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When a person stumbles upon a deeply rooted secret, it’s nearly impossible to keep quiet. And yet, that is exactly what my family did for decades. None of us had the gumption to ask dad about the bizarre happenings in Wisconsin. We each furtively hoped he’d one day grant us an exclusive tell-all about the time grandfather abandoned the family to become co-leader of a controversial, anti-communist religious movement.

In 1950, my grandfather, Henry Swan, was asked by the local priest to investigate a woman’s claim that she spoke to the Virgin Mary. Yes, the Virgin Mary.

Over the years, I found myself peeking beneath the layers of hushed conversations, faded photographs and my grandmother’s casual journal entries in an attempt to learn why my tight-lipped father remained so cautious about those long ago days.

It wasn’t until October 25, 2008 that my seventy-three year old father finally cracked, nearly sixty years from the onset of the “event” – and nearly ten years since I’d started my own investigation into the truth. My dad and

I were driving along, on our way to get his yearly flu shot at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church. I remember licking my lips, taking a deep breath and finally saying what I’d wanted to say for years, “Dad, you know how I like to write?”

“Yes,” his eyes on the road.

“Well, I’ve decided to write a book about grandmother and grandfather.”

He chuckled, a bit nervously I thought.

“There isn’t much of a story.”

“Come on, Dad. You and I both know that isn’t true. Henry and Florence’s story is fascinating.”

This is when he pulled the car to the side of the road. I felt a brief moment of panic. Was he going to yell at me? Tell me I was dead to him? Kick me out of the car? I was trembling inside; my mouth pasty. I stared un-seeing at the dashboard of his trusty, American-made Pontiac. Reading this, you probably think I’m being overly dramatic. Please understand this was a topic none of us in my family had ever broached – ever.

Instrumental jazz floated up from the radio, the same music that drove me crazy as a teenager. My dad was strictly against any music that supported a drumbeat. As a kid, I remember going to history museums, visiting places on the national historic register; all the while listening to elevator music and beating my head against the side-window. It’s funny, because as much as I hated his music then – I love it now.

His voice caressed the air, no screaming, no crazy rips, no drumbeat, “Your grandfather was an intelligent man. I figured if he could be swayed by the visions, then I could be too. I didn’t want to take the chance. It changed everything. I often wonder what our lives would be like if it never happened. Most of what you kids found out, you learned on your own. I’ve never wanted to talk about it.”

“I know. But don’t you think it’s an important part of our history? Who we are?” I realized we both kept referring to the event as “it”. I decided to jump right in, “Were you there during Mary Ann Van Hoof’s holy visions?” Courageous, huh? I couldn’t believe I had just said her name out loud.

“Was I there?” He laughed. “Yes. I was sixteen at the time. I rode my Whizzer – a motorized bicycle – through lanes of traffic coming to and from the vision site. Back then, I worked for the local newspaper; had a paper route. The Milwaukee Journal and Western Union paid me to bring messages to the media tents and reporters. I gave updates on what Mrs. Van Hoof told the public.”

Whoa. My heart picked up speed.

“Did you see anything? Was there some sort of miracle?”

“No. Lots of people said they saw the sun spinning, but that first vision was on a hot, bright day in August.

The sun can appear strange whenever you stare at it long enough. I think people wanted to see something and all the speculation just made it worse.”

My mind was going a million miles a minute. I tried to capture every word to memory. I wished I could take notes, but I knew that would likely scare him off. I thought, remember his words; remember his voice – this might be your only chance to get the story straight from the source.

But it ended up being the beginning. We talked on the side of the road for over an hour. His words came in great bursts of energy. It was as if they had been trapped inside him for so long, wanting to get out. And although he and his siblings had made a pact in 1960 to never talk about those early years in Necedah, that day in October, on our way to the flu clinic, he began to heal.

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Comment by Susan J. Barretta on September 3, 2010 at 6:58pm
What a fantastic story!

In my own quest to pry open memories and loosen tongues among my late mother's siblings, I have been scanning old news archives and clipping out stories. Fortunately I have a way to get free access to the particular news archives covering the area my mother's family was from. I sent some of the clippings to relatives I had not seen in many decades. They have made great topics of conversation.
Comment by Katie Heitert Wilkinson on August 29, 2010 at 1:28pm
Jennifer ...I read this entry with fascination, realizing how many of our families have "secrets" that become forbidden topics. You certainly captured the suspense of the moment when your father pulled over to the side of the road and helped me remember that we can never predict what will be the catalyst for a family story's outpouring. Hope we can look forward to further additions. ....Katie

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