Week 7 – Valentine

This week’s prompt is Valentine. My first thought was to share the love story of my grandparents, Bernard and Nancy Lewonis. Their story began in elementary school when she used to walk behind him on the way home from school, tossing pebbles at him. The pebble tossing story was much loved by their children and grandchildren and was told again and again. Each would declare the other the perpetrator.  After many years, my grandmother finally admitted that she had been the one throwing the stones. After that ‘rocky’ start, their love story had a happy ending. But not all do. I’ve chosen to write about one that didn’t.

In a departure from the typical genealogical blogpost, I won’t be providing any biographical details of this couple. My goal with this blog is to share discoveries I have made and to hopefully show that researching family history is far from boring! It is not my intent to hurt or upset anyone. In my research, I have unearthed long buried secrets that would likely upset people living today. While I’m all for full disclosure, and want to know everything there is to know, I understand that not everyone feels the same. This post is one of those secrets that I’m sure was thought to have been taken to the grave.

My paternal grandparents, Nick and Rita were childhood sweethearts. They grew up in the same neighborhood. He was a first generation Italian American, and she was of French Canadian and Irish descent. Nick was 5 years older. Their lives could not have been more different.

Nick’s father worked in a mill and his mother ran a variety store out of the first floor of their home. This was fairly common in the 1930’s and 40’s when they were growing up. Some of the stores even remained through the next few decades. There were quite a few in the small neighborhood they lived in. Coincidentally, my mother and her siblings grew up nearby, and they all remember the stores. They were great places to stop for a snack or a cold drink. With two sources of income, I imagine Nick’s family was a bit better off financially than some of their neighbors.

Like Nick’s father, Rita’s father worked in a mill. Rita’s mother did not work. Rita’s father was a veteran of WWI, and spent a lot of evenings at the VFW swapping war stories, having a few drinks, and spending money his wife could have made better use of. Rita’s father died young, and left 6 minor children. His wife found work in a factory, and the oldest daughter quit school to go to work as well. Rita was the next oldest, and after a while, she too quit school. Besides the age difference, it seems Nick and Rita’s home lives were also very different.

It has been said by one of Rita’s siblings that Nick’s parents did not approve of their relationship. Rita was just not good enough for their son. I don’t know how serious their relationship was, or for how long they dated before going their separate ways. When Rita was 17, she was married in New York City. Her husband William was 16 when they wed on 15 January 1945. He would turn 17 twelve days later..

In March of 1946, Rita and her husband had a son. In 1950, William petitioned the court for divorce and cited abandonment as the reason. The divorce documents state that he had not seen her since 1945. The divorce decree said they had no children together. I wonder if at the time he did not know he had a son. I know that as the child grew up, William would come visit and take him on outings, so William did eventually know they had a child together.

In the meantime, Rita had returned home. One day, Rita was in the variety store owned by Nick’s mother. Nick was working there at the time, and he and Rita rekindled their romance. The fact that they were both married to other people didn’t seem to be a concern to them. Rita’s youngest sister was about 9 years old at this time and remembers how much fun Nick was to be around and how deeply Rita loved him. In 1948 Rita found herself pregnant and gave birth to a daughter on 23 December 1948. She told her family that Nick’s family would not allow him to marry her. I guess that sounded better than telling them he was married. Though, she was also still married…

I don’t know if Rita and Nick continued seeing each other, or if they were on again/ off again. Before too long, Rita was pregnant again, and gave birth to a son on 18 September, 1950. Rita made the choice to place this child, my father, for adoption. With an absent husband and a married lover, she was struggling to provide for the two children she already had. I don’t know if she and Nick still continued seeing each other or if this pregnancy ended their relationship. Her divorce was finalized in December of 1950. In 1951 she married again and had 5 more children. That marriage was rather unhappy and also ended in divorce. Rita dated, but never married again. Two of her daughters have said how in love Rita was with Nick. She rarely said much about him, except to say that he had broken her heart.

I often wonder what Nick’s feelings were. Was she just a bit of fun? Or was he as madly in love as she was? Perhaps his family really did prevent him from marrying her. Maybe he was willing to divorce his wife, but his Italian, devout Catholic family wouldn’t hear of it.

I tend to think that Nick felt as Rita did. I don’t think he would have spent so much time with Rita’s family if she was just a casual fling. It makes me smile to think my father was born to a couple who loved each other, but circumstances kept apart.

Happy Valentine’s Day.