An Old Story that was New to Me

July 3rd, 2018

In the early morning, I sit and watch light slowly reveal the world. Just outside my window is a large Bird of Paradise that has grown from a plant Dad gave me years ago. It has been separated many times and shared with nieces and nephews in his memory. It needs to be divided again.

I am thinking about a story that needs to be told. It is an old story and at the same time a new story. That is, it was new to me when I found a note on my computer about someone looking for my dad. Did you ever read a story or watch a movie where one woman is saying to another, “He told me he is going to leave his wife?” The plot is slanted to somehow make this other woman’s dreams come true. What about the wife?

I mostly think of Mama as young and beautiful. She grew up in the mountains of north-west Arizona; she fell in love with a handsome wounded soldier from Boston. I have always considered their life together a true love story. Winifred Ada Reagan and John Joseph Hernan Jr. were married in Springerville, Arizona, April 22, 1922. I was born on August 1, 1923; Joe came later on my second birthday. Mama even claimed we were both born at the same hour 7:30 in the evening.

My dad was working for Colonel John C. Greenway at the New Cornelia Copper Mines in Ajo, Arizona. The friendship between them started during the first World War when they both fought with the Yankee Division in France. The Colonel died in 1926.

About that time, Mama went into a sanatorium for TB. Daddy moved to Phoenix where his mother, Grandma Gazilda could take care of me and his sister, Grace could care for my baby brother, Joe. Daddy’s sisters, Martha and Florence spoiled me.

Daddy went to work for the Central Arizona Light and Power Company. When Mama was well we lived on Ninth Avenue in Phoenix. Pete was born on the 5th of June, 1927.

This memory is from when we lived together on Ninth Avenue in Phoenix.  Mama and Dad were arguing. It frightened me; I thought she might go away again.  I was not really sure why she had gone away before. Just when their words got very loud, they started to laugh and began hugging each other. The dog, a big German Shepherd, started to howl and pull at Dad when he saw the body contact. I started to cry. When they heard me, they assured me that everything was ok, that the dog was just being protective, that they were happy. They picked me up and put me between them to include me in their hug.

There were many happy times for our family but I also remember some sad times. We moved a lot and I need to figure out what and where were, and what was happening to those around me. Researching and putting everything on a time-line seems to be a good thing to do. However, it is probably better to start with the astounding discovery that caused my distress.

I was checking some history on the Ancestry web-site when I stumbled on a note from a young woman who was looking for information about her great grandfather; his name was John Joseph Hernan. It gave some information about him and directed me to her Family Tree where there was a picture of my Dad next to my Mother’s picture and a line showing my brothers, my sister and me.  On the other side of Dad’s picture was a picture of Helen Elizabeth Cleveland and a line showing two children who appeared to be my sister and my brother. To say the least, I was in shock; this was completely new to me.

The facts were there and there was no way to deny the information. It showed that my new-found sister, Joan Elizabeth was born in 1932 and died in 1978; my new-found brother, James Robert was born in 1934 and died in 1981. With acceptance came anger because I had been denied the opportunity to know them. I wrote to my new great niece, Gabby Sutherlin: “Now that we have connected I would like to know more about a sister and a brother that I never knew. Ours is a very big family. I am anxious to know more about yours.”

She wrote back: “Hi Patricia, I got your message on Ancestry. We know that this could be a sensitive situation, and like I posted, we really don’t have that much information because my great grandmother was a bit secretive about her life.”

She said that they did not know much about the father of Helen’s children except that his name was John Joseph Hernan and he worked for the state with Helen. On Joan’s social security application, he is listed as her father. Gabby said that was when she started searching to find out who this man might be, by looking at the censuses and directories from Phoenix in the 1930’s.

“As for my grandmother, Joan, who may be your sister, she was a grade school teacher who taught kindergarten through 4th in Phoenix. She really wanted to be an actress. She died when my father was 12. He was the youngest of her five children. She had Crohn’s disease but ultimately died of cancer. My great uncle Robert was put up for adoption right after he was born and he also died of cancer. He was fairly successful in California.”

Gabby sent me pictures of some of Joan’s descendants who look very much like members of our family. Later she wrote that the DNA was a confirmation of the relationship.

Those are the basic facts, but there is much more to the story. Before I go much further I want to mention that this story is influenced by my own opinions or suppositions and I am relying on memories recalled from my childhood.

In June, 1926, Dad became traveling secretary for Lewis Douglas who he met in France when both fought with the Yankee Division. Douglas served three terms in Congress. Dad campaigned with him before each election but in between he needed other work.

In 1928, we sold our house on Ninth Avenue and bought a 20 acre farm, 100 miles from Phoenix. Yava is a little settlement in the high desert that leads to the foothills of the mountains. Grandma Alice wanted to farm and Grandpa Reagan wanted to settle close to the government range where his cattle could roam. Dad was traveling with Douglas. Mama was expecting again. She took Joe, Pete and me to the ranch to stay with Grandma.

Grandma and Mama fixed up a two room shack for us to live in. The rooms were heated by a large wood stove. They made paste with flour and water and put strips of torn rags up and down every crack to keep out the cold. This was where we slept and played; in the morning and evening we went to the big house to eat.

In the Fall I went to Phoenix to live with Grandma Gazilda, Dad’s mother. I was supposed to start kindergarten but an epidemic of scarlet fever broke out and I couldn’t go to school.

Dad took Mama to Prescott when her time was near; Mary was born on September 15, 1928. When they were settled back in Yava, my aunt Florence drove me up to the ranch to see my new sister. She had never been there before and we got lost. I had been over the road so many times that I was able to show her the way.

The next year I entered the first grade at the small country school in Yava. We were all living in the little house on Grandma Alice’s farm. Dad had joined us in the summer and was helping Grandma grow vegetables. They expected to get a good price for a truckload of carrots and Dad took them to Prescott.  He was late coming back and I knew that Mama was worried but she kept our spirits up, smiling and assuring us that everything would be alright.  As it turned out everything was not alright. He had sold the produce, and then I’m not sure what happened. One of the uncles went to Prescott and found him in the Veterans hospital. He had been there from October 3rd to November 4th and had been treated for several illnesses that were caused by injuries suffered in France. He was sick and couldn’t work for a while.

We all lived there with Grandma for a few months, then Mama and Dad took Mary and Pete to Phoenix to live. They left Joe and me with Grandma until January 1930 when we joined them on Willow Avenue.  I finished the first grade at the Capital School which was only a few blocks from our house. I had the measles and the other three caught them from me. Pete contracted double pneumonia. Mama was quite overwhelmed caring for the little ones so I followed Ruth, the maid around the house. The things she said and did are vivid in my mind. I liked to watch her fix her hair and she told me stories when she was ironing.

Daddy continued to work for Douglas from time to time and in between he filled in with other work. He often helped other veterans apply for their benefits. Sometimes a letter to Congressman Douglas helped to solve a problem. In 1930 Dad worked with his brother, George, who had a degree as a pharmacist. The VA members’ directory lists the John Hernan Pharmacy on Van Buren. I remember sitting at the counter and they would surprise me with ice-cream sodas and milk shakes. The drugstore was just a block from our house.

In April,1930, my Grandmother Hernan died. Mama took me to see her one evening when a rosary was being said for her. After it was finished my aunt took me by the hand and led me up to look at her. She was lying very still and lovely in a beautiful coffin and looked as though she were just sleeping; and if I would just reach out my hand and touch her she would awaken. I can see my grandfather with some roses which he laid in the coffin with a sob. I looked away and noticed other people in the quiet room wiping away tears. I felt like crying too, but I didn’t realize the full significance of her passing. Many times I had lived with her; and in the days that followed, it was hard to understand that I would not see her again.

In June, 1930, we moved to the country, to a new house we planned to buy. It was located at 4136 N. 17th street out by Indian School Road. I lost my first tooth that year. I remember Mama tying a string around it while I sat bravely waiting; then I lost courage and she had to chase me quite a distance before she managed to extract the loose tooth.

One morning shortly after the turn of the year (1931) we woke up to find a cesspool had caved in right under our kitchen window. We didn’t even know we had a cesspool. We had to move out. It was a great disappointment, and a loss of the investment.

I found some letters where Douglas asked how things were going. Dad answered that things were alright. Douglas wrote again and said that he had made some inquiries. Perhaps he helped Dad find his new job that started in March 1931 with the Arizona State Land Department.

In July, we took Grandma Reagan on a trip through Northern Arizona. She and Mama wanted to visit her sisters, who live in Springerville, a small town where Grandma and Grandpa Reagan had settled when they first came from Texas in 1883. Grandma and Grandpa were real pioneers, and they can tell stories that make one’s hair rise up on his head. We went through Flagstaff where Mama went to Normal School. I especially remember the Petrified Forest.  We also went to a wilderness area on the Blue River. Dad liked visiting the area; he had once thought of settling there before he met Mama. One night we were sleeping soundly in a lonesome ranch house when we were awakened by a weird sad cry. It sounded like a woman screaming and wailing. Whatever it was, was just outside the door. The cowboys told us that it was a mountain lion who had been attracted by the smell of fresh beef. In another story, I have written more about this trip.

Mama, Dad, Mary and Pete returned to Phoenix; but Joe and I stayed in Yava. The teacher who was teaching at the school that year was a friend of ours. I think the name was Penney. Some times on Friday they would drive down to Phoenix, one hundred miles away and Joe and I would go with them to see the family. They had a big police dog named “Pat” and I used to sit in the rumble seat with him to keep me warm. We would roll along the highway singing, “When the cock, cock robin comes bob-bob-bobbin’ along, along, etc.” I am not sure where the folks were living. I remember watching them play bridge with friends and I remember a picture window where a big St. Bernard would suddenly appear and sit outside and watch everyone. The adults would amuse me by telling me stories about dogs carrying bottles of booze to stranded skiers.

I am wondering when Helen and Dad began their affair. Helen also worked at the Arizona State Land Department. Perhaps there was a party for Helen’s 25th birthday August 12, 1931. Perhaps it wasn’t until 1932; she became pregnant in February. I have also been wondering why Mama came to Yava in November, 1931. Perhaps it was just that she wanted to be there for Christmas.

Some years ago, I wrote a story about that Christmas. December was bleak. Every breath was icy and chilled the bones; too cold to make smoky fog that was fun to watch. Pete, Joe and I didn’t think that Santa would come our way; Mary was too little to worry about the possibilities. There was a fire in the big black stove and Mama suggested games to keep us busy while she went up to the big house; she said Grandma needed her help. I was put in charge and hoped that for once my authority would not be challenged.

On Christmas eve, Mama said we should go to bed early. I argued because I didn’t think Santa would find us and that if he did there was no fireplace. She said that we kids should at least do our part by going to sleep just in case he did arrive; if we were still awake he probably wouldn’t stop.

As it turned out, the next morning there was a little tree that hadn’t been there the night before and under the tree were presents. Grandma and Mama (I mean Santa) had been busy. They had made a rag doll for Mary and new clothes for my baby doll. The boys had fabulous muslin kites. There were new sweaters for all of us. Later I discovered what a job the sweaters had been. Someone had given them some yarn, dull grayish brown. Grandma and Mama had unraveled older sweaters and worked the bright colors into patterns on the gray sweaters. They were beautiful and very warm. I don’t know why Dad wasn’t there but he and some friends arrived in the afternoon.

Plans were made for us to move back to Phoenix to a house on 17th Street in a field, beside a canal, near the bridge on Osborn Road. It seems by looking at a current map, that the number was probably in the 3800’s. Here I need to consider some notes about addresses. Gabby gave me our former address on 17th Street; we moved from there before Dad met Helen. The address she gave for Helen was on 16th just a few blocks from the bridge on Osborn Road.

I have happy memories of that time and yet I have always felt that something beyond my understanding was happening. It was still during prohibition and there was lots of partying. Mama was a fabulous cook. Dad would call and say he was bringing guests and she would prepare a meal even though the ice box seemed empty. I remember one day when there was a crowd, and a lot of liquor; no one was watching five-year old Peter; he had been drinking from some not quite empty beer bottles. Someone noticed he was missing and a search began. They found him stumbling beside the canal.

In January, I entered Madison school. This was one of my favorite schools. I was the new kid and it was difficult to make friends which often happened when I entered a new school in the middle of the year. The teachers liked me because I was serious and eager to learn. To catch the bus, I was allowed to go by myself down the road and across the bridge. This gave me a great feeling of freedom. While waiting, another child, a boy, and I would chase bugs in the dust beside the road.

There were wide open fields around the house so Pete and Joe had lots of space to fly the muslin kites that Mama made for Christmas. It was difficult to get them into the air because they were heavy but when they sailed, they were so strong that they would almost lift the little guys off the ground.

In the late afternoon, I would walk to the end of the road and look for my Dad to come home from work. I recognized his walk as soon as I saw him on the bridge. Then he would hold my hand the rest of the way home. This was a happy period of my life; little did I know that Dad was having an affair with Helen who lived a few blocks away.

One night, Daddy came home and said he had been persuaded to run for Arizona State Treasurer. When he won the Democratic Primary in Spring of 1932, he quit his job at the Arizona State Land Department. Mama always went along with Daddy. Once I asked her why she wouldn’t stand up for herself when things didn’t seem right. She said, “This is what your father wants to do.” Looking back, I think she really wanted to chase the rainbow with him.

He was busy traveling during the campaign, so it seemed best for the family to go back to the farm in Yava. I remember that summer as a happy time because my brothers and sister were there and Mama told us stories and taught us some card games. Uncle Jim’s family lived a mile’s walk along the creek that boarded Grandma’s ranch and Uncle Ned was just a few miles away so there were cousins to play with.

Mama taught Joe and me to say our prayers. Every night she would have us kneel together on the bed. She taught us the sign of the cross, very difficult to remember which hand to use and which way to move it. As a Protestant, her childhood prayer was “Now I lay me down to sleep”. After she and Daddy were married she became a Catholic. She taught us to say the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary. If we weren’t ready to go to sleep we could keep the “God bless’s” going for a long time. This habit of prayer has lasted a lifetime, even through the times of darkness and doubt. When Daddy ran for a public office as Treasurer of the state of Arizona, we included a prayer that God would help him win. When he lost, Mama had to explain something about God’s will to our very young satisfaction. I was eleven and Joe was nine. I don’t remember what she said to help us understand, but it seemed ok at the time.

Of course, we children didn’t know much about the working of the Government but we did realize it was a desirable position. Daddy lost the election but Mama said “A miss is as good as a mile”. Many men prominent in Arizona politics tried to persuade him to run again, but he wouldn’t. He always said that it turned out for the best; he never went into politics again either for himself or campaigning for someone else.

I don’t know if Grandma Alice Reagan voted for Dad. She had fought to get the vote for women and closely followed every election. She had never forgiven my Dad for stealing her youngest daughter away but she helped them when it was necessary. No matter what my grandma thought, Mama was always in love with Dad. When Mama took us to the ranch in 1932, Grandma must of known something about Helen. I don’t know when Mama knew about Helen’s daughter. Joan Elizabeth was born on October 29, 1932: Helen had gone to San Diego to have her baby.

In February, 1933, we all returned to Phoenix and lived in the house on Oakland Avenue. I was happy to go to the Capitol School again. It was an easy walk. They had a class in cooking and I learned to make “White Sauce” which is necessary in many dishes. There was also a sewing class. Mama made most of my clothes and I was learning to help.

I had lived there, off and on through the years and I knew some of the kids in the neighborhood. Our favorite recreation was to skate on the broad cement walks at the Capitol which was in the middle of a lovely park, covering about 10 blocks. We usually went there after sunset when the heat was not so intense. The trees made it a cool place to play.  Sometimes during the day, the girls of our neighborhood would go over and sit in the shade making doll clothes. We always had fun, for there was always something to do.

Although I was happy that we were all living together, there seemed to be some problems, I wasn’t sure what they were. It was easy to see that Mama wasn’t well; I was told she suffered from the heat. Her health has always been given as the reason our family left Arizona. Sometimes there were parties and a lot of drinking. Mama must have suspected that Dad was seeing Helen.

May 26, 1933 is the date of a letter addressed to Oakland Avenue from Douglas about a job but Dad had already started working on May 11 with the Arizona Highway Department. Part of his work was on a new highway from Prescott to Phoenix. Much of the time his work kept him away all week.

During the summer, I was old enough to take care of my little brothers and my sister, Mary. In the fall, we were all in school except for Mary. As Christmas drew near we were seeing less and less of my dad. I knew that Mama usually had plans but this time I knew that nothing was happening. When the kids went to bed, I couldn’t sleep. It was quite late when I heard banging at the door. I was afraid the noise would wake the kids.

It’s funny about Santa Claus: people really do believe in him and know that they need to do his bidding. Evidently some friends were out drinking with Dad when they realized that Santa was not coming to our house. They took Dad with them and went to some stores that were open late, and then they burst into the house and put it all together. When the kids woke up it was a real Christmas morning. There was a tree; a wagon full of oranges, nuts and candy; presents for everyone including Mama. They brought the things needed for dinner. The couple that used to drive me back and forth from Yava to Phoenix were there to help Mama cook dinner.

Perhaps this was traumatic enough to be a turning point. I know that Mama always loved Dad, no matter what. Some years ago, I wrote a poem about a memory; a very clear memory but I didn’t know what it meant.


One Night When I Was Ten Years Old

Daddy parked the car on the edge of a cliff. He set the brake and put a rock in front of the wheel. Mama got out and went with him to say goodbye as he settled in for another week of work on the new high way south of Prescott. Mary, Pete and Joe were asleep on the back seat. I sat in front and watched the brake that might slip if I shut my eyes. It was a great effort to stay awake, to hold the car back from tumbling into the canyon.

Sometimes a huge truck would rumble by shaking the road, shaking the car, shaking the brake. Once I climbed out of the car to make sure the rock was still okay. I kept saying to myself, please come soon, please come soon.  I knew Daddy wanted Mama to meet some of his friends who were in the bar. Then I hoped they wouldn’t spend too much time in the cabin saying goodbye.

After forever, they came out. Daddy got in the car and I held my breath as he released the brake and backed the car away from the cliff. He kissed Mama, we waved to him and drove away. After a few miles, she stopped the car and wept. Then she wiped her eyes. We headed home and I fell asleep.


Dad quit the job with the Highway Department on May 26, 1934. When school was over Joe and I went back to Yava and stayed until August. Mom and Dad did whatever was necessary and then they came with presents for Joe’s and my birthday. We left that day for California. Mama’s brother Bill Reagan and his wife Myrtle greeted us two days later in Long Beach and helped us begin a new life.

As for me it was the beginning of always being with my family. Writing this story has been a trip for me trying to piece together the lives of those I love. As I try to recall events I am beginning to find peace.

I wrote a note to Gabby to tell her about writing this story and I have received a letter from her:

“My family and I think this story is a great idea and are perfectly okay with names being used. The stories my family grew up with about the identity of their grandfather was that he was named John J. Hernan and that he was from Spain and had shortened his name from Hernandez to better fit in, which we now know was not true. We were also told that Helen worked for him in a law office and that he was going to be running for office in Phoenix. When Helen was pregnant with my grandmother, Joan, her family convinced her to have the baby in San Diego. I believe my grandmother’s birth certificate does list her last name as Hernan. Helen changed it to Matthews, which is just a random name she picked, and she told people that her father was a sailor that she met in San Diego. After that my uncle Bob was born and his birth certificate does list him as James Robert Hernan. Not long after his birth it looks like your family moved to California and Bob was put up for adoption and his name became James Robert Grill. After all this Helen moved to San Diego with Joan and we think that she may have been hoping to still be able to see your dad. Helen never married after all this and my dad says that she kept a photo of your dad on her wall in her living room. We don’t know what happened to the photo though. If you have any questions I’m more than happy to answer!”

“Happy to have a new aunt, Gabby”

Copyright 2018