Still looking for Daddy


When I opened a letter from a cousin last week, out dropped a photocopy of a hideously scarred old photograph. It was a formal studio portrait, dated December 1892, of a woman and a man of indeterminate age, with an infant and a small boy. I sat for a long time looking at that dim picture.

It was the first time I had ever laid eyes on a likeness of my grandparents.

Haven’t brought up my genealogical data lately; I get so wrapped up in it that nothing else happens when “Mom’s doing genealogy stuff.”

My daddy’s family was what we’d call today dysfunctional.

The skimpy facts I have put together from Daddy’s rare remarks and my own exhaustive sleuthing are these:

His father, Frederick Dimmick, the youngest of a large family, married Annie Ney about 1887, and in 1889 and 1892, their sons – Frederick and William – were born.

I have been able to unearth not a single record of Frederick’s after 1892. Family lore holds that he abandoned his wife and sons. Annie was sick and could not cope; she placed the boys in a local orphanage. Her death notice, from “consumption” (tuberculosis), appeared in 1896.

The babies’ paternal grandmother died in 1902, eulogized as an exemplary Christian – with two grandsons in an orphanage or foster care. Her son Frederick is named in her will, as though alive, but she directed that his portion of her estate be divided between his sons.

My daddy was a good man, perhaps the best I have ever known. He shunned alcohol as the demon that, he said, broke up his family and caused him grievous mistreatment at the hands of several foster parents. It only now occurs to me that I don’t know where he went to high school, but he did teach at one time, and eventually got on with the railroad, a sorter in the mail car.

His first wife died, leaving him to raise a difficult adolescent daughter. He married my mom when he was 43. When I was born, and then my brother, he set us in the heavens like the sun and moon.

He was a devoted churchman, a 33rd degree Mason, and a clerk for Bethlehem Steel Company’s railroad. He loved baseball and music, admired FDR (whom my mother detested), and taught an adoring daughter to love books and astronomy, to ride a bicycle and track rabbits.

He was self-effacing to a fault. While waiting recently to negotiate a 4-way stop, I thought, It’s good we didn’t have this device when Daddy was living; while he “let the other fellow go first,” traffic would have backed up 20 miles behind him.

When I was in third grade, we moved from Harrisburg to Cumberland County where Daddy could grow vegetables and strawberries, and where we kids could roam the slopes of Blue Mountain and catch crayfish in an icy stream.

He was in his 50s when he learned to drive in order to get to work back in the city. And he earned a business degree via correspondence with the Wharton School.

He was so proud of my good grades and piano playing, and my brother’s knack for radios and tinkering. And when I dropped out of college and married Dave, he bore what must have been crushing disappointment with stoic affection. “I just want you to be happy,” he said, never believing I could be, with a man he believed unworthy of me.

One evening in 1957, I called to tell him I had been to see a doctor and that he would have a grandchild in the fall. Four hours later he was dead, victim of a bad heart and diabetes.

Daddy was never comfortable talking about his beginnings. We lived not terribly far from where he was born, but we never, ever went there. His brother moved to Savannah, and I remember Daddy and Mom visiting him only once. He died shortly after Daddy did.

So here I am left with barely a shred of my father’s family history, and craving to know more. Of late, I have become acquainted with several cousins. I like them. There’s something familiar about them. I suppose “familiar” is exactly what they are.

And now comes a picture I didn’t even know existed. I have importuned the cousin who has it to send it to me to have it restored. I want to see those faces: Annie staring stiff-lipped toward the camera, my infant father in her lap, Frederick with his hands resting loosely on his knees, my uncle (also Fred) standing next to him.

I want to see their eyes, perhaps to read there the answers to my questions.

Or perhaps to read more questions.