My grandfather’s longest relationship, and perhaps the love of his life, was with a man named Sal. I knew that Norm, my grandfather, had lived with Sal for some period of time, but I didn’t know the full extent of the relationship until recently. My first cousin has been in touch with Sal’s nephew Mark, who lives in Seattle, and she suggested I look him up while I was there visiting my kids for a week before going to China last month.
Sal died in 2005. Mark is the one who took care of his estate, so he had photos and stories to share which I had never seen or heard before. I was beyond thrilled to find out more about my grandfather’s life!
Some people might consider Norm’s relationship with Sal to be controversial, or maybe even a shameful “skeleton in the closet”, the type of thing better left alone, to fade into the mists of time until it’s forgotten. On the contrary, I embrace my colorful and unique relatives, and I want to know the truth about their lives, and who they really were. It’s especially important to me to shine a light on this significant relationship in my grandfather’s life, which has pretty much lived all this time in the shadowy background.
Even though I was 29 years old when he died, I unfortunately didn’t know my grandfather very well. Here’s a picture – how handsome was he?!?
Norm’s first marriage was to my grandmother, Viola, in New York City, where my mother was born in 1931. Norm was a 21 year old hairdresser from Pittsburgh, and we’re not sure why he went to NYC, or how long he was there, but that’s where my grandparents met. The little family moved back to Pennsylvania by May of 1932 when their second child, my aunt, was born. In the mid-1940’s, after fifteen years and four children, Norm and Viola were divorced, which of course had a huge impact on my mother and her siblings. That’s a whole ‘nother story, but suffice it to say that Norm raised the children from then on.
In 1953, Norm married my mother’s high school English teacher, Ruth. The children, mostly grown by then, embraced her as their new mother, and stuck by her when she and Norm divorced in 1963. I grew up on Long Island in New York, about 8 hours away, so we didn’t see the Pittsburgh clan often, and it was a long time before I realized that Ruth wasn’t my real grandmother. She was the mother and grandmother of our hearts.
And now I’ve learned that Norm and Ruth divorced because Norm had begun a relationship with Sal. At that time, Sal was about 26, and Norm was 54. I’d never seen a picture of Sal until Mark showed me this one:
Mark, who is the son of Sal’s sister, told me that Norm and Sal wanted a child, and they tried to adopt him in 1963, when he was a six year old orphan. Unfortunately, a legal adoption wasn’t allowed. Norm and Sal were members of the Christian Science Church, and there they were able to find a traditional couple willing to adopt Mark. Mark visited Norm and Sal often throughout his childhood, so he knew my grandfather much better than I did!
Mark told me that Norm was into classic convertible cars, which I never knew.
My mother had told me that he was into irises, so I was thrilled to see Mark’s picture of Norm’s garden, full of irises, which is also my favorite flower!
Norm and Sal took an annual vacation to Florida in the winter.
They bought a lovely historic brick house on some property in Washington County, south of Pittsburgh. But, it wasn’t long before the nature of their relationship became known (they were seen holding hands), and they were kicked out of the Christian Science Church. They had to move further out into the country because they were ostracized by that community. They sold the brick house and bought a farm in the teeny town of Eighty-Four, where they lived a quiet life.
I’m sure I saw my Grandfather when I was younger, and in fact there’s a picture of me as a toddler at Norm and Ruth’s house in Pittsburgh, but my first strong memory of him was when I was 15 in 1970, at the farm in Eighty-Four. The entire family had gathered – Norm’s four children and all of his grandchildren – because he had had a heart attack and everyone was sure he was going to die. I must have met Sal then, but all I can remember is a vague awareness that he was there somewhere. I can’t recall what I knew about his relationship to my grandfather. I probably just didn’t care – I was much more interested in playing with my cousins, and the farm animals.
My grandfather came to my college graduation in Wisconsin in 1977, and to a family reunion in Los Angeles in 1981. Then I saw him in 1982, when I stopped in Pittsburgh for a night on my way from New York to California. And that was the last time; he died in 1984 at the age of 75. I don’t remember why I didn’t go to the funeral/memorial service, or even if there was one, and if there was, whether or not I knew about it at the time.
So where was Sal all this time? According to Mark, Sal took care of Norm until he died. Mark says they had a 25 year relationship, about as long as both of Norm’s marriages combined, and if that’s true, then they were together well before Norm’s divorce from Ruth. After Norm died, Sal never had another partner.
I try to imagine what it must have been like to be a gay couple in the 1960’s, and how much they must have loved each other to continue the relationship in the face of rejection from the community. Norm’s children never really accepted Sal, either – it’s not that I heard anything negative about him, but I didn’t hear anything much about him at all. It was as though everyone was pretending that he didn’t exist. That was how it was back then. I imagine that it would be different today.
As we genealogists often say, I wish I had paid more attention when I was younger, because I would have liked to have known Sal, and I have so many unanswered questions. Now I’ve added him to our family tree, and when I’m in Pittsburgh next, I’ll find whatever documentation might be available in the public records to flesh out their life together.
You know how we genealogists tend to jump back in time as quickly as possible, without thoroughly researching the more recent generations? That’s pretty much what I did. It’s time to focus on my grandfather.