(Part 1 can be found here.)
No matter how many questions you ask, no matter how many stories they tell, the truth is you'll never know everything there is to know about your family.
In a million years I never would have guessed that the photos of my grandmother and her prince were the key to the Big Family Secret I wouldn't know about until just before my father died in 2001.
After sifting through the photos and trying to make sense of it all, I picked up the phone and called my parents.
"About Grandpa Bert," I said, after taking a deep breath. "Did he have a nickname?"
My mother was quiet for a moment. "As far as I remember, Bert was his nickname," she said.
"Are you sure he didn't have another nickname?" I persisted. "Maybe something just Grandma called him...like, maybe, Prince?"
Silence from my mother and then, "Let me put your father on."
"So who is this guy?" I asked him. "What's the deal with this Prince Mohindin?"
"I think he was an Arab sheik who rented an estate on the North Shore every summer."
For once in my life I was close to speechless. "You're kidding," I said.
"Aren't you?" My grandmother and a Long Island sheik? That was too much even for me and I tell lies for a living.
"I wasn't more than four or five," he went on, "so I don't remember too much. He had a penthouse apartment in Manhattan and a Turkish aide-de-camp named Ziggy who looked like Peter Lorre."
"I don't understand," I said. "I thought you were a middle-class family from West Hempstead. What were you doing in Gatsby country during the Depression?"
Of course he couldn't answer that. When you're five years old, you go where your parents go and you don't ask questions.
"We were up in Sea Cliff that summer," he said. "We used to see J. P. Morgan's yacht gliding across the Sound." He and his sister Mona and their cousin Jackie played on Morgan's Beach. They climbed the huge boulder that jutted out into the calm waters and pretended they owned everything the eye could see. "The rich people didn't stay much east of Syosset back then," he said.
They congregated like great sea birds in Great Neck and Sea Cliff, Oyster Bay and Glen Cove. I'm not sure Glen Cove even has a railroad station any more but, back then, the town was about as tony as it got . Take everything you ever read about Fitzgerald's North Shore of Long Island then multiply it by five and you're getting close.
I'd always assumed both the Fullers and the Dimlers had lost their respective fortunes by the time my Grandpa Bert and Grandmother El met and married but maybe I'd been wrong.
"Were you rich?" I asked my father.
"I don't think so," he said, "but we did have a housekeeper for awhile."
"That's more than we ever had," I pointed out.
"Lots of families had housekeepers back then. It wasn't that unusual."
I reminded him that simply having a house that needed keeping was kind of unusual during the Depression. It seemed like the perfect time to cut to the chase. "Did Grandma have an affair with Prince Mohindin?"
"I was five years old," he said again. "I don't know what they did. All I can tell you is that the Prince was an artist and he gave Mother a painting and two sculptures."
"Where are they?"
You could almost hear him shrug. "The painting might have gone up in the fire."
"What about the two sculptures?"
"I didn't see them when we closed up the apartment. Your aunt probably took them after Mother died."
And that was that.
Except it wasn't. The puzzle of my grandmother kept me awake nights. It didn't make sense. Hadn't she sat with me weekend after weekend in 1976, telling me her life story for the tape recorder? My savvy, story-telling grandmother who always said, "Stop the tape," when she got to the juicy parts. I knew there had been men besides her husbands. Wasn't she the one who'd said she'd lived a woman's life, experienced everything a woman could experience?
I knew about Rudi, the retired businessman, who fell in love with her when they were in their sixties and would lie on the floor kissing her feet while she did the dishes. (I should have warned you, shouldn't I? Sorry!) I mean, Grandma El (my father's mother) had become engaged to Grandpa Larry (my mother's father) when I was three years old. (My Uncle Budd's comment was legendary: "Holy #@*#, this is Queens not Dogpatch!") She wasn't beautiful or even pretty but she loved men and they loved her back right through to the day she died at 90.
But for all of her openness, all of those hours of family history that she willingly related to me, she left out one minor bit of information: she never told me about her first husband, Max.
A man I'd never heard about who happened to be my grandfather.
(Author's note: my research shows me that Prince Mohindin was probably from India.)