At Play In The Archive
I begin with a mystery: Who is this woman?
I can tell you who she is not. She is not my grandmother. The baby-faced guy on the left is my grandfather, my own dear Papa Bob, Robert Lessiack. The pretty lady wearing a wedding band and pointing to a wedding band on Papa Bob’s hand? No clue.
I found this photo among my great-grandfather Leo Lessiack’s things. He and my great-grandmother Margaret would have been waiting and worrying back in Bogota, NJ while Bob, their only child, was off braving WWII in the Pacific. This photo looks designed to say, “Hey, Mom and Dad, she’s great, you’ll love her!” Bob doesn’t look like he’s in any danger here, thank goodness. He just looks, well, married. And no one in the family–who is still alive–knows who the mystery wife is.
Here’s another shot of Papa Bob and the mystery wife. Because of the folder in which the photo was stored, I know where this one was taken:
Again, the wedding-banded hand is carefully placed for the camera to see, and the happy couple looks very much in love. I know that Papa Bob, a USMCR officer, was stationed at Quantico, VA for a time before he shipped out to the Pacific, and thanks to Google, I was able to learn that Norfolk is about three hours away from Quantico by car (though maybe people drove a little slower back then).
The Starlight Room no longer exists, because, according to HMDB.org, the Monticello Hotel was, “the first building in Norfolk to be imploded in January 1976 to make way for the Norfolk Federal building now on this site.” That’s sad. The fresh manicure, corsage, and carefully set hairdo indicate a special occasion, and clearly, some good times were had there.
Here’s one more of the mystery wife and my Grandfather:
The attentive will notice that the dress she is wearing is different, but that the lattice work on the walls behind them, and the white flower in her hair are the same as in the Starlight Room photo. And, he is definitely wearing a wedding ring. Same place, different night? Could this be a honeymoon?
Along with the apparent honeymoon photos, I found several other photos of my Papa Bob’s mystery sweetheart. Here is one:
There are lots of clues to explore here. Thanks to Blitzkrieg Baby, I discovered that the mystery lady belonged to the Navy Nurse Corps. Her rank here appears to be Ensign, and her shoulder boards definitely have the Navy Nurse Corps insignia. More research on the uniform reveals that she is wearing the “new” style uniform, which was revised in 1944. Papa Bob married my grandmother in November of 1945, so what happened to this lady?
I can only surmise that the war separated them for a time, because I later came across several more photos of her, some with captions written on the back, as if they might have been included in letters.
In spite of the obvious wedding bands in the Monticello photos, they might not have actually been married. It turns out that the Navy Nurse Corps had pretty strict rules about marriage. From womensmemorial.org, I learned that:
“Marriage policy, however, was not as liberal or forgiving for women who served in the Navy Nurse Corps. Until nearly the end of the war, strict adherence to the no-marriage policy remained in effect for nurses. In fact, if a Navy nurse married, it was grounds for immediate discharge. Finally in January 1945, the Navy found it necessary to suspend its marriage ban for nurses and also offered reappointment of nurses who previously left the service. The repealed marriage ban was short lived. By November that same year, navy nurses were again prohibited from marrying while in service.”
Maybe they were only engaged, in the official sense. He is clearly wearing a ring in the Monticello pictures, but it would not be out of character for him to mark himself as committed. I found no writings on this matter among the many family papers I have, so the mystery remains.
As Mom, Grace, and I sorted through box after folder after envelope of mixed up photos, we came across a few more precious shots of the mystery wife. One of them revealed her name.
Robert, of course, is my grandfather, Robert Lessiack. The message was written on the back of this photo:
I was not able to discover anything about the uniform she’s wearing, but based on the insignia on the sleeve, I’m assuming it was a uniform. All of her other uniforms definitely belong to the Navy Nurse Corps, and the shoes look like the regulation Navy Nurse Corps white oxford shoes described on Blitzkrieg Baby.
But, ohmigosh, we had a name! Dorrie. And she had sweet, schoolgirlish handwriting with circles for dots and lots of exclamation points. Suddenly, she was alive for us, and we could just picture my Grandfather eagerly awaiting the mail call and pouncing on the pictures as they came in. Mom, Grace, and I went nuts trying to come up with possibilities for her first name: Dorothy? Eudora? Isadora? Doris? Dorothea?
Here’s another shot of Dorrie (with enthusiastic message on the back):
Whoo hoo! A pinup shot. Not hard to imagine Papa Bob being cheered up by that one. Here’s another bathing suit shot, this one labeled Atlantic City, May 1944:
And, here is another one with a clue written on the back: Anchors Aweigh! At Overbrook, April 1944. I couldn’t scan the back of the picture without bending it, so you’ll have to take my word for it.
I think that sounds like something a Navy nurse would say, but I’ve been unable to discover where Overbrook is or how it relates to the Navy Nurse Corps.
Here are a few more:
Isn’t she a peach?
Who knows–it’s possible that the mysterious Dorrie was a high school or college sweetheart, but I have been unable to locate her in any of the Bucknell yearbooks I’ve seen. Here is my Papa Bob (on the right) on the day of his graduation from Bucknell University in May of 1942.
Underneath the gowns, these boys were wearing some pretty snappy suits (Papa Bob second from the left):
I was surprised to learn that my Grandfather was president of a fraternity at Bucknell, because he was not exactly the frat boy type. But, then I read up on the fraternity. It turned out to be Delta Phi Alpha, the national honorary German fraternity. Only students who achieved high scholastic standing in their study of German were named members; that would definitely be in character for Papa Bob, who was the child of German/Austrian immigrants, and who traveled the world on the Hamburg Amerika line with my Great-grandpa Leo, who worked for HAPAG for many years. His yearbook profile revealed other fun tidbits, but I’ll save those for another time.
According to newspaper clippings I found among my Great-grandpa Leo’s things–some with carefully penciled-in corrections–Papa Bob graduated from Bogota High School in 1938, and Bucknell University in 1942. He enlisted straight out of college, attended Officer Candidate School in Quantico, VA, and was a member of the 12th ROC of the Marine Corps School. He was commissioned in September of 1942, and left for overseas duty in December of 1942.
How my Great-grandparents could bear to see their studious, baby-faced only son march off to war, I will never know. Those must have been dark and anxious days, and their collective sense of duty to their adopted country must have been very strong.
What is clear is that Papa Bob and Dorrie visited my Great-grandparents Leo and Margaret Lessiack, at some point. My mom recognizes the striped awning in the photo below as belonging to Leo and Margaret’s house on Queen Anne Road in Bogota, NJ.
So, Papa Bob brought his sweetheart home, and the occasion was well-documented, photographically speaking. Alas, these photos are undated and there were no notes on the back. By the looks of the man in the bathrobe, however, this shot was taken in the morning. The flowers (both the ones Dorrie is holding and the ones on the trellises) are such a nice touch.
Here are a few more, taken at Asbury Park Boardwalk (the Paramount Theatre in the background was very helpful in identifying the location). A quick check reveals that this location was approximately an hour and half from my Great-grandparents’ home in Bogota. More recently, Asbury Park boardwalk took quite a hit from Hurricane Sandy, but it looks like it has now reopened.
Looks like a beautiful day on the boardwalk, smiles all around.
And then, poof, the trail goes cold. I couldn’t discover anything more about her. It’s maddening. What I do know is that Papa Bob ended up in the Panama Canal Zone at the end of the war, where he met and married my Grandmother, Katherine Adams, on November 29, 1945. I even have the original “permission to marry” letter from his CO for that union.
Here are my two current theories about what might have happened with Dorrie:
Maybe Dorrie dumped him. This is hard to imagine–he was damn near perfect–but then again, the experience of WWII must have been surreal. Perhaps the pressure of being separated for so long and under such harrowing circumstances was too much for them. There is also the matter of the NNC marriage rules, which might mean that their connection was less official than marriage.
Maybe Dorrie was killed or went missing in action. I checked through some relevant casualty lists, but without a real first name or any last name at all, it’s tough. I do feel reasonably confident in presuming that she wasn’t one of the Angels of Bataan. There were two “Dor”‘s in that bunch: Dorothy Still Terrill and Dorris M. Yetter, but they cannot be our girl because the timing doesn’t match up. We know that our Dorrie was alive and well in April and May of 1944.
All of the old photos and papers that prompted this exploration came from my Grandmother Kathi’s house. She passed away in the former Panama Canal Zone where she had had grown up, and where she had been living with my Mom for more than a year. Ill health left her unable to continue living alone, so Mom bundled her off to Panama and left the house in Texas (where Grandma Kathi and Papa Bob retired from the Canal Zone in the late 1970’s) to deal with later. After Grandma Kathi died, the family converged on the house to help clear it out and ready it for sale.
Grandma Kathi kept everything. I mean everything. The cleanup crew had many slightly panicky laughs about the closets, drawers, boxes full of everythingness. Many under-the-breath resolutions about clearing clutter in our own houses were sworn that day, but oh my goodness, there were some treasures buried in all that stuff. I found every card and letter I had written to Grandma as a child, artwork, photos, and all manner of programs from school events. It was moving to encounter artifacts of an earlier self, and to ponder the tender heart that had saved them all. In life, she was sometimes crabby to the people around her, but there is no disputing that she loved deeply and long.
Some of what we found belonged to Grandma Kathi’s mother, my Great-grandmother Mama Helen, and to my Great-grandpa Leo, Papa Bob’s father. It was among Leo’s things that we found the Mystery Wife pictures, but it wasn’t until almost a year later when I was back in California that I could sort through the jumble of boxes and trunks to discover more clues.
Mom was here from Panama for a visit in the summer of 2013, and trying to solve the mystery wife puzzle dominated our time together. Grace caught the bug too and we spent many hours Googling for clues and offering up possible narratives for what might have happened.
My mom was gobsmacked by the fact that her dad had not ever mentioned this lady, and that the relationship must have occurred not long before he met and married my Grandma Kathi in the Canal Zone in November of 1945. Neither of us had any trouble imagining that, if Grandma Kathi had known about Bob’s prior relationship, she would have icily shut down any discussion of it with something like, “I don’t ever want to hear that woman’s name mentioned.” This was so easy to imagine that Mom and I had a good, if somewhat wistful, laugh about it.
My Mom called my Great-aunt Katy Adams–my Grandma Kathi’s sister-in-law, and the only relative of that generation left on that side of the family–on the very long-shot that she might know something about the mystery lady, but… “Bob?!? Really?!?” So, no luck there.
Then again, Mom said that Papa Bob never talked about his WWII experiences, fending off questions until eventually people just stopped asking. That chapter was closed, as far as he was concerned. Papa Bob was famous for his devotion to Grandma Kathi, so the idea that he might have suffered the tragic loss of a previous love both intrigued and disturbed us. I was too young when Papa Bob died to be interested in such ancient history, but boy, I sure am interested now.
By the way, hats off to the brave Angels of Bataan of the Army and Navy Nurse Corps . If you’re ever feeling sorry for yourself, spend 27 minutes with this: https://archive.org/details/WeAllCameHome. Jeebers. It’s no wonder my Grandpa didn’t want to talk about it.
By the way, my new-found clutter-clearing religion (but not the photos, or the papers, or… oh, damn…) is not going so well.