A grand Christmas gift

The Baltimore Sun

This year, I gave my father a Christmas gift that no one else will duplicate. It was only $12, hard to wrap and impossible to return, but I knew he'd like it.

I gave him a matching set of grandparents.

My father's father, William J. Lovett, had walked away from his past and never looked back, so his childhood and the names of his parents were a mystery to Dad.

Here is all we knew about him: When he was about 13 years old, he had run away from his family (from where? Southern Maryland? South Baltimore?); he was born sometime in the 1880s, and he had said his father was French and his mother was Irish. Recent immigrants or only by descent? Dad didn't know for sure.

After young Will ran away, he landed in a good place: a nice family took him in, and he eventually married their daughter - my grandmother. But first, he joined the Marines at 18, seeing the world from the deck of the USS Wisconsin.

Why he ran away was unclear. He never talked about his life before, and as far as Dad knew, he never went back to visit anyone. "He was a nice guy and a good father," Dad said. "He was proud of his family - proud of his children, anyway - so it must have been because they were treating him badly."

It could have been a lot of things. But then Will died in 1940, when my father was only 20, so all those questions Dad had been too young to think of asking would remain unanswered.

Recently, finding Will's parents' names became a quest for me. I don't know why it hit me now with such force. Maybe it was because my mother died two months ago, and I needed a sense of connectedness to family. Maybe I felt a responsibility to make sure those who are gone aren't forgotten.

My father - now 86 - still didn't know his grandparents' names. I started to search for clues. I found out where my grandfather was buried, and from that, I got the idea to send away for his death certificate, thinking his parents might be listed on it.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, my father and I discovered a scrapbook he didn't even know he had, buried under a pile of old family photos in a rarely opened suitcase in the back of a closet.

It was a detailed log of all the places Will had visited as a Marine from 1900 to 1905, how long he stayed in each place, and what the distance was in miles. He had saved receipts from laundries and hotels in California, China and the Philippines.

He had tickets, shipboard menus and party invitations from other ships, such as the whimsically named USS Rainbow. He had a dance card from a soldier's ball in California that still had a tiny pencil attached to it - and his dance card was full, with a name written on every line. He also had an ornate, official-looking certificate that proclaimed him an Honorary Buttinski.

He kept up with what was going on back home, too. Will had collected newspaper clippings about the mysterious death (self-inflicted gunshot wound? Some say no) of Robert M. McLane Jr., Baltimore's young mayor. He had a souvenir booklet with aftermath pictures of the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. There were also tender letters between Will and his informally adopted mother, and to her daughter, who became his wife.

Then, a surprise: Between the pages, there was a flowery Valentine of a postcard, dated Nov. 24, 1911, from "Brother Joe" to "Brother Will," written in smudgy pencil. It had a one-cent stamp. On the back, the part that could be read said, "Dear Brother, I received your postal and was surprised to hear from you. I thought you had forgotten me, Will ... "

It appears that my father had an Uncle Joe in somewhere called New Winds, Md., or possibly New Windsor. This was a surprise to him.

When I got home that night, I found a letter from the Maryland State Archives. It had come so quickly, maybe even in less than a week, that I felt certain it could only be a letter acknowledging my request.

But the death certificate was there.

It took a few minutes to accustom my eyes to the blurry photocopy of a blurry, 66-year-old microfilm picture of blurry handwriting, but after I started to recognize the words, the names leaped out at me, unmistakable and as clear as could be: FATHER Joseph Lovett, MOTHER Mary O'Donovan.

In one weekend, Dad had acquired an uncle and grandparents, and I have acquired a taste for time traveling.

I am ready for another journey.


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