Do You Really Want To Know?

Yesterday I spent an absolutely delightful afternoon as the guest author of a local book club. The event couldn’t have been nicer. They’d read my books—both of them—and provided tea, tiny cut-out cucumber sandwiches, baked scones, and something called Scottish Brack, which turned out to be a rich, dense cake made with whole wheat flour, raisins, and currents. The best part was their questions. Not only did they want to talk about the books; they also wanted to know about my life and writing process.

After I explained about my Scottish heritage, my terminal case of Anglophilia, and the fact that I was raised by charmingly eccentric antiques collectors and dealers, one woman asked a question: “Do you just know about antiques and British history, or do you have to do research?”

“I do tons of research,” I answered and went into my regular spiel about how much I love finding stuff out and how I have to watch myself so I don’t go off on rabbit trails. All true.

But sometimes you learn things you don’t want to know.

When I got home, I found an email from a woman in charge of the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York. I’d emailed her earlier, asking for copies of correspondence concerning my great grandparents, Scottish immigrants who worked most of their adult lives for the Rockefellers. Old John D. Rockefeller preferred Scottish servants, I’d been told, because he considered them honest and hardworking.

The Rockefeller Golf Estate, Lakewood, New Jersey

The story went this way: My great-grandparents came over from Glasgow in the early 1900s to work, first at Kykuit, the Rockefeller family seat in Pocantico Hills, New York, and then at the Rockefeller Golf Estate (read mansion) in Lakewood, New Jersey. My father went to live there with his grandparents, not the most nurturing couple, who were caretakers at Strong Cottage, a guest house on the estate. As a child, my father’s job was to scrub the steps in front of the cottage. Later, he cleaned and polished the copper boiler. All of his friends were from families who worked for other wealthy people who summered in Lakewood—the Goulds, the Vanderbilts, the Astors. After my father graduated from high school, he moved away. When Strong Cottage was sold in the mid-1920s, my great grandparents retired, moved back to Scotland, and died in the country of their birth. Nice story.

Turns out it wasn’t true—at least not all of it. According to my newly discovered correspondence, they did move back to Scotland temporarily. Not finding work there, they returned to the States and applied to the Rockefellers for jobs at one of the properties. There were no jobs to be found for a now-elderly couple who would, according to the correspondence, join the other elderly Rockefeller pensioners who had to be paid for doing nothing and required a place to live and supplies coal and oil for heating and cooking.

No Social Security back then.

The other unpleasant truth was my great grandparents proved to be desperate and therefore querulous and unpleasant. All in all, the record of correspondence, about a half-inch thick, is sad.

What happened to them? Did they ever make it back to Scotland again? Are they buried in their homeland? I don’t know. More research is needed.

The question is do I really want to know?

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