This is one of the oldest photographs I have of my maternal grandmother’s family. In the early 1990s my grandmother made this enlargement from the smaller original and carefully attached post-its with the name of each person she knew. I’ve used those names many times to identify people in other photographs she wasn’t able to label before her death and it is because of her work that I know which one of these people is her great Aunt Katie Buschmann.

The photo was taken in 1912; we can date it because the woman in the center holding the baby is my great grandmother, Julia, and the baby is my grandmother’s oldest sibling, her brother Jimmy. He was born in January 1912, so this picture was likely taken sometime that summer or fall. This group is defined primarily as “the Lennons” or the extended family of my great grandfather Tom Lennon. (He is the good looking man seated behind Julia with his arm bent on his leg.) Tom’s Aunt Katie is the laughing woman in black in the front row.

I knew a few things about Katie: her given name was Catherine (another Catherine!) and she was Tom Lennon’s aunt, so her maiden name was Lennon. She married a German man according to my grandmother (which explained her last name) and they had several sons. Her husband was dead before this picture was taken although no one of my grandmother’s generation remembered the circumstances. But Katie offered my best chance to solidly get back a generation in my family story, beyond my great grandfather Tom and his siblings, and obtain some solid information about when we got here from Ireland. Here is her story.

I found Katie first in looking for the census in 1900. That is also where I found the first surprises. Take a look:


I know we have the right family not only because of “Catherine Bushmann” but also there is Margaret (who I wrote about here) with a correct birth date and there is Robert (who my grandmother had already told me about – his wife Agnes is in the upper left of the 1912 photo) and his birth date matches other info I had. So now I had Katie as a widow at only 33 with three young sons and I also had her mother, my apparently great great grandmother Bridget, who immigrated in 1857 which was very exciting. (But I won’t get into all that this time.)

Next, I wanted to find out what happened to Katie’s husband and that is the really incredible story in all this.

I couldn’t find a marriage record that matched for a Catherine Lennon and a man with the last name of “Bushmann” or “Buschmann” (or any variations of the 2). But, I did find a death record for an Adolph Buschman which matched the birth date for Katie’s son from the census. I sent away for it hoping I might get the first name of his father and I got lucky again! Sadly, Adolph died at the age of 54 (cirrhosis of the liver) and was unmarried. His brother John filled out his death certificate though which was good — I knew the information would be correct. (Always be wary of death certificates filled out by spouses or grandchildren, etc., a lot of times they don’t know all the answers.)

Katie’s husband was listed as Henry, so now I just had to find a marriage certificate for a Henry Buschman & a Catherine Lennon in the Bronx in about 1890 which worked with the age of their oldest child, Harry, from the 1900 census. And I found one right away & sent away for it & it arrived quickly and the maiden name for Catherine on the certificate was actually…..BOPP.

So, that was not “my” Henry & Catherine. Back to the hunt….

Adolph was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Woodside, NY which I knew was one of the primary old Catholic cemeteries in the Bronx. Since he was unmarried, it was reasonable to assume that he was buried with family members….maybe his parents? So I sent away to Calvary (and yes, you have to pay the fine folks at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for this info.) (OF COURSE) and got the full list of internments with Adolph and it included his father Henry and THERE WAS KATIE! Catherine Buschmann died October 23, 1928. That explained why my grandmother remembered her (she was 9 when Katie died). More importantly, the death date for Henry was October 19, 1898 and he was only 34 at the time of his death. I sent away for Katie’s death certificate to see what else I could learn from it and then shifted my attention back to Henry. What killed him at such a young age? So back to ancestry.com to see if anything came up for Henry and, well, here we go. This is from the “Officer Down Memorial Page” for the NYC Police Department:

Henry Buschmann was a police officer! And typhoid in 1898….that rang a bell for me. What did I remember about a typhoid epidemic in NYC in 1898? I went to newspapers.com (which I use for my book research) to see if anything came up. And that is where I found this from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 8, 1898:



The soldiers Henry was helping were returned from the Spanish American War in Cuba. They transitioned through Camp Wickoff at Montauk Point, NY, a quarantine camp that was supposed to prevent the spread of illness (primarily Yellow Fever & Malaria) from Cuba. There were a lot of problems however, and complaints that the camp did not receive enough provisions, was swamped with soldiers and understaffed, persisted. I thought this article was pretty on point – the Secretary of War got sick from drinking the water at Wickoff.

As thousands of soldiers, many of them ill, were transported to Wickoff, more and more of them died in Wickoff, including — horrifically — of starvation. (You can read a lot about it here.) There was an enormous scandal about Wickoff and the political spoils system of graft and greed that allowed conditions there to fester. By September, the camp was closing and soldiers were loaded on trains to get them back to their home states. In Long Island City the trains were stopped and doctors determined some men could not continue their journey. Henry Buschmann was one of the police officers who helped to unload the sick and transport them to nearby hospitals. He was exposed to typhoid and lived only a few weeks.

The story doesn’t end there, though. The consolidation of the Long Island City & NYC police departments, which occurred about a year earlier, was problematic at best. (Reading up on this, there looks to have been a ton of corruption at work in the whole process.) Henry Buschmann was a senior captain in the Long Island City police department prior to consolidation and was suspended (along with many others) after the departments were merged. When he was recalled to the job in January 1898, he came in at a patrolman’s rank and immediately sued for a return to his original rank of captain. (The confusion is why he is referred to as both a “captain” and “patrolman” in news articles.) His case was ongoing when he was assigned to assist the Red Cross at the train station. Katie didn’t let the case go after his death and, three long years later, she won!

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by asserting that Great Aunt Katie was a badass!

In the midst of all this research, Katie’s death certificate arrived (also filled out by her son, John) and I found out she died in the Bronx of liver cancer. She was 57 years old, born in NYC and her parents were listed as Bridget and Michael Lennon, both born in Ireland. (This runs counter to other data I’ve seen of her father from her sibling’s records; he’s always been listed as “John”, so the “Michael” bit here could be wrong. I’ll worry about this later…..)

There were still a few more things to find out about Katie. First, back when I got that internment listing from Calvary Cemetery, I noticed that there was a baby listed as the first burial: Albert Buschmann, died July 5, 1897 at the age of 1. I looked up his death and received a listing from Long Island City; he was Henry and Katie’s youngest and actually died at the age of 4 months from “marasmus” or “wasting away”. Katie lost her baby and husband in just over a year — it’s almost too much, isn’t it?

I still wanted to know about Henry and Katie’s wedding, though. I had no luck in ancestry.com and then I joined the NY Genealogical & Biographical Society which gave me access to a huge cache of church records. And that is where I found this transcribed record:

“Kettie” for Katie, I imagine (and “L” as a middle initial! What could it be???). Henry is there, the year fits perfectly and the church is Sacred Heart in Highbridge, where my grandmother and her siblings were all baptized. I’m going to write the church and see if can find out who stood up for them (those extra names might be new leads!)

Now the last little mystery: there is no baptismal record for Katie in the Bronx. This makes me wonder if she actually was born in NYC or fudged that for census. (She wouldn’t be the first.) I’ve got a ways to go on that journey though, so I’ll save it for later.

As to the rest of her life, in 1910 Katie was living with her three sons, all of whom were working and her brother Robert who was a fireman (they also had a boarder). In 1920 she was living with her son Adolph and two boarders and working as a housekeeper in a hotel. I hope that in spite of her sorrows, she had some joy in her life. She certainly looks happy in that picture and my grandmother remembered her as full of joy.

So there you go! On to the next relative!

lennongraveThis part of my family history starts with my great grandfather, Thomas Lennon, and the mystery woman buried beneath him in Old St Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx. (In the older cemeteries in NYC multiple bodies “stacked” in one gravesite is common.) Her name was Margaret Rowlands, (they apparently left off the “s” on the tombstone…), she died in 1918 (15 years before Thomas) and no one in my family had any idea who she was. About 30 years ago my grandmother asked me to find out who Margaret was.

I sent away for her death certificate (pre-internet era), and found out that her parents were John and Bridget Lennon, which meant that she was actually Margaret Lennon Rowlands and, after confirming a few other details, thus my great grandfather’s aunt. What was strange was that my grandmother knew the other aunts & uncles (Uncle Rob, Aunt Katie) but Margaret was completely unknown to her and everyone else still alive in our family. She did remember that when her father died there was no money and so “the Lennons took care of the burial”. We figured that as the grave site was designed for three caskets, the family donated the empty space to Thomas. St. Raymond’s sent me a copy of the deed (still on file from 1918!) and we found out the initial plot was purchased by Edward Rowlands the day Margaret died. I do not know what eventually happened to Edward but as he was only 45 when Margaret died, he likely married again or was buried, years later, with other family.

But none of this explains why no one knew anything about Margaret.

When my grandmother was alive I went after a lot of other information on the family tree and since the initial mystery of Margaret was solved, I didn’t spend much time on her. (So many other relatives to track down!) But the lack of information on Margaret has always bothered me. She was born in 1875 in New York City, she lived in the Bronx (as all of the Lennons did), she married Edward in 1910 – a first marriage for her, second for him. And she died in 1918 of “carcinoma of uterus and bladder”. I don’t have a single picture of her although I would imagine she appears in some group pictures I have of the Lennons from around 1910. She is likely one of the unidentified women, someone my grandmother, who was born in 1919, did not know and thus could not name. Margaret is literally a few pieces of paper and a name on a tombstone and I find that incredibly sad.

Why didn’t my grandmother know her name or that she had ever existed? Why didn’t anyone talk about her? Thomas Lennon knew her, his brothers and sisters knew her, those great aunts and uncles that were still alive well into the 1930s knew her and yet no one ever spoke of her to the younger generation. This relative of mine didn’t just die; she was erased.

Over the years I’ve gathered more on Margaret. I’ve tracked her through the census a bit although I’m still not 100% that I have the exact Margaret Lennon in each one. (Irish families all use the same names over and over.) I do have her for sure in 1900, at age 25, living with her widowed mother, a brother & her widowed sister & all of her children. Unfortunately, except for the brother none of the women have jobs listed. This seems to have been a flaw on the part of the census taker who only listed jobs for the men in that building, even when when there were no men living in the apartments. (And clearly, the women would have had to work as well.)

Things get a bit more interesting with Edward Rowlands however, who filled out a form in 1917 at the US consulate in Havana. It provides a lot of info on him, confirms his marriage to Margaret, and lists him as working for a company named The Snare & Triest Co. which, according to google, was involved in engineering projects throughout Latin and South America. (According to one source they built the Havana Country Club in Marianao and thus brought golf to the island.) Edward clearly lists an address in Havana with Margaret, so they were living in Cuba for at least part of their marriage. That’s pretty amazing when you consider she grew up a largely poor Irish American girl in the Bronx!

And again, I have to wonder just why on earth her remarkable story would be so quickly set aside by my family.

So this is where I’m at with Margaret Lennon: I know who she was, how she ended up sharing a grave with my great grandfather and where she fits in my family tree. I know who she married, where she lived, how and when she died at only 42 years old. But everything that matters – the secrets of her humor or beauty or boldness – are absent. Margaret Lennon Rowlands, right now, is one who got away. She is just a name on a card that I have stuck to my wall, someone to not give up on quite yet, but a lady who will likely forever be a blank slate in my family’s story.

I bet you were something special, Margaret; I bet you were really one amazing woman.
margaret

lilygolden2016This is my second cousin going through meeting minutes from the 1920s for the American Alpine Club. She was with me last week at the AAC Library in Golden, Colorado, while I was digging into their amazing archive. I put her on the meeting minutes looking for any mention of Allen Carpé while I was going through the files on the 1926 Mount Logan expedition.

The AAC has receipts, planning notes, correspondence, draft reports and a ton of photos from what was arguably one of the most difficult summits in mountaineering history. (Logan is the highest mountain in Canada and second highest in North America.) Allen Carpé was a member of the summit team and I was in Golden looking for him, just as I have looked for him in files sent to me from Princeton and the Carnegie Foundation and with the help of researchers in St Louis and Banff and the American Institute of Physics (and a lot of other places) and in the pages of an absolute ton of journals that no one else has looked at in quite awhile.

My little cousin is almost eleven years old. She jumped right into the search for Carpé and found him throughout the meeting minutes — those are her post-it notes on the pages in the picture. These minutes are important because they are a way for me to track Carpé’s smaller movements through the years, a way to find him around the big events. They will find their way into my book in a sentence here or there, tiny details that readers will likely skim right past, but they will be there because she looked for Carpé and found him. These details may go unnoticed but they will make the book richer for being there; they will help to bring Allen Carpé to life.

During the research we talked about my book and why Carpé, the other men with him and the expedition itself mattered. To explain the project, I ended up pulling a bit from Hamilton (of course) and especially the song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story“.

Before Golden, she had never heard of Allen Carpé or Theodore Koven, his fellow climber who died with him on the mountain, but as we talked she understood why I thought they were people everyone should know about. More importantly, she saw me sift through documents on the hunt for history and she understood why that hunt (which could be very tedious) was the way this kind of writing worked.

When we left she asked me why there were no women on the expedition.

Now you understand why I love his kid so much, don’t you?

Catherine Lennon Fullam "Aunt Kitty" circa 1937, Agnes' 8th grade graduationMy maternal great grandfather, Thomas Lennon, had 3 siblings including a sister named Catherine who went by the nickname “Kitty”. She is what I consider a “bridge” ancestor as there is someone living today (namely, my mother) who remembers Aunt Kitty. Unlike so many of the names and faces I deal with in this family history project, Kitty is thus someone who I have some actual real memories to associate with. There are also the stories from my grandmother of Aunt Kitty (pictured here with my grandmother’s younger sister Agnes in about 1937). The primary story about her is really quite interesting.

Kitty was married twice, first to a police officer (whose name no one could remember) and later to Lawrence Fullam, a fireman. Most famously, Kitty and Lawrence lived together for years because he was married and his wife would not give him a divorce. (It’s all very Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.)

Keep in mind that my family was very famously Irish Catholic, so the fact that Kitty and her first husband were divorced and then she lived with a married man for years until their marriage (I don’t know how that finally came about), and no one cared, is really nuts. (Catholics weren’t supposed to do this in the 1930s and ’40s!) (Unless, you know, you were Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.) But it’s totally true.

Anyway, because I knew Kitty’s birth and death dates (1891-1960), and where she lived (Throgg’s Neck, Long Island), she has been an easy fit in the family tree. What I didn’t expect though (and honestly stumbled into finding) was a birth certificate for her. (I had verified the birth dates for her and her siblings from their baptismal records.) But there it was, listed on ancestry.com, so I ordered it from the City of New York and now I’m trying to understand what this document is telling me.

kittyfullamFirst, Kitty requested this certificate in 1946 and provided the information on the form herself, backing it up with baptismal records for herself and one of her siblings. Most of the basic info I already knew but she lists her parents (John Lennon and Catherine Nolan), states they were born in Ireland and provides their ages at her birth which frankly are very odd.

John is listed as 48 and Catherine as 46. This is not impossible, but it’s certainly weird. I know that Kitty was the 3rd of 4 full blood siblings: James (1886), Thomas (1888) (my great grandfather), then Kitty (1891) and finally Elizabeth aka “Annie” (1893). Based on Kitty’s birth certificate, Catherine would thus have been around 48 for the birth of her last child; and she herself was born about 1845 (John in 1843).

I don’t really understand this – it’s so strange for the late 19th century to have such a small group of children and to start so late in age. Of course, I haven’t been able to find much of anything concrete about John & Catherine prior to this so it’s all new at this point.

All I have on John & Catherine Lennon is that they were married on October 13, 1884 in Sacred Heart Church in the Bronx (the same church where their four children were baptized). I’m still looking for the actual city or state marriage certificate. But 1884 as a marriage date makes sense with their first child James following almost exactly 2 years later.

To complicate things a bit Catherine had a single child from a previous marriage to James Nolan: a daughter named Mary Ellen born in 1874. I have not been able to find out what happened to James although the family story was that he died and that is why Catherine remarried. Mary Ellen I do know quite a bit about as my grandmother knew one of her sons (a cousin) and his wife who I actually remember from visits in FL. She gave me some info on Mary Ellen’s life years ago – the name of her husband, the name of all her kids, etc.

But again – how odd that Catherine would have only one previous child. On Kitty’s birth certificate she listed her mother as having only 3 children prior to her (which fits) but that could just be what Kitty knew. Her mother might have had 10 kids with the mysterious James Nolan as far as we know. It seems likely she had to have had at least a few other kids that sadly did not survive.

So here’s what I’ve got: Catherine is born in Ireland, she marries a guy named James Nolan (in NY or Ireland) and they have a little girl named Mary Ellen in New York City in 1874. (I know this date & place from Mary Ellen’s death certificate which I have.) Ten years later Catherine marries a guy named John Lennon in the Bronx and they have 4 children over the next 9 years. When John and Catherine die and where they are buried, I don’t know. (You are likely not shocked at the fact that John and Catherine Lennon are about the most common names ever in NYC – there are a zillion of them.)

What is really messed up about all this is not so much John & Catherine but where I go from here. All the names my grandmother gave me for her aunts and uncles – people she pointed out in photographs – don’t fit in the information I have now. She remembered well the names I mention above (Jim, Kitty and Annie as well as the “half-aunt” Mary Ellen). But I’ve also got to deal with an Uncle Rob (born 1880) and his wife, Aunt Agnes (that’s her on the left along with Annie in the center and Kitty in the right in the pic above), and an Uncle Jack (I’ve got pics of him from 1910 & stories from my grandmother but where does he fit into this?) and a Margaret (born 1875) whose grave my great grandfather shares. (Not uncommon to put family members together back then as the graves held 3-6 people.)

And – hold on for it – there’s another Catherine Lennon (born 1867). She was known as Aunt Katie and her full married name was Catherine Lennon Buschman. My grandmother identified her in photos as her father’s aunt which puts her a generation back for sure. But then Rob, Margaret and Katie were definitely siblings – I have them living together in census records around 1900 and 1905 with a mother named Bridget – so they are all a generation back (and thus my grandmothers great aunts and great uncle) but these three were clearly born much later than my mysterious great great grandfather John Lennon. Was he maybe the product of an earlier marriage and that’s why he was born in Ireland where these younger three were born in NYC?

I DON’T KNOW.

Damn these Irish and their multiple marriages and using the same names and calling everyone “Aunt” and “Uncle” even though they might have been “Great Aunt” and “Great Uncle”!!!!

Moving ahead, I have to find out more about John and Catherine, and hopefully find their marriage certificate in NY. I need to find out who John’s parents were and if they match the parents I have found documented on records for Rob, Katie and Margaret. I need to find out about John and Catherine’s deaths and Catherine’s first marriage and, eventually, I need to find out about all them who came over from Ireland.

I can’t believe I am still mired down in New York City and I really – really – wish my family had used different names. But I’m also trying to embrace that at least Great Great Aunt Kitty has taken me a few more steps down the path of finding out who I am.
lennons1910
In the very center, dressed all in black with a hat, is Katie Lennon Buschman. Right in front of her, with the dark hair parted in the middle, is her niece, my great grandfather’s sister Annie Lennon Jones and beside Annie, in the dark pants, is Annie’s husband Ed Jones. To the right of Katie Buschman, the man in the white shirt and tie is the mysterious “Uncle Jack”. All of these people were identified (by post-it notes!) by my grandmother. In another photo taken the same day, my great grandparents, their first child and Great Great Aunt Kitty are also in the picture. It was taken the summer of 1912 – the people here were always collectively identified as “Lennons”.

PS. My middle name is Catherine – named for my mother who shares the middle name, and for my grandmother Catherine, who was named for Aunt Kitty who was named for her mother Catherine and for Aunt Katie.

Prayer cards for Rosario & Marie Ann MondorThese are my paternal great grandparents who immigrated to Rhode Island from Quebec in 1927.

There are a couple of interesting things about these prayer cards. First, they are in French even though my great grandparents had lived in the U.S. for about 35 years when they died, and second that they include actual photographs. While I have prayer cards from many relatives who passed away in the past 30 years, these older ones feel (and look) much more significant. My father kept them in his Bible, which is where I found them. They are the only pictures I have of my Mondor great grandparents.

Rosario Mondor was universally loved. Every story I was told about him, from my grandfather, my great uncles Fred and Ben, and my father, always stressed what a kind and loving man he was. Rosario worked very hard in Rhode Island to support his family; he always held a job and worked on the side as a carpenter. His children had more because of him, his grandchildren have more and his great grandchildren, quite frankly, are living lives that I am sure Rosario could not have imagined.

My great grandmother was tough – every story I ever heard about her began with “she was a tough woman”. She was also an incredible cook (all those stories continued with “but she could cook!”). I don’t know how they ended up together; I don’t think anyone really knew how they ended up together. That would have been a great story to know but the French Canadians don’t tell a lot of personal stories. We work, we go to church, we eat wonderful food, we cheer the Montreal Canadiens*. It is a very different sort of legacy than my mother’s Irish side (where telling stories is like breathing), but one I value very much.

My great grandparents left a remote area of Quebec in search of a better life in Rhode Island. Their grandson (my father), was born a first generation American 12 years later and while still a teenager ended up as a member of an air crew over Thule, Greenland in the USAF. I imagine that seemed a bit unreal to them. The fact that his daughter would end up flying airplanes on her own one day in Florida would have likely been impossible for them to believe. If they hadn’t left Quebec, none of that would have happened. That’s why genealogy appeals to me so much; the decisions of these two people created a new world for great grandchildren they never knew.

Rosario was dead and buried before my brother and I and all of our cousins were even born but we are who we are because of decisions he made in 1927. How could I possibly resist the lure of his story? How could I possibly look at these faces and not want to know so much more?

* Of course these are not the only things French Canadians in New England do – but certainly the highlights. 🙂
Translation for post title: “remember in your prayers”

summer1977
This is us, the summer of 1977, at Spessard Holland Park in Florida. I grew up only 20 minutes or so from here, spending very nearly all of my childhood at beaches along the Space Coast. My father is in the back of the picture, smiling. He was the one who taught my brother and I all that we know about loving the Atlantic Ocean.

In the summer of 1977 my parents got divorced. I was 8½ and my brother was 13. We were very good at telling everyone we were okay; we knew then, we always knew, that it was our job to tell everyone that we were okay. The unfortunate thing for us is that we loved both of our parents very much. It would have been so much easier if we could have hated one of them, or just cared less for one over the other. But we loved them equally, and with all that we had, and so, regardless of how the break-up was for them, or how necessary, it broke our hearts.

But we were very good at saying that we were okay.

In the summer of 1977 one of my father’s sisters and her family came to Florida. These are my four cousins who arrived in the midst of so much that was very wrong with our world. My oldest cousin Keith was 14 and I was the youngest. The six of us are thus only five & a half years apart; for my cousin Renée and I the age difference is only a few months.

We had never met before that summer, we were only photographs to each other, the cousins from up north and down south.

My father came and got us and we went to Spessard Holland where we met our Aunt Irene & Uncle Dick and were handed off to the cousins. I remember only a few seconds, maybe not even a minute, and the six of us were just together. As a pack we went to the beach, we ate, we played Stratego, we hit the showers and, exhausted, we fell asleep. Mostly, we went to the beach. My father left for work and my brother and I stayed at Spessard Holland in their camper for a few days. It was the best summer of my life.

Here is what happened in 1977: my parents had a fight, their last fight. My father moved out, my mother went to work full time, my brother and I learned not to complain, not to ask questions, not to be any trouble at all. We understood that our father’s family did not want to hear about our mother and our mother’s family did not want to hear about our father. We recognized that this was a new life we had to accept and no matter how these changes were for anyone else, there was a very small new world that was now only inhabited by my brother and I. No one else will ever know what it was like for us; no one else can ever truly understand.

In the middle of all that, of the two of us stumbling about and navigating these cataclysmic changes, our boisterous, brilliant, wonderful cousins appeared. They listened as we said mostly nothing, they laughed, they filled every minute. They could not entirely know what had happened to us, but they knew enough to reach out and hold us with their hands and make room for us in their hearts. They were our family but more importantly, they instantly became our friends.

They saved us. That terrible summer of 1977, Keith, Neil, Eric and Renée ran with us on the beach, and rode waves with us in the water, and they saved us. They were everything we needed; honestly they were the only thing, the best thing. I have never forgotten how enormously important their kindness was or how great the impact it had on our lives.

We stayed in touch after that, wrote letters, had visits when all of us or even just two of us could get together. Always it is the same thing, we fall right back into the easiest of conversations, we still and always feel as if we have known each other forever. “That’s my cousin,” I will say, smiling, when I see one of them, but those words aren’t enough, they can’t tell you what the four of them will always mean to my brother and I.

We spend our whole lives wondering if we really matter to each other, if any of us are making a difference in this world. For nearly forty years I have held onto the memory of Spessard Holland and those days as a good memory, the best memory, in the midst of a truly terrible time. I’ve never told my cousins what they did that summer or how grateful my brother and I will always be. To them it likely was just a fun vacation and that’s okay. But when someone makes such a difference in your life, you should tell them—they should know—and seeing this picture again reminded me of all the words that were never said.

So, this is who we were during the summer of 1977 and this is me saying thank you to some of the people I love the most in the world.

on the right, Ernestine Pressl (unk friend)The more time I spend researching my maternal grandmother’s family, the more clearly a single theme has emerged. While the men are interesting (and pretty much universally good looking), their lives have all been fairly predictable. They held basic unremarkable jobs (except when my great grandfather worked on the beer wagon – that was pretty cool), they served in the military (or not), they got married (or not), had children and, unfortunately, often drank too much. That’s the guys in a nutshell.

This is pretty standard genealogy – we all wish to find royal blood or great military heroics (or even a dramatic prison break) but mostly are born, work, marry, die. And that’s okay because even that is interesting when it’s your ancestors you’re learning about, but compared to the women in my family these are just dates on the page.

The women though are really something else.

kittyfullamThe theme of my family history is that the women are unbelievable. Every generation there are women doing things or involved in things that are so off the wall that I have begun to expect it. They get married much later than average (20, 25, 30), they marry multiple times, they get divorced, and they live in sin.

Several of them lived together for years before getting married which for a bunch of Catholics is really pretty staggering. (I know about the living together because the family believed they were married and now I’m finding out that they weren’t married at the time everyone thought they were – if that makes any sense.) (I also know some of them were living together because the whole family knew that too.) (I also can’t believe that Catholic women got divorced.)

One of them was committed to an insane asylum and died there ten years later. I’m still working on the story behind that one.

Several of them had no children or few children. It’s like a theme from one generation to the next – a bunch of Catholic women who manage to have only one or two children in spite of being married for years. How is that statistically possible? It’s become a thing for me to check on children in all the census records and make a note – no children, no children, no children.

I am beyond frustrated trying to figure out all of these women. My great grandmother terminated a pregnancy in the late 1920s – was this something that she knew how to do because other women had done it in her family? Had her own mother done it? (Also, her mother had 4 children – but her husband died partly from syphilis complications…how did he have that and she didn’t?) (As she died decades later, I know she didn’t have it.)

And for some strange reason, my great grandmother who lived in the Bronx got married – at 20! – in New Jersey. Why did she run away to New Jersey (with a guy from the Bronx)? They were both plenty old enough but they didn’t get married in the church. How do Catholics in 1910 not get married in the church? And why? (All their children were baptized and raised in the church.)

And my Nana rarely went to church. WHAT IS THAT ALL ABOUT?

I just keep circling around these women. Tracking their relationships, looking for children, growing more and more baffled by what I find. My family is full of the most fascinating women and they are revealing their lives an inch at a time. It’s painfully slow but irresistible and I can’t look away.

[Post pics – #1: My great great aunt Ernestine on the right, circa 1910. We thought she was married once, actually it was 3 times. She was apparently living with her 3rd husband for about 10 years before they actually married; I’m still trying to figure out how marriages 1 & 2 ended. #2 (l-r) Great great Aunts Agnes, Annie & Kitty Lennon. Agnes and her husband had no children, Annie had 3 (I think) and Kitty was divorced, had no children and lived with her second husband for decades before they married on her death bed in 1960. #3 is Rockland County Hospital where Great great aunt Mary Ellen was committed until her death.]

Evelyn Gonzales Baranello (daughter of Marie Pressl Gonzalez) & her daughter Joan, August 4, 1935

I have written about my grandmother’s cousin Evelyn in two other posts. I wrote about her death, at almost 24, in November 1940 from diphtheria, about two weeks after her toddler son died from the same disease. I also wrote about my continued search for Evelyn’s two older daughters, Joan and Barbara, and for Evelyn’s final resting place. She has been, if not an obsession then certainly a serious preoccupation in my life for decades. I promised my grandmother nearly 30 years ago that I would find out what happened to the two little girls.

And now I know.

Last month Joan, who was six when her mother died, visited the east coast with her daughter and granddaughter; they stayed with Joan’s niece and her husband. That nephew-in-law, Ricardo, is a genealogist fiend and over the course of a conversation with Joan they discussed her mother and how the girls had lost track of their mother’s family. When he had a chance Ricardo plugged the information Joan gave him into ancestry.com and it matched my family tree. He then googled my name, found my website, looked through my Family History links and found the posts on Evelyn. He knew, of course, that this was Joan’s mother and sent me an email with his phone number. I called him within hours and we talked and talked and talked. It was amazing and honestly, it all felt a little unreal.

My grandmother and Evelyn were very close; they appear in many photos together in the 1930s, always having a wonderful time. The shock of losing her never faded away and even 45 years later my grandmother would tear up at the thought of her cousin. She knew they had moved away with their father and she just wanted to be sure that they were happy; she wanted them to be sure that they knew their mother was never forgotten.

As it turns out, the girls and their father ended up in Nicaragua. He married again, he built a new life, there were more children and marriages and grandchildren. Joan has four children; Barbara has five. I talked to Joan’s daughter, also named Evelyn, on a later phone call. They are wonderful people and it was such a grand thing to talk to them about our family; to share what I knew and listen to their stories.

This long separation was never due to any dark drama; it was probably just distance and poor communication. We are still working out when and how things happened in the 1940s but there was the war of course and they were all overwhelmed with what was going on in their lives. It was just very easy to miss each other back then; a simple thing to become lost for decades.

Moments like this, I miss my grandmother very much; she would have loved to talk to Evelyn’s family. But still we found each other and that is something special; really, it’s the kind of miracle that shines no matter how long it takes.

[Post pic of Evelyn and Joan at the beach, 1935.]

Marie Pressl & her niece, Ernestine "Ernie" Gonzales, Nov 1959
I have been reading Women in Clothes, a fascinating book the includes the thoughts of literally hundreds of different women about what they wear, why, how it makes them feel, the clothes they remember, the clothes they have longed for and on and on. It’s really quite the piece of cultural history and I highly recommend it.

It was fortuitous that while I have been reading this book, I uploaded another round of family photos including the one above. The older woman was my great grandmother’s sister Marie who moved away from NYC with her husband and owned and operated a motel in California. The other woman is her daughter Ernestine, known as Ernie. She shows up in several photos over the years, a class picture with my grandmother, at the beach, etc. However, although she and my grandmother were only a year apart, they were not close. In fact my grandmother rarely spoke of her. She was much closer with Ernie’s older sister Evelyn, who I’ve written about before. (She died tragically young of diphtheria with her little boy after sleeping on an infected mattress.) My family also knew Ernie’s brother Arthur quite well, until his death in the 1990s. I can remember he & his wife visiting us in FL when I was a kid.

Initially I found this picture interesting mostly because of Ernie, who has remained a fairly absent family member in my research. But after posting it to facebook yesterday, I had a bit of a shock. This picture was taken in 1959 and Ernie was born in 1918. So, she was 41 in this photo which is 5 years younger than I am right now. Look at her again – she’s only 41!

I was wearing a pair of torn jean shorts and a Pawtucket Red Sox t-shirt as I loaded this picture. I wear an ankle bracelet made of fishing hardware, (and have since my father died 16 years ago), and I have tattoos on both of my wrists. Basically, I was sitting here looking more like my 20-year old self than the mature woman in this photo and it got me thinking about what my clothes say about me, and what Ernie’s say about her.

Granted, I’m at my dining room table dealing with a stack of family photos and it is summer and hot and I’m not seeking to impress anyone. Maybe Marie & Ernie had just gotten home from dinner out somewhere when they posed for this picture. Maybe they were just about to go out somewhere – maybe they were going to church. I have no idea of the context of this picture other than the note on the back with the date: “Marie and Ernie at my house”. Marie sent this to my great grandmother along with some other photos of other relatives from the same visit; maybe she only sent the ones where they looked really nice.

Ernie just looks so mature – so old. I thought she was in her 50s when I saw this snapshot; I could hardly believe she was the same girl from the beach so long ago. Of course I might have the same shock if I look back at my own beach pictures right now. We all grow up; our style changes. She’s the girl on the right below – picture taken in 1935 when she was 26. I have no idea if she ended up with Walter, the fellow who is has his arm around her. (Pretty racy pose for 1935!)

Honestly, after not thinking much about Ernie at all over the years, now I am dying to know more – I also wish I could peek in her closet and see if she ever got wild again of if the dress shoes and chunky necklace were the new her.

I don’t know what happened to Ernie, when she passed away (I don’t think she had any children). I’ll find out though – I can’t resist her now.
Friends: "Jo, Johnny, Walter, Ernie" August 4, 1935 - The "Ernie" is Ernestine Gonzales, daughter of Marie Pressl Gonzales and niece of Julia Lennon

postcard 1
During World War II my maternal grandfather, Pete Hurley, received Seabee training in Port, Hueneme, California and apparently (from this postcard anyway) had a bit of time to take in the sights.

Read about the Seabees and the naval base here. My grandfather worked in a shipyard in NYC before the war so was a perfect fit for the “Construction Battalion”.
postcard 2
He sent this to his mother-in-law, my Nana, who not only kept the three photo albums I have been sorting through but also all of the postcards ever sent to her (plus some she picked up on her own and wrote “I was here” on the back of along with the date of her visit). I’ve sent the postcards out to family members they belong to but for obvious reasons kept this one for myself.

You can see a great WWII pic of my grandfather here. He served in the South Pacific for more than a year, until the war ended.

Oh – the “girls girls girls” bit was not a worry for my grandmother. My grandfather never cheated on her and was actually fanatically paranoid about the whole idea of cheating. (He had a friend who suffered from syphilis and it was pretty awful from the stories I’ve heard.) However, GrandDads did love to flirt! 🙂