by: Treelines Team
Actress Christina Applegate's father, Robert, never knew his mother. Or so he thought.
In this tear-jerker of an episode, Christina discovered the painful story of her grandparents' marriage and how it affected her father, who recalled being raised first by his paternal grandmother and later by his father. He also recalled that when he was eight he was told his mother was found dead outside a bar, beaten to death. More than anything, Christina and her father hoped to disprove this terrible story.
At the start of the episode, all Christina and her father have is his birth certificate. It reveals the names of his parents and confirms they were married at the time he was born in Trenton, NJ.
Off to Trenton goes Christina, in search of more information...
First Christina is presented with her grandparents' marriage certificate. They were married in Trenton on June 7, 1941.
The marriage certificate also fills in the names of Lavina's parents -- Ovid & (also) Lavina. At the time they were married, Lavina lived at 522 Market St. -- the same address where Christina's father was born -- which suggests that she had her baby at her parents' house.
From there Christina turns to historical newspapers. She finds the 1919 engagement announcement of Lavina's parents, with beautiful portraits of both. She also finds this 1934 article about a trip Lavina and her family took. Christina is overwhelmed to see this first picture of Lavina, whose mouth is the same as her father's.
All of these family mentions on the society pages of the paper, plus the affluent neighborhood in which they then lived, suggest that at this time Lavina's family was well-off.
How did the daughter of such a well-to-do family end up being unable to care for her son, Christina wonders.
By 1940 the family is living at the 522 Market St. address. Lavina is 8 weeks out of work, and her father is 12 weeks out of work. Clearly the family's circumstances have changed.
The census also records that Lavina and her sister only attended school through eighth grade. Because of the Depression, likely the children were sent to work. At the time of the census, however, no one was bringing any money into the household.
The next set of records Christina researches are court records that outline the dissolution of Lavina & Paul's marriage.
Within a month of the marriage Lavina claims Paul began to abuse her physically and verbally. She left after two months. After trying again to live together, they sign a separation agreement in May. Their son, Robert, is born in November.
During the next few years Paul claims Lavina is living with another man, which she denies. Nevertheless, he also claims he tried repeatedly to get back together with her. He says that on at least one occassion he discovered her in a drunken stupor, which she also denies. Meanwhile, he is not paying child support or alimony. At some point Robert contracts pneumonia, and the doctor treating him reports he is malnourished. Lavinia insists she is a good mother, and her neighbor, who helps take care of Robert, says Lavina "idolizes her baby" and "practically lives for him."
Lavina and Paul are finally divorced in June 1945 when Robert is two and a half, and his mother gets custody.
This is the end of the court records. They don't answer why Robert stopped living with his mother.
To figure out when Robert went to live with his paternal grandmother, Christina looks for Lavina's death certificate to figure out if her death was connected. A false start -- finding Lavina's mother's death certificate in 1946 -- helps to fill in the picture somewhat, since Lavina's mother had played a key role in helping Lavina take care of her son.
Back to the newspaper archives, Christina finds the obit under Lavina Walton. She died in 1955, when Robert was 14, not 8. She died of cirrhosis of the liver due to chronic alcoholism.
Her death was not brutal... but perhaps her ex-husband's accusations held some truth...
Together Christina and her father go to the cemetery where Lavina is buried. In the cemetery office they discover that she is buried with her father and sister -- and there is one more, unoccupied plot for Robert himself.
His mother wanted him to be buried with her.
They pay their respects at the grave, which is unmarked. "I'm going to get you a monument, mom," Robert tearfully promises as he lays flowers on the ground.
As Christina points out, the silver lining in this painful story is that despite the odds, her father turned out to be a good father. He did not pass on the family dysfunction, as so often happens.
Not all of the dots of Lavina's downward spiral could be connected, but in the end Robert found his mother and answered at least the biggest of the questions he had all his life.
And we television viewers were crying right along with him and Christina as they learned so much more about who he is.