Generation to Generation: A Family's Story
Finally, After Nine Years
When my father died at 80 years of age in 1996, he left behind his bride of 52 years, four grieving children and so many friends that even his family was shocked at the number of people that stood in a line that stretched around the block outside the funeral parlor just waiting to give their condolences. Dad also left behind all of the paper memories and photos that made up his life. Mom kept all of dad's documents and photos in her hope chest.
In 2002, my mom died and she would come back to haunt me if I told you her age. Mom left behind four grieving children, other surviving family members and lifelong friends. In the year before mom died she went through piles of documents, including love letters from dad while he was overseas during WWII and small little love notes that dad would leave on the kitchen table for her if she was still sleeping when he left for work in the morning. Mom was always a very private person, almost shy. During that year, much to her daughters' regret, mom destroyed every love letter, every love note, and all but a few cards from dad.
A month or so after mom died, my sister and I sorted through mom's closets; dividing her clothes and shoes and hats into neat little piles to be distributed to the Salvation Army and keeping a memento here and there. The loss was so fresh then that I remember we would just get up and leave the room because a certain object or smell would overcome us. Sorting through closets and clothes was about as far as we got, neither of us were ready to tackle the boxes of photos and documents accumulated during mom's and dad's lives.
While they lived comfortably during the last 20 years of their lives, mom and dad never had a lot of material things and there was no financial estate to administer. What they did leave behind was the story of their lives. It wasn't until yesterday, nine years after mom's death, that my sister and I felt strong enough to sit down at her dining room table and go through the photo albums and boxes of documents that made up their story.
A Lovely Afternoon
Anyone who has lost a parent that they love knows that there are moments and events in our lives when our first thoughts turn to our parents and we wish so much that they were still with us. Most also know that while the first hours and days and months and even years after the loss can be sharply painful, and the pain never really goes away, the pain does lose some of its edge over time and with acceptance comes a certain comfort.
I felt that comfort yesterday. Going through all of the old photos, I was reminded of the warm and loving childhood mom and dad gave me and my sister and brothers. The thousands of family dinners where the six of us sat around the kitchen table. On any evening, on any day our table was covered with colorful bowls of steamy fresh mashed potatoes and vegetables and platters piled high with freshly sliced roast beef or roast chicken that just came out of the oven. Us kids shoveling down the necessary food that would get us to the dessert, a freshly baked pie or cake or another platter piled high with warm cookies.
The photos of us kids in our new flannel pjs on Christmas Eve reminded me of the thousands of winter nights I climbed into my bed, the mattress covered with fresh sheets right off the clothes line, that wonderful fresh smell surrounding me. Outside my bedroom window the wind howled and the snow blew sideways but I snuggle down into the sheets and pulled the warm comforter up to my chin while mom or dad bent down and kissed me goodnight.
Yesterday afternoon I flipped through pictures of weddings and birthdays and holidays and no special occasion at all but those photos were populated by so many people that I love. I was surprised to find that I was feeling comfortable and happy as my younger life flashed through my finger tips. Not the sad feelings I expected.
The Years of their Lives
Obviously, in this format, I cannot do justice to everything that mom and dad experienced in their lives, but I am going to mention what impresses me the most.
My mom and dad shared similar loses in their childhoods. My dad's mother died during the Spanish Flu Epidemic in 1918 at the age of 26, leaving my grandfather with three children under six years of age. At 3 years old, my father was the youngest. Unable to take care of his children, my grandfather put my father and his two sisters into the care of the Catholic nuns that ran St. Colman's Orphanage in Colonie, NY. Dad lived there for five years, until his father remarried. Dad was 8 years old when he left St. Colman's.
My mom's dad was a firefighter in Troy, NY and died when he was 41 years old. My mom was 11. Occasionally, when prodded, mom would talk about the day of his funeral, how she remembered the firetruck with her father's casket driving by their home.
When they first met, mom was a naïve girl of 17, dad was a 22 year old, movie-star handsome, street-smart guy. He pursued her relentlessly for two years but she was not interested. There are stories of how dad would go to her house when mom wasn't home and sit with my grandmother trying to convince her the street-smart guy sitting before her would be a good match for her daughter. Being a private person, mom never shared the details, but one day things changed and whenever that day was, from that day forward, they loved each other until the day they died.
Mom and dad married at St. Augstine's Church in Troy, NY, on Christmas Eve in 1939. They tried to elope, but my grandmother found out about their plans and that was the end of the elopement. I suspect, although mom never said, the elopement reflected their quiet ways, wanting to marry without a lot of attention.
One year later they were thrilled to find out they were expecting their first child. Nine months after that their daughter, Mary Theresa, was born at Leonard Hospital in Troy, NY. That little girl, my older sister, died 11 days later from heart complications. I can only imagine the sadness and grief mom and dad felt as a result of this first tragedy in their life together
Yesterday my older sister, mom and dad's second child, and I were laughing at all of the baby photos we found of her in mom's boxes. Clearly mom and dad were thrilled when their second child was born.
During this time, the war in Europe was escalating and in 1943 dad was drafted into the Army. My sister was just short of two years old and mom was four months pregnant. For 340 days dad marched through Europe while mom birthed their third child, a son, and raised two children alone. She would lay her daughter and son on newspapers and draw their outline, then fold the paper into an envelope and send the outline of his children off to dad somewhere in Europe.
In October 1945 dad made it safely home and I was born in September 1946.
From here on I have first hand knowledge of my family, so I'm going to stop here and go back just one more generation.
I don't know very much about my paternal grandparents. I do know my grandmother, Mary O'Hara, grew up in Watervliet, NY. Mary is the woman who died in the Spanish Flu Epidemic in 1918. When I was a kid, we would visit her three maiden sisters who lived together in their family home. My grandfather, James, grew up in South Troy, NY. I do not know how they met.
My grandfather went on to remarry and have four sons with his new wife, my dad's half-brothers. Many years later, tragedy struck this couple again. In 1964, my 79 year old grandfather was taking an early evening walk to the local grocery store on River Street in Troy, NY. It was a dark and rainy November evening. He was hit by a van, a hit-and-run driver. By the time he was discovered and brought to the hospital it was too late, he had lost too much blood. If the driver had stopped and he was treated he would have survived the injuries.No one has ever been arrested or charged with the hit-and-run that killed my grandfather.
Yesterday was the first time I saw this photo of my paternal grandparents. It was in a pile of loose photos in one of my mom's boxes. It must have been taken around 1910. My guess is it was taken before they were married. I love this photo and how casual and comfortable they are with each other.
Both my maternal grandparents were raised in South Troy, NY. My grandmother was Mame Harrigan, my grandfather, David Foley. I do not know how they met. David Foley is the man who was the Troy firefighter who died at age 41 when my mom was 11, leaving my grandmother with three children; a 14 year old son, my mom and a 9 year daughter. My grandmother remarried a wonderful man who was my grandfather's best friend, James Curren. That's the man that I knew as my grandfather. My grandmother died before I was ten years old and my memories of her are vague. The man I called my grandfather, who was not a blood relative, lived 25 more years and no man could love his grandchildren any more than he loved his.
I discovered this picture of my maternal grandparents just yesterday, waiting there in the same box with the photo of my paternal grandparents. I love this photo too, my grandmother's head resting on my grandfather's shoulder. It's not dated, so I'm guessing it's around 1910-1912 and was most likely taken in South Troy, NY. Like my paternal grandparents, they were so unaware of what the future had in store for them.
The final photo is one of my grandmother and "Grampy," the man I knew as my grandfather. I believe it was taken in the early 1950s in their backyard on Fourth Avenue in Lansingburgh, NY. As an aside, "Grampy" was 12 years younger than my grandmother, quite the scandal when they married back in 1928!
I have taken quite a trip down memory lane during the past 24 hours. Finding such casual photos of my grandparents has helped me see them as real people who lived real lives and suffered real tragedies. There's so much more about my family's history that I'd like to write someday, but for now at least this much is in writing.