Sunday, August 26, 2018

My Brother's Picture On The Wall

Today's blog is personal.  Very personal.  I am, however, blessed to be able to share this personal story with my friends, family, and the world!  If you share a tear with me, please let it be a tear of joy.

My father, Lloyd Irvin Bradford, Sr. (also known as "Brad") grew up during the Great Depression in rural Boone County, Kentucky.  He was the son of a farmer's son turned truck driver (Russell Bradford); his mother was an irresponsibly wild woman named Emma Irvin.  His early years were marked by absolute poverty and abuse from his heavy-drinking parents.  Emma left the family sometime around 1933, after the birth of their youngest child.  My father, about 10 years old, was given the task of taking care of his four younger siblings, two of them still in diapers.  Russell was mean and abusive, while Emma was cruelly absent.  The 1940 census found my father, tired of being beaten and going to bed hungry, living at the Kenton County Infirmary ... otherwise known as the "poor house."  In 1941, prior to his 17th birthday, Emma falsified documents claiming that he was born in 1922, making him old enough to fraudulently enlist in the Army.  Three square meals a day, a warm place to sleep, new clothes, two pair of boots, and $21 a month made that the best living he had known up to that point in his young life.

After serving with a coastal artillery unit protecting the Panama Canal, he was reassigned in 1944 to Ft. Knox, Kentucky.  This assignment, only two hours away from his family, gave him the opportunity to go back home on occasion where he met and married a local girl four years younger than he was.  They had a son, Thomas William Bradford, and were divorced six months after Tom's birth in 1945.  My father remained in the Army, where he found guidance and security, and did not see his son for about 10 years due to several overseas deployments and hard feelings between him and his former wife.

In 1955, my father returned from assignment in Germany to Kentucky.  He had been corresponding with my mother while overseas, and once he was back in the states they became engaged.  Tom was living with his maternal grandparents, who had in the past allowed limited contact between Tom and our father.  My parents took Tom out for lunch and a movie one day.  Tom's mother found out about it and cut off all further contact.  Tom's grandmother had given my folks a school picture of Tom from when he was about 10 years old.  I recall him looking upward in the photo, with his hands clasped together as if in prayer.  My parents called him "Tommy" and I, like most little brothers, looked up to my "big brother," even though we had never met.

I grew up with my brother's picture on the wall in our living room.  My father's Army career had us moving around every few years.  Tommy always "moved" with us, and "hung out" in the living room with the rest of us.  Pictures of my younger sister and I always hung on the wall next to Tommy.

"Mom," I asked, "Why doesn't Tommy live with us?"

"He lives in Kentucky with his Mommy," she would reply.

"Can we see him when we go to Kentucky?"

"Maybe someday," she would say, "maybe someday."

There reached a point where my sister and I were older than Tommy was in his picture.  Finally, after one move, my parents put his picture away.  Letters from my father to Tommy were long since returned by the Post Office, unopened and refused by his mother and grandparents.  My father must have thought it was a lost cause, and that he would never have contact with his oldest child ever again.

Over the years, Tommy was mentioned in casual conversation, usually around the holidays.  My parents held hope that he knew how to contact my grandfather Bradford in Kentucky and would someday get in touch with us.  Once Grandpa retired, moved to Florida, and passed away that hope was lost.

In 2013, my father lay dying in a hospital in Spring Hill, Florida.  When I arrived at the hospital, he was barely responsive and drifted into a coma shortly afterward.  Later that evening, as I was holding his hand and having my last chat with him, I told him that it was ok for him to go ... and that heaven was waiting for him.  I promised that I would look after Mother and my sister Gayle, and that I would keep looking for Tommy.

After his death, I was going through some of my father's old legal papers, and discovered the maiden name of his first wife and who her parents were.  I added them to my family history research project on Ancestry.com.  In late July, 2018, I received a notification from Ancestry that there were information matches regarding Tommy's maternal grandfather.  This lead me to other family trees that the grandfather was on, and upon further investigation I found not only my father, but Tommy listed on two related trees as well!

I now knew that he had taken his step-father's last name.  I knew he married and had children.  One of the related Ancestry trees belongs to his nephew.  I also found Facebook pages belonging to both Tom and his nephew.  His friends call him Tom.  The nephew was friends with a family reunion page.  I sent messages to both the nephew and the family reunion page.  The reunion page wanted to know who I was and how I was related to their Tom!

Tom's cousin, the reunion organizer, sent a message to Tom's younger brother, who wrote me back and said he would pass along my contact information.  Two days later, I received an email from my brother, Tom.  Yes, I finally found him ... he's alive, and has had a good life with a wife of 47 years, two sons, and three grandchildren!  I also heard from the nephew, who told me that I had definitely found my brother and that he too would contact him for me.

We did it, Pappy ... we finally found Tommy!  But, just like the car-chasing dog who finally caught one I have to ask myself, "now what do I do with it?"  I couldn't help but have the fear that he did not want to be found ... and vowed that if that were the case, I at least could know he was alive and had what appeared to be a good life.

Tom and I have since exchanged email and pictures.  We still don't know what our relationship will become, but the subject line of his last email to me read "Brother to Brother" so I hope we can build from that!

Tom makes the second long-lost family member that the Internet has helped me locate over the past five years, the first being my cousin Rob on my mother's side.  Both Rob and Tom were raised by their respective step-fathers, and grew up to have good lives.

Pappy never did understand my fascination with computers, but I can see him grinning from ear to ear right about now!

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