I have no idea how to write this blog post. And in a few paragraphs, you’ll see why. I could make this post just about vaudeville, burlesque, metaphysics, or sex in the twentieth century. But all of these things together are what made my recent family reunion so damn hysterical, confusing and rewarding. But let’s back it up a bit.
I was born to a conservative salesman father and a liberal artist mother during the tumultuous 60’s in Berkley, California. They divorced by the early 70’s, just in time for me to identify with “An American Family” on PBS.
My father’s family consisted of respectable 1st generation Italian and German-Americans. They worked very hard and achieved a variation of their American Dream. They came to be known as “the normal side of my family” in my description of them.
While I always appreciated (and needed) the stability they represented, I couldn’t resist bragging about “the gypsy side of my family” (I was a hammy, young actor, after all). My mother’s side of the family included a vaudeville actor turned guru and a teen runaway turned burlesque dancer; also known as my grandparents. I knew of some darkness in the family history, but since I met my grandfather only twice or so and my grandmother was usually waitressing on a ship at sea half the year in her post-dancing days, I never did get a complete picture of it all.
That is, until a heretofore unknown cousin of mine did some research… Let’s start with the background. Please keep your seat belts fastened as the facts may get a little bumpy;
My family can be traced back to a contortionist in the Barnum & Bailey circus at the beginning of the 20th century (who had apparently been kidnapped by the circus when he was a child). This contortionist was my great grandfather. His son, Joseph Dustin Miller, was my grandfather (the “Dustin” was a nod to our supposed ancestors of the Dustin Massacre). Joe had a beautiful singing voice and a penchant for chorus girls so he went into vaudeville. He also had a thirst for the esoteric and forged a metaphysical path in life. He married four times and had four kids with two of his wives. My grandmother was his second marriage.
His final decades were spent as a local mystic in San Francisco, heading up the San Francisco Theosophical Society Lodge with his fourth wife, Guinevere Robinson Miller, and hosting many famous religious and philosophical figures who visited the city. A life remarkable enough for some to be written about in several books (most prominently in “Great Song: The Life and Teachings of Joe Miller.”) He died in 1992.
My grandmother was Grace Elizabeth Hathaway. Her father was a bellhop and gambler who claimed they were descendants of Shakespeare’s wife. Grace’s mother may or may not have had a mental illness, but the goiter pressing on a vein in her neck sent her into a delusional odyssey. Convinced her husband was cheating on her, she gathered up Grace and her brother and hitchhiked from Los Angeles to Canada during the Great Depression, stopping at one point for a little polyandry (she married a farmer on a whim, then left him just as quick). Eventually her mother was put in an institution and her father became sole caretaker.
Grace was an unruly teen and eventually ran away from home. She got pregnant, then married, then landed in burlesque. She was arrested a couple of times for her dancing (which she thought was funny since her routine was more a parody of burlesque). She married four times and had four kids with three of her husbands. She passed away last year after living with the aftermath of several strokes. (My mother wrote a wonderful blog post about her just after her passing.)
But this background gets even stranger…
The Flying Trapeze of Sex
Early in Joe and Gracie’s marriage (circa 1942), they ended up living with W.T. Smith and the Church of Thelema in Pasadena. Thelema is a religious philosophy (referred to by some as a religion) that was developed by the early 20th century British writer and ceremonial magician, Aleister Crowley. One of the higher practices was “sex magick.”
It seems my Grandpa Joe was a quick study as he got his wife pregnant and then, three months later, his housemate’s wife pregnant. Partner swapping was out in the open at the Pasadena Church of Thelema as part of their rejection of American puritanical roots. The pregnancies? Not so much. My grandparents moved out and Joe’s out-of-wedlock child would not meet him until he was well into adulthood.
Adding to a complex family history:
• Joe’s first wife told her kids that their father (Joe) was killed in a car accident so they would no longer ask about him.
• All of Grace’s kids from all her marriages were boarded out several times over the years, and usually not with each other. Even though boarding out children was a common practice for vaudeville folks then, one can imagine what this did to the family dynamic. The positive spin was to call them gypsies.
• When Joe divorced Gracie, he wrote that he was able to leave the kids behind because he felt love for them but not “ownership” — as that was antithetical to his spiritual outlook.
• And when her kids were getting into their teens, Grace got pregnant once again with the man she was living with… aaaand who also happened to be married to someone else.
Yes, at one point, your jaw can start to ache from hitting the floor so many times.
The following generation of this tempestuous DNA brew would be creative, volatile, loving, funny, selfish, bitter, and forgiving through the years. Many would overcome restless roots. Some would die from addiction or disease. Some would achieve stability and fulfillment. Some would become estranged… And most were destined to never know each other…
But my cousin Steve changed that destiny.
Untying The Contortionist
Joe’s grandson (Steve) from Joe’s first marriage – a grandson he never knew he had, began to research who Joe Miller was. Steve was hoping to find an answer for his father who always suspected his mother had lied about Joe’s demise. Through his exhaustive research, Steve discovered that Joe had not died in a car accident sixty years earlier, but died peacefully across the San Francisco bay from where Steve and his brother (yes, Joe’s other grandson) had lived briefly in 1992.
Steve also discovered the existence of Joe’s son, Paul (from the Church of Thelema days). The half-uncle he never knew he had. The half-brother his father never knew he had. The son his grandfather left behind. Steve arranged a meeting with his then ailing father and Paul. Then Paul contacted my mother. At 65, my mother added her new “brother from another mother” to her family tree.
Send in The Clowns with Balm
After the passing of Grace Hathaway (Granny Goose, as her grandchildren called her) my aunt decided to have a family reunion in her memory. But it was much more than that. In that gathering of offspring and their offspring were two remarkable moments of healing:
My Uncle Tom’s two estranged daughters were reunited with each other for the first time in years. And one of those daughters was reunited with her father, my Uncle Tom, after 20 years. And the following day Tom got to meet his granddaughter (now married) for the first time ever.
My newly discovered Uncle Paul bravely walked into a house of strangers and found his family. In a remarkable exchange, Paul sat across from Joe’s oldest son (who looks just like Joe did at the same age) and they talked out who Joe was and why Joe was the way he was.
I should take a moment to illustrate the “way” Joe was.
My Grandpa Joe was a sage and advisor to many, but kept the group orator persona even when visiting an estranged family member. At his memorial in Golden Gate Park, hundreds were in attendance. As one person passed my Mom and I, they tearfully remarked to their friend, “He was like a father to me…” My mom chuckled, “I wish I could say the same…”
Back to the family reunion. Paul and Joe’s oldest son talked for twenty minutes and Paul asked many questions and expressed his anger and disappointment about a father he never had. Then Joe’s son offered a heartfelt apology on behalf of their father – a man he also now resembles. Paul reached out and they shook hands. In that moment, it felt like Paul was finding a brother while also getting some closure with a father he didn’t really know… It was a wonderful, multilayered moment. And my blog post comes nowhere near capturing the tingles on the back of my neck when I witnessed it.
Juggling The Past and The Present
But don’t get me wrong. This reunion was not a heavy affair. It was oddly light and full of much laughter. Even when the little heartaches and large tragedies were discussed there was still laughter at the family circus of circumstances.
And the most interesting thing about the laughter? It was an echo of Grace Hathaway and Joe Miller. They both had loud, distinct and hearty laughs during their lives. And laughter was their default response for the curve balls they fielded.
Between my grandmother and grandfather’s marriages, there were at least seven children – the remaining five at the reunion. Among the group, the fact that my sister and I were full brother and sister was an anomaly!
But I still come back to laughter. And kindness. There was so much of it. And a calm that comes from finding “home” after a long, uncertain journey.
It’s no longer a family of gypsies in my mind. Partly because my aunt willed this event into reality. Partly because my newly found cousin unraveled two family mysteries… and partly because I now have a larger list of family members on FaceBook. 😉