Friday, October 26, 2012

The Greatest Gift

By Kim

Robert Ahrens and Mildred
I am currently in that no-man’s land called Between Books. My editing is done, the synopsis and query letters are written and have been sent out. Now I wait and try to figure out what to do next. I have a solid idea for the next novel which I have not yet started, hoping I will soon receive “the call” and be thrust me back into a story that still won’t let me go.

Perhaps it is because I live with constant reminders around me—paintings, photographs, Madonna’s bracelet, my daughter’s miniature “Carl feet” and even my own reflection. Perhaps it is because people regularly contact me to add their Ahrens work to my catalog.

Occasionally I receive an e-mail that reminds me of the greatest gift that writing The Oak Lovers has given me. It’s not dreams of fame or fortune, which would be nice, but have nothing to do with why I write. It’s not simply about restoring my great-grandfather’s legacy, much as I hope to do so. No, the greatest gift is that a century-old family rift has been mended. I'm an only child and don’t have a big family, so I cherish any new relatives I can find.

Emily Ahrens
My grandmother grew up knowing her father had another wife before meeting her mother. The topic was not openly discussed, but it was certainly not a secret in her generation or my father’s. I always knew about the family scandal, but did not learn the name of Carl’s other wife and children until I read Madonna’s memoirs as an adult. Names were all she gave.

Inside one of my late grandmother’s scrapbooks I discovered a photocopied letter addressed to “Kim” from “Grandpa Ahrens.” It was about living on an Ojibwa reservation as a child and could only have been written by one of the sons from Carl’s first marriage. Where had it come from? There was no envelope. No clues. My aunts knew nothing about it.

Martha McGowan, Kitty Turgeon, Kim, and Janice McDuffie
Years later, while researching Carl’s file in the local history room of the public library in Kitchener, Ontario, I found a letter. It was written by a woman named Martha McGowan and asked for information about her ancestor, Carl Ahrens. A simple Yahoo people search led me to my half second cousin. It turned out she had found my grandmother in the early 80s and had a brief correspondence with her. She had also forwarded along the mystery letter, originally written to a cousin of hers who shares my name.

Martha and I decided that a century was quite long enough for the two halves of the family to have been kept apart, and we agreed to meet at the Roycroft campus in East Aurora, New York. The very same place where Carl met my great-grandmother and eventually left Martha’s. We laughed about the irony of the situation. About a year later we met again, along with Martha’s mother, a granddaughter of Carl and Emily, at an exhibition of Carl’s work in Ontario.

This week I've had the pleasure of corresponding with the very same Kim who received the mystery letter from “Grandpa Ahrens” when she was in 6th grade. She has showered me with photographs of a family I never thought I would get the chance to know. It has been Christmas in October.

The biggest treasure arrived in my inbox this morning – the only known photograph that includes Carl and Emily. It was most likely taken as the basis of a painting to be done by Canadian artist George Reid, a friend of Carl’s. Reid is the man seated backwards in the chair. Emily kneels on the floor hunched with two children and seemingly crying. The boy peeking through the chair is Carl and Emily’s son, Robert. Carl is the hunched figure in the background. If you look close, you can see he leans heavily on a cane. He, too, appears to be grieving. What is especially haunting about this pose is that it is a metaphor for his first marriage. Emily, a maternal woman, sheltering their children and keeping her back to the invalid in the corner. The man who has disappointed her for years. Even more telling is that there is someone sitting between them.

Thanks to the internet, chance, curiosity, and a century of time for old wounds to smooth over, you would barely notice a scar where the family rift used to be.  A tremendous gift indeed!

Update: I have just learned that the photograph isn't a photograph, but rather an image of a completed painting by George A. Reid called "Family Prayer." It is one of his best known works and hung in the Salon in Paris in the 1890's. This explains why Carl, who was only 26 at the time, appears to have white hair. Reid could have used his frail build as the basis for an old man and changed his hair color. 


  1. B. Mitchell26 October, 2012

    Yes, Kim, this is a very special blog and described in a very heartfelt way.

    My biggest congratulations to you for accomplishing this link, this reunion of your
    extended family. What a feeling of satisfaction for you!!

    For me as an art historian I was gripped by the discovery of the photo Reid used for
    the composition of his famous painting, and to see the photo almost in the flesh was
    simply awesome for me.

    How exciting all your discoveries are!
    Well done Kim!!!

  2. This is a heartbreaking picture. I have mixed feelings about Carl and Emily's situation, because I don't know if it is possible to know why their marriage broke down. I have to be grateful on a certain level that he met Madonna, since I am a product of their union. The degradation of a marriage is beyond heartbreaking and the destruction reverberates through many generations. I hope they all found peace and I hope Carl reconciled with his children from his first marriage.

    Thank you for posting this. Even if the schism produced by this situation was never healed, future generations can heal what was once broken on a certain level

  3. Continued from last post...

    By the way, I read all of your posts, whether you send me info about them via email or not. I am glad you are doing well and I look forward to hearing more about your next book as well.

    K. Nunez

  4. Hi Katrina,

    We will never know what broke Carl and Emily apart for certain, but yes, I have to be grateful, too. There are a lot of descendants from the second marriage, including the two of us, that wouldn't be here otherwise.

    I have been greatly enjoying my correspondence with our "new" cousin. She was very moved by this post. We've been swapping photos and stories all day.

  5. Hi Barb,

    Well, I have since learned from the other Kim that the image is not a photograph but rather a print of the original painting. This may explain the white hair on the man who had to have been Carl. He was only about 26 at the time! George Reid could have used the image of Carl's frail body and made him old because you can't see his face anyway.


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