Family Friday: The Bad Father

My family’s history has been a huge influence on the things I write. Each Friday, I take a look at some of the research that’s inspired my stories.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve written about two of four myths I constructed for myself while conducting research on my family’s history. You can read those here and here. And now, here’s the third myth:

Myth 3: Charles Clark Was an Abnormal Remarrier Who Treated His Children Poorly

Charles Clark, the son of Joseph F. Clark and the father of my grandfather, Earl, was cast in our oral tradition as the ultimate villain. Charles married young and had three children with my great-grandmother Edna before she died in 1919. Shortly after Edna’s death, Charles shipped his two surviving children, Eletha and Earl, off to their grandmother, while he took up residence in the home of another woman, his future second wife. Receipts saved by Earl indicate Charles did compensate the grandmother, but the 1920 census calls into question why he had to ship his children off to begin with. The other woman had a child of her own in the household, so why couldn’t Charles bring his own kids along? Even more telling was the oral tradition that he sired four more children with his second wife while never bringing the children of his first wife into the household. And beyond even all of that, I found records indicating that Charles married twice more and survived all but the last wife. He seemed to me to be every bit the villain my family had painted him to be.

While it is impossible to absolve him of all wrongdoing, given the lack of communication between the descendants of the first wife and the descendants of the second wife, it is possible to cast aside some of the myths I once perceived as truths.

Yes, Charles did marry four times. But he was relatively young each time—sixteen at the time of his first marriage—and each time he was a widower. And, his children were probably no worse off than the children of divorce are today. In The Way We Never Were, Stephanie Coontz writes, “Even though marriages today are more likely to be interrupted by divorce than in former times, they are much less likely to be interrupted by death…” Two out of his four children with his second wife appear to have been married at home. This evidence seems to suggest then that the perception of Charles as a less than ideal father comes from the dysfunction between him and my grandfather and nothing else.

Additionally, the 1930 census, not available at the time that I conceived of this myth about Charles, confirms that my grandfather Earl did spend at least some time in his father’s household. At 15, for at least a little while, he lived alongside his half-siblings.

And, finally, a discovery made just a few months ago completely shattered the myth for me. Following the death of my grandmother this past May, I discovered letters written from Earl to Charles that, while not overwhelming in their emotion, at least hint at some modicum of affection. “Dear Father,” they each begin, before continuing into a warm description of my grandfather’s days as a young adult.

Next week, I tackle the fourth and final myth.