Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Heading Home

In the west country, looking out the window on the train from Dublin
Tonight I am flying out to Ireland, leaving on a seven o'clock flight. Over the last while, plans which were so easy to put in place have been switched up by the living and the dying sides of life, but now everything is set and I am ready to go.

As I write this, I reflect upon how much life has changed since I travelled to Ireland last August, and how much my family has lost this year. We have spent far too much time standing by the bedside of someone we love, counting down to that last breath of life which tells us we are being left behind.

On the corner of my desk one of my mom's favorite scarves envelopes the red tennis ball that our sweet Sarah used to love to chase. Next to it sit two sets of rosary beads, one I brought from Ireland for my mom years ago, and one I held as a seven year old making my first holy communion. It is a little tableau of life which once was, and is no more.

Croagh Patrick: St. Patrick's Mountain, County Mayo
Sometimes it seems as though none of this matters. It seems as though it is all so much fluff, something to distract us from the end which awaits us. I find myself wondering, what is it we are looking for when we go in search of our ancestors?

I believe we are searching for ourselves among the ruins of old homesteads and piles of documentary evidence. We are searching for that marker which says, 'yes', your people have been planted on this earth for a very long time, they mattered and you matter now.

In the film The Hours, when asked why someone has to die in her novel 'Mrs. Dalloway', Virginia Woolf (as portrayed by Nicole Kidman) replies, 'In order that the rest of us might value life more'.

Are those of us who have been left behind valuing our lives more? Are we living the way we want to live, and doing what we want to do? Are we doing our level best to seek and to find, and to hold in remembrance those who have gone before us?
Yes, all serious questions, but worth contemplating I believe.

Some of you have entrusted me with the task of finding some things for you on this trip, and I want to sincerely thank you for your faith in me. I will do my best.

In return I ask that you take the time now to engage in a random act of kindness, genealogical or otherwise. If you are able, offer to help out someone who has sought help. Perhaps they are struggling with their research, or things just aren't clicking for them, and you could be the difference for them. Maybe they write a blog and just need a little encouragement.

Dublin City
Perhaps you have an ancestor in mind who has been forgotten up to this point in time. Remember them. Write down their story and then tell that story to the world. The story does not have to involve wealth, fame or feats of daring do. Sometimes you will find the greatest heroism in the ordinary family life of people who survived, despite grinding poverty. The history books will not bear their names, that is why it is up to you to tell their story.

Life isn't perfect. No matter how great someone's life might seem from the outside, little do we know how it looks from the inside. We all face challenges, and we only have each other, so add a little encouragement along the way.

Value your life more.

Until we meet again.

The Long Walk, Mount Jerome Cemetery, Harold's Cross, Dublin.

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Monday, September 10, 2012

Hanna Mordaunt: 'An angel bright, on earth too good to stay'

Hanna (left) and her sister Rita in the Spring of 1949,
just a few months before her death.
When I was growing up I was always struck by the fact that my mother had very few close friends. In particular I wondered why Mom had no female friend to whom she was especially close, and in whom she could confide her hopes and dreams, her troubles and doubts. Over time I discovered there had been a very close friend in Ireland, Hanna Mordaunt, a young woman lost to my mother, and to her own family, at a time when a young woman should be going to dances, and strolling along on the arm of a favored young man.

They say that when someone experiences the tragic loss of a very close friend, he or she may be more cautious, whether consciously or subconsciously, about once again forming those very deep bonds which define true friendship. In her childhood and youth, too often my mother stood by the bedside of someone she loved, watching the light of life disappear, knowing that once again she was left behind. From my own experience of such loss, I can now understand my mother's tendency to keep people at arm's length.

The loss of Hanna had a profound effect on my mother. Although Mom rarely spoke of her friend, she did tell me the story of Hanna dying at Lourdes, France. Within the collection of photographs and ephemera which my mother kept, there are brief glimpses of this friend from long ago.

In the summer of 1928, Hanna Mordaunt was born into a family which would grow to include at least two other daughters. She grew up on Cambridge Street in Ringsend, Dublin. Her home was over a bridge, and just a few blocks away, from the home in which my mother lived on Gordon Street. Hanna was three years older than my mom, so I do not know if they knew each at school, or if they met after leaving school.

As the story goes, Hanna was a deeply religious young woman. In 1949 she went to Lourdes on a pilgrimage because she was critically ill. Hanna did not expect to be cured, but wanted to receive a blessing with the holy waters, and wanted to pray for the strength to accept her illness. In the fullness of her faith, Hanna believed the journey would make her feel more at ease with her impending passage into the next world.

Those who travelled to Lourdes with Hanna told of an introspective young woman who seemed content, even happy. They said that on Hanna's last day many persons who were bathed in the waters of the holy grotto said the water felt icy cold; however, when Hanna's turn came, she remarked that the water felt as warm as bath water. Hanna died, they said, within minutes of being removed from the waters. It was 13 August 1949, and Hanna Mordaunt was only twenty-one years old.

Back in Ireland, my mother Mary, then a young woman of eighteen years, waited to receive word from her dear friend, a letter or a postcard, but none ever came. Mom said she did not recall knowing her friend was dying, but if she did know, she did not believe it would come to pass. Either way Mary never again set eyes on her friend Hanna.

A few years later Mom's sister Kathleen travelled to Lourdes. Kate sent her sister Mary a postcard of the Grotto at Lourdes noting, 'You were all remembered here'. Mom recalled feeling pleased by the simple yet stark beauty of the grotto, and said it had been her hope that one day she too would travel to Lourdes to remember Hanna, but a trip to Lourdes never came to pass.

The In Memoriam Card commemorating the death of Hanna Mordaunt
One of the right hand paragraphs reads:
'God saw in her an angel bright
On earth too good to stay,
He called her to His home above
And Hanna passed away'.
The postcard from the Grotto at Lourdes, France.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Who's that guy? Wednesday

Although I have titled this post 'Who's that guy', you will notice that in addition to the unidentified very serious young man, there is also a little girl in the background of the photograph. Her mischievous little smile makes me curious to know her identity.

The photo dates to either the 1930s or the 1940s, but I am uncertain of the exact date because there are a couple of contradictions at play here. First of all, Serious Young Man's hair is styled into finger waves, parted in the center and slicked down with what must have been a generous amount of pomade. This hair style was very popular with men all over Europe in the 1930s before the war.

Based on his clothing, the photo may have been taken in the 1940s after the Second World War. You will notice that his suit jacket has both pockets and flaps, something which was eliminated from clothing made during the war. With the rationing of all goods, including cloth, clothing during the war was made with as few 'extras' as possible, no pockets, no pleats, no flaps. The other possibility, of course, is that it's a very old suit made during the pre-war period of the 1930s.

The other element at play in the photograph is the chain driven tricycle which the little girl is standing on in the background. With its large wheels, fenders and chain position, the tricycle dates to the 1940s. (Thank you Tricycle Fetish)

The man in question is most likely from my mother's side of the family tree, and he may be one of the Barnwell sons. I do recall my mother telling me that the pin in his lapel is a pledge pin. To wear a pledge pin meant that the owner of the pin was a member of a Catholic organization called the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association. The pin stood as a symbol of the fact that the wearer pledged to maintain a lifelong abstinence from alcohol, as well as a devotion to the Sacred Heart. The pin also worked as a signal of sorts to remind others not to offer alcohol to the person bearing the pin.

So...I have a serious looking young man wearing a pledge pin, and a mischievous looking little girl on a tricycle.
Hmm??? Looks like it's a week for mysteries.

What do you think?

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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Life lessons from my brother

Left to right: Charlie, Mom, and Mike celebrating Hallowe'en
We seek, we search, we look in all of the libraries and archives, the places in which we know we might find the lessons of the past. However, sometimes the lessons we can learn about family are not to be found within a text or a document. The people who can teach us about who we are as human beings are standing right before us, although we may not have taken the time to learn from them.

Over the last few weeks I have learned life lessons from observing the way in which my brother has conducted himself in dealing with another loss of enormous magnitude, the loss of his closest friend Charles, 'Charlie' to all of us.

Mike is a nurse in the highly specialized field of Nephrology, the branch of medicine that deals with diseases of the kidneys. Over the course of his career he has also worked in Critical Care and Cardiology, and has seen more tragedy than most of us will ever see in a lifetime.

His closest friend had an 'episode', as Mike described it, an episode that caused stroke-like symptoms which resulted in a major bleed in the brain. Mike's closest friend, Charlie, the man who has been like an older brother to him for years, fell into a coma and never again opened his eyes.

Although I am sure he knew his best friend Mike was there for him, Charlie was not awake to see Mike at his best. He did not see Mike explaining to Charlie's sons and siblings what had happened to their father and brother. Charlie did not see Mike standing next to his bedside for all of those days, waiting and hoping. He did not see Mike answering all of the questions Charlie's family had about their loved one, all the while trying to temper their hope without destroying it.

Charlie was not awake to see Mike in 'Nurse Mike mode', as he calls it, talking to the doctors on behalf of the family. He did not see his best friend support his children, as the the life support equipment was turned off last Wednesday. Mike calmly explained to them that their dad would peacefully fall into a deep sleep, and then the endless sleep that is death. Charlie was not awake to see the courage and the strength of his closest friend, who set aside his own feelings while guiding Charlie's family through this terrible time.

128 hours after being removed from life support, Charlie died. Mike could have fallen apart. He could have folded up into his grief, but he didn't. Without deliberation, he just knew Charlie's sons needed him to be strong, needed him to help them through the rest of this terrible time.

At the funeral home, Mike was there for all of the visitation hours, over a period of two days. He was there to talk to family members and friends, to talk with them and laugh with them, and remember his beloved best friend. He moved through it all with a single-minded determination, and reminded us many times how great a friend Charlie had been to him and to our family. Although there is no bloodline to prove connection, Charlie was like a brother and a son to us.

After our mom died, Charlie took Mike on a fishing trip. Charlie was an avid sportsman who loved to fish, and although Mike had been fishing with Charlie on many other occasions, he didn't have much luck catching fish. On this last trip Mike finally caught some fish, eight in total. Little did these friends know, they would never again go on a fishing trip together.

While Charlie was a fisherman, Mike is a life long runner. Mike introduced Charlie to the sport of running, and every spring the two men travelled together to compete in races at Berwick, Pennsylvania. Laid next to Charlie in his casket are the two medals which he earned running with Mike. Next year, Mike will carry on the tradition as Charlie's eldest son, Charles Junior, will travel to Berwick with his father's best friend.

Yesterday at the funeral I stood in the church with my husband and our sister-in-law, Mike's wife, and watched as my brother rose from the pew and walked to the altar to deliver a reading chosen by the family. Mike paused next to the casket of his beloved friend. Without a hint of self-consciousness, Mike placed his hand on the casket, bent over and gently kissed it.

Mike has a form of dyslexia, which means it is difficult for him to read; however, at the funeral my brother stood on the altar of the church, and read aloud that biblical reading in a clear and measured voice, without a single awkward pause. I imagined Charlie standing next to him on that altar, saying 'You did good Mike'. I wanted to clap for my brother, and cheer out loud for both of them.

Through all of this whenever anyone has praised Mike for the way in which he has handled everything, he has dismissed the praise saying, 'It's easy to do anything for Charlie, because he is my best friend'.

Words cannot adequately express my love for my brother, and how very proud of him I feel for the way in which he has dealt with the loss of his closest friend. I have seen him weep openly, while embracing others and taking on the pain they are feeling. I have watched Mike show an extraordinary level of selflessness, and a deep compassion for the family and friends of his closest friend.

Without realizing it, Mike has conveyed life lessons in his actions, lessons about openness, selflessness, acceptance, and true compassion toward others. None of these lessons was learned in a book or at an archive. All of them are about living a good life within our human family.

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