After Francis

A missing relative is found, another mystery is discovered.

john francis daly
William Deverell

I can see it in my mind’s eye. It’s springtime, 1916 or 1917. The backyard of a little house on Main Street in Rochester, New York. A young man stands in his best suit—surely his only suit—and smiles at the camera. The picture was taken by a neighbor or a friend, maybe a family member. Had the young man’s sister (my grandmother) just urged him to smile? I can’t get over how much I think the man in the picture looks like my son.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

Now we travel forward in time more than a century. How I wish I could know the journey that black-and-white picture, no bigger than my hand sitting now on my desk, took across the years.

Here’s what I know. Two months ago, I went to a meeting in San Antonio. I stayed at a conference hotel on the Riverwalk. One morning, I went to the lobby to meet a family member, a third cousin, someone I didn’t know existed only a few years ago. We’d described ourselves to each other via text, and it was easy to find her in the sea of conference attendees. This was Kathleen, the granddaughter of the man in the photograph. The happy young man in the picture is John Francis Daly, my great-uncle. He’s the man my father and I searched for toward the end of my dad’s life. He’s the subject of my AltaJournal serial “Finding Francis.”

Finding Francis meant finding Kathleen. She is a kind and thoughtful person, a longtime special education teacher in San Antonio. We chatted for about an hour. She told me about her family (my family, I begin to understand) and how their search for Francis’s early life matched my search for his later one.

Meeting her tied together the two strands of a split life, the little bits she and her family knew about my side of Francis and the little bits my family knew about her side of Francis after he became Harry. We laughed together over a shared wish to hop aboard a time machine and get more answers. We found him, Kathleen and I. She found Harry as Francis; I found Francis as Harry. What remain are a lot of unanswerable questions, beginning with “Why?”

Kathleen and I have agreed to keep in touch, not least because she wants to see if I can help her with another family mystery. Her father, Eugene, named for Francis’s young brother who died of unknown causes in the early 20th century, carried around his own secrets. Fluent in an entire range of languages, including some from Cold War antagonist nations, Eugene would be absent from home for weeks at a time in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. What he did, where he went, no one knew. Or, if they did, they weren’t talking. Because I am now related to him—or because I now know that I am related to him—I plan to file some Freedom of Information requests on my second cousin Eugene Wheeler, son of the man I’m named for, the man who looks so much like my son, John.

One family mystery begets another.

When I got up to leave, Kathleen gave me a warm hug, and then, reaching into her tote bag, she pulled out the picture. It’s one of the last photographs of Francis when he was still Francis, before he went to war, before he came home and decided, for whatever reason or reasons, to become Harry Wheeler. I think he must have had it with him. He must have carried it when he went to Fort Dix and to war in Europe, when he came home and moved to Los Angeles, when he ceased to be, well, himself.

Or is the story even more interesting than that? Did his sister, my grandmother (for whom my daughter, Helen, is named), bring the picture with her when she came out to Los Angeles around 1930, toting my two aunts as little girls, looking for that man in the photograph?

Absent that time machine, we’ll never know.

As a historian, I know all too well that we can’t know everything about the past. We can’t even know very much, frankly. What connects us to the past is so flimsy. Someone wrote something down. Someone took a photograph, made a drawing, published a book. Someone told a story, and someone else remembered it and told someone else.

Everything about the past is a puzzle, a mystery. Since I published the serial about the hunt for Francis, people have contacted me to thank me. They’ve also shared their own family puzzles: disappeared relatives, relations with two simultaneous families. It’s the stuff of pulp novels and soap operas, to be sure. But it’s also the stuff of real life.

There’s empathy in all of this, a quality always, in my view, in demand. Thanking me for searching for Francis is also thanking Kathleen for searching for Harry. I loved it when she handed me that picture. As a historian and as a person, I felt as though I’d heard something extremely rare: a click in the universe, two halves of a story coming together at last.•

William Deverell is the director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West and a professor of history at USC.
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