Everyone loves a mystery. They’ve kept everyone from Arthur Conan Doyle to Sue Grafton in spending money.
But no one loves a mystery in the same way that genealogists do. That was one of many discoveries relating to my column of two weeks ago about a Christmas mystery. My inbox has been awash ever since with messages from genealogy buffs itching to solve it.
For those who missed the first column, the mystery’s subject was a man who showed up on my family’s porch each year during the Christmases of my youth. Well dressed and distinguished looking, he would hand me a gift, say it was for my sister and leave me wondering who he was. I was halfway through my teens before learning that my parents had been married before and that my sister was actually my half sister. The mysterious caller was her father.
Over time, I learned a little about him. His name (or so I thought) was Ben Coppes. My mother said he had worked at Hannifin’s Cigar Store in Downtown Boise. And, obviously, they had divorced. But who was he besides a guy who worked at a cigar store and came bearing gifts at Christmastime? What was his relationship with my mother like, and why hadn’t their marriage worked out?
That brings us to the genealogy buffs, who seized upon the puzzle like a dog on a bone. The first thing I learned from them was that I was spelling the mystery caller’s name wrong. It was Ben Koppes, not Coppes.
The subsequent plunge into genealogical websites, old newspaper clippings and public records revealed things about my mother that I never suspected. To understand how surprising some of them were, you need to know a little about her.
Born Marguerite O’Leary in 1913, she was the youngest of three children in a staunchly conservative family. The O’Learys were hard-line, old-school Catholics, which my mother remained until her death at 92. Appearances and propriety counted for a lot with her. She would sooner have swallowed lug nuts than broken a tenet of her faith or done anything remotely scandalous.
I was 16 when she sat me down and told me that she was married and divorced before marrying my father. She added that she married young the first time but didn’t say how young. Now I know that she was just 17. It’s not hard to imagine how the proper, straight-laced O’Learys would have reacted to their youngest child and only daughter marrying a man three years her senior while she was still in high school.
Christmas mystery? She and Koppes were married on Dec. 25, 1930 — Christmas Day. Though both lived in North Boise, they drove to Canyon County for the ceremony.
Why? At 17, she would have had to have her parents’ permission to marry, and the answer almost certainly would have been no. Did they elope?
Another surprise: On her 1940 census questionnaire — she’d have been 27 then — she wrote that she had completed two years of high school. In all the decades I knew her, she never once mentioned that she didn’t graduate.
She and Koppes were divorced on Jan. 14, 1941. By then, according to the 1940 census records, they had been separated for nearly a year. She sued on grounds of desertion and was awarded custody of their 3-year-old daughter and $35 a month alimony.
Koppes remarried just six months later; my mother nine months later. Census records show that she’d been working in Boise as a “saleslady” at a department store. But her and my father’s marriage license lists her place of residence as Portland.
Portland? She never got around to mentioning that, either.
Wherever she was living, it’s not difficult to imagine her predicament — a newly single mother trying to support a child on a saleslady’s salary. Her 1939 income, including sales commissions, was $810. My father, himself recently divorced, may well have struck her as a shining knight in businessman’s armor.
Thanks to the genealogy buffs — particularly the dogged efforts of Boisean Julie Gustavel Johnson — I now know more about my family’s Christmas visitor. He was born in Centerville and lost his father, who was killed in a fall from a horse, at age 5. He served in Italy during World War II. He managed the Bouquet Cigar Store (not Hannifin’s) for over 30 years, was secretary of the local Bartenders and Culinary Workers Union and worked for the state as manager of its liquor warehouse. He and his second wife raised two sons, one of whom I was able to reach. Jim Koppes, of Hermiston, Ore., remembered his father as “likable and easygoing” but knew as little as I did about his first marriage.
“He was a very private person,” Jim Koppes said.
Ben Koppes died in 1970 and is buried at Dry Creek Cemetery.
So, while the mystery of the Christmas caller is solved, the old records uncovered new mysteries about my mother. Why did she marry so young — on Christmas Day — almost certainly against the wishes of her family? And why didn’t she finish high school? The easy answer is that she was pregnant. But my half sister wasn’t born for another six years. It’s possible our mother lost a baby in her teens, but I’d rather not think that.
And why did she and her first husband remarry so quickly after their divorce — less than a year for both of them? Were they already seeing their future spouses? Was that the reason for the divorce?
I’d rather not think that, either. The mother I knew was an exemplary role model and a paragon of propriety. Her old-school parents would have been proud of the way she lived her life and raised her children. I’ll always think of her with respect and affection, regardless of what did or didn’t happen in her early years.
It’s best that some mysteries remain mysteries.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at email@example.com