Sunday, April 3, 2016

Family Secrets

Last night I finally watched "Finding Your Roots." Like "Who Do You Think You Are," I think it is a good way to stir up the general public's interest in genealogy. Interesting personal stories of others often make us wonder about our own family.

For the most part, my family seems pretty normal. If there are any awful family stories or secrets, they are mostly relegated to the 1800s and earlier, and none of us are aware of them.

But there is one family member about whom we have heard awful things and I wish I could know so much more about her. I've written about my great-grandmother, Mildred Marian Burrell, before in 2011. Much like my great-great grandma Emma, who I revisit often, Mildred remains a mystery - one we know is full of secrets.


Mildred was born 12 June 1897 in Randolph, Norfolk County, Massachusetts to George and Susan (Jones) Burrell. She died 9 October 1972 in Abington, Plymouth County, Massachusetts, so I never got to meet her, let alone know her.

She first married Joseph William St. Onge on 17 April 1920 in Dover, Strafford County, New Hampshire. They had:

1. Joseph Edward St. Onge, 1919-1978 (paternity questioned; Mildred was pregnant before marrying Joseph)
2. Mary Ellen St. Onge, 1920-1985
3. Gertrude Mildred St. Onge, 1921-2000 (tried to find all her siblings after they were scattered)
4. William St. Onge, about 1924 to...? (paternity questioned; raised/adopted by William Perry of West Bridgewater)
5. Frank St. Onge, 1925-1996 (left in the hospital and spent his first 5 years in an orphanage)

What we know from the children and grandchildren of some of these five children is that Joseph William St. Onge was a cruel man and possibly involved in illegal activities. I'm not sure if it was Mildred's upbringing, her marriage with Joseph, or the pressures of the depression, but she was also known as a not-so-kind woman. I have a feeling she endured abuse at Joseph's hands, but I'll never know for certain.

It's also possible Mildred was seeking love and intimacy elsewhere, as family members have hypothesized that William St. Onge was the son of another man. Mildred left Frank at the hospital after his birth, and fostered her other children out at some point before 1930, because they are all living with different families in the census.

I have yet to find Mildred or Joseph in the 1920 census. It's possible they were moving or Joseph was "on the run" during that time, since Mary Ellen was born in Biddeford, Maine, but her younger siblings were all born in Massachusetts.

At some point, Mildred must have divorced Joseph or given up on him being a part of her life after he left the family, because she moved on with my great-great grandfather, Herbert Benjamin Haley.


After 20 years of searching, I still have not located a marriage for Mildred and Herbert, but her death certificate shows her as Mildred Haley. Together they had:

1. Herbert Benjamin Haley, Jr., 1926-2014 (my grandfather, paternity questioned)
2. Lorraine Janice Haley

Herbert was reared by his Haley grandparents, Hiram and Rosanna (Cassidy), and Haley aunts and uncles all living in Middleborough, but Mildred chose to raise Lorraine. Why did she make that choice? Was she just not equipped (emotionally, I wonder, not financially) to handle a baby at that moment in her life? Was Joseph St. Onge still a presence in her life or long gone out of the picture? Did she fear for her child, born when she was not yet married to his father, but still married to another man? (The surname "St. Onge" appears on my grandfather's birth certificate.)

We do have one possible way of determining whether or not grandpa Herbert was a Haley or a St. Onge, and that is thanks to my Uncle Dave Haley, who had a DNA test. So far, we don't have any Haleys or St. Onges to compare him to, but maybe someday we will.

Maybe someday, we'll resolve one mystery - was Herbert Jr. the son of Herbert Sr. or Joseph St. Onge? But I think even if that happens, it will still leave many secrets, like why Mildred made the choices she made.

Those of us here today waver between sympathy, disdain and confusion about the person Mildred was and why things turned out as they did for our father/grandfather/great-grandfather Herbert Jr. - why she would not or could not be a mother to him.

When family tried to reach out to Gertrude (St. Onge) Templeton, she refused to speak to them about the family. I wish she had talked, because it might help family understand and - one hopes - not perpetuate any sort of negative cycle.



Copyright (c) 2016 Wendy L. Callahan

1 comment:

  1. An excellent write up! Unfortunately, one never can know for sure, about such decisions... unless they are explained, by those making them. The tangible clues and haunting effects, revealed by her children and grandchildren, can at least give insight as to how Mildred's decisions affected them.

    Sadly, even if Mildred gave up her children, in hopes of sparing them abuse and providing them a chance of having a better, safer, more stable life... they undoubted suffered... before and after separation from her. I can completely understand the "waver between sympathy, disdain and confusion" for Mildred.

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