The Long Life of a Dead Father
by Bruno George
No one alive today knows why Jessica Katherine La Fountain, née Shirley, told her son that his father was dead. By the time her son could talk, she had told him again and again that when he was just a year old, his father died in a train wreck. The truth was that she had divorced her husband, not buried him.
It was 1905, and Jessica may have found it easier to live as a widow than as a divorcee, especially with an infant son in tow. The blunt “fact” of her husband’s tragic and violent and obliterative death must have served to ward off questions. Then too, research has not yet turned up legal record of a divorce. Conveniently dead, Moses La Fountain became the far more elegant “Moïse de la Fontaine,” a Frenchified name containing the crucial nobiliary particle “de,” and this Jessica passed on to her son, Clifford Douglas de la Fontaine. He grew up believing he was fatherless.
The death of her husband couldn’t hold Jessica down for long. She was said to be a great beauty, and she reinvented herself again and again, in Maine and New York and California and London, reaching her highest social height when she pitched up in the mid-1920s as the wife of an Army psychiatrist, a man with the rank of colonel.
Douglas was as bold as Jessica. As a boy in Maine, he got it into his head that he could walk across the new-sawn logs floating down the Androscoggin River, just dance on across them like it was nothing. He fell in the icy water and he would have drowned but for a logger, a Native American, who pulled him out by his hair. There were other escapes, too. In 1918, at the age of fourteen, Douglas was living in San Francisco with his mother when he came down with the Spanish flu and was brought to the hospital. It’s said that he woke up in the morgue, shivering with the cold, an unexpected survivor.
There is much more to Douglas’s life story, including a stint as a logger, topping redwoods in California; a shotgun wedding to a San Francisco socialite, Elizabeth “Licky” Finn; three children with her, one of whom Douglas did not acknowledge as his own; a divorce from Licky; and a long journey from California to New York in the company of his best friend, at least part of it spent riding the rails on freight trains. Their arrival in New York was followed by a brief stint as traders on Wall Street, which ended suddenly when the friend let slip that he and Douglas had invented their college degrees out of whole cloth. It all has the sound of legend, and maybe most family stories do, but one has to remember that he was Jessica’s son. All those stories, and the task of puzzling out their quantity of fiction, are for another document. This is about a father who came back from the dead.
In the autumn of 1941, Douglas was a salesman in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, selling White Rock soda to restaurants and bars. By then he had long since divorced the socialite and married Dorothea Van Ronk, my maternal grandmother. They had two daughters, Lorna, the elder, and Susanne, my mother. One day a newspaper story caught Douglas’s eye: in the Adirondack Mountains in New York, the search for a lost hunter had been organized by a ranger named “Moses La Fountain.” This man spelled his name differently, but how many Moses La Fountains could there be? Leaving his daughters in the care of a relative, Douglas bundled his wife into the car and drove to upstate New York.
At this point, the story veers into family legend, which doesn’t mean that it’s untrue, only that the family had its own way of preserving the story, and its ritual of telling it. Douglas showed up on the Adirondack ranger’s doorstep and introduced himself, saying he believed himself to be Moses’s son. Moses said nothing at first, and Douglas added, “That’s my wife, Dot, out there in the car.” Here the storyteller always paused, and then they imitated Moses’s wary question about his son’s wife: “Is she Catholic?” Everyone at the table would break up in laughter, which I enjoyed but found puzzling. I couldn’t understand whether Moses wanted his son’s wife to be Catholic or not. (He did not; she was not.)
Where Moses’s anti-Catholic prejudice came from is unclear. His parents were French Canadian; Had his family been Huguenots? Was it an early twentieth-century prejudice of American whites against darker Southern European immigrants, a way to be whiter than recent arrivals? When the story was told around our table, those contexts were unfamiliar to us, though another way to say this is that whiteness was our element, so much so that others were hard for us to picture. We told the story as if it contained no tension about religion or implied nationality, even though the breaking of that tension brought on our laughter. What the storytellers seemed to like was the long build-up and then the puncturing barb.
Stranger still, the crabbed, mistrustful man who features in this anecdote is not the Moses La Fountain people remembered, not in my family and not in Cranberry Lake, New York, where he was so admired that “he might as well have been the mayor,” my mother says. He was tall and rangy, and his skin tanned deep reddish-brown in the summer; with his craggy, leonine face he looked “like the Indian on the nickel,” according to my mother. When she casually mentioned to a girl in town that Moses La Fountain was her grandfather, the girl shot back, “He is not!” Moses was far too important, too charismatic and elevated, to have so earth-bound and ordinary a grandchild.
For Douglas, the reunion must have been warmer than the story suggests, because within the year he had moved his family to upstate New York to be near his father. The United States had entered World War II by then, but Douglas was old (thirty-seven) and a father of two. He did defense work in a once-abandoned titanium mine in Tahawus, New York, now reopened for wartime production. He wasn’t a pit miner, that my mother recalls, but he wasn’t a manager or an office worker either. Whatever the job was, my mother recalls it involved being out in the raw cold all day. Mornings, he would get up early to chop wood for the family’s only heat source, an iron stove in the living room. The privations of winter in a poorly heated house in the Adirondacks wearied Douglas and his family, and they moved away again with the spring thaw.
That could be the end of the story: discovery, reunion, departure. But the father’s resurrection had an afterlife. Perhaps as a show of divided loyalty, or because his childhood had schooled him in the importance of secrets, for many years Douglas did not tell his mother, Jessica, that he knew the truth, that her dead husband lived. Douglas told his wife and daughters, too, that they must not mention that they knew of the existence of Moses and the hollowness of Jessica’s story, not even when Jessica came to live with them for a time in Somerville, New Jersey. It was during Jessica’s brief stay there that Moses passed away in upstate New York, at age sixty-five, of a heart attack. It had only been four years since his reunion with his son. In Jessica’s presence, no one was allowed to grieve Moses La Fountain or even mention his name. My mother was only ten and she made a slip once, but Jessica was too unaware to catch it.
One day in the 1950s, Douglas and his wife had lunch with Jessica in a fancy restaurant in New York City. By now, the Widow de la Fontaine had married and divorced a second time, and now she was Mrs. Frank Dixon, wife of a man who was both a doctor and an officer. Her legend had always tended toward wealth and status and the veneration of England, though she was from an Anglo-Canadian family of no particular means. She claimed to have grown up on a grand estate in Nova Scotia, attended by servants. This was the Jessica who showed up in the restaurant that day, the grande dame with one husband buried and another on a string. She wore a mink stole, befitting her station in life.
Douglas told his mother he knew. Years before, he had found out that was Moses was alive, and he had gone to see him and even to live near him. Douglas knew, his wife knew, even his daughters knew that she had lied about Moses. And that she had lied about much else besides—he didn’t say that, but she must have realized it.
Jessica rose from her seat, and—but how many people alive today will know what this means?—she thumbed her nose at her son. That is, she placed her thumb on the tip of her nose and she waggled her four fingers. Maybe it was the gravest insult she knew, but I don’t think so; the gesture was contemptuous but also childish, like yelling out “So’s your old man!” on the playground. Fifty years of elegant posturing dropped then and there, and all that was hidden beneath the veneer of the noble de la Fontaines came rushing out. Sometimes what’s kept in darkness withers, though, and in the end her gesture of defiance was a silly one, tinny and ineffectual. As if to regain her status, she flung her mink stole over her shoulder and stalked out of the restaurant. She and Douglas never spoke again. She died in London, England, in 1964.
While researching this story, I found the name “Moses La Fountain” on two U.S. censuses. There were quite a few men of that name in Western New York in the early twentieth century, but on two particular censuses I am sure I have my man, because both times his wife is listed, his second wife, Gladys. In 1940, at age sixty, not long before he would meet his son again, the census lists his birthplace as New York, his occupation as “ranger,” his sex as “M” for “male,” and his race as “W” for “white.” In 1920, he is already married to Gladys, but the children from the 1940 census, Harry and Nina, are not yet born. Also in 1920, the questions are different, more detailed and historical. In addition to the other information, we learn his native tongue (French), his father’s native tongue (French), and his mother’s (French again). Listed too is his mother’s and father’s birthplace: Canada. Moses’s occupation in 1920 was “farmer,” his sex was still “M” for “male,” and this time his race was “M,” for “mulatto.”
A census is often riddled with mistakes; any number of genealogists will tell you this. The 1920 census of St. Lawrence County that I consulted online was written in a spidery hand on the pages of a banker’s ledger. After Moses’s name and the word “head” (for “head of household”) comes a sequence of shaky majuscules crammed side by side into the narrow, ruled cells: “OFMM39M,” or owned house, free not mortgaged, male, mulatto, thirty-nine years old, married. Who is to say it wasn’t supposed to be “OFMW39M”? The name just above his, Mary Maney, belongs to a woman who was no relation to Moses and lived in another house. Her race, too, is listed “M.”
Still, nothing authorizes me to say for sure that the census taker recorded my great-grandfather’s race in error. Moses may have had Black ancestors; it’s unusual for “mulatto” in North America to mean anything but a person having white and Black ancestors. Or he may have had Native American ancestors; it was not uncommon for French Canadians in the nineteenth century to have Native American wives. Or all of this; maybe he was white and Black and Native American. There is no way to know Moses’s race, not least because of the notional, constructed nature of race. Constructed but brutally enforced. Comparing the two censuses, it’s possible to imagine a narrative: that Moses was “passing,” that in twenty years he had learned that the correct answer to the race question was always “W.”
On both censuses, Moses lives in Clifton, New York, in St. Lawrence County. Reader, I wish I could tell you that I had to dig for this next bit, but all I did was put the name of the county and the words “Ku Klux Klan” into a search engine. The first hit was an Adirondack Almanack from March 2018, announcing a talk at the historical society. At a brown bag lunch, author Bryan Thompson, municipal historian of the town of DeKalb, New York, was to speak “on a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan that was active in St. Lawrence County in the 1920s.” He would discuss the fact that local Klan members had “held rallies and cross burnings in many towns and hamlets in St. Lawrence County, where they targeted communities of African-Americans, Jews, and Catholics.”
What did Moses La Fountain, mulatto, endure or witness or evade in St. Lawrence County in those years? Or what did Moses La Fountain, white , do or see or assent to?
“Is she Catholic?” Did you at least learn to stay white?
That’s one way to translate the father’s question to his son. But what did we think we were saying when we quoted that question? In our favorite joke, what did we mean when we said, “Is she Catholic?” We thought it was an example of Moses’s dry wit. Or we thought it showed that he’d had the manly sang froid to ask a throwaway question first, rather than get all sentimental about the son he’d never known. These interpretations don’t go very far. We managed not to notice the question’s plain-as-day bigotry, or we thought it was harmless, aimed at what seemed to us an obsolete target. Given that that was our level, we couldn’t have been expected to ask why the woman in the story had to sit far away from the men and symbolize difference.
There was, however, the confusion the joke elicited in me and perhaps other family members. I always heard a non sequitur in the punchline, as has everyone I’ve ever told it to, anyone raised outside my family, unused to this ritualized telling. Our funniest story, the one about our two favorites, the two La Fountain men, is also the story in which we chose, maybe with the involuntary candor of one telling a joke, to quote from Moses’s memory of the 1920s Klan raids of St. Lawrence County, New York.
It took me all of two minutes to find the answer to that riddle. I don’t know why I didn’t look before now.
July 30, 2020
Post-script. As much as I like an ambivalent ending, it would be disingenuous of me not to tell you what happened after I wrote this. My mother got a DNA workup by mail. Douglas La Fountain and his descendants were white.
The other result surprised me more. Writing this brought my mother and my sisters and I closer together. One imagines family members as the harshest critics of memoir, and that does happen, but so does the opposite: we took pleasure in telling each other our common story, which isn't the memoir writer's alone.
copyright Bruno George, 2020, passages-of-life.com