
Male Adoptees born in 1950-1951 and 1952
10-5-52 Boise, ID Booth Memorial Hosp. Children's Home. Birthname, RICHARD DEVINE. Birthmother, JOYCE DEVINE DOB 5-1-33 (from Massachusetts)
What on Earth? At first I didn't know what to make of what I was reading. The link Google presented to me was from a website devoted to people who are adopted and who are looking for their biological parents. The name of the mother listed was exactly the same as the name of my mother. The name listed of the child was the same as my father. The birthday listed was my mother's birthday and she was described as being from Massachusetts. Yet, the now obviously grown child who was seeking his family through this online adoption posting had been born not in Massachusetts but all the way out in Idaho. That seemed incompatible at first, but I quicly recalled hearing that when my father was in the military he had been assigned to a base in Idaho. The date listed of the child's birth matched the time when my father would have been stationed in Idaho.
Good Lord in Heaven, could it possibly be? There was no other possible explanation:
I had an older brother I had never met.
And if that wasn't mindblowing enough, that older brother was now looking for me!
And of course he was also looking for my brother and sisters. Not to mention my Dad, who was then still living, plus the dozens of cousins and our uncles and aunts. I sat before the computer completely stunned, not knowing how to even begin to digest all of this.
Now that I had reason to try to recall it, the circumstances of my parents marriage had always been somewhat fuzzy. I knew they were married in the state of Washington, where my father had been transferred by the military after Idaho. My older brother was born in Tacoma, Washington, but now apparently there was an even older brother, unknown to me or the rest of the family, who had been born first. For some reason he had been left behind with an adoptive family in Idaho, but now that brother was searching online for his biological family.
What should I do with this information?
For several weeks I did nothing, simply unable to decide how to proceed. The obvious person to approach about this subject was my Dad, but exactly how? I couldn't just go up to him and say, "Hey Pop, I've got compelling documentation from Google that I've got an older brother you never told me about! What's up with that?" My father was by this time elderly, and I couldn't predict how he would respond to the sudden revelation of a secret which apparently my mother had carried to her grave, and which had been hidden for more than half a century. I couldn't decide what to do, but at least I understood that this was not the sort of thing that you could just casually throw out in a conversation.
It was all so unreal, it felt like I was living through something you might see on a fictional TV show, but which you would never expect to happen in real life!
The whole subject understandably began weighing on my mind, and I decided that I would have to confide in someone else in my family about what I had learned. I was also afraid that something might happen to me, that I might fall in front of a bus or something, and then the secret would be reburied. So I printed out a copy of my brother's website plea for his family, and then went to see my sister Beverly. Without comment, as we were eating in a cheesy Chinese restaurant and bar in Westfield, I handed my sister the print out and said simply, "Read this and tell me what you think." My sister casually perused the page. Suddenly her eyes widened. She looked up at me with an expression of complete shock and amazement. "Oh my God!" she cried. "That's Mom and Dad! We have a full-blooded brother we've never known about!"
Bev had made an important point about being a full-blooded sibling. This was not a long lost cousin. It was not a half-brother from a previous marriage. This was a full brother, with the exact same blood flowing in his veins as flowed in mine and Beverly's. In terms of discovering missing relatives, this was as intense as it gets.
Although I was glad to have told someone about my discovery, there still remained the all consuming question of what to do with this information? As we discussed the proper course of action, Bev agreed with me that it would be inappropriate to approach our father with what we knew at this time. For one thing, the date on my brother's plea was 2002. It was now late 2005. The truth was we really didn't know anything about this brother, or even if he was still alive. The one decision we did make that day was to expand our circle of knowledge to include our sensible sister Donna, whom we felt could be relied on to provide some pragmatic advice.
I revealed our lost brother to Donna in the same way as I did with Bev, by going out to dinner and simply handing Donna the paper so she could read the internet plea unbiased by any preliminary comments from me. Donna too immediately expressed her certainty that yes, this was our parents, and that the person making the plea was indeed our full-blooded brother. Donna too had a similar reaction, exclaiming, "This is the sort of thing you only hear about happening on TV!" True, but it was none the less happening to us in real life, and we still hadn't figured out what to do with this information. We decided that we should each think about a course of action and that the three of us, Donna, Bev and myself, would go out to eat again in a week, with the intention that at the end of that dinner a decision would be made about what we would do about our amazing discovery.
So, a week later we had dinner in Westfield, and the three of us discussed our options. The simplest option, of course, was to do nothing, and let the knowledge of our hidden brother go no further. This course of inaction definitely had its virtues. Indeed, it might be for the best to let this secret of fifty years simply remain buried, or as the saying goes, we could "Let sleeping dogs lie." My parents had apparently, for whatever reasons, chosen never to inform us of the existence of this brother, and maybe we would be better off not to know why. After all, not all secrets have beneficial effects once unveiled.
But we rejected this option. When it came right down to it, why shouldn't we contact our brother? He was apparently interested in meeting us, and what would be the harm in responding to the email address he had included with his plea? After he responded to us, we could better decide what to do once we were armed with more knowledge about exactly who our new brother was. We decided that nothing should be said to my father until we had acquired this information. Shocking our father with our discovery without having any kind of follow-up info would be thoughtless and unkind.
Therefore we decided that I would send a message to the email address listed on my brother's online plea. The only clue we had as to the name of our brother was in the email address itself, which had "jconrad" at the beginning. Was that a name? Joe Conrad perhaps? Jerry Conrad? John Conrad? The only thing to do was to simply send the email and wait to find out.
I went home and agonized over what to say to this mysterious brother. At first I wrote a long email, but then erased it. Brevity's the key, I decided. Don't say too much, just open the door to further correspondence. I figured all that was required at the outset was to establish a connection, and then we could proceed from there at whatever pace felt comfortable. Play it safe. So I sent the email to jconrad or whatever his name was with just a short explanation of how I had found his plea on the adoption website, and then asked him to contact me for more information. I sent the email, and then my sisters and I anxiously awaited for a reply. Our suspense proved to be quite brief however, as a reply came almost immediately reading:
MESSAGE UNDELIVERABLE - E-MAIL ADDRESS NO LONGER VALID
It was enough to make us scream with frustration! In fact, it was almost laughable - after all that agonizing over what to do and then finally coming to the decision to actually contact my brother, we had immediately hit what appeared to be an impenetrable barrier. Apparently, in the three years since he had posted on the adoption website, my lost brother had changed his email address! Who knew why - there was even the possibility that perhaps he had died. Now we were without a name, an email address or anything else to go by. The possibility of locating my lost brother suddenly seemed remote. In a strange cruelty of fate, we had found out about my lost brother, but only to have him slip back into the shadows and out of reach.
And so that remained the status of things for several months. My sisters and I pretty much resigned ourselves to the notion that our lost brother was going to remain lost for the foreseeable future, maybe even forever. But then fate intervened. In early 2006 my old friend the computer guru Jordan Williams (below on Cape Cod) came to visit me in Amherst with his longtime traveling companion Micheline de Senet. In the course of their visit I told them about the incredible discovery I had made and my frustration that nothing had come of it. They too were amazed by my story. "Oh my!" Micheline exclaimed. "This is like something out of a TV show!"
They were both very intrigued by the entire mystery. Jordan volunteered to use his considerable computer expertise to try and track down my brother, at no fee, if I would provide him with whatever information I had and complete permission to go wherever his search took him. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I was glad to provide him with both the info and permission.
Jordan and Micheline returned to the west coast, where they were living at the time. Jordan emailed me to send him a copy of my brother's original posting and any clues that me and my sisters thought we might have, hoping to piece something together or perhaps notice something that we had missed. There wasn't much for me to send him, but I gave him the few scraps of information we had.
First I sent Jordan the original posting from the adoption search site that had led to the discovery of my brother's existence. I assured him that there was absolutely no doubt in me or my sister's minds that the people described were my parents. I also told him how my father was a soldier who had been stationed in Idaho at that time. I told him that he had my complete and unconditional permission to pursue any resources he could think of without any restrictions or privacy concerns whatsoever.
This is the complete adoption website posting that led to the initial discovery of my brother:
Male Adoptees born in 1950-1951 and 1952
10-5-52 Boise, ID Booth Memorial Hosp. Children's Home. Birthname, RICHARD DEVINE. Birthmother, JOYCE DEVINE DOB 5-1-33 (from Massachusetts) **SEARCHING FOR BIRTHFATHER, SIBLINGS & OTHER RELATIVES** EMAILjoconrad@rmisp.com Date posted 1-31-02
Jordan too tried using the email address listed and got a similar reply:
Delivery to the following recipient failed permanently: firstname.lastname@example.org PERM_FAILURE: SMTP Error (state 9): 550 : Recipient address rejected: Unknown local part joconrad in.
Jordan also could not dismiss the possibility that my brother had died, but perhaps there was a less dramatic explanation. He suggested the possibility that it might be as bland that over the last four years, the person behind email@example.com had simply let his email account lapse. He said what we most needed was more of my brother's personal information - in particular his actual name.
Rather than becoming discouraged, Jordan decided to start from scratch by asking, 'What do we really know?' Judging from the email address that began with a "j" it seemed reasonable to guess that my brother's adopted name might be John or Joseph Conrad. Unfortunately, a Google search revealed that is a fairly common name. We needed something more concrete, something to distinguish him from all the other John and Joe Conrads out there. Jordan decided to see what looking into what the other half of the email address might reveal - @rmisp.com - and fed that all by itself into Google.
What came up was that @rmisp.com was a Rocky Mountain service provider, which strongly implied that my brother was at least in the same part of the country as Idaho when he wrote his plea on the adoption website. The plea also mentioned the name of the hospital where my brother was born - Booth Memorial Hospital Children's Home. Was the hospital still in existence, and if so, what records they might they have?
We had no solid reason to think that my brother was still living in Idaho, except for the fact that he was born there and apparently (based on his defunct email address) still lived at least near there in 2002. We decided that the odds favored that my brother was still living in the state of Idaho, or in a state nearby.
We decided we should focus on an attempt to determine what was the actual name of "joconrad" - was it John, Joseph or something else? Jordan tried to acquire some birth records, however getting documents from the original hospital was difficult (over the internet at least). Jordan was able to discover some interesting information on the history of these "adoption hospitals", but nothing that related to my brother specifically. Jordan tried looking on other databases to see if "joconrad", or any Conrad, had similar requests seeking his parents or siblings. However this inquiry proved fruitless.
Searching for a "John Conrad" or a "Joseph Conrad", seemed to make the most sense, at least at first. This avenue led to a lot of possibilities - in fact too many. However focusing on those two names cross-referenced only with Idaho made the number more manageable. We had already determined that "rmisp.com" meant a Rocky Mountain Internet Service Provider. The "close to Boise" angle seemed pretty speculative but by using this method Jordan found three John Conrads within a hundred miles of the Boise hospital (and zero "Joseph Conrads" near Boise).
Using a database consolidator Jordan produced some more intriguing possibilities. Using Peoplefinders.com in particular, he found the following:
3 Matches Found (100 max.)
John Conrad, (208) 823-4568, 19581 Highway 20, Carey, ID 83320 Google
John Conrad, (208) 823-4408, , Carey, ID 83320 Google Maps
John Conrad, PO BOX 520, Glenns Ferry, ID 83623 Google Maps
Searching deeper, Jordan discovered that the first two Conrads were over 70 years old, and therefore they could be eliminated as too old to be my brother. A bit more searching yielded this:
CONRAD, JOHN F, age 53, 520 PO BOX, GLENNS FERRY, ID 83623
This was very intriguing, since my brother would be 53 years old and Glenn's Ferry was only about 80 miles from Boise. Jordan then requested PeopleFinder's premium search, which gave him quite a lot of information about John F. Conrad of Glenn's Ferry. The following details appeared to be the most relevant:
CONRAD, JOHN F
Date:3/28/2006 11:20:00 PM
Name and Address Reported Information for CONRAD, JOHN F
Name(s): CONRAD, JOHN F
Possible Current Address:
520 PO Box, Glenns Ferry ID 83623 (1X)
Date of Birth: 10/05/1952, 53 years old
Possible Relatives for CONRAD, JOHN F
Relatives: CONRAD, CONNIE L
Jordan noted the birthday: 10/05/1952!
What a stroke of luck - It had to be my brother! The only problem was that there was no home address and no phone number provided in the search data. As great as this new information was, we really needed something more tangible than just the post office box listed, something like a photo, a home address, a phone number - but after considerable searching Jordan couldn't find any of the three.
Yet what info Jordan did have seemed pretty solid. Unfortunately, there was no way of knowing whether my brother STILL lived in Glenns Ferry, and none of the info was dated beyond 1994, at that time twelve years ago. Jordan then decided we should enlist Becky Fennessey, an internet searcher extraordinaire whom he knew, and provided her with the all the information acquired thus far.
Jordan told her that he thought "possible relative" Connie L. Conrad was actually John's wife (having discovered that she was only a year or two younger than John, and shared the same P.O. Box). Not satisfied with her own "John Conrad" searches, Becky cleverly decided to focus her search on Connie Conrad instead. She discovered that Connie was a teacher and through that angle came upon something very interesting, an online yearbook from Silver Springs Elementary School where Connie was employed! Becky sent Jordan the following email :
Hmmm... check this out!!
The yearbook says her husband is named JOHN.. but when you go to the staff page...
There is a JOSH Conrad.. but clearly the husband and even better a picture!!
He sure does look the right age.... and maybe the picture will help. However.. this school is in Nevada not Idaho.. but the rest of it seems to make sense.
This is really a great story...I will keep digging when I get home.. keep me posted for sure!
Below are the pages she was referring to:
Mrs. Conrad currently works in coordination with her husband, John, where they serve as Literacy Coordinators at Silver Springs Elementary School. She has two roles in this job. She provides supplemental instruction to students and also supports the teachers by offering staff development opportunities.
Mrs. Conrad is a native to Idaho and received her education from the University of Idaho at Moscow, Boise State University, Utah State University at Logan, and the University of Wyoming at Laramie. She began teaching in 1979 and has provided educational opportunities for children in Idaho, Wyoming, and Nevada. She has been a first grade and a second grade class room teacher, elementary gifted education specialist, and worked as a literacy specialist with both advanced students and those who need extra support to succeed in reading and writing.
Her husband's page:
Mr. Conrad is currently working as a Literacy Coordinator in conjunction with his wife, Connie, at Silver Springs Elementary School. His role is to provide supplemental instruction to students and staff development opportunities for teachers.
Mr. Conrad is a native of Idaho and received his Bachelor’s degree from the University of Idaho and Master’s degree from Boise State University. He has provided educational opportunities for students kindergarten through adult in various capacities in Idaho, Wyoming, and Nevada for the past 27 years.
Yet looking at the picture of John Conrad it was hardly a certainty that this was my brother. For one thing there was no mention of Glenn's Falls in his history to complete the chain of custody. However he looked the right age and his bio said he was a native of Idaho. The picture wasn't quite the "aha!" moment we had hoped for, as he didn't look a lot like me, although it was hardly a disqualification either. I thought he resembled my mother's side of the family and my sisters thought there was a good resemblance. Both Jordan and Becky said that we shouldn't ignore my brother's teaching and literary interest - the possible genetic component of similar aptitudes between my lost brother and me.
The next night, after doing some more Googling without much success, Jordan went back to Peoplefinders.com and decided to do a cross-reference with John F. Conrad in Nevada instead of Idaho. There were two John F. Conrads in Nevada. One of those was in Las Vegas, but Jordan was able to disqualify him by age. This was the other entry:
2 Matches Found (100 max.)
CONRAD, JOHN F FERNLEY, NV 89408
Age: 53, 10/05/1952
A Grand Slam! This was clearly the same guy who'd lived in Glenns Ferry in the 90's - apparently he had simply taken a teaching job in an adjacent state! In addition, looking at a map Jordan saw that Fernley, NV is only a few miles from the Silver Spring Elementary School whose yearbook we had consulted. Fernley and Silver Springs are about 50 miles east of Reno, NV - so the phone and address were clearly the contact information for the guy in the picture.
Our search was over! We had found my lost brother and the poor guy didn't even have a clue that his siblings had found him.
Only one last detail remained. In order to make sure my brother hadn't moved again, Jordan called the phone number that was listed. He called in mid-morning, a time when respectable teachers are supposed to be at work cultivating young minds. He got the following recording, in a pleasant female voice: "You have reached Connie and John, please leave a message". Jordan hung up without saying anything, convinced that the last piece of the puzzle had fallen into place.
So I had my brother's address. I also had his phone number. But now what? Obviously it was time to make another attempt at contact, but how? I thought of sending my brother a letter, but after all this time waiting that process seemed agonizingly slow. I decided instead that I would call him. I decided that a direct introduction was the only way to do it, even if it meant cold calling someone I didn't even know.
I decided my course of action would be to just forge straight ahead. So a few days later, as I was sitting in the cafe section of the Barnes and Noble at the Hampshire Mall, I dialed my brother's number. The seconds of silence leading to the connection felt painfully long. Then I heard the phone ringing but no one answered. It went to voice mail and I got the same voice mail message that Jordan had. I left no message. Of course, not getting through fit in with everything that had happened so far, with us always coming so close to contact only to fail. I called again later that day, but still no one answered. Then I called that night, still with no luck, and again early the next morning. There seemed to never be anyone home. Finally Jordan devised a plan to find out what was going on. Pretending to be a relative, Jordan called the school where my brother worked and said this was an emergency phone call for John Conrad. The school employee who answered replied that John was away on emergency medical leave, because his mother was gravely ill in Idaho!
With quick thinking Jordan asked whether my brother had left behind a phone number in case of an emergency. Yes and he was given it. At last, was this the phone number that could not fail? Returning the next morning to the Barnes and Noble, I attempted to call. I don't know why I had chosen to call from the Barnes and Noble cafeteria, perhaps I felt encouraged by sitting beneath the giant bookcover they had on the wall of Atlas Shrugged. I dialed, and then had to endure once again the anxious wait for the dial tone to turn into a ring.
No one answered, so I would have to try again later. While waiting to make another attempt, I made the following video, which has nothing to do with my brother, but at least it shows the setting from which my futile calls were being made.
Soon I redialed, but true to form once again no one answered. I left Barnes and Noble and went to UMass, where by the campus pond I dialed again. Still no answer. Then I went home to my apartment in downtown Amherst and called again. The phone rang. Someone answered. Was it just my imagination, or was this a voice that sounded oddly like my own? I asked if this was John Conrad I was speaking to and he confirmed it was. As planned in advance, I was bluntly direct.
"Hello, you don't know me, but my name is Tom Devine and I have documentation that suggests that I have a brother with the same birthdate as you, and who was born in the same town as you. Could I ask you a few questions about that?"
Several seconds of dead silence at the other end.
"Hello, hello? Are you there?"
"Wait! Don't hang up!" John Conrad cried. "Yes! Yes, I am your brother!"
The Mystery Grows
My first phone conversation with my brother was rather limited, but how could it be otherwise? Beyond the fact that we were biological brothers, we really knew nothing else about each other. How do you begin to describe your life when there are so many decades to cover? Do you start with grammar school? High School? What you're doing now? It was like there was this enormous canvas on which we both had so much to paint, but where both of us thus far had placed nothing but the small drop of knowledge that we were brothers, leaving all of this enormous blankness still to be filled in.
In other words, the discovery of my brother was not really an event, but a process, one that would take a while, probably a good while, to really play out and put the pieces together. I did get some impressions of my brother from that first conversation however, and they were positive ones. As I noted earlier, his voice was similar to mine in tone, and as anyone will tell yo,u I've always liked the sound of my own voice! Later, others would make the same observation about the similarity of our voices. Overall, my brother struck me as a nice guy, and someone whom I wanted to know better.
My brother also supplied me with a piece of very surprising information. He said that he and his wife Connie, with some help from their daughters, had been busy doing some genealogical research of their own over the years, using as a starting point the scanty info they had received from the hospital and which had been used to place his plea for information on the adoption website. Much to my amazement, I was told that they had actually tracked down our mother to her Pine Point home. At one point my brother's daughter (who was of course my mother's granddaughter) had even contacted my mother by phone shortly before her death!
According to John, the phone call had not been very productive. My mother had declined the opportunity to re-connect with her first born son, explaining that she was dying of cancer and that revealing John's identity to the rest of the family all these years later under such circumstances would be too upsetting. So my brother, at least to a limited extent, had already found his family years earlier, only to be discouraged from investigating further by my mother's own wishes. Yet, now through my mother's death that barrier had been broken.
There were some interesting links between my brother and his family's past, even if he didn't realize it at the time. For example, like his father, John had served in the U.S. Air Force. He and his wife, although raised Protestant, had for a time experimented with Catholicism, the religion of the Devines. He had even gone on a trip to Ireland, but didn't realize at the time that he was Irish!
Now with contact finally established, the big unanswered question was how did my family come to be divided? What were the reasons was my brother left behind in Idaho? This was hard to answer because unfortunately, in many ways John's understanding of his origins were as fuzzy on his end as they were on mine. Despite the fact that John had gained access to the hospital records where he was born, according to him the information in those records was maddeningly incomplete. Yet there was enough info there to suggest what seemed to be a rather sad story.
The place where my oldest brother John was born was a hospital for unwed mothers run by the Salvation Army. There were many such hospitals at the time, this was the early 1950's. There was no welfare as we understand the term today, no medicaid, no government programs of any kind for pregnant teenagers. My mother was very much alone and in a very awkward situation. It saddened me to think of my Mom, so young and far from home, having a baby, her first baby, in a place where she didn't know anyone except my Dad, and him stationed on a military base, with none of her family to help her. We wondered how these unfortunate circumstances come about.
I tried to recall information that might supply some clues, but there was frankly little that I knew about my parent's past that could shed much light on my brother's origins. Like perhaps most people, I simply didn't know very much about my parent's life before I was born. My attitude as a boy was always hey, Mom is here, Dad is here, my siblings are here, so what else matters? That there might be some sort of intrigue concerning my parent's marriage, much less a mysterious first born child, was something I was not only ignorant of, but something that would never even have occurred to me. Now however, I wracked my memory for clues.
There weren't many. In the past I remember seeing some of my parent's wedding pictures, but they were taken in Washington state, not Idaho. These showed my mother in a white dress with matching purse and hat, and my Dad in his military uniform. My mother had never said much about the time she had spent living out west with my Dad, but the few things that she had said about it now took on much greater meaning.
I recalled that my mother always bought Idaho potatoes. She claimed that Idaho grew the best, but never said anything about how she had come to acquire that opinion. More significantly, on one occasion when I was a teenager, my mother and I had taken a Peter Pan bus to UMass to see the campus shortly before my admission there. I recall my mother commenting during the ride on how luxurious the Peter Pan bus was compared to one that she had once taken to Idaho, which was so rickety and noisy that she couldn't sleep the whole way. Alas, I was too incurious in my youthful preoccupations to ask her what the heck she was doing taking a run-down bus to Idaho.
Yet there were some important things that I did know about my parent's early years, such as that my parents had come from very different kinds of homes, despite the fact that they had grown up just a block or so away from each other in Springfield's Pine Point neighborhood.
Over the years my Dad had told us details from his life that revealed that he had endured a troubled childhood. His father, John Edmond Devine, was by all accounts a brilliant man who had once studied law. My grandmother told me once about the time she and my grandfather were sitting on a bench in Springfield's Court Square when Judge Keyes, who was the main judicial figure of the time, stopped to ask my grandfather his opinion on a certain difficult case. My grandmother said it was fairly common for local lawyers to consult my grandfather on legal matters, despite the fact that he had never formally attended law school nor taken the bar examination. Yet my grandmother told me that everyone said that my grandfather had "a fine legal mind" and would have made an exceptional lawyer.
Unfortunately, like too many others in my family history, my grandfather was a hardcore alcoholic. He could never hold a job for very long and frequently deserted his family to go on boozy binges that often involving a lot of traveling. At his Springfield drinking haunts - The Blue Moon, The Charm and the original Pine Point Cafe - his nickname was "Coast to Coast Johnny" and he was known for his colorful tales of exploits on the road from one end of the country to the other.
My family history is full of such characters, youths of seemingly brilliant promise who ruined their lives with drink, and if that was all there was to condemn about my father's father then that could be easily forgiven. However, he also had a mean streak in him when he drank, and since he drank all the time his exceptional cruelties were legendary. Like the times he would refuse to leave the bar where he was drinking away the rent, even as his tearful wife pleaded with him while my father and his sister waited outside. Or the night in a drunken rage when he took all the furniture in their Haskins Street apartment and threw it into the street, while the neighbors watched from their porches, no one calling the police. Then my father had to go to school the next morning at the Hiram L. Dorman Elementary School with the other kids snickering behind his back. These are just the incidents that were so bad no one's could bury the memory. One can only guess at the more subtle suffering caused by growing up with a brilliant but cruel and deeply disturbed man who was also a raging alcoholic.
John E. Devine (far left) and his family in 1947. My father is on the far right.
Relief from this chaotic life came as a result of World War II. The government drafted to the age of 50, and my grandfather, then in his early forties, was called in. Of course older guys like my grandfather never saw combat, but were assigned to various tasks behind the front such as working in the mess hall, a great job for a man like my grandfather, who liked to boast that he was "the world's greatest chef." He loved military life, and why not? Put in your eight hours and you were free to hit the bottle for the rest of the day!
The government insured he always had food and a roof over his head, things he couldn't always provide for himself in civilian life. The military also satisfied his wanderlust, being first stationed in Africa under George Patton and later in France under Eisenhower. Best of all, the government took out the lion's share of the pay of servicemen who had families and sent it directly to their wives, therefore creating for the first time a steady income. The drunken tyrant was gone, but his checks kept coming, giving my father's family something they had never known before, emotional and financial security.
Later on when the whole world celebrated the end of World War II, peace was a mixed blessing for my father's family. It meant that the steady checks were ending and that my grandfather was coming home. When he arrived back in Pine Point everyone's worst fears were realized. His years in the hard-drinking military environment had intensified his alcoholism, making him even a worse father and provider than before. A few years later my grandparents separated, a difficult decision because it meant the family being plunged into poverty, but being poor was less of a challenge than putting up with my grandfather's emotional abuse. With the family struggling to survive, my father felt intense pressure to get out of his mother's house and be on his own. When my father was finally old enough, quitting school and joining the military seemed like a fast and easy ticket out.
My mother (above as a teenager) was also desperate to leave her childhood home, but for very different reasons. While her future husband had grown up in alcoholic chaos, her own childhood had been very strictly the opposite. Her mother was a kind woman, but very conservative, almost Victorian in her outlook and believed in hard discipline. Her father mostly deferred to his wife.
My mother however, had the exact wrong temperament for that household, being from birth very much a free spirit who liked to have fun. As she grew up, she became more and more openly rebellious of her mother's restrictions, and by the time she was a teenager she was fighting with her parents constantly. So when my Bay Street mother met her Haskins Street husband to be, they had one overwhelming desire in common, to get out of their respective childhood homes as quickly as possible.
Somehow this shared desire would lead to abandoning a child in Idaho.
That was the primary mystery posed by brother's existence. Why on Earth had he been left behind, especially since my parents had gotten married anyway? It wasn't as if my brother had been the product of a failed tryst or temporary relationship, he was born to parents who not only got married but went on to have five more children! So why was it necessary to put the first child up for adoption out in Idaho?
There was only one person still living who had the answer to that mystery - and that was my father. Up to this point my sisters and I had avoided telling him anything about what we had learned about our brother. However now that contact had been made and the fact that he was my brother had been proven beyond any question by the Salvation Army hospital documents, it was time to inform my father that his secret of half a century had been discovered, thanks to the power of a technology that didn't even exist when my brother was born - the Internet.
I was surprised by the way that the discovery that I had an previously unknown older, full blooded brother altered my sense of myself. Your family, and the way it is constituted, is one of the most basic things in your life. To have it suddenly changed when you're already well into adulthood is naturally quite disorienting. I had always been one of five kids - now there were six. We had all been raised in Springfield, Massachusetts. But now one was raised in Idaho. I had always been "the younger brother." Now I was more properly regarded as "the baby brother." It took some getting used to.
My "new" brother John had an even greater adjustment to make. He had been adopted by a couple in Idaho who had no other children, so he was making the leap from being an only child to being one of six! Also coming onboard his life was a typically large Irish clan of uncles, aunts and cousins, plus a passel of nieces and nephews!
Yet it was John, who you would think would face the greater challenge, who seemed to be having no problems. He was genuinely excited about all his new relatives and was anxious to meet us all. Of course that wouldn't be possible until our father was informed that we knew of John's existence. He and my late mother had kept their oldest son's existence a closely held secret for over fifty years. Now it had been my responsibility, as the son who had discovered the secret brother, to tell my father that news.
But how should this be done? At first we considered that the three of us would meet with our father and tell him what we knew, but the more we thought of it, the more it seemed like ganging up on him to have all three of us there. So we decided only Bev and I would be present. That seemed best, especially since it was difficult to predict in advance how my father would react.
Ideally, he would be delighted to know the whereabouts of his lost son. Perhaps he would welcome the opportunity, in his twilight years, to get to know this son, not to mention the grandchildren and great-grandchildren he had never met. He might also find it a great relief to have the secret he and my mother had carried for so many years finally lifted from his soul.
Or not. My father was one of the most popular bartenders in the Pioneer Valley. I worked with him a lot when I was in college, and I saw that he was more than just a pourer of drinks. My father knew how to make a bar lively, how to provoke engaging conversation yet keep the peace. He knew how to encourage people to relax and enjoy themselves. He certainly wasn't afraid to encourage the pouring of libations if that was what it took to loosen the tongues, melt away the stress and get the good times underway. In fact around the Springfield Country Club, where he mostly worked, I used to overhear the members affectionately call him "The Embalmer." He was also a great singer who was well known around the karaoke circuit and for singing the old ballads at the John Boyle. Whenever he was in the mood to tell a story, he could hold an entire barroom at rapt attention. In short, he was known throughout the Valley as one of the most engaging old Irish gents you could ever meet.
However, those of us who grew up as his children saw a more complex side of him. While my father was superficially very engaging, he was emotionally reserved when it came to anything serious. It is as if there was a wall in his personality that you could never quite see over. I've found that is very common among Irishmen of his generation. I remember the night in 2003 that Charlie Ryan announced that he was running for mayor of Springfield. I was in a bar with a couple of Charlie's sons and I was trying to get information out of them about their father's decision for my blog. Instead I found them peppering me with all kinds of questions about their father, until I realized that they had no real insight into what their father was doing or why. I remember thinking how typical that is of an Irish family, where the patriarch can be a very public person, known to all just like my old man, and yet remain something of an enigma to the people closest to them.
Beverly and I decided that we would take my father out to one of his favorite places to eat - the historic Fort Restaurant in downtown Springfield. My sister arranged with the owner Rudy, an old family friend, for us to be seated in a back room not normally used during lunch, where we would have complete privacy. Because the rest of the restaurant was crowded, when my father arrived he was not suspicious that we were seated in the backroom. As we ate our lunch we chatted about mundane things. It seemed surreal, this banal chatter, considering the tremendous shock we intended to deliver. We hated having to bring this matter up to my Dad at all, but could no longer avoid it. It was obvious this was going to be one of the most interesting - and difficult - lunches that we would ever have.
My Father's Command
Bev and I had no idea what to expect when it came time to raise the subject of my lost brother. We knew my father's reaction could be anything from a sentimental sob of joy to an angry outburst. That is why my sister arranged to have us seated away from everyone else because if there was going to be a scene of some sort, then best to let it take place in private.
My sister and I had decided in advance that we would say nothing until the end of lunch. Hey, if things went badly, why also ruin a good meal? Yet it was hard to enjoy eating knowing what was coming. As the waitress took away the plates and brought the last round of beers, I braced myself to say what had to be said. It would be ridiculous to be coy or try to beat around the bush. The thing to do was just take a deep breath and plunge right in.
"Dad, we have something I need to tell you. Bev and I know that we have a brother you have never told us about."
My father looked genuinely confused for several seconds. Then slowly his eyes widened, his skin color darkened and he appeared completely thunderstruck.
"I don't know what you're talking about." he said in the flat monotone of someone who is battling powerful emotions. I proceeded to tell him everything that we knew. He listened, but with his head down without looking at me. Then my sister spoke, telling him about how she had been calling John and having regular conversations with him, sometimes talking for an hour or more.
"And you believe this person to be your brother?" my father asked.
My sister replied, "Dad, you know he is."
This was not going well. My father was becoming visibly agitated, seeming just a step away from becoming openly angry. He turned to me and said, "You found this on the computer did you?" I said yes. "You are very clever with computers, aren't you?" he replied. This was not said in the tone of a complement.
"Dad, if I hadn't found the listing on the adoption website, sooner or later someone else in the family would have." I could tell from his expression that my father did not accept this answer. He held me responsible for unveiling his secret and sharing it with the others. He was confused and unhappy, yet still managing to keep his Irish temper under control.
"You have given me quite a shock." he said finally. "I need time to think."
My sister and I assured him he could have all the time he needed. We told him to call us when he was ready to talk again. He agreed to do so and left with a curt good-by. Once outside, we called John on my sister's cellphone, as we had told him that our meeting was going to take place and had promised to call him afterwords. "How did it go?" John asked. "Well," I replied, "no dishes got broken!"
I was joking, but the truth is the results were very mixed. At no point in the conversation had my father ever admitted that John was his son. At the same time, he had never denied it. I suppose it was the best result we could have hoped for. It was naive of us to have thought he would have some quick, pat response either positive or negative to what must have been an utterly astounding revelation. He never imagined in a million years that topic would ever come up, and so with everything considered we felt it had gone about as well as we could have hoped. At least the dialog on the subject was still open, and we had agreed to meet again. I was afraid my brother John would feel rejected when I told him this outcome, but he was in good humor and seemed content to await the next developments. After all, he had waited for decades to connect with his biological family, what difference would a little longer make?
Beverly and I had our second meeting with my father about a week later. This time we went to a place in Westfield that serves Irish food cooked in the old style that my father prefers - everything boiled and with no seasoning. While my father had been caught totally off balance by our earlier conversation, this time he arrived fully prepared and in complete control. We weren't certain which version of my father we would be dining with, the charming Irish gent or the demanding Irish patriarch. It turned out to be the latter.
Over corned beef and cabbage my father made clear that he was very displeased with what me and my sisters were doing. "Don't you realize that you risk ruining the reputation of your sainted mother?" he asked harshly. He then reminded us of the difficulty he would have explaining to all our aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews how he and his late wife had a secret love child out of wedlock. It seemed slightly strange to us younger folk that the illegitimate birth was such a big deal to him, in this day and age when whole housing projects are filled with unwed mothers. However to my father's generation not to have waited until marriage to have sex was considered a major character flaw for the man and utterly ruinous to the reputation of the woman.
"Why are you doing this to me in my old age?" my father complained. "What about your mother? I must ask you to let this matter end here and now!"
"But Dad," I said, "we can't unknow what we already know."
"I demand that this go no further! We must end discussion on this subject once and for all tonight!"
Earlier that day I had put pictures I had acquired over the internet of John's grandkids, my father's great-grandchildren, in my knapsack in hopes of showing them to my Dad. He had a soft spot for small children, and I thought it would help if he could see the grandkids, especially since they look very much like Devines. "Dad," I said, "I brought some pictures I want you to see."
When he saw what I was trying to show him there came at last the inevitable eruption. "I want nothing to do with my bastard son!" he shouted, in so loud a voice that the people at the bar turned to look. It was embarrassing, but at least my father had finally referred to John as his son, even if it was in a tone of total rejection.
My father pressed on with his demands.
"I want you to promise me that you will tell no one else in the family what you have discovered. For as long as I live I want to never hear of this subject again. As your father, I command you to honor my wishes."
Sadly and with great reluctance, my sister and I agreed to promise. We told him we would get Donna to promise to remain silent as well. Yet I looked my father in the eye and said, "But when you're gone that promise is no longer in force." My father did not reply, but simply looked away, since even he realized he could not enforce his will from beyond the grave.
Considering the matter settled, my father reverted to the charming Irish gent and was in good spirits for the rest of the dinner. My sister and I however, were quite glum. Here we had successfully discovered my brother and made contact with him, with a quickly blossoming friendship already developing, and now we were shoving him back into the closet and throwing away the key for as long as my father lived. We were honoring our father, but betraying our brother.
A Shocking Discovery
My father's insistence on maintaining the secret of my brother's existence turned out to be a hard promise for me and my sisters Beverly and Donna to keep. We were all developing a relationship with our brother John on various levels, as this mysterious person who was once just someone with the name John Conrad was beginning to take on a life and a personality. We all agreed that we liked our new family. He was friendly, quick to laugh and intelligent, and very accepting of the family drama we were enduring. We also liked the other members of his family as we got to know them.
It was interesting to discover the genetic links between us and him. He had been blond as a child, and so had I. He liked to cook like his colorful grandfather John Edmond Devine, who always proclaimed himself "the world's greatest chef!" Our brother was an educator, as our mother had been. John also had a taste for the fruit of the vine, which made him a Devine through and through.
In short, the more we learned about our new brother and interacted with him and his family the more we liked these new relatives. That only made it all the more difficult to treat our brother as a dirty family secret to be kept hidden away out west. My sisters and I saw nothing to be particularly ashamed of in the circumstances of my brother's birth. Good grief, children conceived before marriage is hardly a novel situation, it is the oldest story ever told! Even the Massachusetts Puritans, perhaps the most sexually strict society there ever was in America, had sufficient problems in that regard to inspire Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. It was hard not to feel resentment towards my father for commanding us to keep our new brother hidden from the rest of the family over events that had happened half a century ago and which really had no significance today.
And just how long would this ban on my brother remain in place? My father at the time was 76, but it is not uncommon for people to live well into their eighties these days. If he lived to be 86 would we be able to keep the secret for ten more years? My father's longterm survival was not hard to imagine, since despite my mother's relatively early death on her 70th birthday, on my father's side of the family people routinely live to great old ages, even those who are alcoholic or otherwise abusive of their health. As our family likes to say, we Devines may not be pretty, but we're built to last.
Still, we tried to understand our father's behavior by trying to appreciate the social context in which the pregnancy resulting in my brother had taken place. It was the early 1950's, when moral and sexual codes were much different than they are today. This was the pre-feminist era, when women really didn't have but three options in life - be a teacher, be a nurse or get married. Marriage was the much preferred choice, because it was the only way for most women to be upwardly mobile. Basically if you were female the way to express any ambition was to marry an upwardly mobile man and ride on his coattails. In most cases a woman could only be as successful as her husband was and no more so, thereby making the marriage contract more than just an act of love, but a financial transaction as well.
In such a society, upwardly mobile men had great marriage prospects, since many women would want to marry them so they could share in their success. In the sexist attitudes of the times, such men did not want to marry "used goods" so maintaining your virginity was essential for any woman who wanted to compete for the best men. In that context, losing your virginity to a man who you did not have an airtight promise of marriage from was considered the riskiest and most self-defeating act a woman could commit, the sheer foolishness of which would cause that woman to lose all of society's respect. Remember also that this was before birth control pills and before the legality of abortion, so an unwanted pregnancy was all but impossible to either prevent or do anything about once it occurred.
So in many ways my father was simply being a typical male of his generation, with the common 1950's attitude that what he and my mother had done by having a child out of wedlock was something very wrong, and was to be hidden from the knowledge of others at all costs. What was disappointing was that my father did not seem to take into consideration the extent to which times had changed, and that in modern times the stigma of an unwanted pregnancy has been greatly relaxed, perhaps even too much so.
The fear he had of fingers pointing at him in condemnation appeared to my sisters and I to be unnecessarily exaggerated. We did not believe my mother's reputation would suffer much, if at all, if the existence of her first born was made known. No sensible person would dismiss the achievements of her lifetime on something so flimsy as a youthful mistake. But he was our father, and he had commanded our silence, and in the traditional Irish way the wishes of the patriarch are not casually dismissed. We obeyed although we felt that we were doing our lost brother an injustice.
We also feared that our other siblings, who knew nothing yet of my brother, would be angry when they discovered his existence after my father's death, and who could blame them? Butt what was most disappointing was that my father's ban on even discussing the subject left important family information permanently in doubt. It still remained a mystery why my full-blooded brother had been left behind in Idaho. John was not the product of an illicit affair between a couple that eventually split up, our parents got married and went on to have five more kids. So why did the first child get put up for adoption?
This was the great mystery which if known would shed much light not just on John and his origins but on the origins of my entire family. My father's insistence on taking this secret to his grave meant that an essential episode in my family's history would be forever shrouded in darkness. Everyone else who knew the answers - my mother, her parents, perhaps my father's parents - they had all died with their lips tightly sealed. The last remaining person alive who knew the whole story was my Dad, and he was determined to take that secret to his grave as well. What a mess! Our only choice was to obey our father and betray our brother! The joy that we had first experienced in discovering John was deteriorating into a family crisis that seemed impossible to resolve.
Then fate intervened with a shocking discovery that would take the crisis to a whole new level.
My brother John was dying. He had been feeling uncharacteristically tired and went to his doctor for a check-up. The Doctor's prognosis was as shocking as it was depressing - Mantel Cell Lymphoma, an incurable form of cancer with a 99% mortality rate. While there are treatments to temporarily slow the cancer, those treatments are so intense that some people die of the side effects of the treatments rather the disease itself. Since it cannot be cured, the best that current treatments can do is buy time, in which case it is hoped that new treatments to prolong life can be developed.
It was impossible to imagine a more shocking development! Here we had discovered our lost brother and were just getting to know him, only to have him receive the equivalent of a medical death sentence. While there was hope that the cancer could be put into remission long enough for a cure or at least new treatments to be found, there was simply no escaping that this new discovery changed everything. My sisters and I met for dinner to discuss this disturbing development and we each came to the same conclusion - the sudden intervention of this life or death medical crisis meant that we would have to revoke our promise to our father. Simple decency demanded that the remaining siblings be told about their lost brother so that they could meet him before he died. We also knew that would inevitably set in motion events that would cause my brother's existence to become known to the whole family, not just our siblings but aunts, uncles, cousins and so on, exactly as my father had feared. That is not what we would have chosen to do, or the way we would have chosen to do it, but that is what the circumstances required.
The only remaining issue was how to approach my father with this devastating news. It was finally decided that my sister Beverly, being the closest to my Dad, should be the one to meet with our father alone to inform him that his eldest son had incurable cancer. So as gently as she could Beverly did so, and the shock of that terrible news seemed to transform my father's attitude. When my sister told him that we were rescinding our promise to keep his secret he responded simply, "I understand." Then he added, "But if the family is to know, then they should know the full truth." In total contrast to his previous position, my father was now insisting that before anyone else in the family was told anything, that the secrets of half a century must finally be unveiled.
A Father's Confession
Now that my father had finally decided to tell us the full story behind my lost brother, we arranged to meet - my father, myself and my sisters Bev and Donna - at Bev's apartment in Westfield. It seemed like a good quiet and private place for a lengthy family discussion. Perhaps the reason our earlier talks on the subject of my brother had not gone so well was because we had them in public places. Or maybe that had made no difference at all. In any case, first we had a supper my father had brought with him of a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken which we washed down with Budweiser.
Then my father began his tale. It began in the early 1950's in the old Pine Point section of Springfield. That was where my great-grandfather built a house on Hood Street at the beginning of the last century. My father was raised on Haskins Street, just a block away. A block over from that was Bay Street, where my mother grew up.
According to my father, my parents were drawn together because they were both unhappy at home. In my father's case his parents marriage was in a chaotic phase made unbearable by my grandfather's sometimes uncontrollable alcoholic rages. The situation was ugly and depressing and my father wanted to be anywhere but home.
My mother had the same disdain for her home life, but for opposite reasons. Her well-meaning but very strict parents had made life unbearable for her, who was a free spirit who loved to laugh and have fun. The very reserved and Victorian style of her parents seemed so strict to her that it felt that she had no life, almost like an anti-life. She knew her parents loved her and meant well, but she wanted to be an artist, and was always drawing and dreaming of moving to New York City, where an art teacher she had at Technical High School had told her you had to go if you wanted to succeed in the art world. But she was too young to leave home yet, so she was restless under her parents strict control to the point that she began to rebel. The equally unhappy Irish kid around the corner who also hated his home life made her dream of moving away with someone she could relate to and who could share her rebellious and fun loving ways.
The original Pine Point Cafe, which burned down in the 1970's, was a big old rambling dump of a joint where anyone could drink if their money was green and they could reach the bar. That was where my parents and their friends went for underage drinking. When my mother's parents found out she was going there they were totally outraged. My mother's father, an otherwise quiet and gentle man in nearly all circumstances, shocked everyone by storming into the Pine Point Cafe one night, the first and last time anyone had ever seen him in a bar, and dragging out his daughter as he shouted to my father, "If I ever see you with my daughter again I'll kill you!"
By this time my Dad had quit school and enlisted in the military. He was waiting to head to boot camp, so all things considered it seemed like an opportune time to be leaving town. After basic training, my father was stationed at a remote base near Boise, Idaho. My mother's parents sighed with relief to have that wild Irish boy out of the Valley, but there was something they didn't know yet - their daughter was already pregnant by him.
When they found out it was as if an earthquake had struck. Nothing in their narrow Victorian world view could accommodate the reality of a pregnant unwed daughter. Abortion of course was illegal then, and my grandparents wouldn't have allowed it for religious reasons even if it had been an option. In their minds it was better to endure the scandal of a pregnant daughter than to damn all their souls to hell. So what could be done?
My grandmother believed an old wives' tale that if a pregnant woman were constantly exposed to hot water a miscarriage could be induced, and was determined to put it to a test. Therefore every night my mother had to soak for several hours in a tub full of near scalding water, but the desired miscarriage never occurred. In addition to this physical discomfort, my mother was subjected to constant guilt-inducing criticism from her mother. As for her father, he openly wept in despair over the hopelessness of the situation and the terrible unhappiness that had befallen their family. My mother felt that she must break free of this terrible environment or go insane.
My mother had always been close to her Uncle Steve, who was in many ways the exact opposite of my grandmother, who was his sister. He was the owner of Willis Oil Company and a hard drinking sports fanatic who had once played football professionally for the now defunct Springfield Acorns. His fun-loving temperament was much like my mother's, and when he found out about my mother's situation he knew something had to be done. He gave my mother a bus ticket and some money. "Go out west and get your soldier boy to marry you." he said. "Then everything will be okay."
That was how my mother, who had never been out of the Pioneer Valley in her life, got on a Greyhound bus leaving from the Peter Pan bus station and headed on the four day ride to Idaho. On the only occasion where she ever spoke of that ride to me, she said that the bus was so rickety that she couldn't sleep the whole way. At the time she told me this, I had no idea why she had taken a bus to Idaho.
To her great relief, when she arrived in Boise my father was happy to see her, despite discovering for the first time that he was going to be a father. The problem was he couldn't do much for her. For one thing he lived on the military base, in a barracks where my mother could not go even to visit, let alone stay. So my father took her to a home for unwed mothers in Boise that was run by the Salvation Army. Since there was no welfare of any kind in those days if you got caught pregnant without a husband, unlike today you got nothing from the taxpayers.
My mother did not fit in at the Salvation Army hospital. Most of the women there were hardened products of the slums. My mother had a much different background with her very proper and refined parents, and she simply wasn't able to hold her own with the tough, bullying women she found herself living with. My father realized that while they would still have to use the Salvation Army hospital for the birth, my mother couldn't live there while waiting until the time came. So my father rented a small apartment in the slums where my mother could stay until the ninth month of her pregnancy.
The military in those days paid almost nothing. The attitude was that serving your country was supposed to be a sacrifice, and since the military was providing you with all of your food, clothing and shelter, what else did you need except a little beer money? My father could have gotten more if he had married my mother, but he wasn't sure he wanted to do that yet. He loved my mom, but he had a lot of conflicting emotions about what was happening. In the service my father was on his own for the first time in his life, and not anxious to rush into marriage. Besides, what if the baby were to miscarriage, then he would be trapped by a baby that never actually materialized. He was young and confused but to his credit he took the little money he had and rented the apartment so my mother wouldn't be harassed by the tough broads at the Salvation Army. But it left him with virtually no money for anything else.
Every day my father would sneak food out of the mess hall, a sandwich here, a piece of fruit there, often it was the only food my mother had. There were no food stamps in those days, there was only what my Dad could steal from the military everyday. On some days all my father could get was one item such as a single box of Rice Krispies, which my mother ate mixed with water instead of milk.
Yet despite these many hardships, they managed. My mother kept busy during the time waiting for my father to get off work at the base by practicing her drawing. A neighbor gave her a small kitten, which helped to keep her company during the long hours she was alone. An old Italian woman who lived nearby sometimes brought her extra food. The pregnancy went well despite the bad diet and high stress of my mother's circumstances.
Because they had no money to do anything for entertainment, my parents used to go for long walks, sometimes sitting at the railroad station which had a large lawn where you could watch the traffic go by on a nearby highway. There they would talk and plan for a future together, when they would have money and opportunities that they didn't have in the present. But these were dreams that were meant to come true in the long term, and the baby would be coming in the short term. My father began to impress upon my mother that starting a new life together would be very difficult with another mouth to feed.
Although they had an apartment, there were no pots and pans, no appliances in it, no real furniture, no anything really to offer a baby. Also the baby could not live on Rice Krispies or an occasional sandwich. What would the baby wear? My mother resisted accepting these realities, but denying them didn't make them go away.
When my brother was born he was healthy despite the less than ideal circumstances of my mother's pregnancy, but by then my mother had accepted that there was no other choice but to put him up for adoption. My parents were just too poor, too far from home and with no family to help. They had to face the fact that if they were ever going to start a life together they needed to put the baby up for adoption. It took over a week for a family to come forward, during which time my parents were in daily contact with my brother. This only made it all the more difficult to give him up, but they did what they had to do.
Shortly afterwards my father was transferred to a base in Washington State, so they left Idaho, never to return. In Tacoma Washington my parents were married, and soon they had another child. After that my father was stationed in Maine, and then in Iceland. Once my father got out of the service they returned to the Pioneer Valley.
The terrible rift that had developed between my mother and her parents over the pregnancy was quickly healed once the grandchildren started coming along. Like many a disapproving parent, their judgmental attitude melted away the first time they held their grandchild. My father got a job in a factory, Monsanto in Indian Orchard, and the financial crisis that had characterized their life together in the military was greatly relieved. More kids came, five in all, and we were all raised in Pine Point, just as our parents were.
My mother was not unhappy. She seemed to take to the boozy and eccentric Devines, and our house was a place of loud laughter where a party might break out at any time. We didn't have much, but we didn't complain and we enjoyed what we had. Our mother tried to teach us how to draw and how to dance and my father's crazy relatives made sure there was little chance for boredom. There were also good reasons to be miserable, I suppose, but we tended not to notice them.
Yet there were echoes of the child whose existence she was keeping a secret. Although otherwise inclined to buy whatever was on sale, my mother made an exception to buy only Idaho potatoes. In retrospect, perhaps in her mind this was a way to include her eldest son in the family meals. My father said that she never failed to remind him on my brother's birthday of the child they had left behind. How she must have wondered on that day and God knows on how many other occasions what had become of her son. Where was he? What was he doing? Perhaps only a mother could know what that intense curiosity must have been like.
When her kids got older my mother became involved with efforts to introduce the concepts of ecology into the Springfield Public Schools. Although she had never attended college, she had natural teaching skills and an extensive background in nature acquired from her father, who was an avid hunter and fisherman, and from her Uncle Steve, who owned a farm in Belchertown where she spent a lot of time growing up. A visionary naturalist, Clifford Phaneuf, was trying to put together a program at Springfield's Forest Park where the kids could come out and learn about nature first hand. The program was already up and running by the time my mother became involved, but she undertook helping with the process of refining it so that the kids could relate to it better. As people said after her death, Cliff Phaneuf was the brains behind the project, but my mother was the heart.
When my mother was dying of cancer, she received what must have been a totally shocking and unexpected phone call. It was from a woman in Idaho claiming to be her granddaughter. The Salvation Army hospital where my eldest brother had been born had closed and its records made public, leading to the discovery of my mother's identity and whereabouts. Calling on behalf of her son, who was now a school teacher in Nevada, she asked if my mother would like to make contact with her son. She declined, stating that the combination of her impending death from cancer and the sudden revelation of a hidden brother would be too overwhelming for the family. So she never spoke to her long lost son. But at least she discovered that he was alive and well and had a family, and was an educator like herself, and what a comfort it must have been to her to discover these things just before her death.
In 2004 the city of Springfield honored my mother with a bench erected in her memory in Forest Park. In 2007, a section of the park was designated "The Devine Way" in her honor. For details and photos go here. My father died in 2007, without ever physically meeting his son, although they spoke on the phone. My brother John is still living in Nevada, and his cancer is in full remission.