MOTHER. POET. WRITER.
The first strong memory I have is being on a ship with my beloved nursemaid, Gladys. I remember not feeling well and being in my little bed most of the time. By the time we docked though, I was feeling fine and ready for another adventure. I remember the two of us being on the dock and meeting two people there, a man and a woman. Gladys picked me up and said, “Susie, this is your father and grandmother.” She gave me a tight hug, kissed me on the cheek and put me in his arms. Then she turned around and walked away. I called after her and she said she would be back shortly but that was the last time I ever saw her.
I remember the tears and my daddy trying to calm me down in part French but mostly a language I had never heard. They took me with them on a train and, although my grandmother was very nice and loving, I remember that trip as feeling utterly frightened and abandoned. I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t understand what they were saying, and all the new sights and sounds were totally bewildering to me. My three-year-old mind could not process what was happening but I know my body absorbed it all as a cellular memory.
We arrived at the train station in Tampa and there were several more people there to meet us. One was a very stern appearing woman who my daddy told me was my mother. Another was a woman he told me to call Aunt Bruce, and the last one was her daughter, Eileen. These family members I was to live with for the next four years and I came to love them all. I soon learned English and became an American girl very quickly. However, almost every night I still dreamt in French, about my home in Geneva and the first mother I had ever known, my beloved Gladys. Many nights I cried myself to sleep…
I remember mother taking me to school that first day when I was six but they wouldn’t admit me because I didn’t have a birth certificate. Two weeks later Mother came up with a paper birth certificate and they admitted me to school. I loved school and did well. I went through first grade and started into second.
One day I was called into the principal’s office. He told me my aunt Nina was there to take me home. There was a small woman dressed to the nines with a beautiful white patent leather purse. She corrected the pronunciation of her name and said it was Neena, not Nina. Whichever way you pronounced it I had never seen this pretty aunt before. She held out her hand and asked if I was ready to go. I took her hand and went with her. She took me to an ice cream parlor and ordered us vanilla sodas. I’d never had one and it was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted. Even so, I was beginning to get nervous as I was out of school in the middle of the day and I really didn’t know this new aunt.
She noticed this and told me I didn’t have to be nervous with her because she knew my middle name and it was Madeline. I asked her how she knew and she said because she named me and I was a little French girl. I didn’t understand what she meant but I did relax and wondered if this might be the reason I dreamt in French. Nina asked me if I would like to see a movie and of course I said yes. We left the ice cream parlor and walked across the street to the movie theater. I remember the movie was a musical and was in color.
We were sitting in the cool dark theater holding hands and suddenly the screen went blank and the theater lights came on. Then three policemen were walking down the aisle and stopped at our row. They asked us to stand up then asked me my name. I told them Susan Madeline Bailey. They didn’t say a word to Nina except to tell her to hold out her hands. Then they put handcuffs on her. They put us into the back of a police car throwing Nina’s beautiful white patent leather purse on the floor. I was crying my eyes out because I just knew I was going to be in bad trouble with my mother and would probably get a spanking. As we pulled up to our house and saw daddy and mother standing out on the sidewalk, Nina looked at me with tears spilling over her eyes and said just two words to me, “I’m sorry!” It was many years before I realized that she was sorry for far more than what had happened to us one hot school day afternoon in Tampa.
When the police car drove up to our house my daddy came around and lifted me out. I was still crying and he told me it was okay, to not worry about her anymore, that she was an alcoholic and she would never bother me again. The next day he put me on a train for Chicago to live with family members. Daddy soon got sick and died so I stayed in Chicago with his niece and her husband the rest of my growing up years. Losing my daddy was my second huge loss in seven years. My mother never made any legal attempt to get me back from my paternal relatives, although I did stay with her in Tampa from time to time.
While living in Chicago I met more family members. There was an Aunt Clara who lived in Detroit. Her husband had been the conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and she took me to a concert. I had never heard music like that. It surrounded me and went right through me. It was mesmerizing! She also took me out to eat in fancy restaurants and taught me how to butter bread properly and twirl spaghetti. She bought me a beautiful rabbit fur coat with a muff and I wore that coat until the sleeves were halfway up my arms.
One day I was sitting on the floor reading Tom Sawyer and my aunt came up behind me and said, “We’re related to him you know.” I said, “We’re related to Tom Sawyer?” She said, “No, we’re related to Mark Twain and his real name is Samuel Clemens.” I was really disappointed that we weren’t related to Tom Sawyer and what she said about Mark Twain meant nothing to me at the time. It wasn’t until I was an adult when I remembered what she had told me and started trying to find out my connection.
When I was a teenager, I moved back to Florida and entered Stetson University as a freshman. My family had always told me to make good grades in school because I had a college fund already paid for, so I had always tried to do my best. Sure enough, when I called my mother to tell her I had been admitted to Stetson she said just have them send all the bills to her. She was not a woman of means so I didn’t know where this trust fund for my college education had come from but it was paid each month on time for four years and I was also given $50 a month for spending money, more than I had ever had in my life.
When I was in college and had many resources to do research, I started looking into the Mark Twain connection I had been told of as a child. I borrowed microfiche from the Mormons and scrolled through them until I was almost blind. I did find one connection where a Cynthia Clemens (Mark Twain’s aunt) had married an Ira Lucia (my cousin’s uncle) back in the 1800s.But this would mean my cousin who raised me in Chicago would have to be my mother for me to have any biological connection to him. She was only 14 when I was born and I still thought the woman, Drucilla Bailey, that my father had introduced me to as my mother at the Tampa Train Depot when I was three was indeed my birth mother.
Then I had to go to a doctor for some bloodwork and I chose to go to Drucilla’s doctor. My bloodwork came back that I was O positive. I knew she was AB Rh-negative because that is the rarest blood in the world and she was always donating blood to the hospital because they had so few donors. I asked the doctor how an AB Rh-negative mother could give birth to an O-positive baby? Did that mean my daddy had to be O positive? He excused himself for a minute and came back with Drucilla’s medical records. He sat beside me on the table, put his arm around my shoulder and told me, “You had to be adopted. Drucilla could not have given birth to you!” I started crying. Not because I was completely undone over this news but because she had never been nice to me, had let Eileen take me to Chicago when I was seven without a fight for me. It was a relief to know she wasn’t my biological mother. But who was?
I set out to get the answer. But meanwhile, I had married, had two children, was working part-time and also trying to finish college. I had transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because my husband was in graduate school there. Even though they had excellent research facilities I was no closer to finding out who my mother was than I was to finding out the Twain connection. Over the years I had asked all my relatives and each gave me a different story. That’s how I knew they were all lying to me. You would think they would have gotten together and decided on one story but obviously, that hadn’t happened.
For the next 30 years I thought about both mysteries occasionally, the mystery of my relationship to Mark Twain if there really was one, and the mystery of who my biological mother was. I had never forgotten the pretty woman who kidnapped me from school when I was seven and gotten herself arrested for it. I never forgot speaking French and having to learn English. I never forgot my daddy or Gladys. But I had no answers for why these things had happened and was just about ready to give up the searches when I read a notice on a genealogical board on the Internet. Someone was looking for the child of Eileen Lucia, the cousin who had raised me in Chicago. While I wasn’t officially her child, I was the only child she ever had and she was the only mother I ever had so I answered that message board notice.
The person who posted the notice was a genealogist named Deborah Gosselin who had been told all her life she was related to Mark Twain too. She said eight lines coming down in the Lucia family tree from Ira Lucia had claimed to be related to him but she couldn’t find the connection and no longer believed it was true. I told her I couldn’t find it either but thought it was true because I knew his daughter, Clara, growing up and she was my Aunt Clara. It turned out that of all the people told they were related to Twain as children I was the only one who had ever met Clara, although many of them had grown up in Michigan right where she was.
Deb and I decided to pool our resources and work together. It started out doing a search for Clara, her husband, Ossip, and daughter, Nina Gabrilowitsch on the Internet. A picture of Nina popped up first and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I didn’t remember her as the woman that kidnapped me at seven but she looked exactly like my grandson, Kyle! I sent the two pictures to my daughter side by side and she called me immediately and said, “Who is that woman with my son’s face?” We thought we were on the right track but didn’t know where it was leading us. We needed more.
We searched for a picture of Ossip, Clara’s husband, and Mark Twain’s grandson, and OMG he looked like the twin of my son, Greg. Two coincidences in one day with the Bailey Clemens families? Then Deb pulled up a picture of Mark Twain’s daughter, Clara and said, “Susan, you look exactly like her!” I didn’t see it but since then others have remarked that it is true.
We immediately came to a monumental conclusion: The two mysteries in my life, how was I connected to Mark Twain, and who was my biological mother, had now merged. On the surface, it appeared that Nina Clemens Gabrilovitch, the only grandchild of Mark Twain was a very good possibility for my biological mother. There was still a ton of work and research to do but now we had a direction to go.
Although Deb is a genetic genealogist, it still took another eight years and six DNA tests to feel confident enough that we had indeed found the answers to both questions and I had finally found my biological family.
We found a thousand-page diary of Nina’s at Brigham Young University Library and that helped us hugely. The Mark Twain Home and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, let us have complete access to their stacks on Nina and the Twain family. There I found picture of Nina with me as a newborn, Nina and my father, and me as a baby and toddler with Gladys.
I did DNA with the University of New Mexico DNA lab, Family Tree and Me, Ancestry dot Com and a specialized website that usually works with the FBI. One test between my DNA and an envelope that Clara had licked 75 years ago cost $5000.
On both Ancestry and Family Tree DNA I have over 300 links to the Clemens and Langdon families. Each day I go on and check, there are more. I have far more links to Nina’s family than I do my father’s family because they are all in New England and my father was a southerner. Many of those records were burned in the civil war.
In doing this research we discovered that Clara had been the one who set up a college fund for me. For reasons unknown to us she named it, ‘The Humphrey Bogart Fund.’ She was probably still trying to protect Mark Twain’s name.