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(Stefano Morri for The Globe and Mail)
(Stefano Morri for The Globe and Mail)

The ugly truth about my family history Add to ...

My grandfather, Harry Murray, walked away from his wife and two little boys in 1931 and was never heard from again.

For years we wondered about Harry, whom my grandmother loved until the day she died. We knew his origins, in Springhill, N.S., and that he’d met my grandmother in Edmonton. They married in 1923, but eight years later he was gone, leaving her to raise my father, Alan, and his younger brother, Stanley, with the help of her spinster sister.

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Grandma always said that she and Harry had a “community of spirit” and that they understood each other. She never spoke a word against him and did not remarry.

As it turns out, she didn’t know the real Harry at all.

Many years after my grandmother’s death I became interested in family history. I was particularly interested in Harry, because we knew so little about him. What I uncovered through my research paints a dramatically different picture than the romantic-adventurer portrait with which we grew up.

We’ve all seen those ads on TV about finding the war heroes, political leaders and inspirational pioneers in our family trees. What I found was a lying cad.

Harry was indeed born in Springhill: That is really the only certain fact my grandmother would have known. I took a trip there with her in 1982, when she was 85. One of her goals was to find the resting places of Harry’s parents, Sarah and William. We were unsuccessful in that venture, and wrote it off to the fact that Springhill is full of Murrays: Finding these particular Murrays would be like finding a needle in a haystack.

But as it turns out there was no needle to find: Sarah Murray had divorced William by 1901, reverted to her maiden name and was living back home with her parents, Ralph and Grace Turner, her three children, and five of her nine siblings. Thirteen people in all, crammed into a miner’s shack.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Sarah, who seems to have been an independent spirit, to put it kindly (she was six months pregnant when she married William), decamped to Massachusetts around 1901, where she ran a boarding house and later married a man named Russell.

Grandma and I couldn’t find Harry’s parents’ graves because they never grew old in Springhill together. What would Grandma have thought had she known more about Sarah, a woman of 19 pregnant before marriage in 1891, divorced by 1900? These things didn’t happen to “nice” girls in those days.

It gets worse. Harry, born in 1893 in Springhill, was brought up in Massachusetts from the age of 7 or 8. He never mentioned this to Grandma, who always thought the Springhill connection was an unbroken line. I am also certain he never mentioned either that he’d been married before, to a woman named Mary Cecilia Frances Doyle in Massachusetts. With Mary he had two daughters, my father’s half-sisters, of whom none of us ever knew anything.

By 1920, he was divorced and back living with his mother, his half-sister Ariel Russell, his brother Joseph and Joseph’s wife and children, plus a boarder. Eight people in the same house. This begins to sound like a familiar pattern.

At some point between 1920 and 1923, Harry left Massachusetts and crossed back into Canada, making his way to Edmonton, where he courted and ultimately wed my unsuspecting grandmother in February, 1923.

Oddly, one month after the wedding, immigration records show Harry departing on a boat from Vancouver, trying to re-enter the U.S. through Seattle, but he was barred from entry. The record indicates there was a telegram from my grandmother to the authorities, which seems to have prevented his leaving Canada.

We can only speculate what that was all about (certainly Grandma never mentioned that her new husband had tried to leave her one month after their marriage!) and Harry did stick around long enough to father two boys.

He spent much of his time away from home, presumably exploring the mining opportunities in northern Alberta and B.C. At least that’s what we were always told as part of the “romantic adventurer” myth.

Harry’s trail goes cold in 1927. Family lore has it that he left when my father was 5, which was in 1931.

For us, his grandchildren, it’s an unsatisfactory story on all fronts. Rather than being descendants of the great Murrays of Scotland and heirs to the Dukes of Atholl, as my brother likes to think, we apparently come from a long line of morally flexible, scrappy miners, con men and boarding-house operators, albeit with strong survival skills.

I guess the moral is this: If you want to believe you are descended from dukes, don’t look too deeply into historical records. Those dry logs of births, marriages, migrations and deaths may tell a story you don’t want to know.

Despite it all, I am rather excited by the fact that Harry was a cad and that his parents were likely not much to write home about either. It explains a lot about Harry’s son, my father, and about how history, through our genetic destiny, repeats itself. But that’s a story for another day.

Allison Murray lives in Toronto.

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