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Monday, March 13, 2017

History Provides Ideas

Image result for orphan train        Image result for orphan train

           I instructed a workshop once and met a woman there who had only one goal. She had no desire to write books or newspaper articles or poems. She just wanted to tell her mother’s story.
            This woman’s mother’s maiden name was German. Her grandmother prepared German dishes for family get-togethers. Her grandfather read to them from a Bible brought with them when the family came to America. The grandchildren called their grandparents Oma and Opa. They were proudly German through and through.
            But oddly, St Patrick’s day was her mother’s favorite day of celebration. She reminded the kids to wear green to school. She tied green balloons on the porch railings. She served emerald-hued lemonade and baked a cake decorated with shamrocks. Once she came home from shopping, laughing, with a Teddy bear dressed like a leprechaun. She named him O’Malley and for years after that, he sat on her dresser.
            The mother was almost 90 when she went in the hospital. Toward the last, she called her daughter, the woman I met at the conference, to her bedside.
            “I have something to tell you,” she said, “so someone knows before it’s too late.”
            It seemed she had been adopted. She’d known since she was very young when she found the paperwork in an old trunk. Her birth mother was an Irish girl, unwed. I won’t tell you her name because this is someone else’s story but suffice it to say, it was a thoroughly Irish name, like Molly O’Malley. She’d never let on that she knew. Her adoptive mother and father had been wonderful parents and she loved them. She wouldn’t have wanted them to think she doubted that she considered them her real parents. So she kept their secret. For 364 days a year, she was German but on that one day, St Patrick’s Day, she honored the woman who had brought her into the world.
            By the time her parents died, it seemed not to matter so she remained silent. The documents had disappeared from the trunk. But now she was dying and it seemed important to pass on her history.
            I don’t know if my friend ever wrote her mother’s story. She planned to try to do research to track down her real grandmother but I never heard whether she did it or if she tried, whether she was successful. 
            I was thinking of this because I was reading through the “Cass County, Indiana – 2002 History” over the weekend. Wabash County has a similar book. I love these histories but they can be so frustrating. They always contain a section devoted to family biographies but usually they are a boring list of “begats” with relevant dates. Sometimes, though, embedded within them are tantalizing bits of information that make you long to know more.
            Many Cass County settlers emigrated from Germany and Ireland and Italy. What must it have been like to leave Italy in 1913 as Domenico Pancini did, leaving behind a wife and child, to start a new life in Logansport, Indiana (why Logansport?). And what was it like for Zelinda who followed him months later, spending 14 days on a ship, coming through Ellis Island and traveling to Buffalo to board a train to Logansport, only to watch her child succumb to illness there? What a bittersweet reunion that must have been for Domenico and Zelinda with little Josephine left in a lonely grave in New York.    
            The Frederick Charles Green listing relates that he was born in Ardwick, England on June 19, 1879 and came to America when he was approximately four years old. From there, Frederick “came west from New York in 1892 on the “orphan train”. The orphan train? What was that and how did Frederick get to be there?
            Dennis Franklin Hess was born in Ireland on September 15, 1864 and was adopted into the Hess family when he arrived in America. Was there a time when America was actively importing European orphans into our country to increase our population?
            According to the Crook-Helms Homestead account, Patrick and Nancy Crook purchased their farm on August 7, 1858. It goes on to say that the Crooks were “blessed” with nine children. I wonder if Nancy really considered herself blessed when she realized she was pregnant with her ninth child?  I’d love to read a diary written by the mother of nine in that era.
            Dr Kathryn McHale taught in the Logansport public schools for seven years after graduating from Logansport High School, then went to Columbia University where she received a B.S., an M.S. and a Ph.D, going on to countless achievements and awards. From a humble public school teacher to a multi-degreed professor/doctor/author? What came between?
            The history book only offers teasing clues about the stories that abound within our family histories. I can’t help being curious about how many fascinating tales have been lost because our family members never thought to tell us the details and we never thought to ask.
            If you still have the opportunity, ask.

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