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Where this will lead, I know not….

A single rose played a role in the start of this post, and any that appear in the future. It was a message from a grandfather I’d not met, and from a time so long ago that all of those who lived to offer context to what I’m discovering from my family of origin are long gone.

What’s left are questions. Hundreds. Why did my father rarely discuss his father? Mother? Siblings? I know the oldest son in his family was revered, and I see why now that I’ve scratched the surface of a man who was a columnist (so was I and so was my father), a man who died at the age of 37, just before he would have taken over the Securities and Exchange Commission from his mentor and boss, Joseph Kennedy. That was the rumor.

I’ve lugged around a small booklet about this uncle, Thomas Hubbard Gammack, and kept it through at least 25 moves. And yet, I don’t recall reading it until recently.

Here’s a burning question: Why did my father never take us kids to his childhood homes in Lenox or Fitchburg, Massachusetts? Why am I just now learning how beloved his father, my grandfather, was that his name is carved in the church alter where he presided at the time of his death, and a large cement cross was dedicated to him outside on church grounds with a loving inscription from his congregation?

At this point, all I have is pure speculation. And a drive to learn more.

What does the term ‘it’s in your DNA’ mean? Does nature dominate nurture? Is it equal in determining ones’ path? Or are the echoes in our lives of the traits and actions of our ancestors simply coincidences?

Yesterday morning my husband read me passages from a booklet about my grandfather, Reverend Arthur Gammack, for the congregation of Christ Church, Fitchburg, MA, as a testament to the man who died at the age of 56 from injuries he suffered when the horse he was riding took a fall.

In it the author, my uncle, described his fathers’ devotion to family by sharing a ritual he had throughout his married life to Mary Bridgman Gammack. Each Saturday he would buy a rose and bring it home to her.

Later that afternoon, my husband had an optometrist appointment with a new physician. Upon leaving, the receptionist handed him a rose and told him to bring it to his wife.

Now, I don’t know how many signs the universe can send to urge me to learn more about this mysterious (to me) family of origin, and to share the story as I go along, but here goes.


Secrets and Stigma

June 10, 1919.

Homosexuality was once in the closet and now gays can marry and celebrate openly in Pride Parades. I didn’t see that coming 60, 50, 40, 30, or even 20 years ago.

Odds are 10% of our ancestors were gay. I’m pretty sure that number is right for my family of origin and I’m pretty sure the same is true for the family of my childhood best friend, whose Uncle Jay never married, sang show tunes and spent summers on Fire Island. I’ll bet that 10% gay number is true for your family of origin, too.

Although not completely accepted by all of society, in time the stigma borne of secrecy will be erased as it becomes known that a beloved teacher, aunt, sibling, uncle, son, daughter, friend, rock star, minister, boss, and maybe even a president of the United States will bring humanity to what was once a deep dark secret that could destroy families and careers.

I’ll devote a future post to my dads’ sister, Ellen, who never married but I want to flush out what I can about her story. My middle name is Ellen and I am so damned proud to have her in my life this way forever. It’s much harder to find information about women in history but I’ll do my best to honor this extraordinary woman.

Today, there’s something that is also commonplace but still not shared openly. Mental illness, or as I prefer to think of it – an alternate reality, spiritual awakening, or even a born-again experience. Whatever you know it by – and ‘mental illness’ is as it is best known – it is one of the remaining stigmas that will hopefully become demystified as people tell their own stories. When meeting those who are likely to become friends for the first time you might share details about family, including divorce and remarriage, career highlights, but you won’t jump in and say, ‘Oh, I went crazy a few times. How about you?”

My grandfather, Rev. Arthur James Gammack, was an Episcopal priest. When I first read a news story from his local paper about him preaching publicly in the town square I was startled. Episcopal priests in my mind aren’t known for this kind of thing. And the fact that this was newsworthy back in the 1920s confirms the real oddity of his actions.

Then it hit me. What if he was bipolar? Too. What if those flashes of grandiosity with God speaking through him was the same spiritual glow I had during the three ‘breakdowns’ I had in my 20s and 30s? Bipolar is a part of my DNA so it’s likely passed down from others. My grandfather’s father was an Episcopal priest in Scotland. How far back do I have members of the clergy in my clan?

According to NAMI 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience mental illness in a given year. If you’re curious about other mental illness statistics in the U.S click on this NIMH site.

Come to think of it, what better profession for someone with bipolar episodes than the clergy? Odds of getting locked up and drugged into submission/normalcy were slim if you wore a collar and had a Bible in hand.

As I read the booklet prepared by my uncle to commemorate Rev. Gammack’s life, there came more clues to bolster my theory. He was described as having ‘unusual pulpit power’, he ignored opposition and the real kicker: Rev. Gammack could get so excited he couldn’t sleep.


Sleeplessness can be the first sign of a an abrupt mood swing and I want the biological descendants from the marriage of Gordon Gammack and Kathryn Hagensick to know this could be in there DNA.

My experience is that it’s kind of cool to know God this way.

This is all speculation fortified by clues from past writings, but it’s all I have at this point in my belated search of family history.


Same Postage

My dad, M. Gordon Gammack*, was a columnist for The Des Moines Tribune and Sunday Register. He produced a daily column, (daily mind you) for most of his adult life. This was a time before computers, the internet, cell phones, and it wasn’t until late in his career that the electric typewriter was invented. When the country was not at war, his column consisted of what he called ‘items’ about the ordinary tidbits of every day life. He also had a penchant for reporting on coincidences.

When asked how he hammered out page-one columns so often he answered, “There’s a story in everyone,” and that was a value echoed in the life of his father, Rev. Arthur Gammack, who preached well beyond the confines of his church structure.

Donald Kaul, a young, brash opinion columnist, shared an office cubicle with dad in the last chapter of his days. Their styles couldn’t have been more dissimilar but a real bond developed between them and Kaul would tease dad about some of his columns. I can’t remember the details of the story that produced a Kaul-tease that would pop up regularly but there was a story dad wrote where the punchline was a coincidence having something to do with two letters crossing paths that had the same postage. Surely, the essence of this is lost in the translation, but Kaul would tease dad about the columns, shouting:

Donald Kaul, The Des Moines Register columnist

“Same postage!”

When the country was at war, Gordon Gammack was there filing dispatches during WWII, Korea and Vietnam about Iowans who served there. He wasn’t writing so much about the battles per se, but about what the boy from Coon Rapids, Iowa was having for Thanksgiving dinner. Or the importance these boys (mostly) placed on letters from home. He covered war from a human interest perspective and to this day I wonder if we’d have fewer lives lost if that’s how the stories from wars were reported, not just body counts.

Dad was born in Lenox, MA, 1909, and died in Des Moines, IA in 1974. I was 24 at the time of his death; that was 45 years ago. He died at the age of 65, three years younger than I am today. There isn’t a week that goes by I don’t think about him but never before have I missed the possibility to pick up the phone and ask him questions as I have these past few days since I entered into the quest to know more about his family. My family.

Ancestry.com is an astounding resource for the stuff of public records. Births. Deaths. Marriage. And for an additional fee you can access an online database of newspapers.

What we can’t know once these relatives are gone is the real stuff of life. The loves, hates, hurts – real and imagined – grief, failures…the real stuff.

I have a sense of those moments in my parents’ lives but not much from their families of origin. There were estrangements, but I don’t know why and these questions will likely go unanswered.

In future posts I’ll delve into what the impact divorce had on my mothers’ side of the family and how resentment was passed on without context or comment, it just was.

Today I’m mindful of coincidence. Synchronicity. Those odd moments when you think of someone you haven’t seen in years and the next day their voice is on your answering machine and in my case, you end up marrying the guy. Or you read a story about your grandfather who gave his wife a rose every week and that very day your husbands’ optometrist gives him one to bring to you. Those ethereal coincidences have been aplenty since this journey began.

Everything begins in a conversation and the one Richard and I had last year during a road trip took us on an unplanned stop in Barrington, RI to visit a young boat–broker friend.

After looking at the nautical chart we realized the marina location was an ideal jumping off spot for cruising places like Cape Cod, Newport, Block Island, Nantucket so why not bring the boat to Barrington? A new adventure? Our friend could make sure the lines on the boat were tied snug in our absence and it was a short hop to the airport in Providence where Southwest has nonstop service to Chicago.

Bel Sito docked in Stratford, Ct., May 23, 2019.

We departed aboard our boat Bel Sito, a 38′ Pacific Seacraft trawler, from Annapolis on May 19. Five days later we docked at the mouth of the Housatonic River and that’s when the first twinges of ancestral curiosity began. Kent School is located on the Housatonic, and that’s where my uncle, dad, brother and niece attended during their high school years. I visited there as a child and in hindsight wonder all the more why we didn’t include Fitchburg or Lenox, MA or Hartford, CT – all places dad lived – in our itinerary.

Departing the Housatonic River, May 24, 2019

I had not thought about how close it would be to Fitchburg, MA; Cape Cod, MA and Providence, RI, where there are dozens of spots ancestors on my fathers’ side lived. Nor did I have an inkling I’d be so intrigued about the past and so many coincidences would be revealed.

When the winds aren’t favorable for cruising, we’ll be taking road trips around this area and I’ll let you know what I find. Although It’s easier to unearth old newspaper clippings of our ancestors who held some prominence I’ll do my best to dig deep on the lesser known members of the family. It’s a better use of time than playing solitaire on the iPad during gloomy weather.

DNA knows no pedigree and is an equal part of our story. There’s a story in every one.

The Manhattan skyline taken from the flybridge of Bel Sito as she chug up the East River.

*M. Gordon Gammack. Very few who knew dad other than his family of origin knew his given first name was Malcom. I put it in here because public records often list him as Malcom Gordon Gammack.