Recently I was digging around in some boxes of old photos my mother gave me before she died, and among copies of tintypes and really old pictures I found one of a woman and man standing in a stiff, late-1800s/early-1900s pose. Written in my mother’s hand were these words: Mary Ellen Riggs Morris and husband Porter (Half-sister).
The photo stopped me for a moment. I looked closely at this half sister and thought, half sister of whom? The two of them were young and handsome and I stared at them for a while to see if I could discern any family resemblance. I thought she faintly favored my mother’s clan and suddenly I recalled a conversation out of my childhood.
Let’s set the stage. My mother’s folks were/are LDS, or Mormons, and have been since the early days when Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were leading Mormons across the American continent from upstate New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois and on to Salt Lake City in a quest to find a place to practice their religion.
When I was a youngster, I recall that my grandmother, mother and sister took off for Tucson on a shopping trip. They were gone all day leaving me to watch Felix the Cat and Heckle and Jeckle on TV, play baseball, go swimming. When they returned I asked where they’d been. My sister blurted, “We went to see Aunt El in St. David.” (St. David is in Southeastern Arizona just north of Tombstone.)
“Who’s Aunt El?”
My mother glared at my sister and the subject was promptly changed to new clothes, new shoes and the drive back from Tucson.
“Who’s Aunt El?’
Grandmother turned off her hearing aids and Mother went into the kitchen to heat some water for Grandmother’s senna tea; and Sister looked guilty and finally whispered, “Grammy’s sister.”
I knew my grandmother’s sisters—May and Emily—but no El.
Sister whispered, “Polygamy.” She grinned and rolled her eyes and nodded her head so hard her brown curls bounced.
Evidently Aunt Ellen or El, my grandmother’s half sister, was the result of a polygamist marriage between my great grandfather and some woman I don’t believe I ever heard mentioned.
Family history was important to my mother for both personal and religious reasons. Genealogy was important, too, but when it came to taboo subjects like polygamy, it seems to me she (and other members of her large family–I’m talking cousins and aunts and uncles here) needed to hide any mention of them.
As time went on I’d capture tidbits of info on Aunt El. She went to the pen. That was a shock. “The penitentiary?” “For what?”
“But Mormons don’t drink booze.”
“It was really her daughter (name unknown to me). Aunt El took the rap.”
And that was the last I heard of Aunt El. I suspect she’s buried down there around St. David or Benson, Arizona, and has descendents living in the region, cousins of mine, a few times removed, but still cousins.
As I look at the old photo of Aunt El, she seems kind. She seems polite and neat and clean and frankly, she seems a little frightened.
I don’t know why she looks frightened. Maybe it’s because her expression tells me something bad has happened, or is about to happen. I think the photo is old enough that she wouldn’t have been involved in bootlegging yet. That wasn’t really prevalent in the 1920s.
As I look at the second family photo in this blog, the photo of the other side of this polygamist family, I see my grandmother sitting in the lower right-hand corner. My great-grandmother, Clarissa Ann, is sitting in the middle. Both seem to be looking out of the photo at something or someone. My grandmother wears a bemused look. Or is it a look of derision? Who is she looking at? I wonder if she is looking at Aunt El.
My most recent book of short stories, THE GODS OF ANGKOR WAT is now available in both paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon HERE.