One day in the early 1980s, a man showed up at the entrance to Myrtle Beach Air Force Base and asked to see my father, the base’s deputy commander.
It was his father, Francis B. Kelly, a man he hadn’t seen in decades.
I would like to say that it was a Hollywood reunion, the tearful father and son falling into each other’s arms.
But it wasn’t. There was too much hurt there. Francis, my grandfather, had come because he realized he was developing Alzheimer’s and he wanted to see his son while he was still some semblance of himself.
I imagine my father was polite but businesslike, a bit impatient, as he can get. Francis had abandoned the family when my father was a boy, and a surprise visit wasn’t going to erase that fact, no matter how much contrition was involved. They spoke for an hour, then Francis left, helped by his wife, the woman he’d married after he and my grandmother divorced.
In the 1940s, to be divorced was to be disgraced, especially if you were Catholic and lived in D.C.’s Brookland neighborhood. It was a tightly knit enclave — Irish and Italian, mainly — where life revolved around Catholic University and the many religious orders whose members glided along the sidewalks in cassock and habit.
That’s where both of my parents grew up. My mother’s family, the Spillanes (eight kids), lived on 12th Street NE, my father’s (four kids) on Otis Street, around the corner from the Franciscan Monastery.
It was a neighborhood my parents couldn’t wait to escape.
To be honest, whenever we visited Washington from my father’s various Air Force postings, I never thought of my missing grandfather. However much his absence may have figured in my father’s thoughts, he was nowhere in mine.
And then, last Christmas, my father handed me a pile of yellowing ephemera: diplomas, military paperwork, commendations, newspaper clippings, a tattered photo album. It was the history — one, anyway — of Francis Bernard Kelly.
“Maybe there’s something here for you,” my father said. “I haven’t really looked at it.”
Here was a letter Francis wrote to fellow members of the Delta Tau fraternity at Montana State College in Bozeman. (“Have at least four representatives at every college function whether it be a tea, a dance or an infant inspection.”) Here was his 1927 diploma from MSC. Here was his 1940 commission in the Naval Reserve and his 1942 commission as a lieutenant commander in the Navy’s civil engineer corps.
And here were dozens of black-and-white photographs affixed to stiff black paper and captioned with white ink:
“Down the Grade,” under a photo of someone on cross-country skis. “Fair Co-Eds,” under a photo of four tennis racket-wielding young women in a homecoming parade. “M.S.C. Campus,” under a tree-lined road leading to a distant mountain ridge.
Someone had slid a piece of paper under a photo captioned “Rookie & Dol.” Written on it in blue ballpoint was, “The two nurses who took care of your father when the horse rolled on his leg and broke it.”
The same handwriting had inked “Your father” and “Dad” on every photo that included a dark-haired, jug-eared man: Francis Kelly. The handwriting belonged, I surmised, to his second wife. Her only child with my grandfather, the story went, had been killed in an accident. Perhaps she thought someone should be the repository of Kelly family history, as fractious as it was. It ended up with my aunt, who gave it to my father, who gave it to me.
Every now and then, I pull the album down and pore over the photos, wondering at the narrative in each one. Who is the pretty girl named Violet who pops up again and again? Who is the man in a white tie captioned “The Great Gusto”? Why Montana?
I’m connected to these people somehow, but their stories are as mysterious to me as a stranger’s.
I sometimes feel myself oppressed by the weight of the past. What difference does our fleeting turn upon the stage make? My grandfather has been dead some 30 years. If I consign his papers to the fire, will he ever have existed at all?
But then I think: My father had only his father’s name. I have my father’s name and his love. That gift from parent to child — from person to person — must be our greatest legacy, a hopeful bulwark against our pitiless, inevitable mortality.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.