The Story Behind the Story

The End of Always had its start in my search for someone in my family who looked like my son. Someone who had his seizure disorder, his psychosis, his way of looking at the world. Someone back in time. Someone—a mystery, a lost soul—whose story would fly out of the records and give me a jolt of recognition. Someone who might help me help my son.

I never found that person. As it turned out, my former husband’s family contributed the genetic anomalies that accounted for my son’s struggles. But I did find someone else and when I found her, I found the inspiration for The End of Always.

My maternal grandfather never knew the circumstances of his birth. His mother refused to discuss his father or anything about her life with him. She would not say that they had been married nor would she say that they had not been married. The other members of my grandfather’s immediate family were similarly silent. The man my grandfather’s mother married in 1914, when my grandfather was a young boy, never said a word, nor did his sister, nor did his mother’s siblings or her parents.

My grandfather tried to find out what he could but with all of that silence, his chances were slim. Still, little bits of information came to him. He learned, somehow, that his parents had been married, but they had divorced.  For many years, he reasoned that the shame of the divorce caused the silence. He could see why no one would want to talk about this. It must have been that his mother’s divorce had brought scandal to the family.

One day, when he was about ten, my grandfather found himself on an interurban street car on the line that ran from Grafton, Wisconsin, where he lived, to Milwaukee. A man in a conductor’s uniform moved around the car and took tickets and answered questions. But he kept glancing at my grandfather. Finally my grandfather glanced back. The man came over and sat down next to him. At first, he did not say anything at all. He just looked at my grandfather and looked at him some more.

Then he said, “I know who you are. You’re my brother’s son.”

The conductor said his name was Alfred Bethke. He told my grandfather that his father’s name was August Bethke. But that was all he said.

Years passed. Then, when my grandfather was a young man, perhaps twenty-one or twenty-two, he found August Bethke in the phone book. He took note of August Bethke’s address. He took the streetcar to August Bethke’s house. He did not linger on the sidewalk. He strode up to the front door and knocked loudly. Waited. Knocked again. Waited some more. But no one answered and my grandfather finally turned away.

When my grandfather was older still, he needed his birth certificate for some purpose but his mother would not provide it. Her stubbornness was absolute. Impenetrable. Unyielding. That was when my grandfather began to have doubts. He began to think that his parents might not have been married after all. Long before this point, he had heard things about his mother. People said that she was bad. They said that she went off with men.

This was small town Wisconsin, where rumors had a way of taking on the sheen of truth. And my grandfather—who knew nothing of how he came to exist—had no way of knowing what the truth was. Perhaps he felt that the shame people assigned to his mother also belonged to him. Perhaps that’s why he, too, never spoke of any of this. My mother only learned the little she knew from her mother, to whom my grandfather must have confided.

But my mother told my two sisters and me about her father’s mystery, even though she only had the sparest of details. Perhaps she thought that his mystery belonged to us, too, as his granddaughters.

Again and again, my grandfather tried to trace his family history. He never got far. But after his death, we found notes where he had written the same names over and over again, as if by writing these down he could cause answers to appear.

He told stories about his mother’s family. He said his mother’s mother was French and proud of her figure and always went to Paris after the birth of a baby to buy a new wardrobe. His mother’s father was Danish and that was why he was so regal.

Eventually, my grandfather wrote to the Danish Embassy and asked for help in tracing the family’s roots in Denmark. But this was a hopeless enterprise. Herman Reehs was not Danish. Elise Reehs did not travel to Paris every two years for haute couture. They were German immigrants who’d come to America looking for a better life. Things had not turned out perfectly. Marie, my grandfather’s mother, was born here. She grew up here. She escaped her father’s house here.

Just before my father’s 75th birthday, I began to trace the Davenport family history. My father’s interest in American history runs deep but the history of his family had been mostly lost, not through some cataclysmic event but because the members of the family wandered and failed to keep in touch and failed to pass on what they knew, generation to generation. I thought I could figure it out and give the history to my father for his birthday.

Well. That was not to be. The Davenports proved more complicated and frustrating than I had expected and eventually I had to take a break. But I liked the process of sorting individuals into their proper places and watching their stories emerge from the shadows. I thought I might spend a little time working on my mother’s side of the family to clear my head.

And then I remembered there was one story on that side that none of us knew.

My grandfather had been dead for nearly ten years, and his mother was dead, and August Bethke must be dead. So I asked my mother if she wanted me to see what I could find out. When she said yes, I went to work. It was not long before I found a marriage record for Marie Reehs and August Bethke, she a laundress in a commercial laundry, he a carpenter. They were painfully young—seventeen and nineteen—but they had married.

I contacted the Historical Society of Wisconsin and asked if they could provide the record. They told me that they could—for $15. The archivist warned me that my $15 would only get me a copy of whatever they had on file and that might be nothing more than the record I already had. But I was game.

Three weeks later, a large envelope appeared in my mailbox. Inside I found thirty-five pages of court documents: depositions, demurrers, witness affidavits, attorney’s briefs. In short, I held the whole story of Marie and August’s divorce in my hands.

When I began to write, I thought that because I knew the end of Marie’s story, I must already know the beginning. But I did not. I had to research the Reehs family and try to fill in the blanks. That was when I learned that Elise’s death was mysterious, its details unknown. She had a terrible accident, my mother said. But she didn’t know more. Nor did she know that Elise’s youngest son, Alvin, died three weeks before his mother, nor that Elise and Herman had buried a child on Rügen before they left for America. In fact, she did not even know the family had come from Rügen. But she did know that one of Marie’s sisters made a habit of giving mittens to orphanages every year at Christmastime because when she was a girl, her father had refused to buy her mittens to keep her hands warm.

The record gave up other hints, too, that this family had been roiled by forces its children could not manage. Once they were grown, half of the children went to California and never came back. Herman grew litigious over land. The daughters—with the exception of Martha—married young and got away.

As these details accumulated, I began to realize that the story of Marie’s divorce hinted at a larger story—a story about what happens to women, relentlessly and seemingly because we have no appetite for change. As I wrote, I discovered again and again that the restrictions Marie faced—cautionary tales about being a bad girl, exhortations to travel a particular path—remain with us today.

In my great-grandmother’s story, I also discovered a lost America that looks very much like our own, with its overreaching banking industry, its collapse of small town economies, its luckless homeless adrift in the world. Over time, I also learned that in its details, Marie and August’s love story conjures the unshakeable beliefs that drive the violence against women that seems to make up a good part of the American experience.

So I began to keep this larger story in mind as I wrote Marie’s story. But Marie always brought me back to her. I could see her as if she stood before me: She is a girl of seventeen. Her mother has been brutally injured; four men carry her eviscerated body around the corner of a house on a hot summer day. Marie raises her hand, her palm outstretched, open, facing up. She watches the men disappear inside the house. By the next morning, her world will be like a ship unmoored from its line. Her life will be changed forever. But for one last moment, she is just a girl like any other girl, standing alone in the shimmering heat.

And then her journey begins. As does ours.