Posted on 28 Comments

A Haunting Reality

Over the years, I have learned many things about life and myself by researching my ancestors. Through interviewing my parents, grandparents and other descendants, making visits to town halls, libraries, vital statistic offices and cemeteries I have discovered several things about my family’s past. Every now and then though, this look back comes with a very unexpected and haunting look forward.

The story of my great grandfather, Robert Henry Williams has always been a mystery. My grandfather was only 13 when his father passed away from a massive heart attack at the age of 39. Being as young as my grandfather was when he became the “man of the house”, he really didn’t know or remember a lot about his father.

Grandpa was able to tell me that Robert was born in Waterville, Maine. He said that he remembered taking trips to Vermont with his parents to visit his father’s family. I also learned that Robert was a WWI veteran who served in France as a wagoner. The only story passed down through the family about his service, had to do with trench warfare and Robert being “gassed”… Tear gas? Chlorine? Mustard, perhaps?

Following the war, Robert became the district manager for Waldorf Café, which had him traveling around New England. He married my great grandmother, Marjorie Washburn and together they had a total of seven children. The family seemed to be living a comfortable life in Lynn, Massachusetts when they were dealt an unexpected and devastating blow.


On April 19, 1935, Robert was in the middle of a meeting inside a Waldorf Café freezer when he began to feel ill. His co-workers instructed him to lay down on the floor of the freezer while they called for a doctor. By the time the doctor arrived to have a look at Robert, he was feeling better.

Shortly after the doctor left, my great grandfather died of a massive heart attack.

Growing up I had heard many stories about the chaos that followed Robert’s death. His untimely passing changed my grandfather’s family forever. Outside of the obvious emotional and financial problems, he and his siblings watched on as their mother (who was pregnant with her seventh child) was forced to make tough decisions in – what she believed to be – the best interest of her family.

I have often wondered, as I am sure the family did, how different their lives would have been had Robert lived to an old age. It’s no surprise my grandfather and his siblings knew so little about their father, they were so young when they lost him. As they got older, their days were spent going to school and finding odd jobs to help their mother financially. Their focus wouldn’t have been on enjoying their childhood; it would have been focused on survival.

My grandfather’s story has always upset me.

I couldn’t imagine how hard life was for his family and I couldn’t imagine losing my father at the age of 13. It made me realize how fortunate I was; not only did I have an amazing grandfather, he and my grandmother gave me an amazing father.

Listening to my grandfather’s stories, I could tell he wished he knew more about his father. His need to know more motivated me to do some digging… I wanted to know more as well. What kind of man was he? What did he do in the war? What was his childhood like? What was his family like? All of these questions lead me to many places, one of which was Chestnut Hill Cemetery in Burlington, Massachusetts.

There I was… finally standing in front of his headstone for the first time…

My stomached turned, I began to tremble and my eyes welled up with tears… I thought I was going to be sick. Having been so set on learning more about my great grandfather, I wasn’t prepared for the haunting reality that was waiting for me at that headstone.


“Robert Henry Williams”, it read…

The same name as my brother, my father and my grandfather, who were all alive and well… Three men in my life that meant the world to me… and there was their name, etched in the cold granite staring back at me. I cried uncontrollably while I tore away at the grass and dirt that had begun growing over the ground level stone with my hands.

While the purpose of the visit was to learn more about my great grandfather, I walked away with much more than that. As important as it is to learn about your family’s past, it is just as important to learn how to be present.

Too many of us take our loved ones for granted. We forget (or refuse to acknowledge) that they won’t always be there. We tell ourselves we’ll visit, call or email tomorrow, this weekend or next week. Life gets crazy, we get sidetracked with day-to-day bullshit and we make excuses.

What’s the old saying, “time waits for no man”?

As if my grandfather’s story of loss wasn’t enough, it took seeing the names of my loved ones carved in stone for that message to stick.

Robert Williams Sr

Today’s Advice? Get off your buttocks and reach out to your loved ones. It’s time spent you’ll never regret.

28 thoughts on “A Haunting Reality

  1. Usually there is one in a family is interested in the family history, the story teller the one to pass things on.

    Having lost my maternal grandparents in the 1970’s, both were born in the 1890’s, I was not able to learn much through “interview”. We only visited both sets of grandparents once per year and of that two weeks of my father’s vacation, one week at my father’s parents home and the other week at my mom’s parents. We knew that my mother’s father served in WWI he was deaf and he always smoked a pipe (there are times I swear can almost smell it still). He never spoke about his experiences but as an adult, I researched and discovered what exactly he did in the Royal Navy. Also as an adult I discovered what my grandmother did as a very young woman. She was a telegraph operator and was in that position during the time of the Titanic. (maternal and paternal ancestors come from Newfoundland, and before that England).

    Wish I could interview my grandmother, I have so many unanswered questions especially re her first nations heritage. This I discovered long after the death of my mother. My grandmother took that secret with her to the grave. If I had known about this as a child, I would have pestered her until I got an answer, because everyone knows that grandparents cannot resist the grandchildren. I would also want to ask her about her days working in the post office on the telegraph.

    I feared my grandfather not because he was mean or nasty but because I always felt very, very sad around him, even as a child I was “sensitive”. I’m sure he suffered from PTSD … my mom & grandmother called it “shell shock”. That was the term used in the ’60’s and ’70’s.

    They are all gone now, my grandparents maternal & paternal, my parents died young 54 years for mom, cancer (I am older than she was when she died), and my father at 68, one heart attack, his last heart attack. Like me, my mother was a registered nurse, she suffered a painful death and worried so much about my dad. So often she would say to me, what I wouldn’t give for a nice quick heart attack. So maybe, just maybe, she arranged that for my dad when it was his time.

    My mom has only 2 sisters left (not much interested in genealogy but my mom was) and my dad, he had just one brother living who was 8 years his junior, and very interested in genealogy & history so I have learned much from him. he is legally blind so I am trying my best to find some more answers for him. Aside from that, just my sister and my brother neither of whom share my interests.

    But my brother’s daughter, she will be the one to carry on the stories of the ancestors. Already she has my intrests for trampling through old long forgotten cemeteries and history of times long past….

  2. I so wish my family was better at documenting their family history. I wish I was more inquisitive of my own roots rather than just accepting what I was told as I was growing up. Now that I am trying to trace my roots, every member of the family that could have shed some light on it have passed. Even my two remaining aunts have dim recollections now that they’re into their 70’s and were small when their own grandfather passed. Trying to trace his roots as well as his wife’s has become a major trail.

  3. My wife and I really enjoyed reading this and like your writing. One question, how old was your grandfather when he passed?

    1. My grandfather was 85, he passed in 2006 of Alzheimer’s… he was 13 when his Dad died. If you mean my great grandpa who died at work in the freezer, I believe he was 38 or 39. Pretty young.

  4. Great read

    1. Thanks, Andrew! 🙂

  5. I am so glad you can trace back your family. And fine them my mom didn’t know her dad so I will never know that side of are family..Father unknown on my mom’s birthday certificate. But we do stay close mine son is a single father and me and my husband live with him. And my mom lives in the back garage which is converted into a home. My dad and his family are all deceased. So I can completely understand about loving and spending time with family while they are still around. And I believe that my 13 year old granddaughter has learn this earlier on and hopefully keeps following the same motto. Love sharing with you and keep in touch it’s great to hear of all your adventures. Xoxo Constance S

    1. Thank you, Constance. For your kind words and for reading! Write down all the info you do know on your family – once you do you might come up with some other ways of tacking the puzzle.

  6. My daughter Dani and I would always visit with you at the party at Olive and Twist in Pittsburgh. Then we saw you at Hill View Manor and Mansfield Prison. Hope all is well with you and Australia. God bless

    1. I’m still kicking, thank you!! 🙂

  7. How true Kris, I remember one time taking communion at church and the minister spoke about the last supper, how we never know when the last supper with our live one will be. If we did would we still look at our phones and rush off, or would we stay as long as we could and talk. Miss seeing you

    1. Hey Cheryl. Yes on the phones! Tech is way too much of a distraction today – people in general need to learn to “turn off”.

  8. Thank you for sharing that tremendous story. I loved listening to my Grandmother’s stories and will forever cherish the history of my family that she passed down. Take Care Kris!

    1. Thank you, Rod! For reading and commenting! Be sure to document those stories to share with family! 🙂

  9. My father died at the age of 64, me being only 15. I miss him always. Still miss his stories and will never forget him and the story his life as all had been foreseen not becoming 65, because of not being the medium as he was asked for then. Miss you, dad.

    1. Start writing down the stories you remember and share them with your family. They just might even remember bits you forgot or didn’t know. 🙂

  10. I’ve followed you for a long time and read your articles. This was one is outstanding and so true.

  11. Great post Kris. I recently learned of my family’s extensive history back to before the revolution. I also agree about staying in touch with your loved ones. After my mom passed, I started calling my dad every day on my way home from work. A few years later my dad had a stroke and could not speak for his remaining 2 years and passed 2 years ago. I am thankful for our daily talks now.

    1. Wow, sorry to hear about both your parents, Frank. Yep – you’ll never regret the time you put aside for family. Too many people dont and they also dont think to ask too much – sad since there is so much to learn.

  12. Good for you for all your research and curiosity about your family. My mother spent the better part of the last 30 or so years of her life doing geneology on our family – both sides – and her and my father have published books about it so the rest of the family can read about their ancestors. I would eventually like to write about them as well. She recently passed in May, and as much as she taught me, I wish I’d paid even more attention to all she said and found. Now it is too late, but I am grateful for the time we did have and the work she did.

    1. Pick up where she left off, Charlotte… be the next family storyteller. It’d be a special we to continue to connect with your mom, even though she’s gone. 😉

  13. This is very well written and I really enjoyed reading this amazing story. We should all learn a life lesson from this and enjoy the people in our lives while they are still here.

    1. Thank you, Christopher. We don’t have people around for nearly as long as we’d like. Always best to make the time.

  14. Great story, great message.

    1. Thank you, Kathleen.

  15. You are damn right about putting off or coming out with excuses on visiting your love ones. Thank you for the much needed reminder.

    1. Thank you for reading, Steven! 🙂

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