Answers to Queries: Who Was She?

by Leslie Lindsay


Your father says, “There was a woman involved.”

You shrug. So what?

“And she was Jewish.”

Again, you shrug.

You want to know the mystery behind the changed surname. Typically, it’s a woman who changes her name when she marries, not a man, in his twenties.


Not only that, he changed it to something he misspelled. It was accidental, the descendants believe. He added an ‘e’ to the end trying to Anglicize it.

You cobble through the facts. You piece together dates and years and couplings and none of it adds up. You go to one of those ancestry websites and do a search and you find him, in the census and see he’s married to this woman, Esther Helberg Lederer in 1919, and you know this is not the name of your grandmother. This is not what you’ve been told.


You compose a text to your father. Your finger hovers over the ‘send’ arrow. You take a breath, look in the distance. Hit ‘send.’ There’s a smear of sweat from your finger on the screen.


Your father does not respond. Days pass. A week. Then two.

No response about Esther Helberg Lederer.


You search ‘Esther Helberg Lederer’ on Google. She was married to your grandfather! She was not your grandmother! March 1890. Massachusetts. His parents are George and Annie. Yes, yes. All of this you know. He lived in New York and Arkansas and Kentucky and Missouri. He was a traveling salesman! You know this, too.

But who is Esther Helberg Lederer? She’s not your grandmother.

Is she?


Esther, Esther, Esther.

She pierces your dreams. She follows you into the car. She’s on the tip of your tongue. You tell your husband. He says, “Maybe she was his first wife? Could that be?”

You think: maybe.

You get an ancestry hint. Most of the time you scan quickly, file away, move on.

Today, it’s about Esther Helberg Lederer.


You tap the little green leaf on the screen.

It says, “marriage license announcement for Esther’s second marriage.”

Your heart clusters. You gaze at the name of the person who submitted the tip. You do not know Janis Ellen Becker. She could be a cousin! She could be anyone! You glance at the photo attached to the hint: a newspaper clipping mostly blacked out, but a highlighted band across the middle spotlights some kind of indiscretion, a secret, a betrayal.


Your father is silent. Again your husband says, “I bet she was the first wife.”

But his obit reads, “His wife, Esther Helberg Lederer.” You emphasize obit. Meaning: this was his wife in 1966, when he died. You let that ring a hundred times. When he died. When he died.

You say, “Her second marriage.” With emphasis. If she were the first wife…the math doesn’t add up! The truth is buried.

Esther, Esther, Esther.


But maybe you should be saying:

It’s not meant for you to know. It’s not. You do not need to know who Esther Helberg Lederer is. You think: the lines of family are imperfect. Gnarled roots. You go back to step 1. There was a woman involved. Your father is silent.

It’s not that you’re meant to see the leaf, not the lines, not the roots, but a vein of light.

Passing through.


Leslie Lindsay can be found on Twitter and Instagram @leslielindsay1 where she shares thoughtful musings on architecture, literature, and photography.