Sometimes the past has a way of reaching out. Sometimes, a gentle tap on the shoulder through an object or song can evoke a special memory. Sometimes the past hits your gut, takes your breath away, and leaves you unaware of everything you might have known.
As I waited to use the probation service’s shared computer, my attention turned to an old leather-bound ledger documenting trials and dispositions in the early 1900s. The yellow page with large ruled lines was written in fine cursive with faint blue ink.
Out of curiosity, I flipped through the alphabetically indexed pages to see if there were any ancestral mistakes. Scanning the paternal side yielded no results. A gut punch hit me hard as I searched for my mother’s side. I found my grandfather’s name listed along with a felony conviction and sentencing to Auburn Prison.
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This new knowledge shook the moral high ground I was trying to claim. Like many law enforcement officers, my beliefs were more towards crime and punishment than crime and rehabilitation.
It was a bitter pill to swallow that my grandfather was a convicted felon. Everything we knew about this man so far showed him to be a man of character and a good heart. I remembered my sister and I going for a walk with him to buy an ice cream cone at the Broadway candy store. Sometimes I went to the corner drugstore for a snack, and my dinner was ruined. I remember him affectionately calling me “Mitch.” Ironically, our favorite game was Cops and Robbers.
With his thumb and forefinger shaped like guns, he fought firefights around his house. He chased me around the dining room table and ordered me to stop in the name of the law. I always felt like I could shoot better. Looking back, I wonder if any of the games were based on his life experiences. Now I was a law enforcement officer chasing my grandfather’s criminal past for answers.
I wanted to know more information. I searched old probation records to find more information. Then I found a probation case with a trespassing conviction. Reading the legal history, I was appalled to learn that most of my grandfather’s youth was spent in Auburn Prison in New York State. By today’s standards, my grandfather would have been considered a repeat offender. Instead his life changed dramatically.
His probation file dated February 20, 1922, said, “He wants to marry a woman from Buffalo, but she won’t marry me unless she has a job here.” That Buffalo girl, my grandmother, was a small, devout Catholic with a big heart and strong stubbornness. And despite an estimated 40,000 unemployed people in the city, her grandfather, with the help of a probation officer, found work and married a Buffalo girl. Grandfather’s life took on meaning and purpose through the responsibilities of his job and the unconditional love of his family. Despite tough times financially, he remained employed and never again got involved in the legal system.
My grandfather’s story is about salvation, not about sin. The memories I have of him are unaffected by the news of his conviction at this time. We have accepted that we are more than just youth behavior. We stumble, fall, and rise. If you’re lucky, you may even have moments of grace that allow you to overcome your failures. Unconditional love has the power to save.
Before I retired as a probation officer, I kept a copy of my grandfather’s probation records in my desk. And it struck me that the probation officer’s efforts to help his grandfather marry a Buffalo girl in 1922 had a profound effect on my family, if not my very existence.
I wondered how my career on probation affected others.