Here Lies Frank .

  1. The Biggest Mystery in the Hill Family Tree

I was probably eight before I heard one of my parents mention him. 

Frank. My father’s only sibling, his half brother Frank.

What? Dad had a brother? My brothers and sisters and I thought he was an only child!

 “Yep,” my father told us. “He ran away to join the circus. He was a circus barker.”

He laughed that ironic laugh of his. I always read it as both sarcasm and discomfort.

Why?  To a kid, Circus Barker seemed both a viable and interesting profession.

“Don’t ask your grandmother about him, though,” he added.  “She’ll get upset.”

(Me, age four or five, in my grandmother’s backyard.)

My parents already owned a bungalow on the west side of Cleveland when my grandfather died. I was six months old, their second child. When I was three, we moved to a new house near Grandma. She lived in the house Grandpa built for her in Fairview Park.  For their family.  In her mind, that meant her son, Myron.  Not Frank. 

Myron – my father – grew up in that house.  He spent a lot of time alone. In fact, he was probably one of the first “latch-key” kids.  Grandma was proud to say she was a working woman. 

(Myron Hill, Grandma’s desk photos, on Grandma’s desk.)

Grandma was eighty-five when Myron died, at fifty-one. Many of her friends and family were already gone.  My mother, my siblings and I all took turns visiting her.   I enjoyed my Tuesday visits.  We’d sit alone in her living room, drinking tea and talking.  She asked about my schooling, my job, my boyfriend.  (She liked my boyfriend and ventured to give me advice about how to manage him. I had a bachelor’s degree by then, too. She was awed by that.) But I was managing a medical office. Or working in a hospital. I was a secretary, just as she once was. What did I do to relax? Baking, I told her.  “I get up and bake if I can’t sleep.”  “Me too,” she said, her voice quivering. We talked a little more about things I liked to do – reading, music, being quiet.  “You are more like me than I thought” she said one night. 

Until those evening teas, I sensed that she favored my two sisters.  They both inherited her dark skin tone and hair.  Her rebellious spirit. She didn’t see much similarity between my father and me. I had my mother’s Irish complexion and nervous giggle.   My mother told me later Grandma Hill made it clear very early in their relationship that she did not want her son to marry a working class Irish girl. When her attempts to block their marriage failed, she refused to celebrate with my mother’s family.  On their wedding day, my parents had to attend two receptions, one in Cleveland, and one in Fairview.

In the 1980’s, my grandmother and I became friends on those Tuesday nights. So much so that on one night, I felt I could venture into forbidden territory.    

“So, what can you tell me about our Polish background?”  I said.

She stalked away from me, into the dining room. Before she disappeared into the kitchen, she turned and said: “Why do you insist on asking this again?” 

“It’s because it’s who I am,” I answered, thinking it a weak reply.

It hit a nerve.  Her face fell.  She disappeared into her kitchen, returned with some cookies, sat down next to me and told me about her father, who came from a place called Suwałki.  Yes, that’s in Poland now, but it was in Russia for a long time.  I knew her dad’s grave said “John Doskey,” what she didn’t tell me was the name was changed. After she died, I discovered his name was Jan Dziedzikowski.  (Another fake name, but that’s another story.)

I asked about my grandfather’s folks.  She grew frustrated, tried to explain the Polish Partition to me, then said “his people came from all over.  Germany, Austria, some Russia.  Mostly Germany.”    

When I asked about Frank, her voice rose and grew agitated: “He was a bad man! Don’t ever speak of him again!

(My paternal grandparents, Joe and Hattie Gorzynski, 1917/8, right after they married.)


Frank haunted me.  Came to me in dark clouds at night. Made appearances at Ouija board sessions. As a spirit, he was unpredictably nasty.

After hearing me inquire about Frank several times, my mother told me what she could: dad’s brother was “a little” older.  He ran away to become a “circus barker.” Mom thought he was married for a while, maybe even had kids.  Somewhere around Boston.  He died in Florida, “where the circus workers winter.”

“So now you know,” she concluded. “Don’t tell your grandmother I told you.”

Frank died March 26, 1958; I was born that September; my grandfather died March 22, 1959.  When Dad found Frank’s death certificate under some papers on his mother’s desk, he didn’t know his brother had died. Reportedly, it was one of the few instances he lost his temper with his mother.  When he demanded they exhume the body so Frank could be buried in a Catholic cemetery, Mom said he encountered roadblocks. Read: his mother. Grandma won, like she won most of the time.

Frank haunted him, too, though. 

Around ten years later, my parents were on their second vacation in Siesta Key when my father announced he wanted to look for Frank. He went alone. After some time, he returned, more silent than usual.  Finally, he told my mother he found nothing.

I know all this because Mom told me. When I realized I had someone who was willing to talk, I asked for more details.

“Did you ever meet him?” I asked. 

Yes. Once, after they became engaged, she went to the Fairview house to meet him. He was home. He’d totaled his car and he needed money. “He was really tall!”  (My dad was 6’4.”) According to mom, Frank was taller, very handsome, very charismatic.  He “checked her out” and made some comment on how my father nabbed a sexy babe. Or something like that.

“I didn’t think he was that bad, but your grandmother sure didn’t like him. Your father loved him.”

My father didn’t show much emotion towards anything.  So, if Dad loved him, then Frank was worth knowing about. 

2. How to do genealogical research on a Carny.

The death certificate was not in my grandmother’s final papers. She probably burned it. Around twelve years ago, I found our true family name – Gorzynski – and wondered if he used the name Frank Gorzynski, and that’s why my father couldn’t find him. No. With the correct surname in play, kept yielding new insights. New family members. My grandfather was one of eight kids.  At nineteen, when he was still Jozef Gorzynski, he married his first wife Sophia Rucinski , age seventeen.  A year later, in July 1909, Sophia bore a son. Frank Joseph Gorzynski.  In 1912, when Joe was 23 and Sophia 21, she died.  Frank and Joe moved back to his parents’ house.  There, three months after losing his wife, Joe’s seventeen year old brother Alfons died. Tuberculosis, same as Sophia.  In 1914, six months after his sister Tekla succumbed to post-delivery sepsis, Joe’s father Marian died. From Diabetes. (Insulin hadn’t been discovered yet.) In 1917, Joe married Hatti Doski, formerly Jadwiga Dziedzikowska, my grandmother.  Jadwiga and Jozef Gorzynski lived with their “son” Frank in the Gorzynski family home in Cleveland’s Warszawa neighborhood for ten years. During that time, Joe lost two more of his brothers. Frank didn’t finish high school. He worked as a “driver.”  In 1927, the year my father was born, Joe and Hattie became “Hills” and moved to their own apartment, and Frank Hills moved with them.  They shared the same address until 1930 when Frank was counted twice on the national census: in his father’s household and in the household of his Sophia’s sister in Elwood, Indiana, about an hour away from Peru, Indiana, which is where the circuses wintered at that time.  By then, Frank Hill was 21. My father was 3.

International Circus Hall of Fame, Peru, Indiana

When I found this museum, I wrote to them about possible records.  The man who replied was very polite when he informed me no one kept records on the carnies.  There were too many of them.  I detected my father’s short ironic laugh in between his lines. 

Six months ago, I found Frank’s World War II draft registration, dated 1940.

Though he was in New Orleans at the time, his employer – Amusement Corporation of America (AMA) – was in Chicago, and he was still using my grandparents’ home address as his own. I wrote back to the man at the International Circus Hall of Fame. All he could do was confirm AMA ran carnivals. He referred me to the International Independent Showmen’s Museum. They didn’t have records on individual carnies, either, but the link accesses a trade magazine article about the Amusement Corporation of America.

A year ago, a death document for a Frank J. Hill of Hillsborough County Florida appeared on Ancestry.  I was hesitant to request it. I had found another Frank J. Hill who lived in Tampa and died around the same time. I didn’t want to receive some stranger’s death certificate.  So I ignored that recurring suggestion, for a while.  It wouldn’t go away.  Finally, I requested it.  Here it is:

3. Contemplations on a Death Certificate.

What was Frank’s life like before his corpse appeared in the ER that night?  Who delivered him?  There’s a street address: 1320 ½ Franklin Street.  Today, it’s a parking lot.  There’s a profession: Concessionaire Blue Grass Shows. No place of employment.  My guess is he lost his job with the Amusement Corporation of America and had to freelance. (I can’t help but think about Nightmare Alley’s Stanton Carlisle. )

The details about Frank’s birth and parentage are correct, suggesting the information came from someone in the know.  However, Edgar B. Walters, the informant, turned out to be no one significant: he worked part-time worker at the Walters-Howard-Farley funeral home, which handled the burial.  The father of one of the partners, Edgar was a retired barber who had the people skills required to get information out of difficult relatives  Lucky him. He got to call my grandmother.

The cemetery.  Oh, the cemetery. Oakland Cemetery, aka Home Cemetery or Old Home Cemetery, was once grounds of an Old Folks Home, now gone.  There are some marked graves in the lot, not Frank’s.  There’s a large open field, with plenty of space to bury abandoned corpses.

images from flgenweb

My siblings and I wager that when my father saw the death certificate, he noticed the five days his brother’s remains spent in the hospital morgue. I’m guessing he copied the information. Several years later, on that hot summer day during his vacation, he came here. He beheld its emptiness. And for a moment, perhaps this parched open downtown grassy area had a rare glimpse of my father’s heart. He may have even cried. (My father rarely cried.)  I’m sure he went to a bar and had a drink or two for Frank.

The click of my grandmother’s phone resonated across the years.  Everything on the death certificate confirmed the story my mother told me.  So strange. It was so long ago, and I’ve heard this story so many times.  Why was my heart breaking so . . . ?

For one thing, I really had hoped to discover Frank died happily somewhere in Gibsonton, where all good carnies retire.  I wanted to find him buried in a circus cemetery, alongside other one-time circus “talkers.”  (No self-respecting carny would use the word “barker.”) As long as he was with other circus people, I didn’t care if his grave was unmarked.

Strangely, I felt responsible. As if I were the sole witness.  A tardy mourner.  Born six months after his death, coming to awareness sixty some years later, I arrived far too late to mark his grave.

I’m not pretending my Uncle Frank was a nice man, but I am suggesting he was a victim of circumstances beyond his control. Born into a Polish speaking first-generation immigrant family, eight years after a Pole assassinated President McKinley, he was orphaned at two, and likely raised by his immigrant grandmother during a time when “Polacks” in America were shunned. To my grandmother, who wanted to shed that label, Frank represented everything she disliked about Joe’s earlier life: his first wife and his family’s Old Country ways. With Joe, she wanted to create a new American family. She felt she was doing the right thing, for her son and for his children, to erase her story and start again. Her treatment of Frank, indeed her treatment of all of my grandfather’s immediate family, may have actually given me a “leg up.” As a Hill, I was born without that tell-tale “ski” name into a world where Polacks were still the butt of many jokes. I could pass.

4. Contemplating heredity and inheritence:

I’m grateful for the opportunities born on my grandmother’s compromises. Still, I now see her gallant decisions as acts of violence. She hated Frank. She hated the Gorzynskis.

The thing is: I’m a Gorzynski.

Researching my forgotten Gorzynski ancestors has revealed a pattern to me: Frank’s not the only member of this family to suffer an unmarked, unrecognized burial.  It happened to Joe’s brother John. He died in a city hospital and was buried in their grounds when he was 35.  Cause of death: Cirrhosis of the Liver.  It took quite a bit of research to find John – I’d never heard his name before. He was the first in the family to use the name Hill. Nor had I heard about Uncle Eddy Gore, who died alone in Sandusky.  Sudden heart attack.  He had a wife in Cleveland who cared enough to bury him with a headstone, in a Lorain cemetery halfway between Sandusky and Cleveland.

Joe’s sister Helen’s burial raises suspicions, too.  Though she married and had a child with Grandma’s brother, Clem, and they lived together until she died, wife and husband are buried in separate cemeteries.  Helen was buried in the Gorzynski grave at Calvary Cemetery.  Clem was buried on the other side of town in Holy Cross Cemetery, with my grandmother’s clan, now officially the Doskeys.

My father’s family has a pattern of division and self-imposed alienation. He suffered from it, too. He was an enigma, a man who said little and drank a lot to numb his pain.  As he aged and produced more children, he grew bitter. In his 40’s, he took a job based in California.  Mom and us five kids stayed in the Fairview house. Every year, he stayed away from us a little longer than the year before.  One hot August day, his heart exploded, in the middle of our living room floor.  For forty years he lay in a grave marked by the government issued military stone we got for free.  No one visited.

I still love and identify with my father. When I was a girl, his friends joked that I was “Myron in a skirt.”

(Me and Dad in the backyard of our new Fairview house.)

One of my life’s goals has been to earn a stone for my grave, and to help make sure a decent one appeared on his. Last summer, after mom was laid to rest, dad finally received his proper treatment.   

Could this be my family’s inheritance? And our curse?  Perhaps the accumulation of all our ancestors’ traumas, all balled up and covered with COVID-like spikes, lodged inside a gene, mutated, and manifested as what we are today: functioning, “passing” as normal, yet emotionally crippled.

DNA tells me I’m 100% European. In other words, Pure White. In 1950, when my parents wed, Poles were still treated as an inferior ethnic group. The Irish, too, but not to the same extent. They had a language advantage. In Cleveland, they also had a good hold on the police department. (My maternal grandfather was an Irish cop.). Still, something attracted my parents, as it attracted all the other cross-pairings in second generation European American families. Some “similarities” enticed them to venture into groups their parents prohibited. First, they shared a desire to discard their past and live the “American Dream.” Second, they shared troubled family histories. I have long felt that the most common feature of “White America” is that we are all products of people who, at one point or another in our ancestry, left a beloved homeland either by choice or by force to join the American work force. Once in America, they faced extreme disappointment. Some found themselves living in conditions far worse than what they left behind. The luckiest overcame. It took grit to do that, sometimes in less than one generation. It took pride. It took resilience. It also took a lot of compromise.

I believe that all Americans suffer from some degree of epigenetic family trauma. In fact, this is the conceptual core of the two-part magical realist family saga I’m writing right now.  Since I didn’t know these people, I mythologized them, with the aim of getting them included in the canon of mythical Polish figures. In beginning the second novel, I realize what I’m really writing is an extended fable about the Polish immigrant in America.  Thanks to Frank’s death certificate, I know how to end it. 

Oh, and you wonder what Frank looked like. My grandmother left behind several books of stunning unmarked photos of herself and her relatives. After analyzing them in terms of era and context, I’ve identified four that I believe represent Frank. Here is one of them. I calculate his age to be eight or ten. This was taken at the Gorzynski home in the first years of my grandparents’ marriage. I suspect she dressed him up and put him on this donkey.  She did something similar to my father, a dozen years later. (second photo). Dad got a pony.

2 thoughts on “Here Lies Frank .

  1. I enjoyed this post very much. I couldn’t wait as I read to see what became of Frank. The story is full of trauma. My family has told tales that they believed to be true if only because they had told the our so many times in their minds it was true. It’s so very hard to find the truth once everyone is gone.


    • Thank you for your comment. I absolutely agree. I went to my parents’ grave last week, and walked around what’s now the “old” section of Cleveland’s “newer” Catholic cemetery. They required headstones flush to the ground back then, to facilitate lawn mowing. Guess what? If they haven’t been tended, the lawn has grown over them. I uncovered several, looking for my grandparents. All ethnic names, they each contain a story that stopped being told.


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