My Mother’s Marriage License

The water poured from a burst pipe for days before we discovered what had happened during the coldest day of 2017. As soon as I could drive from Chicago to Hamtramck, I set about surveying the damage. The first thing I thought of was my mother’s old cedar chest, one of her prized possessions from her married life, when she was trapped in an unfulfilling marriage and longing for children and a home of her own, before I was born.

The chest stood at the foot of her bed, below the collapsed ceiling and the soaked mattress that we dragged to the alley for trash pick-up. It was like walking into a house damaged by a hurricane. Water-soaked carpets, bubbled and sagging drywall, beams and studs exposed, floors buckling. The varnish on the top of the chest was bubbled and drying into corn-flakelike pieces, but when I opened it, the contents were completely dry. The documents, the pictures, scrapbooks, and even old address books, all in tact dry as parchment.

A small gold box two and a quarter by two and three quarters with a snap lid; inside: ” These precious photos are my valued treasures if lost please return to Lucia Kniffel, 66692 Van Dyke, Romeo, MI 48065. Seven photos: Her last companion’s nephew David Eastwood, a photo booth shot of the love of her life Chester “Chuck” Kuffel of Hamtramck, a photo portrait of her mother commissioned by her sister Agnes (Brodacki) Pavlik, and on the reverse a smiley photo of her nephew John with his first wife Sherry, school photo of her grand-niece Carrie, a yellowed and faded shot of me, her son, me at age 4 taken in the backyard of Chuck’s mother’s house in Hamtramck pointing to a flower, and her beloved sister Mary’s daughter Barbara as a very young woman. This little case lay next to the photos I remember pulling from her wallet after she died in 1996.

I no longer feel sad or sorry when I look at these photos, as I did in 1996, when I put them away for fear that looking at them would bring on the demons that drive me down and down into a well of loneliness from which I could never claw my way back. Those wallet photos: a series of me–at two or so in the most perfect little 1949 baby suit and cap, then innocent and prepubescent at eleven (“to my mother from son Leonard 1958”), then miserable and acne covered at perhaps fourteen, then the touched up high school graduation photo all blonde with my hair tugged straight in defiance of the natural waves with which I was blessed, and then the 1974 college graduation already hippy-fied with long unruly sideburns and a pitiful moustache. and last in the row of plastic pockets, Mary Jane “’51” her beloved sister in a gorgeous studio portrait, her teeth sparkling white, her hair in the 1940s style she sported for most of her life; a high school graduation photo of her niece (“Margie 1965 graduation” and in Margie’s handwriting “Margie Misiuk 1965”), her godchild Cynthia in her nursing cap (“Aunt Lucy–my Godmother, Love Cynthia Ann 1968”) a high school graduation portrait of her other godchild Suzanne a childhood photograph and behind it a clipping from an unidentified newspaper story titled “This Week’s Working Girl Cindy Williams,” newly graduated from “Mercy School of Mercy in Detroit” “nursing supervisor at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Pontiac.” “She enjoys tennis, skiing, motorcycling and baseball.” There is another of Cindy with her three children, “March 1984.” And there is one more, tucked away, “to Aunt Lucy, Barb Brodacki 1981, brother Hank’s daughter graduating from high school.

My mother had another gallery and photo albums with carefully collected photos, which she sometimes switched out, photos of all the other nieces and nephews, all 21 of them, each as valuable as the next. The only judgement: the more trouble they got into, the more they messed up, the more she loved them; Gary and Connie, Billy and Patty, loved them and held them as her own flesh and blood.

My high school graduation picture, the one in her wallet was inscribed on the back with some stupidity that now shows me how vapid I was at that age, this to the very mother who suffered so much to bring me into this world, then so much more to protect me from it: “1966 something funny and something nice and the year too! M-O-T-H-E-R (never an original idea in my head, no doubt I had seen this on a card or in a song “M is for the many things she gave me…”) So mine read: M-the many things she gave me, O-old wind bag, T-tight as a Scot, H-heavier she’s gettin’, E-extreme nausea (a sophomoric phrase I used to amuse my classmates), R-rotten baby rat fink (ditto), then “put them all together they spell mother, a word that means wow to me. So passively hostile, all about the anger and confusion that cluttered my developing teenage brain.

There is her passport, issued in 1988, and she looked so young, so innocent, that sweet “don’t think badly of me” smile, those glasses that predated the gaucolma destruction of her lifelong 20-20 vision, the olive skin so blemish-free. Issued in Chicago, where I lived ever to regret having abandoned her, leaving her to the care of a man-child. Her name, Lucia, was long ago formally changed in her vital records with the help of my determined ineptitude, when I had not yet learned or observed that the name given to her by her tyrannical father was the Polish Łucja, Lucy, pronounced “Woots-yuh.” And there among those pathetic remains is her marriage license.

Number 18475 it says, Marriage License, Macomb County, Michigan, 1936, and all the information is available on Ancestry.com. Reading it is a lesson in the unreliability of public records and an example of how legal marriage worked in the good old days. Not so good.

The document is riddled with errors, among them:

My mother’s name is given as Miss Lucille Debracki (her name on her birth certificate is Łucja Brodacki, in English Lucy or Lucia).
John Kniffel states that he was 30 years old. He was in fact born in 1904, which made him 32 in 1936, almost twice her age.
His father’s name is given as Roy Kniffel, on his father’s tombstone he is Roch Kniffel. His mother’s maiden name is given as Pauline Broski (other sources say it was Borowski). On their gravestones, their name is spelled Kneffel.
Lucille Debracki is said to be 18 years old. On the date of the certificate, 11 July 1936, she was 17, having celebrated her birthday on April 3.
My mother’s father is listed as Anthony Debracki (his name was Brodacki).
My mother’s mother’s maiden name is given as Mary Lutki (it was Helena Bryszkiewska).
The county seal is glued over the section that states that “in case she has not attained the age of eighteen years,” “consent has been filed in my office.” No parent or guardian’s name if entered in the line of consent.

Finally, inked onto the Certificate of Marriage are something like these barely legible words: “Validated before Fr. Eld. J. Majeske Mt. Clemens on Sept. 28–36”. This is consistent with my mother’s story that she fell ill shortly after the civil ceremony and while she was hospitalized, a priest was brought in to perform a Catholic marriage ceremony while she was barely coherent. It is that ceremony that rendered her unable to divorce, stuck in a marriage that by all rights might very well have qualified for an annulment.

Also among her things, the “Made in China” little notebook, one third filled with notes–“things of interest”–from our trip to Poland in 1988 just before I left her to live in Chicago. “May 13, 1988 Leonard had a car accident.” The very day we were to leave, I rear-ended a car on the exit ramp off the Lodge freeway and left it for Carl to take care of. The diary of our trip were clearer than mine, the notes of a journalist minus the “impressions.”

There was last of all her bank book. Peoples State Bank, Hamtramck, Mich., No. 112161. July 1 1996, only five months before she died, withdrawal of $100 leaving a balance of $1,771.36, an amount of which she would have been proud.
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