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Two years before my father died, he told me a story he’d never breathed a word of before. I was in my mid-thirties and his words changed my life.
The story he told me was one he never uttered. It concerned his parents. His father died before I was born so I never knew him and I hadn't given my paternal grandfather's absence much thought at all.
He revealed to me that his mother, Edna Hetler, never told him who his father was. The subject of his lineage was taboo, and a closely kept secret. His whole life, he imagined that someday his father would come to claim him. Every birthday, every Christmas, he hoped his father would walk in with gifts and a welcoming smile. My father waited his entire childhood for a father and none ever came.
On her deathbed in the 1970s, my father pressed Edna to reveal his father’s name. She gave him the name of Thomas Flanagan, her ex-husband. Hopeful, my father looked the man up and learned that Thomas died twenty years prior. The death certificate and obituary did not list my father as next of kin. Thomas never knew he had a son.
Upon learning this, I decided I didn’t want to carry the legacy of secrecy and lies that the name Flanagan represented. I felt no affinity to my last name, Flanagan, and I didn’t believe that Edna would keep a secret like that her whole life and then suddenly tell the truth on her deathbed. I had known her as a child and she was a stubborn old bird. None of it made any sense. There were missing pieces of information, and I wanted nothing to do with the legacy of secrecy and lies. Besides, I always hated hearing, saying, or writing my last name of Flanagan. It never felt right and now at least my feelings made sense. I felt no connection to the name because there was none.
After my father died, I changed my name from Marilyn Paige Flanagan to Marilyn Heywood Paige. I took my father’s first name as my middle name to honor him, but I dropped Flanagan like a bad habit. My new name fit me and made me feel my identity more powerfully.
Some time last year, my brother and sister both got DNA tests and through the database they learned we have cousins from my father’s side and they are not Flanagans. Flanagan was not our grandfather. Our grandfather was a man named George Doerr. He produced several children outside of his two marriages, my father being one of them.
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