My Grandma’s Juicy Secret

My grandparent’s wedding

After Mom entered an Alzheimer’s residence in 1995, I received two cardboard boxes of mementos. Her husband had found the musty crushed cartons in the basement when cleaning out Mom’s possessions. Since Mom no longer recognized what she once cherished, he mailed the boxes to me.

One contained every letter I’d written her since my freshman year in college. The other held folders from Mom’s file cabinet.

Rooting through health and education records, I found a file labeled “Margaret Sibberson Welling,” my maternal grandmother’s name. Inside was my grandparent’s wedding photo. Grandma stares into the camera, vulnerable and slightly worried, a thick white satin sash and silk cape draping her petite body. Grandpa leans away from her, concealing his feelings behind tight jaws. His left knee brushes her thigh, softening the distance between them.

Grandma and her daughters, my mom on left

Grandma and her daughters, my mom on left

Grandma was six months out of high school, the eldest daughter of the hired man on Grandpa’s father’s farm. Grandpa, eight years older than she, had traveled to California and British Columbia, returned to the family farm in northern Ohio, and swept her off her feet. He took her for her first automobile ride and promised her a city life.

In the file, I found my grandparent’s wedding license, faded but distinct. The certificate said they were married on January 6, 1915. Someone made a mistake. 

Digging deeper, I found a creased and yellowed church announcement printed in a different hand. And there was that date again: January 6, 1915, not January 1914 as Grandma always said. 

Proper and protected Grandma must have been over four months pregnant with my mother in her wedding photo, her loose gown hiding her thickening waist and swelling breasts. My grandparent’s physical affection was obvious during their sixty-year marriage, even when he was in his eighties, but premarital sex? My proper grandma? It couldn’t be.

Grandpa and Grandma 1965

Grandpa and Grandma 1965

Grandma with baby David 1971

Grandma with baby David 1971

I called my brother and cousins to tell them what I’d discovered. No one had a clue.

For some reason I cannot name, my heart swelled with delight imagining sweet Grandma succumbing to passion in the backseat of Grandpa’s car. Even in 1914, a straight-laced and docile unmarried Lutheran girl found a way to break the rules.


Have you discovered family secrets in inherited boxes of photos and papers? For stories about my paternal grandparents, see Safe in the Great Mother’s Bed and How I Learned to Trust a Man. Meanwhile, I’ll keep looking for secrets since I recently received an overlooked box of photos my mom had saved. There’s sure to be something interesting in there.

  1. What a great story Elaine. Ironically my parent’s story is similar. I wrote about it in my book Conflicted Hearts. My narcissistic mother had to appear perfect in every way, yet since I was 6 years old, the math didn’t add up about their wedding anniversary date. As my mother was the boss and my dad afraid to cross her, all my questioning of my father about the jumbled math was always answered, “Ask your mother.” She persisted to tell the same fabricated story all my life, even though it was plain as day the story didn’t even add up. I can’t help but wonder in her narcissitic, imaginary world she had created, if she even believed her own lies. 🙂

    • My grandma didn’t try to be perfect, was easy to love, and didn’t have other secrets as far as I know. We never doubted the wedding date or had reason to, so I think this was a practical way to deal with shame about premarital sex. I’m sorry your situation was so much harder for you and your mom.

  2. Your title is irresistible. Who wouldn’t click on a phrase with the word “secret” in it. You write as beautifully about your ancestry as you do about grief. I love all of the sensory details and the pictures – the photo of you and Grandpa Ware is adorable! Another memoir coming up?

    • Marian, I don’t know what’s coming up, but I wish I did. I look forward to having more time in coming months to write and explore a few possibilities I’m considering. My middle name is Margaret after my grandma in this story. I’ve always loved being named for her.

      • No hurry! Now I’m reading The Art of Slow Writing by Louise DeSalvo. It’s just what I need now as I wish to gallop ahead. She also makes suggestions for the puzzling time after a book launches. You might check it out.

        By the way, your guest post is in the queue to launch January 28. My readers will read your story and be inspired.

        • Thanks, Marian. I’ll look at Louise DeSalvo’s book and I look forward to seeing what you’ve created. I look forward to some slow writing time.

  3. Hi Elaine,

    We had similar secrets in my family as well. I think people’s passions weren’t much different back then than they are now. But the rules of propriety were.


    • I agree, Lynne. I know the rules of privacy were different. Others in the family would have known since both my grandparents had siblings, but no one leaked the information.

  4. Bravo! Wonderfully sensitive story. Going through my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and older family papers, I have come upon many small secrets, though none about premarital sex: just insanity, alcoholism, counterfeiting, divorce, and a failed silver mine, to name a few. And yet this is not a chronicle of dysfunction and failure; no, it’s a chronicle of determination by enough of the family to carry the others with them. These are the secrets we all have. Family stories like yours are inspiring because we all have the capacity to carry on despite whatever shames us. What’s done can’t be undone, so we soldier on as best as we can.

    • Newell, determination and loyalty are good words for my mom’s parents. My grandparent’s physical passion was obvious. They slept sandwiched together in a small double bed until he died. They touched and made eye contact. They took care of each other. It’s more surprising that they were able to keep the secret for so long and so well. Thanks for your kind words.

  5. Finding these little stories is so exciting, like “meeting” the real person who you always heard about but never knew. I found my poor immigrant grandfather’s scrawled letter to my aunt telling her the money she had needed “to borrow” was really to be a gift to her. Sigh.

    • That’s a lovely find, Robin, and a kind gift. We’ll keep looking. I just got a box of photos in the mail. They were found in my mother’s husband’s attic eight years after my mom’s death. I wonder what I’ll find in there–or when I’ll have the time to look.

  6. Hi Elaine,
    Firstly I want to say your grandmothers story is so beautiful…I have always longed to have a man to love like your Grandmother had….looking through those boxes must have been so fascinating…
    Thank you for sharing your family’s story!

    Angelina Lorenzen/ Brelih
    Cooranbong NSW Australia

    • Thanks for your comment, Angelina. All the way from Australia in our magic cyberworld. Women in my family have been fortunate in love. My great grandmother, my grandmother, and my mother whose beloved, my dad, died when he was forty-four and I was fourteen. I also had a beautiful marriage and am grateful every day even though my husband died in 2008.

      May a great passion come your way, another person, a cause, or a creative expression.

  7. Loved this story, Elaine. Isn’t it fun to become the detective of your own life, looking at memorabilia with the scrutiny of a magnifying glass?

    I have just such a box of memorabilia to go through, with letters to and from my mother all the way from 1966 to the mid eighties when we started to call each other instead of write.

    Your reading of the photos in light of your findings show why you are a therapist. You have a thoughtful, tender, eye.

    • Thank you for your encouraging words, Shirley. I want to do more sorting, but instead I receive more boxes. There’s a goldmine in those letters, but like my grandma’s diary, hours of tedium, too.

      I’m not a therapist, but I hope I have a thoughtful and tender eye. I was a nutritionist and exercise trainer focusing on women’s bone health until 2011. I began studying Jungian psychology with my meditation and philosophy teacher in 1968. He felt his hippie students needed to learn some psychology and get serious. We did both. I’m reading Jungian writers still.

  8. Ah, sorry about the mis-naming, but I knew you had that Jungian background. I see your thoughtful and tender eye in your photography, also.

  9. Hi Elaine – I just LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the old photos and (of course) I love what you do and what you say. You heal me all the time. It’s Late and time for washing dishes and going to sleep. The dishes may have to wait till morning. My beloved doggie MANNY PEARL needs a short walk first before we both go to sleep. He is a little guy and I love his sweet little snoring sounds. Later. Love always. Lisa

    • Lisa, while you were out walking Manny, I was out in the snowbanks with Willow who isn’t sure how to be outside on a leash. I’m glad you have your little guy and also your big guy. Thanks for your comment. I hope you have plenty of old family photos.

  10. That grandfather’s thigh touches hers, and the roundness of her face, clinches it for me. They are already one tree made of two grafts, soon to bear fruit. I too have recently gone through such boxes, letters written in Yiddish script from an unknown correspondent in Western Russia, a marriage license and citizenship papers from Pittsburgh in 1911. A copy of the ASCAP copyright with sheet music for a song my paternal grandfather wrote in the nineteen-teens. What brought it to life most vividly was a child’s Hebrew primer, which my grandfather must have used when he was learning English (Yiddish uses the same script as Hebrew). I plan to take some of these items to Florida next week as a pretty large segment of family convenes in South Florida to celebrate my Father’s ninetieth birthday. Love to you . . .

    • Hi old friend. Archaeological digs. I’m not sure what I learn from these old papers, but I know the four years of letters I wrote my mother (and she saved) from 1963-1967 are still too hot to handle. Your dad just had surgery I learned on FB. I hope he’s doing well and you are, too.

      • Thanks E. I am well, and my father is making a record-breaking-fast recovery from aortic valve replacement surgery. His father, the grandfather whose papers I wrote about. lived to be 97. I think theres some pretty potent live-long stuff in my genome, but we’ll see. Love to you.

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