when the history you seek is your own
it started over matzo and maror, the staples of passover, when amid cups of wine (they’re commanded, four of them), i started to pepper my mate with question upon question (more than four of my own; again, four are commanded). i was asking about seders of his long-ago past, curious about each of the characters, and the long journey from shtetl to tenement to, well, ivy league colleges and a pulitzer prize. because i tend to poke around in the vaults of history, root around for tidbits and clues, i remembered i’d once tucked away what we thought were steerage records of one isidore kaminski’s arrival on nov. 14, 1912 from russia by way of rotterdam, on the s.s. uranium.
and upon pulling that sheaf from my stash, i felt my curiosities piquing. i was suddenly hot in pursuit of my own irish peoples. and, lo and behold, i found philip mahoney himself arriving in boston harbor on may 9, 1850, on the silas leonard, a steerage ship that only three years later would be shipwrecked off the coast of newport, rhode island.
the deeper i look the likelier i see how often the fact of my existence is but a long, long series of near misses and narrow escapes.
and, often, when poking around long-ago times when survival was iffy, the tales you unearth can knock you back for a while. it’s the price of paying attention. and i welcome it, though it might take a few days, maybe some months to really distill all i discovered this week.
best of all, i discovered a long-lost cousin, a cousin whose tales criss-cross the pages of the new york times, among other adventures. we share a great grandmother and great grandfather. tragedy struck his branch of the tree right from the start, when our great grandmother died birthing joe’s grandmother. my grandfather would have been seven, left without a mother and with a newborn baby sister. i am still filling in all of the pieces of a story far sadder even than that. i am imagining––enlivening––all of the characters in each of the plots, thrusting myself back in time, peeking out from under the tables and around all the corners.
that’s what is often the case for those of us who find ourselves compelled by the stories of the past, stories we know in some way inform who we are and how we got to this moment. the few cousins i’ve met along the way, one of them one of the true treasures of my life, all seem to share a gnawing curiosity, a wanting to fill in the blanks. to step back from the present and take in the whole sweep of the story.
it’s how i discovered an uncle had died in the great battle of iwo jima, slashed with a bayonet in the deep of night before he could leap from his tent. it’s how i filled in so many missing pieces of the grandmother my own father so rarely spoke of, a silence i sensed was fueled by a heart so broken by her absence he chose to stay mostly wordless when it came to talk of her. though he did tell me once––and with my father the less he said, the more emphatically you knew he meant it––that he saw so much of his mother in me.
i am fairly certain i get lost in the mists of family history in my feeble attempt at resurrections. oh, what i wouldn’t give to sit at an old maple table, fueled by tea for the women, scotch for the men, and indulge in the swirl of their stories. maybe it’s reaching deep into the vaults––frustrating as it is to run into the dead ends and cul-de-sacs of hard-to-read 18th-century cursive and records gaping with holes––maybe it’s reaching back into time, barely brushing up against the most basic of biographies, that fills in a sense of just who i am, and propels me to make of my one little life just a little bit more than i otherwise might.
maybe it’s that the long sweep of history puts me more squarely in my place, highlights how tiny a dot is my place in the long ellipsis of genetics and time.
this week i spent a long time looking at the mahany side of my family, a side i knew too little about, a side whose story is much sadder than i ever realized. my dad said so very little, and my dad was gone way before i’d asked even a tenth of my questions. the last significant thing i remember my dad saying to me, one day not long after his very last christmas, was “kid, you have a real sense of history.”
indeed, it seems it’s a hunger.
and all these years later, i’m still trying to ask my next question, to find the stories he never told.
with all the love in my heart, this one is in its own way a love note to my dear beloved p. shannon, a third cousin who more than anyone i know has taken me by the hand deep into the vaults, and pointed the light at each and every turn. bless you paddy, i will adore you till the way end of time…..
the map above is the rail line through kentucky where my choochoo papa (my paternal grandfather) was the locomotive engineer for the Louisville & Nashville Rail Road at the early age of 26 until his retirement some 50 years later. he––along with my dad and the grandma i never knew––started out at the little dot on the map marked “paris,” as in kentucky not france, a dot on the map that will forever be my old kentucky home.
have you poked around in the attic of your own family’s history? are you propelled by curiosities? i suppose, after a lifetime of bylines, i’ve left more than my share for some curious soul in generations to come. have at it, sweet girl, i only wish i could join you…….
This leaves me wanting more — a history written by you would be a joy to read, this suggests. Thank you, Barbara and Isidore and Paddy and all the rest!
big giant heart. xoxoxo
So lovely. I’m inspired to ask more questions of my own, to my parents. I see future phone calls taking on a new shape. Thank you.
Peering into the nooks and crannies of our ancestry is a fascinating and addictive activity. You never know what you will find but sadness is sure to be there. Having both done our genealogy, my spouse and I visited the parts of Poland we are both from, one Jewish, one Catholic, and are in touch with another cousin in Belarus who has war news. A third cousin I just met,Jessica Weible, wrote a nonfiction book called Dead Letters where she tries to deliver 100 yr. old mail by researching the families of the addressee. There is sadness in all these families. Nothing is perfect roses. But it is so interesting to read how far we have come and know that we have such strong folk in our families bearing us up to get through another day of 2022.
there’s no surprise that there’s sadness, but some of it is so, so harsh. and i know full well how blessed i am that there are ancestors who survived. love your wisdom and words: “bearing us up to get through another day….”
Lovely memories, Barbara. I too have been blessed with the sense of history shaping our lives. Great Grandfather McCarthy came from Ireland to work for the Rock Island RR in the Quad CIties of Iowa.
lots of rail lines put down by immigrants and the enslaved…..
Yes! Continue your searching, and know that it will yield both surprises and sadnesses…all part of the richness of our families’ lives. My father recorded a 90-minute cassette tape (now on dvd) of both my mother’s and his family histories- after years of my dogged nagging – and it is priceless (especially to listen to his voice!) And a little digging on Ancestry.com turned up census forms for my mother’s and her mother’s family – and their Chicago addresses over the decades. It also revealed that my grandmother gave birth to 12 children, the surviving eight who we knew as our aunts and uncles – but also four others who died as infants or before age 2. Sacred information.
Sacred indeed. Perfect word.
And, Saturday night, after driving my mom from here to there, we sat down with my phone and recorded the greatest hits of her family story. I laughed when I stopped the tape and realized she’d boiled it all down (a woman of few words) into a short tight seven minutes. Reminded me of how the tale had always been told of how my dad whirled through the Louvre in 15 minutes flat. Maybe it’s their proclivity for short and sweet that’s propelled me to be more of deep curious inclination. But I KNOW how priceless those new seven minutes on tape are and will forever be.