What would you do if you discovered a century-old secret about your family?
For Gayla Turner, a hidden wedding photo led to a seven-year journey to find out more about her grandmother and the woman standing next to her dressed as the groom. Don’t You Dare: Uncovering Lost Love weaves together the current day journey of the author, a lesbian herself, and an incredible true-life queer love story that took place in the early 1900s.
Please enjoy this excerpt from Don’t You Dare: Uncovering Lost Love:
After Mom was diagnosed with dementia in 2009, my sister Janice and I would often drive from Southern California to Mom’s place in Pahrump, Nevada. We tried convincing her to move closer to us and her grandchildren, but after living alone for the last twenty years she had no interest in being anywhere other than in a doublewide trailer in the middle of the desert.
Most people hated driving the long stretch of desert highway between Barstow and Pahrump, but I found the vast emptiness peaceful: no cars or people for almost one hundred miles. However, as Mom’s dementia worsened, it seemed as if the highway stretched longer and longer with every trip. At times, it felt as if my car was on a treadmill and I was looking at the same mounds of sand and tumbleweeds for hours.
During our visits, my sister and I would often spend time reminiscing over the family photos Mom had collected through the years. We’d dig into the old department-store boxes with both hands and pull out a group of photos to look at. After she retired, Mom often told us she was going to organize the family photos and put them in albums someday, but we all knew that wasn’t going to happen.
We’d laugh and share pictures and stories with Mom. She’d often laugh along with us, but I wasn’t sure she really knew who or what we were talking about. At the time I thought we were doing it to help Mom recapture her stolen memories, but I now know Janice and I did it to recapture our own.
On one of my visits with Mom, I was looking for more photos to share when I noticed two medium-sized boxes stacked at the far end of her closet, marked ‘Mother’s old photos.’ I was surprised—up to that point I thought I had seen every family picture many times over, but I had never seen these boxes. Or so I thought.
I suddenly felt like a twelve-year-old at Christmas; I couldn’t wait to see what was inside. As I pulled them from the safety of my mother’s closet, I could hear the brittle brown cardboard creaking in protest with every tug. A cloud of dust followed me as I placed them in the middle of my mom’s living room.
When I opened the first box I could tell instantly that the pictures were like nothing I’d seen before. Initially, I thought they were Mom’s from when she was young, but then I noticed that the handwritten dates pre-dated her 1923 birth year.
Then I finally saw a name I recognized: Ruby. Of course. “These boxes belonged to Grandma Ruby,” I announced to Mom, though she didn’t seem interested in looking at their contents herself.
Overjoyed at finding a family time capsule, I immediately started to carefully unpack them. The photos were dated from 1910 to 1922, and they were well-maintained because of the dry Nevada climate and the cool darkness of my mom’s closet. The loose pages must have been from Grandma Ruby’s photo albums, but there were no binders to keep the pages together. Almost like she—or someone—had intended to throw them away, but just couldn’t bring themselves to do it.
I was thumbing through the pages when I noticed a handwritten caption under a picture which said ‘Our Wedding,’ dated June 8, 1915. I was excited when I realized it was of Grandma Ruby, wearing a wedding dress and holding a bouquet of flowers. Since I had never met or seen my grandfather before, I was curious to see what he looked like.
I showed the photos to my mom, and she confirmed it was her mother, but then quickly looked away. It was almost like she couldn’t bring herself to look at the pictures for too long for fear of getting scolded. For some reason I had a feeling she knew more than she was willing to tell me. And yes, I believe she may have played the ‘dementia card.’ She knew I would never pressure her for information that she couldn’t remember.
The crazy thing about dementia is you just never know what the mind can remember or which memories have been stolen. Besides, Mom had always been an extremely strong-willed and tight-lipped woman, even before the signs of dementia appeared. If she did know more about the photos, clearly there would be no way of getting the information I needed from her. So I kept on going through the old photos, hoping more details would be revealed to me.
I found a newspaper clipping dated August 10, 1921 at the bottom of one of the boxes. It was the formal wedding announcement for my grandparents, which included a wedding photo of the new bride and groom. Except the groom standing next to my grandma was not the same man in the other photos, dated 1915. When I realized the dates on the wed- ding photos were different, I asked my mom if Grandma had been married before she married Grandpa. She shook her head adamantly, and continued to watch her TV game show.
I questioned my mom several more times about whether the bride in both photos was Grandma Ruby, and was met with the same results. I was amused by the thought that my grandma might have been secretly married to a gentleman prior to my grandfather, and I was determined to find out who this mystery man was. I grabbed Mom’s old magnifying glass from the coffee table—the one she used years ago when she did her daily word puzzles, but which was now covered in dust.
The newspaper announcement from 1921 made it easy for me to identify the groom, because it gave the names of everyone who’d attended the wedding that day. However, identifying the people in the 1915 wedding photos was considerably more difficult. I could tell it was Grandma Ruby wearing the wedding dress and veil, but the caption underneath only said ‘Our Wedding.’ There were no names to identify the groom or the other two people in the picture.
The gentleman standing to the left of my grandma was wearing a dark suit and tie with a boutonniere on his left collar. There was also another man, and a woman in formal dress. The men were wearing bowler hats. All were standing underneath a large shade tree. Clearly it was a traditional wedding photograph, but with such little information I was still confused. However, I’m good at solving complex problems at work, and I was determined to solve this mystery.
I found numerous pictures of the same people dated from 1915 to 1920. I kept staring at the two men, thinking that something didn’t look right. I was examining one of the photos when I noticed that both of the men had unusually small features, and their suits were ill-fitting: the jackets were falling off their shoulders, and the sleeves and pant legs had been rolled underneath because they were too long. Both of the gentlemen were wearing bowler hats, and it looked like their hair was tucked underneath. I thought to myself that men back then wouldn’t have had long hair.
It took me a few more minutes to wrap my brain around what I was seeing. Then all of a sudden it hit me: it wasn’t a man standing next to my grandmother in the wedding photos! I felt the blood rush to my head, and the back of my neck started to tingle as I fell back into my chair in disbelief. At the same time, I felt an incredible warmth flow over me. It was like being wrapped in a warm blanket after being stuck out in the cold for too long. It was an incredible feeling, and one that I will never forget. To this day I become overwhelmed with emotion thinking about that realization.
I firmly believe Grandma Ruby was with me at that moment, giving me a big hug, thankful that the truth had finally been revealed.
I spent the rest of that evening and into the next day just staring at those photos and crying. I wasn’t sure why I was so emotional about them until I was driving back home to Los Angeles the next day. During the four-hour drive, I cried again, and then I realized that I didn’t feel so different or alone anymore. It was the first time in my life that I didn’t feel like the family oddball because of who I loved. I was no longer the only one.
Read more of Don’t You Dare. Get the book here.
About the Author
By day, Gayla Turner is a bank examiner, utilizing her intuition and curiosity to uncover facts and analyze complex figures. A debut author, she has honed her writing skills with private instructors, editors, and critique groups of established writers in the Los Angeles area. She is a member of the Wisconsin Historical Society, Romance Writers of America, and the Historical Novel Society. In her free time, Gayla enjoys cooking, hiking, looking at old photos, and researching LGBTQ+ history. Born and raised in Southern California, she and her partner live in San Marino, California, and share their home with their adorable dog, Bailey.