Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Many years ago, about ninety, a little girl was born to my great uncle (my father's mother's brother) and my great aunt (my father's father's niece).  This was way before there was even a twinkle in my grandfather's eye as he and my grandmother had not yet met.  Several years later, when my grandfather and grandmother married and had children, that little girl would be my father's first cousin -- the only one he had on my grandmother's side though there were many, many others on his father's side.  She was his double cousin and one of his earliest playmates.

She had a hard life, and that is only the part we know about.  That is probably the understatement of the century.

Monie's mom, Dora, died in childbirth with her second child.  My great uncle Pete, a young widower who was orphaned himself at the age of 12, understood too well the pain his child would feel.  Eventually, he made his way to California with his little toddler in tow.  I am sure he loved her as best he could.  I am not sure what he remembered of his mother or father's care.

I can't say I got to know him too well.  We visited him often.  Though my father had many paternal uncles who he loved, he was especially attached to his maternal uncle.  I was afraid of Uncle Pete.  He was a quiet man who had lost an eye at some point in his life.  Everyone who knew him remembers him as a teddy bear of man.  I remember him as cautious, quiet and stoic.  I probably read stoic as stern as a child.

When he remarried in California, I am sure he thought he was doing the best thing for Monie, giving her a mother.  And maybe that woman tried, it should have been in her genes to be sweet and lovable.  (Of course, in the tangle of my family tree, she is also related by marriage to my father's paternal side -- her brother was married to my grandfather's youngest sister.)  Her brother, my tio Mariano, was one of the sweetest people I have ever known.  I loved him like a grandfather.

But she was odd, nervous, fast talking and unfailingly fake.  You just never knew what to believe about what she said, that is if you could understand it.  My Spanish was not so good at that time, there is little of her rapid-fire, mumbled Spanish that I understood.  She was my aunt, but I never really cared for her.  

By the time there was a me, there wasn't a Monie around, just her children.  I knew them, and I sort of understood that they were Uncle Pete's grandchildren.  Her daughter, Tuti, was a bit of a recluse, but I remember her as sweet and stout with long black hair in a braid.  It is odd to have such a clear memory of her since she passed away when I was three years old.  Monie's son was a handsome guy whose children were my playmates.

My mom and dad kept Monie's memory alive by always insisting on calling those two her children even though my great aunt acted like they were her children.  He still refers to my great aunt as his mom, though she was no relation to him except by marriage.

To make my family tree all that more complicated, my mom's family is implicated in this story, too.  My grandfathers had been great friends when they were alive, so my parents have known each other since they were about seven or eight (maybe earlier).  They grew up together.  When my mother's father died, my father's father took her under her wing.  When she wanted to work in the city, her family allowed her to stay at my uncle Pete's house during the week.

We visited my great aunt long after my uncle Pete was gone because my father is faithful in that way.  She sank slowly into dementia.   My dad even visited her at the rest home long after she could remember who he or anyone else was.  My mother, who knows as much as my dad about his side of the family, probably would claim that my great aunt's dementia was karma for all she had done to Monie. 

All my life, my mom has insisted that my great aunt drove Monie crazy.  I know that she spent a long time in the state hospital, and that the family lost track of her after Reagan shut down those institutions.  Those are the facts, she was sent away and never came back.  My father remembers a visit with her at my grandmother's house, but my mother swears it never happened.  I never knew Monie; if I ever met her, I don't have any memory of it.

What really happened to Monie will forever remain a mystery now.  Among the papers my father found in the garage from uncle Pete were commitment papers.  It says that she was afraid that someone was trying to hurt her.  It does not list a diagnosis, but it says that her parents called to have the police get her.  And another letter says that my uncle had to pay for her care in the institution.

My heart breaks for both of them.  I cannot imagine what my uncle went through not being able to help her, having to have her committed.  And I cannot imagine the betrayal she must have felt at being sent away.  Did she feel like an orphan again.  According to the papers, she was only 18 years old when this happened.

It is one thing to hear that she was at the state hospital, and another to read it in the commitment papers.

Maybe she really was mentally ill.  I have no idea what she was like.  Maybe it was just postpartum depression.  What did they know about such things at that time?  If she was so ill, how could they have let her out of the hospital?  Where did she go?  How did she live?  Maybe they got her on the right cocktail of meds at some point so that she could have normalcy.  Why didn't she ever come back to the family or look for her children?  Maybe she did.

My father asked me to look for her several times since I turned 18.  It hits me now that I was the same age as she was... and I had very few resources.  I didn't know how to find her case worker.  I didn't even know which agency to go to.

About six month ago, my dad asked me again to look for her.

I found a friend of his on the internet many years ago -- he had a very unique name, and the phone number and address listed for him was right.  It was a great reunion, and they continue to keep in touch.  Consequently, my dad thinks I can find anything on the internet.

I am an excellent internet sleuth, that is true.  But there are some searches that don't work.

When I sat down to look for her, with all the resources I have now from many years of family tree searching, I found her.  That is to say, I found out that she died in 2011.  We assumed that her son had buried her somewhere and not told us.  We talked about requesting a death certificate for her.  My dad wanted to know where she was buried so he could visit her.  In all the other crises and chaos, that request fell by the way side.

About a month ago, I was reading the newspaper online and I found this story.  It is not the first time I had read about the burying of the unclaimed souls.  But this time, the date struck me.  I wondered, what if R. didn't claim her body?  As I continued to read about these abandoned souls, those searching for their lost loved ones, and those who could not claim the bodies, I found the link to the searchable database.  Here was a search asking to be done. So I entered her name and sure enough, there she was.

I decided I needed to tell my dad, and see if he wanted to claim her ashes.  It was an extremely sad and uncomfortable conversation.  It was a loss we had already assimilated, or so it seemed.  In a few years of so much loss, this one had come and gone in an instant, in the quick search of the social security database. But faced with her being consigned to a mass grave with no marker than the unclaimed souls of 2011, the wound reopened -- not just of her death, but of her loss to the family as a young woman, of her pain at the separation and god knows what other horrors.

At first, my dad wondered how we could know it was really her.  I had wondered that, too, and if they would let me claim her ashes -- not a next of kin.  My dad, he seems so small when he is sad, told me to go ahead and find out how to claim her ashes.  The twists and turns of that process were not easy, but I was finally able to get it done the Monday before Thanksgiving.

Now her ashes are sitting on the altar, with the bit of ashes of my sister that my mom kept, as we decide whether to scatter them at sea, in the mountains or to buy her a burial plot.  There will be more twists and turns -- do we tell her son?  And how will we honor her memory? Does anyone have a picture of her?

Today, at 9:30am, the unclaimed souls will be buried in Los Angeles, minus Monie.  Say a prayer for them, and their loved ones, near and far, and may they all rest in peace.

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