Some might call it morbid, but I’ve always been fascinated by dead people. . . and nearly dead people, which is how I viewed my dad’s parents when I was growing up. In truth, they weren’t (much) older than my mom’s parents, but where there was liveliness and humor and tenderness on the one side — all obvious signs that Papa Joe and Nana May (my mom’s parents) were of this world, Nana Morrissey and her perpetually scowling partner Gama were stern, dull, and disapproving. I grew up believing that Nana May and Papa Joe were the kinds of grandparents that one could more easily love and want to be around, to nestle (maybe) in their laps, and that Nana M and Gama were unhappy people who were born old and whose only concern was that we children not touch any of the fragile furnishings (and they were ALL fragile) in their tiny, old-fashioned home that perched — cramped and awkward — on a rocky ledge uphill from the Mystic Valley Parkway in Medford. As a child, how freely one could run around and get dirty, maybe even break things (and each other) were immensely important activities, and our degree of freedom to do so defined how we adjudged the character of our four grandparents. It was unfair and shortsighted, but that’s how children are.
Recently I acquired (from that same tiny house on the rocky ledge) a cache of archival collections and loose photos that belonged to my ancient Aunt Ginny, my dad’s only sibling. She lived to 103 years old and displayed an enduring reverence for “the family record”, maybe a by-product of her long career as an attorney. Taken together, the photos tell a story that I never knew, one that upends (in a most meaningful way) my conclusions about my Medford grandparents.
“Circus Day” in May 1959 was one of those occasions for which there are several photos of Kevin, Tom, Chris, and me. We’re all spit-polish, scrubby-clean top to bottom, ready for Aunt Ginny to widen our country-dwelling horizons by treating us to The Greatest Show on Earth, an annual extravaganza held at Boston Garden. Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus was 88 years old in 1959. I was a little over three years old, the baby of the family. (For nearly five years I was able to enjoy that vaunted status until the second half of the family began to arrive.) In at least three of the snapshots, I’m leaning cozily into my Nana M and she’s got a protective (one might say “loving”) arm around me. To me, the gesture looks natural. As an adult with a lifetime of opportunity to reshape the narrative, could I really have had it all wrong? Were Nana M. and Gama just a typical couple of a certain age and time period, grandparents whose lives ran parallel to but distant from our other set?
And so I begin to remember things.
My favorite birthday cake is — and always has been — “Hershey’s Chocolate Town Special Cake” with “7-Minute (Boiled) Frosting”. Although I can’t remember how established it was as a tradition, Nana M. began making it for me for my birthday when I was very young. Each year when she presented it, I was dazzled by its exquisite, snow-white beauty and, of course, would be nearly insensible with joy as I shoveled it into my mouth. Whenever I make the same cake, I use Nana M’s magnificent creation as my benchmark, striving to achieve a rich, moist cake texture and swirly snowdrift frosting perfection that I recall her cakes having. And I can’t help but conclude that she made that cake. . . for me. . . with love and pride.
It seems that I never knew my Medford grandparents at all.
It’s a simple truth that anyone doing serious family research will — at some point — hit a brick wall. The more obdurate that wall, the more determined we are to surmount it. Given the ease with which we can obtain contemporary information about people, it vexes us that with a little earnest effort we can’t find out all we’d like to know about our ancestors. Since we Morrisseys descend nearly entirely from Irish forbears who left the Isle in the period extending from the Famine (latter half of the 1840’s) up through the 1880’s, with few exceptions our ability to confirm lineage beyond the ancestors who immigrated is hampered by several factors, such as:
Vague references by those who settled here as to their home of origin. In most cases, we have the county name only (if that).
Inconsistency in the self-reporting as to year of birth, especially on census records and death records, but also marriage records. Rather than assume that the variance was born of suspicion and distrust, the inconsistencies are most likely attributable to their own uncertainty about their birth — bear in mind that in the 19th century and earlier, knowing precise dates was unimportant (unless you were Irish and neglected to register a birth within a required time period, in which case you would simply alter the authentic date to comply with the law.) Family bibles have been perhaps the most reliable records of births (or more importantly, baptisms). . . if the researcher has access to them.
Early census records (19th century) for Ireland were destroyed in the fire of 1922 at the Public Records Office. As a “census substitute”, Griffith’s Valuations is the go-to, but despite its voluminous listings of tenancies, teased out by townland, barony, parish, and county; it has severe limitations. (A more thorough examination would be better suited in a separate essay.)
Civil registration for births, marriages, and deaths in Ireland did not begin until 1864. Wouldn’t you know that most of the ancestors for whom the trail runs cold is right before that year — it inevitably seems that the 1850’s is the period of time that we most need to examine? For Roman Catholics (as nearly all our ancestors seem to have been), having the name of the diocese (as well as a fair idea of year) is crucial if we want to do a work-around and establish dates and confirm family connections. (Even here, the records are incomplete, especially regarding burial information — fewer than half the parishes kept burial information prior to 1900.)
When we pause to consider the driving force behind our research, it seems we are most motivated by our curiosity about our own part in the ongoing narrative — why am I dreamer, for example? Do I get that from my dad? And, in turn, where did he get it from? Is Margaret’s (or Michaela’s) widow’s peak a genetic trait inherited from Gama’s family? Is Tom’s intensity something passed down from the Morrissey side of the family? (They were, it seemed, a very competitive and intense lot.) Surrounded as we are by blue or green-eyed siblings, Bobby and I have brown eyes — are they a Murphy characteristic? And, let us not overlook shortness — is that from the Gildeas or the Morrisseys? (The Murphys — at least the women — were on the tall side, but Annie Mulhern — Papa Joe’s mother — was purportedly a “very tiny lady”.) Following are some of the questions to which we are always seeking answers in our researching of ancestors:
What did they look like?
What types of personalities did they have?
Did they get along with each other? And with others?
Did they have any health issues?
What types of livelihood did they have? (And how much of that was by choice or through coercion?)
What was their academic life like? (Achievers? Underachievers? Smart? Lazy? The educator part of me would want, furthermore, to tease out multiple intelligences.)
What did they do in their spare time? What were they passionate about? (Sports, social or political causes, travel, The Church, etc.)
What should each one be remembered for? (I always am most moved by the ones who would otherwise be forgotten over time — the ones who strayed or disappeared. . . or were institutionalized, and the ones who never had their own children. Who can assure their legacies? Who will perpetuate their memory?)
(This story first appeared in Scosche of Class some years ago, but has been expanded upon to include additional characters in my life.)
It may not be the very least favorite place in my world, but it comes pretty darn close. This morning was my scheduled six-month check-up/cleaning, and I was prepared for the usual tsk-tsking about the sad condition of my mouthful of teeth. If you walked down the street and asked every person who looked to be at least 65 years old to open his or her mouth, you’d quickly determine that about 50% lacked dental insurance in the critical early years, maybe even later years. Until I was 14 years old, I only ever went to the dentist when my mouth was exploding with pain caused by a cavity. . . likely from eating too many Snickers. By the time I made it to “The Chair”, the dentist’s course of treatment nearly always was: pull it!
I really and truly tried to make amends starting as a teenager, but it may have been a case of too little, too late. I’ve only once heard, “Your teeth look good.” I think the dentist must either have, just prior, dipped his ladle in the well of happy gas; or had momentarily suffered a mental lapse, thinking he was still talking with the patient he had treated just before me.
The hygienist never seems to come over to my side, either, on the issue — why can’t I just have fewer teeth? In fact, why is it necessary for humans to be assigned a set of, what is it, 36? Isn’t there some redundancy in that? Instead, what I hear is, you need to floss more, use a mouth rinse regularly, and stop eating Snickers bars as an apres-lunch (apres with that little backwards accent mark above the e) snack. No, the hygienist did NOT say that about the Snickers bars; she doesn’t know about them.*
Deep breathing gets me through most sittings, but it doesn’t always work, especially when my jaw is being pressed so hard that oxygen — one of my closest friends — concludes that there is no discernible pathway to my lungs. Oxygen takes the high road, and I’m left with the choice of either passing out or most inarticulately communicating that, “ahhhng url reeeee!” I choose life.
Dr. Tim is the cheeriest dentist that I’ve ever met, and I’ve had plenty. He typically begins our “sessions” by investigating my newest handbag, showing real interest in my handmade products, but — invariably — pointing out that he can find lovely alternatives for his wife at Marshall’s for a fraction of the price I advertise on my shop’s website. It always goes this way, and he remains ever unconvinced when I point out that custom, one-of-a-kind products come at a cost. He smiles, asks me how my business is doing, and then gets down to his business. I once asked him how he managed to always be so happy. (His resting face always features a smile.) He responded, “It’s easy; you just surround yourself with positive people.” “But, how’s that possible in your line of work?” I wanted to know, because he obviously had to deal with unpleasant patients on occasion. “I just refer them elsewhere; problem solved.” And he smiled.
There is a most wonderful up-side to the dental chair. . . after the initial twenty minutes or so of jackhammering to remove plaque buildup. One can become — by focusing on the fish mobile in the corner of the room — very reflective. It begins by noting the fascinating differences between those vividly painted fish. Before you know it, you’re drafting thank you notes, deciding on a new color palette for your living room, heck, you’re adding on an additional 500 square feet to your current home (which doesn’t need it, but instead needs some deep cleaning and a Marie Kondo-esque tidying regimen).
As woeful is the state of my mouth — as evidenced by the vast number of porcelain-crowned occupants, I feel profoundly blessed that I can — because of insurance — visit the dentist every six months for a cleaning. I’m reminded of an occasion several years ago in which my mother — a woman of great ingenuity and audacity, but inadequate dental insurance — took it upon her own initiative to solve a dental dilemma (and thus avoid a trip to “The Chair”). I had just arrived with my young daughters at the home she shared with two of her siblings on Manomet Bluffs and, as soon as the excitement and frenzy over our arrival had subsided, I detected something “off” about her face. Looking more closely, it became clear that her smile — ever broad and confident — had an altered appearance. “Mom, what’s going on with your mouth?” She exchanged a quick, knowing glance with my Aunt Marie, co-conspirator in all their screwy schemes, and the two burst out laughing. Mom took a fresh gulp of air, swallowed, then explained. As she launched into her story, her voice dipped. . . conspiratorially — it always did that when she began a narration, “Funny thing. A few days ago I lost my front tooth when I bit into a toffee bar. . .,” (she had dentures) “. . . so Re and I decided we could re-implant it just as easily as the dentist does, with a little Super-Glue. I didn’t notice until it was too late that it was crooked.” She smiled broadly, Aunt Re giggled, and the two of them were then lost in fits of uncontrolled laughter. Seeing Mom’s two lines of generally compliant little soldiers standing rigidly shoulder-to-shoulder at attention (north and south in her flexed mouth) but with one of their ranks keeling over, I was instantly reminded of those old cemeteries where the headstones sit all akilter. I had to look away.
In any event, and despite all the efforts to rinse and spit and wipe with crinkly bib, I leave the dentist’s office with a face reddened from exertion, and with that gritty feeling still in my mouth. I’m confident, however, that everyone I acknowledge with my exaggeratedly wide, teeth-baring smile will observe how white and beautiful my teeth are. And with all that time in the chair to reflect and sort things out, I cannot help but think: isn’t life grand?! So what if next month I have to return to have my cracked molar “assessed”? That white-knuckled ride is a whole month away.
*By the way, when a hygienist asks how often you floss, it’s pointless to lie — they already know the answer to that question.
(In order to protect the privacy of family I’m using initials for siblings and spouses.)
The COVID-inspired group texts began as an affectionate reaching-out among the siblings, a way to acknowledge each other’s birthdays, a way — too — to preserve the threads that bind us together. I don’t remember when it started or who started it (probably it was “PM”; no, surely it was her), but it was a simple happy birthday message and because it included the group of siblings and spouses, it served as a reminder to those of us who might otherwise forget the birthday. As with most things in this family, the thoughtful gesture kindled the competitive spirit that often defines our special relationship. The birthday greeting soon became sport, today’s version of sport. . . which is to say, competition that must also entertain. The back-and-forth volleys continue all day long and sometimes resemble stream of consciousness, entering and exiting topics to the point where the message’s focus and clarity are often temporarily lost. No rules guide the conversation, but it all concludes with an acknowledgement of who the winner is, not that that’s ever in doubt; quite simply, whoever expressed happy birthday first is the winner.
At our age, and as we grapple with all the COVID-generated challenges that carry uncertain implications, the simple gesture of wishing each other a happy birthday takes on added value. It brings a little bit of joy and humor to our day. (I wonder if the others have come to depend on this new ritual as much as I have. I’m retired — I have plenty of time not to forget their birthdays.)
Our family’s interactions — even via text messages — illuminate who we really are and the powerful yet concealed dynamics that shape our hierarchy. It might be obvious who among the thirteen siblings and spouses enjoys great respect by virtue of birth order (the oldest) or who gets teased the most (the youngest), but we rarely dive deep to try and understand, say, why one sibling — always willing to try something new — eagerly (and optimistically) cartwheels right into the middle of things, why another is content to stand apart and simply observe what’s going on, why another converts a thing said or done into a joke, and yet another offers words that always pull us close together when we’ve unwittingly drifted onto potentially dangerous emotional minefields. We fall quickly and easily into our typical roles.
For many of us, deprived of the freedom to move easily among people (haven’t we all become more deliberate in our social contact?), we’ve been compelled to fill the void by instead connecting with each other through words, and this seems like a positive byproduct of social distancing. And words are never just words; they carry overt, as well as subtle and implied meaning. I never have bought into that saying about sticks and stones — it’s just a hollow attempt to excuse meanness. The messages, emails, face-time, and even cards and letters, do much to reduce the space between us; they serve as timely signposts that we’re being thought of, that we’re part of somethingessential.
Now, for your entertainment, I offer you a sample of one of our birthday exchanges; it just happens to be the most recent one.
Key to actors:
KM = brother #1 (oldest)
TM = brother #2
MGM = wife of brother #2
CM = brother #3
PM = wife of brother #3
JTM = middle child of 7 (and author)
MD = sister (5th child)
TD = husband of sister
M-nmn-M = brother #4 (6th child)
JM = wife of brother #4
RM = brother #5 (7th child, youngest)
MM = wife of brother #5
(KM): Let there be no equivocation, JTM is the winner of the birthday greeting sweepstakes. (text is accompanied by photo of opened birthday card.)
(MD): That is cheating! No early entries. But really she is the winner!
(JTM): (laughs at “That is cheating!…winner”)
(KM): I consider a card the highest form of fraternal affection so JTM wins not only relative to the timing of the occasion but also in the form of said expression.
(CM): I’ve been planning next year.
(KM): Clearly a capitulation to the stylistic and expertly conducted campaign by JTM.
(CM): no, this was in my plans all along due to the extensive nature of the preparation as well as the significant capital deployment.
(TD): . . . in other words, no card, no gift?
(CM): and no text
(KM) By your words you have obviously conceded that you could not compete with the emotional commitment and outlay of a simple but meaningful gesture.
(TD): (laughs at “and no text”)
(KM): I offer the old but sage expression, “It’s the thought that counts”
(KM): As I plan my celebration of my entry on this orb, I plan to arise with the sun, walk the beach in deep contemplation of all the gifts and talents I have experienced over the course of a lifetime devoted to the pursuit of communing with my fellow man.
(KM): I then will repair to my humble abode and prepare a sumptuous petite dejeuner of crepes and imported mixed fruit compote with which to share with my devoted wife of 28 years.
(CM): Somebody break KM’s phone.
(TD): (submits an animated GIF of his wife MD looking either bewildered or “out of it”or perhaps long-suffering. It’s hard to tell.)
(KM): Having so sustained myself I will head over to the local St. Vincent DePaul thrift store where I will offer my services for the poor and indigent. Thus having restored both body and soul I will return home for a luxurious nap.
(PM): (laughs at “somebody break KM’s phone.”) Then, (laughs at “having so sustained myself. . . nap”)
(TM): This has been so much fun. Can we do this again tomorrow? Oops, it is tomorrow. So, Happy Birthday, KM.
(JM): Happy Birthday Kev! Enjoy the crepes & compote.
I set out recently to learn a new skill. I’ve never been able to work with dough, not the gratifying kind that earns interest. . . well, maybe that, too, but rather the sticky goop that insists on shrinking when you manhandle it with a rolling pin and yell at it to expand. As if in a cruel twist of irony, all the other necessary ingredients and supplies that you remove from your cabinets do very much appear to swell to eventually consume the entire expanse of your kitchen island, as well as all remaining open counter space. (I never concern myself with the rogue bits of cheese and diced vegetables that descend to the floor, as the dogs will work conscientiously to address that issue.)
My husband George was the pizza expert in our house, having acquired mastery in the years he worked (as a high school senior and then while a student at North Shore Community College) at Monty’s Restaurant in Lynn (of the “Monty’s Monty’s by the sea, buy two pizzas get one free” renown.) Over the years he perfected his own recipe, very similar to the thin-crust sort that Monty’s sold. We were all big fans of his style of pizza. Sadly, he never wrote down the recipe, nor did he share it orally with any of us.
This past Christmas Eve, my older daughter and I joined our McKenna relations in Beverly and had a relaxed dinner featuring pizza with crust that very much resembled George’s, nice and thin and crispy. I consider it close enough to say that it is. . . well, close enough, so I have an acceptable contender for the crust. I’m still working on what goes on top of that, as well as my skills in making it look round and even.
Not content to satisfactorily make just pizza, I got it in my head that I wanted to learn how to make English muffins. I blame it on Judy, because she came to one of our “girls’ breakfasts out” with bags of homemade english muffins for each of us. Darn it, but weren’t they the most delicious?! That was at least a year ago, and now that I’m working on my dough skills with serious purpose, I decided this past weekend to make some myself. “So easy”, “the simplest recipe”, “a snap”, “a cinch” — such lies those culinary bloggers boldly (and cheerily) posted. Maybe my first mistake was consulting people who spend their days in their own home test kitchens. It would have been more helpful to land on a blog in which the blogger admitted frankly that they don’t know what the f**** they’re doing in the kitchen. It would serve as a vital object lesson for all other amateurs (and by “amateur” I mean a total ignoramus).
If you saw the resultant state of my kitchen (both days, since you are advised to “proof” it overnight and do a second proof on day 2), you would be struck by how uncannily similar it appeared to the Ardennes Forest in the Battle of the Bulge. Every surface staggered under the weight and chaos of bowls, skillets, whisk, sheet pans, spatulas, flour, cornmeal, more flour, more cornmeal, small bowl for milk (that I failed to warm up), additional bowls (because “medium-size” is such a relative term), melted butter (because I was too aggressive with the microwave), specks of yeast (because those packets are impossible to open neatly), cooling rack, and all manner of measuring utensils. But not, significantly, a metric weight scale. I won’t go into the specifics and tease out where I first went wrong (and where I subsequently went wrong), but I will say that despite sensing at nearly every stage that I should scrap the mission, I persevered. . . nevertheless.
Lacking the highly desirable nooks and crannies, and denser than the expected “light and fluffy” quality, and not so much round as asymmetrical and somewhat oval and of varying sizes, they have — in the end — a mild and satisfying flavor. I’ll take it! If George were here, I think he’d applaud my efforts. He’d probably gush — as he poured syrup all over them — about how delicious my pancakes are, and I wouldn’t feel the least need to disabuse him!
I had every intention of letting the rejection just roll off my shoulders. But I thought about it again today, and I think I’m even angrier. So this is primarily a rant (which I promised I wouldn’t do in this new blog space. Gee, that didn’t take long.)
A couple days ago I reached out to the Schlesinger Library, a special collections library within the Harvard Library with what I considered a generous offer. I’d long known about their status as a research organization; in particular, they champion efforts to highlight the accomplishments of women. In their words, they stand apart as “the leading center for scholarship on the history of women in the United States.” I assumed that a copy of my mother’s World War II album would be a welcome addition to their holdings, useful to those doing scholarly work about women’s contributions at critical moments in our nation’s history. I personally do not gain by donating the book; in fact, I would incur the printing and shipping costs, but as someone who gives my time freely to a local historical society, I understand the value of firsthand accounts by people who played a part or were witness to pivotal events in history, whether those events were at the community level or much grander in scale.
It may be that we all imbue treasured family artifacts with inflated value, but there are elements in my mother’s story that — through photos and notations — dramatically capture important subtleties, as well as complexities, in a war that likely will always hold our gravest lessons about the depravity of humankind. For example, my mother, in her military role as dietitian, was deployed to Namur, Belgium in February of 1945 (in a mission referred to by its acronym RAMP) to serve as part of the team that would intake and treat liberated and recovered Allied POW’s.** Incorporated also into the album are a few photos that were captured by one of the first photojournalists to arrive on the scene after the Americans dropped “Fat Man” on the city of Nagasaki, Japan August 9, 1945. The photojournalist who gave the pictures to my mother’s family was able to memorialize one of the most controversial actions of the war. To see these pictures — in stark and minute detail — simply leaves one without words.
In boldly bragging about “its traditional strengths in the history of feminisms, women’s health, and women’s activism,” the Schlesinger Library nevertheless is spurning a great opportunity to preserve a relevant first-person portrayal by a self-styled feminist. The final insult in the Library’s rejection letter, after offering the now-customary excuses about pandemic constraints and hurdles, is that if it had been a chronicling by someone who fit within their “strategic priorities”, for example, by a woman of color or a conservative woman, they would gladly accept it. They apparently don’t see the hypocrisy with their stated commitment to deepen their holdings by “women of all political philosophies” and to promote “a more complete story of human accomplishment.” As if it weren’t already fairly remarkable to be a female commissioned officer serving in France, Belgium, the Philippines, and Japan during World War II.
Unlike New England School of Law, which was thrilled recently to receive my aunt’s overstuffed scrapbook from her years at Portia Law (Cl. of 1939), the Schlesinger suffers by its hasty rejection. The word arrogant comes to mind. Perhaps I should be more sensitive to the organization’s efforts to level the playing field, whereby it gives more space to underrepresented groups. I would argue, however, that any primary source material that succeeds in deepening our understanding of complicated and consequential events in history would be inherently desirable.
It’s their loss.
And I’m sorry I even thought they were worthy.
For an account of “Hospitalization and Evacuation of Recovered Allied Military Personnel” (RAMP), click here to visit the WW2 US Medical Research Center.
*See how I found a way to connect with my earlier Greek mythology posts?
**There was an interesting distinction made inside the hospitals that were set up to treat our recovered POW’s. When the Allies opened up the concentration camps (or they were abandoned by the retreating Germans), some PW’s followed orders to remain in place until transported to the hospitals, while others responded to a primal urge to put distance between themselves and their misery. The first group’s members were designated “liberated” and were given priority over the second group of “displaced” PW’s, those who often just wandered staggering into the army hospital grounds.
From the moment I could toddle without great risk of thumping my head on objects in my path, Mom’s unvarying instructions to my older brothers before they hurtled out the door for all manner of improvised adventure was always, “Watch your little sister, please.”
“Sure, Mom,” was their standard reply, never breaking stride and never glancing back, but assuming — accurately — that I would tail them wherever they went. Whether I have a right to be, I am reassured in my belief that they took that responsibility seriously, and would never let harm come to me. At least that’s what I say now. As a child, I was pretty skeptical that they were in full accord with the mantra of “leave no soldier behind”.
Behind our grandparents’ farmhouse at 1777 South Street were three small ponds tucked into a wooded area. They were imaginatively named “The First Pond”, “The Second Pond”, and “The Third Pond”. Rarely were they ideal for skating because the surface would be covered with leaves, twigs and branches, or snow. For early efforts at learning to ice skate, however, they should have been perfect. There were frozen streams, too, that connected the three ponds, allowing you to conveniently skate from one to the next. I was forever pursuing my older brothers, who, without warning, would all race off to the next pond. I think I cried a lot when they did that; without their reassuring nearness, scary woodland creatures could easily pick me off. As I watched their receding figures cut a swift and serpentine path away from me, I couldn’t help but contrast their elegance with my own on-ice conduct. Where their movements were fluid — there’s undeniable and exquisite beauty in skating (especially on those long stretches of straight-away where the arms and legs form a harmony of sweeps and arcs as one’s stride lengthens) —all I managed to do was walk around gingerly, tentatively, objecting to the foreignness of my figure skates. With crooked ankles nearly grazing the ice and arms akimbo, mine was a style that forced my body to either do splits every eight feet or so, or go horizontal to land flat on my back, whereupon I lay motionless and studied the undulating tips of the trees stroking the sky directly above me. One can only hold that position for a few minutes before the cold forces you back on your feet.
Whenever the command “move!” was issued as I crossed into areas where frenzied hockey action was taking place, I responded with a fresh startle reflex much like an infant who has been presented with a sudden loud noise or a bright light, my feet shooting out from under me and my arms splaying. I was better at locating logs to sit on. . . and even better at experiencing hypothermia, giving me yet another reason to cry. I should add that I did have an indispensable role; whenever the puck sailed into the surrounding woods, I was sent to retrieve it. It was an honor to be serving in such an essential role. Consequently, my skates were regularly being taken to the shop for sharpening. (I can’t even say that with a straight face.) I grew up not very fond of skating. . . until I met David, and Johnson’s Pond in Raynham provided a new venue for that dance that teenage boys and girls do in large unsupervised groups. My feet were just as cold then, too, but I didn’t mind. At least I didn’t cry.
All my brothers were groomed from an early age to be ice hockey players, and I was groomed to be spectator par excellence. Mom and Dad imagined themselves, at least in the beginning, as devoted hockey parents. Mom, for her part, was always there when called upon to shout at the refs or rattle the cow bell when a goal was scored. Easy to spot in her red quilted “car coat” among the fans in the bleachers, she was a little woman with a big voice. She did not need the cow bell. My grandfather, whose world revolved around music, had only ever foreseen for his oldest daughter one application for all that training in voice, that careful development of the diaphragm, and it wasn’t to give full and honeyed expression to the soprano section of dedicated fans. It was to skewer the referee with comments like, “Hennessy, you’re a dink!”
In rinks all over the South Shore I watched my brothers on the ice, and I watched Mom watching them. As a teenager, I then expanded my spectating to include my younger brothers who began their training by pushing wooden boxes or kitchen chairs all over the ice. Organized youth hockey programs were just taking off in our region; their popularity quickly skyrocketed, propelling hordes of youngsters throughout my town to the area’s frozen bodies of water; there were several ponds and lakes — as one would expect in a town called Bridgewater — that provided great conditions for skating: Carver Pond, Skeeter Mill Pond, Sturtevant’s Corner, and the Ice Pond (aka State Farm Pond). Unfortunately — but unsurprisingly — ice skating never struck me as especially fun; on those occasions when I did take to the ice myself, I would be the lone skater, trying over and over to perform a simple move such as stopping forward motion or resuming forward motion. . . artistically. I never progressed, and as impressed as I was with Peggy Fleming, her moves just totally confounded me; how did she spin so fast and leap so high. . . all with such grace and beauty? I only knew it had something to do with physics. . . I think.
The 1960’s and 70’s were the sweet spot, I believe, for pick-up hockey games in which teams were naturally selected by blood ties. The baby boom generation — lots of families with lots of kids — provided a ripe culture for casual team sports. The Bruins’ success, too, in the early 70’s converted young spectators into NHL aspirants. Although gear was optional, hockey gloves were one of the more prized pieces of equipment, given that rules of engagement were rather loose, and hands were constantly getting smashed. It didn’t matter if they were mismatched, or had holes, or even fit properly; when two players squared off, as long as those gauntlets could be thrown down in a flash, they served their greatest purpose. On the other hand, a helmet, perhaps the most important appurtenance from a long-term health standpoint, was audaciously absent. Although randomly assembled teams were a perfectly suitable option, in many cases entire teams could be made up of a single family or a neighborhood combination of families. Hence, there were rivalries that evolved rather organically; the Morrisseys and Maloneys, for example, nurtured a competitive relationship that regularly included family sponsored fighting. Kevin, of course, in his typically zealous manner, nobly did his part for the Morrisseys. As feared as he might have been by his foes, there was genuine admiration of his skill set, which extended even to ice surface management. Few kids, for example, would risk submerging their own vehicles in order to clear the ice of snow. As the shinny baton was later passed to younger brothers Marty and Bob, the family names changed; the Heslin brothers and the Blakelys brought greater finesse and skill to the pond hockey scene. At this point, kids could just generally boast a more expansive indoctrination. Organized hockey had truly arrived in Bridgewater.
Pick-up style hockey continued to enjoy popularity in subsequent decades, but, naturally, the game has experienced a metamorphosis. What we observe in the sport today is akin to a coming-of-age; rarely do we see genuine, improvised games on local ponds. It catches our eye when we do see a small clutch of kids with sticks in hand, movement back and forth between two makeshift goals on a suitably frozen pond. Even the length of the season has shortened; in earlier years it might have been possible, at least in coastal Massachusetts, to take to the ice in November; extended periods of cold are much rarer these days.
Baby boomers never really left their passion behind, however. Pick-up games now more readily conjure ice rink settings, and schedules are firmly set, leaving one to wonder about the persistence of the name. And if you live in cold winter states such as Minnesota or Colorado, outdoor pick-up tournaments, which draw thousands of participants and are often sponsored by big-name purveyors of beer, bring you that much closer to your unfulfilled dream of playing professionally. They’re highly organized programs, with perimeter boards and goalie nets that are the real deal, (one even boasts Zamboni service!), so prepare accordingly. Make sure you arrive with matching gloves, fashion forward attire and a mouthguard for your few remaining original teeth.
As impressed as I am with the dedication and zeal displayed by players in the “well beyond their prime” age bracket, there is no other way to describe my own experiences on the ice than to say that they were fraught. My tenure as spectator — of the plein-air and local rink sort — provided more pleasurable memories, even if these days I now greatly prefer an experience that involves a large screen TV while sitting on a couch. . . with a cozy afghan. . . and a beverage (cold or hot, it wouldn’t matter). My heart twists, though, whenever I inveigh against a controversial call by the ref; it’s as if I’ve been transported back to those state rinks throughout the South Shore, when several times in any given game my mom’s voice would boom across the ice, poetically goring an earnest ref whose only crime was wielding a whistle. Good memories, after all.
(This is a revision of a story that first appeared in my Scosche of Class Blog in March, 2019.)
Sometimes all it takes is a photograph, and we family researchers are like a dog with a bone. I had always known a few of the essential facts about my grandmother’s brother, “the one who moved away”, but other than being only mildly curious about Edwin Lincoln Murphy’s life in France, there wasn’t any single detail that made me especially interested in his story. He was just one of Nana Morrissey’s many siblings, and that’s how it remained for nearly forty years.
Recently, however, I was busily examining a boxful of family photos and albums that had been sitting in storage at my Aunt Ginny’s house in West Medford, Massachusetts. It was impossible to ignore one of the largest photos in the box, an 11” x 14” portrait, still sheathed in the photographer’s protective sleeve. The curious photograph instantly captured my attention; peering intently at the subject, my first thought was, this is not a relative; she’s too pretty. All my Murphy ancestors could be described as long-faced, mournful, in some cases dour-looking; it may be somewhat unfair, but the word that always comes to mind is “horsey”. Reine’s portrait had been professionally done by a well-known photographer whose studio was in Biarritz, France; it featured a young woman in her mid-twenties. She had delicate features and dark eyes that hinted at vulnerability; her smile, too, suggested an innocence, or at least an openness, as she looked slightly over her shoulder at the camera.
More than one hundred years after Winchester, Massachusetts native Edwin Murphy married the enchanting Reine Latrille of Bordeaux, France, we still don’t know — and likely never will know — how and where they met. Their long lives together remain a mystery, a romantic one, to be sure, and with all that we don’t know — yet can’t help but imagine — about the couple, it makes their story all the more captivating.
The first time I knew of the existence of Reine was an oblique reference by my Aunt Ginny back in the 80’s. I was beginning to get serious about my family research, and Aunt Ginny was the best informant I had for details about my father’s side of the equation. Reine was never mentioned by name, nor the fact that she was French. She was only ever referred to as Edwin Murphy’s wife.
To begin, you’ll need to understand who Edwin was. Edwin Lincoln Murphy was my one of my grandmother’s two younger brothers, the fourth child (of eight) born to my paternal great-grandparents, Edward P. and Honora (Walsh) Murphy. Until the age of twenty-two, he lived with his family in Winchester, Massachusetts. The only biographical details I could tease out about his early life came from a few mentions in The Winchester Star. It appears he, like two of his sisters, was big into basketball; he also played football, for which he was awarded a varsity letter. Edwin was also a musician and performed (in a Shakespeare scene) at his Winchester High School graduation in 1914. After graduation, one of the things we know about him is that he joined the Massachusetts Militia as a bugler. He would continue to have that unique responsibility when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917. In March of 1918, he left the United States on an Army transport and began his military career, making France his permanent home, but visiting his family often in Winchester and (later) Somerville throughout the years. From the end of 1919 — when Edwin and Reine married — until about 1980, Edwin and Reine alternated between Paris and their home in Bordeaux, but gave up the Paris apartment on Rue Marbeauf (known as “the street of the shirtmakers”), thus making Gradignan their year-round home for the remaining ten years of their lives.
It is easy to see how my Aunt Ginny, who was always enamored of exotic and sparkly people and things, could be smitten by her French aunt, an alluring creature with a buoyant personality and unconventional behaviors. When I reflect on the eye-catching couture style choices that seemed as much a part of Aunt Ginny’s persona as her forthright manner and careerist mindset, I suspect her greatest fashion influence was her Aunt Reine. She adored her, besides.
Reine Latrille was born in Gradignan, Bordeaux, France on April 16, 1898 to Marguerite Catherine Latrille and “un père non nommé” (unnamed father), the French people’s neutral way of saying a child was illegitimate. To date, no records have been found to suggest that Reine had siblings or that her mother ever formally married, although unofficially Dominique Michel is referenced as her husband and Reine’s father. According to one of Edwin’s expedited passport applications, Dominique — Edwin’s “future father-in-law” — appeared to be a successful Parisian businessman with an interest in freight shipping (via railroad). By July of 1919, Edwin had already partnered with Dominique, having invested 50,000 francs in his business. I often come back to the question, Is that how Edwin met Reine? Through her father? Or was it the other way around – he met Reine, and, through her, formed a business relationship with her father? At the very least, it’s safe to say that they met in France. Whether it was Paris, where he was stationed in the U.S. Army, or Bordeaux, where the more temperate climes made for pleasant escape, Edwin very likely was instantly love-struck upon meeting Reine.
What we’re able to piece together about Edwin and Reine’s early years of marriage is that they lived with her parents, and that they made occasional return trips to Massachusetts, at least every few years. Also, they vacationed in Biarritz, on the French Riviera; the seaside resort town — a popular destination for French aristocracy — is described as the “jewel of France’s Atlantic coast”.
At this juncture, it would be prudent for me to confess that I tend to fall under the spell of my own restless imagination. Inasmuch as available documentation often fails to offer the finer details of a subject’s personality or the most engaging features of a person’s life, it is of great benefit to introduce an element of wonder as we contemplate the full story. Thus, in stitching together sufficient (documented) details, the narrative becomes much more satisfying by having, let’s say, “gilded” the cold, hard facts. I’m okay with this approach, even if the purists within the genealogical community are not. After all, we are all prone to fill in our own blanks when confronted with stories that have empty spaces.
Furthermore, it’s useful to keep present in our minds the impact of historical context. In the case of Edwin and Reine, it is particularly meaningful that during World War II they lived both in Paris, which surrendered to Germany quickly and with little resistance in June of 1940, and Bordeaux, the region to which the French government and many Parisians consequently fled. I stifle the urge to imagine that they immersed themselves in all manner of subversive acts or that they inserted themselves into La Résistance. I see it as perfectly acceptable, however, to make qualifying statements such as, “It’s conceivable that when Paris was invaded by the German Army, Edwin and Reine retired to Bordeaux, to wait out the war.” Bear in mind that while Edwin initially held a subordinate position in the U.S. Army while serving in the earlier world war, his trustworthiness and sense of responsibility were qualities that his superiors recognized soon thereafter and rewarded through several promotions. For an unspecified period of time, he held the position of court reporter for the U.S. Army. As a staff member of the Reparations Commission that was formed once the terms of the Treaty of Versailles had been “negotiated,” he began as the private secretary to the head of the Finance Service, then moved on to assistant cashier, next promoted to cashier. It would appear, then, that he knew how to make himself very useful to upper brass. In any event, it’s doubtful that either he or Reine would have wanted to invite the curiosity of any Nazi officers.
I made the mistake early in my searching of assuming that Edwin and Reine had children. So, when I hired a French genealogist to investigate records in his country, I included instructions to look for birth records, beginning around the time that the couple married (1919). Paul-Marc was a tenacious investigator, but he came up empty-handed in that particular task. It puzzled me because I had for so long imagined that the presence of children would have been why they never migrated back to the States. I returned to the clues that Aunt Ginny had given me, and realized that she had never indicated that the couple had children. There was never a mention of “family”. I then, of course, wondered if that was by choice. We’ll never know.
From available military records, held from the time he served on the Reparations Commission, it was easy to piece together a pattern in the 1920s, whereby he gave written instructions to have his pay deposited into a Paris bank while he and Reine vacationed in the French Riviera for a month at a time. Photos from the era support the claim that they favored the popular seaside town of Biarritz. I found one interesting account of a swanky Easter weekend gala at the Hotel Miramar, which — if the newspaper reporter’s numbers can be trusted — was attended by 350 guests, several of whom were singled out by name; they represented the French aristocracy and many majors and captains, barons and baronesses, counts and countesses, dukes and duchesses . . . and Mrs. Edwin Murphy, apparently unaccompanied by her husband. (Disclaimer: I have no proof that this is our Mrs. Edwin Murphy, but signs do point in that direction.) Among the glamorous, bejeweled attendees were several members of the Rothschild family; of note were Edouard and two of his children, Guy and Jacqueline. The names will mean something to those who have always followed with interest the fate of the priceless art that the Nazis stole during WW2. For those to whom the Rothschild name means nothing, they were an established French family whose wealth and stature were tied to banking. Their unforgivable sin — to the Nazis, of course — was their Jewishness; thus they were deemed unworthy of possessing fine art.
Available evidence of Edwin and Reine’s activities from the 1940’s until their deaths in 1990 dwindle, making it impossible to color in any details of their lives. It can be said that, with the exception of one visit in 1950, after the deaths of Edwin’s parents, first his mother in 1946 and then his father in 1949, their trips to Massachusetts ceased. Not only does it leave us with a lot of unanswered questions, but great disappointment about the apparent detachment from the family.
With several decades of unaccounted movements and activities, their final hours on this earth nevertheless capture our attention and evoke our sympathy. On February 13, 1990 — one day after he turned 94 years old — Edwin passed away at their Bordeaux home in Gradignan. Twenty hours later, Reine, too, died in that same place. No record has yet to be found that confirms their final resting place. Their bodies were cremated, and given the absence of any French relatives, Paul-Marc conjectures (with more wishful thinking than the evidence suggests) that they may have been buried alongside Dominique Michel in Paris, where, also and presumably, Reine’s mother was laid to rest.
As is the case with any family research project, I imagine, we remain most unsettled about the members of our family whose stories persist as mysteries. Often they live and die without descendants to keep their memories alive, and their deaths go unnoticed, unremarked upon, unmemorialized. The worst fate, in my opinion, is to be forgotten. Like most family researchers, I’ll never completely close the book on a subject, even one for whom further clues remain obdurately hidden. No matter what bargains I might be willing to secretly or pointlessly negotiate, I’m always hopeful for just one more hint. Rarely, then, do we consider the job done. Most researchers pledge, “At least guide me to the headstone that proclaims, ‘Here lies so-and-so’ and I’ll be content.” Memory would thus be ensured. The hunt, then, is still on for the final chapter on Edwin and Reine.
The COVID scare has certainly altered our social behaviors, and no one knows how permanent these changes will be. Not all of the changes are bad, however; they just require more reflection and deliberate choices. For example, in the past, we might have comfortably crowded people in front of us in lines, or squandered time studying labels in a grocery store or the advertised features on boxes, bottles, and what have you. We’re more mindful these days, I believe, of the quality of our time spent around others. We’ve been forced to prioritize our moments in public. It seems that everyone I know has arrived at a similar juncture; we’re all sacrificing certain pleasures in order to maintain some normalcy where it concerns the most important occasions or experiences.
To a heightened degree, all of us are weighing our options, with the hope that our sacrifices will result in reduced risk to our health and the health of those about whom we care most. Our family decided for the second year in a row to forfeit our Christmas Eve gathering, a tradition we have honored — unwaveringly — for several decades. While I tend to think we all were on board with that decision — as COVID cases rise once again, there’s a sense of mounting anxiety, not just about wellbeing, but the fear that a pattern is emerging because of this highly transmissible virus, and we might never extricate ourselves from this predicament. What does that mean for family gatherings? How long can we collectively hold our breath, in hopes that we prevail over COVID (in all of its mutations)? And how many of us are worrying that our sacrifices will fail to save these important traditions, that they’ll be lost forever?
Every family out there must be fretting about the fate of their traditional gatherings. With all the sacrificing that people are doing, it seems a line in the sand has been drawn. Some things shouldn’t have to be sacrificed. I don’t hesitate for an instant in making a choice between a concert and my family’s Christmas Eve event. Or a Bruins game and a week camping with my sister’s family. Wherever things stand a year hence, I resolve to no longer surrender the moments that make life worth living.
What are the sacrifices that all of you have been forced to make in order to (hopefully) propel yourself and others to a safer plateau?