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?)
I recently went shopping with a friend at a nearby antique market, and while we meandered through the vast indoor space — a converted mill building alongside the North Canal in Lawrence (off-shoot of the Merrimack River), we kept up a running conversation. At one point, we both agreed that we were ideal companions in that particular endeavor. Both of us have a casual approach, not in the least like how her husband undertakes the task, nor how my husband used to — each can (or could) spend up to an hour in one nook, closely examining every piece. When my husband George was alive we enjoyed our antique shop adventures immensely, but it always was the case that as soon as we entered the door, we’d part ways. Inevitably, he would emerge with something amazing, and I would be spending my money on something that before too long would end up in a Goodwill bin. I just don’t have the eye for spotting treasures; either that, or I’m too impulsive. . . or impatient. . . or lazy. Maybe I’m all those.
Every once in a while, however, I’m inspired to be different. I want to be that person who can while away an hour or two in an antique shop (or an entire morning at a fair), inspecting countless pieces of recycled merchandise, moving some aside to reach for the hidden gems. Just as gratifying would be the casual conversations that can be struck up with knowledgeable (and quirky) vendors, especially the ones who get excited when you’re curious about an item’s history or backstory. (Having lived more or less in the shadow of my much more social and outspoken partner, let me just say it’s a slow process learning to position myself center-front on that same stage where for decades I occupied a position slightly behind George. . . right where I was comfortable.)
In most rooms of my house there is at least one of George’s antique finds. I find I’m less able to part with the unique, one-of-a-kind vintage and antique curiosities that reside politely — in some cases joyously entertaining — on shelves. One of my favorites is a pair of folksy-looking Cuban musicians, hand-carved and depicted in a stylized manner. They’re an exuberant couple with posable bodies. The man is playing the güiro, the woman — bongos, and both are singing. Every so often, in order to fully appreciate their vitality, I reposition their arms or their heads or their feet. I’m not likely to ever part with my Cuban pair because their most recent story — the only chapter I’ll ever know — fills me with my own version of joy. On one of our antique adventures, George and I found ourselves somewhere downeast in Maine. As we typically did, we entered an antique shop together and immediately parted company. My interests tend to lean toward old textiles, sewing machines, 60’s lunchboxes, books, and 19th century photos. George’s particular interests were tools, toys, bottles, and anything he thought I would like. After about 30 minutes George appeared at my side and silently handed me the pair of figurines. He knew I would love them, and maybe imagined that I would add them to the decor in my Spanish classroom. Not for a moment would I entertain such a thought — I wanted them just for myself. It didn’t surprise me at all, either, that he had found them in a part of the shop that I had already breezed by.
Over the years, I feel I’ve come to know Yoselin and Bembe quite well. (Yes, I’ve named my high-spirited, posable Cuban musicians.) Like most people, I’ve formed an attachment to a possession that obviously has only the slightest of monetary value. It must be said, though, that whenever we enter an antique shop or attend a fair or (especially) a flea market, we entertain a hope that we’ll find a hidden gem. Yoselín and Bembe are enough of a treasure for me, but this morning I read in Smithsonian about a woman who really hit the jackpot. . . in a Goodwill store, of all places. For the price of $35 (if you shop at Goodwill, you understand that to be top dollar), Laura Young emerged with a very heavy but cool marble bust that she knew would look perfect in her hall entryway. Young isn’t a complete novice — she trades in antiques, so she knew she was on the better end of the transaction.
Audentes Fortuna Iuvat
The 2,000 year-old story began with some famous Roman commander or emperor’s son or son of a disgruntled statesman (good guy, bad guy — it’s hard to know with certainty). In death, all these guys are elevated anyway, whether in status or as blocks of marble shaped into beautiful, proud heads and placed on a pedestal. . . literally (or, at least their likenesses are. . . literally).
Whoever was being represented by the sculpture, its beauty and value were appreciated (many centuries later) by King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who made it a part of his permanent collection, housed in the newly constructed Pompeiianum Museum in Aschaffenburg, Germany. One hundred years would pass uneventfully until very eventfully World War II happened, and the Allies bombed the Pompeiianum. The shame is made greater by the fact that looting then took place by the Allies. One way or another, the stolen head made its way to the United States where it remained a secret for nearly eighty years. And now, the real story is as much about our curiosity about the moron in Texas who dropped it off at a Goodwill recycling center as it is about where it has been for eighty years.
There’s a lesson here, and I don’t think it’s caveat emptor. Perhaps caveat donator (“donor beware”) better captures the moral. Also, bona quarentibus (which, if I’m not totally making up my own form of Latin, means “Good things come to those who seek.”)
I told my older daughter yesterday that I had a real desire to want to drop the word “postmodernist” into a conversation — seamlessly, or as if I use it all the time. The result, of course, was that I had to go down the google rabbit hole to find out what it even means. I landed on a literary website that — no surprise — assumed a certain degree of prior knowledge. I don’t have that.
If I stated that in order to understand postmodernism — as an era or sensibility or cultural style — one needs to first consider modernism; then all of you (or, rather, I should say, all of us) would instantly lose our way. I made a valiant effort to make sense of it all, but after tripping over words such as metanarrative and philistinism, I became hopelessly lost in even the most general statements. Consider this premise: modernism, which flourished during our grandparents’ and parents’ time, was shaped by a suspicion of all things popular*. I just couldn’t get past the idea that what became popular was a rejection of that which was popular. (So, who was making it popular? A different set of people than the ones who were eschewing it?) I arrived at the end of one article being less clear than when I began.
Modernism, at its most negative, was characterized as puritanical and uptight, cleaving rigidly to historical truth and objective reality. That movement gave way to postmodernism right around the time that the civil rights movement was taking firm hold of the collective conscience. By the time I was graduating from high school, it was in full flower. To compare the two “movements”, all one really needs to do is examine how our parents’ lives (if they came of age just prior to WW2) were different from our own, and make generalizations. Looking at just one aspect — livelihood — tells us a lot. Manufacturing and constructing things with one’s hands no longer made sense (or cents, for that matter.) The Information Age was already under way, re-shaping not only work-related skills, but attitudes, as well.
Without getting all high-brow, I think I can safely say that postmodernism in some way claims that reality is relative, and nothing should be taken seriously. Your reality is different from mine. So, if I claim that gluten is a baker’s best friend, that reality may hold true for select bakers, but not others. (I like gluten.) It gets worse. There is no objective reality, so say the postmodernists. In this way, science and “historical truth” — according to britannica.com — are invalid measures. As such, they are merely dartboards for muzzy-headed Fox News pundits and guest personalities, the Fauci deniers, if you will. Even death loses its objective nature. If you have watched (and liked. . . as millions of viewers do) “Shaun of the Dead”, you will have a great appreciation for postmodernism.
I come away from my examination of cultural eras with these thoughts, questions, and conclusions:
A term like “postmodern” makes me reflexively think that it applies to a period that we’ve yet to enter or experience (because I can’t help but think that “modern” applies to now.)
Who gets to name the eras/movements?
Have they got our era wrong? I tend to think that it’s the loud minority — as always — that is paid attention to.
If we buy the notion that “reality is subjective” (and that maybe we all place too much emphasis on historical truth,) then the behavior of certain members of Congress and a certain past president vis-a-vis January 6 makes a lot of sense to me.
In a post-modern setting, irony rules.
We’ve exited the post-modern era and are now in what someone has decided to call “meta-modern”. If you’re willing to accept the defining features of this new movement, they are a reaction to all the chaos and cynicism of post-modernism. . . naturally.
(I promise you I will not return to this discussion. Honestly, learning about postmodernism was painful, and it is highly unlikely that I will ever slip the word “postmodernist” (or any of its related parts of speech) into a conversation. It was not a carefully considered idea, even if I wanted to sound smarter by using it.)
*from “Literary Theory and Criticism” (literariness.org)
My introduction to Route 1 was arranged by my new boyfriend in the spring of 1976. With a meticulously detailed, hand-drawn map, complete with images of cows in front of Hilltop Steak House (Saugus) and the impressively tall and long stone wall bordering Parkland Avenue (and Pine Grove Cemetery) in Lynn , I nervously set out one Saturday morning. It’s doubtful that I had ever driven further north than Randolph, Massachusetts, and the soundness of my 1963 Rambler was always a concern. Granted, it was a solid piece of machinery and would likely have plowed over most other vehicles on the road — that is, unless the engine seized or I blew a tire, my greatest worries of the day. I pretty much stuck fast to that same course whenever I visited George or his dad from parts both south and north of there. In all the intervening years — 1976 to now — whenever I travel that path I think about that map, especially the cows and that imposing wall. It might have been one of the earliest signs that this guy was really into me.
Until I later moved with this boyfriend-cum-husband-cum-father-of-my-children to Salisbury in 1985, my feelings about Route 1 were clear and, frankly, immutable — I hated it. Drivers were the worst! None of the three lanes was safer or saner than the others. It wasn’t until I had a few travel experiences on Route 128 that I would cease to announce (to anyone who cared), “Route 1 is the worst road ever!” It’s even worse today, hardly shocking news.
But there’s another stretch of Route 1 that I came to know after we moved to Salisbury, and it’s a much friendlier, more soothing segment for the motorist. In fact, the section between Danvers and Salisbury — where it’s a single lane in either direction — in no way resembles the nightmarish part between Boston and Danvers. For those who reach that part alive, you’re graced with bucolic roadside scenery. The traffic lights in that stretch, given as gentle reminders to keep your speed moderate, have the added advantage of coaxing a pleasant examination of the surroundings. You can, as well, more easily contemplate the road’s origins.
If you’ve ever wondered about the naming of our roadways, your curiosity should begin with, why U.S. Route 1? Of all the numbered roads, being #1 is bound to be important. It may not be necessary to begin at the very beginning, when it was a mere trail system for travelers on foot, then horse-drawn cart, then stage coach. My own curiosity forms a halo around the persistence of the “Newburyport Turnpike” name. The turnpike era began in the final years of the 18th century, coinciding with a blossoming national sentience. With our struggles for independence a settled matter (by and large), our confidence as a new nation permitted us to turn our efforts toward long-term projects. With products being zipped all over and between the states, a tipping point had been reached; municipalities were finding it difficult to make improvements and regular repairs to public roadways. It does seem hard to fathom that once upon a time, road maintenance was 100% a local responsibility. (Think about that every time you pay a toll going over the Tobin Bridge or use the Mass. Turnpike.) Public charters, arrangements made between municipalities and private companies, acquired a decided appeal. And, even though their margin of profit ebbed and flowed in season with the rise and fall of other modes of popular transport, they can be credited with our roads’ finest hour in terms of maintenance. (Again, think about that each time your car hits a pothole.)
Returning to the naming of our roadways, before a consistent numbering convention was drafted in 1925, all the major roads bore names that reflected their uniqueness, as it were. But the states were suffocating beneath the ever-growing confusion of road names, not to mention the increasing traffic as Americans indulged their new passion. At that time, road names were much more evocative: the Dixie Highway, The Yellowstone Trail, and — of course — our own East Coast Highway, to which everyone along The Atlantic seaboard wanted to belong.
The really interesting piece in all of this is how the U.S. Department of Agriculture — in particular, its Bureau of Public Roads division — formalized the exact trajectory of the course that came to be called U.S. Route 1. I’d always assumed that the pathway that bears the name Route 1 was an obvious delineation, easily traced in red on an early 20th century Rand McNally road atlas, but with the clamoring interest up and down the Atlantic coast to be included, a definitive means of codifying needed to be established. There was instant approval of the idea advanced by E.W. James, chief of design for the BPR, that they use the historic “Falls Line” roadway network as a template. In the early days of our nation when cargo was moved by boat, communities were established as far upriver from The Atlantic as boats could safely reach, usually at the point where they encountered falls or rapids. To meet overland cargo transportation needs, a network of inter-city roads was established. Anomalies, inconsistencies and political outmaneuvering notwithstanding, that’s exactly the pathway that U.S. Route 1 followed, beginning in 1926.
For all the years that I traveled back and forth to my teaching job at Triton High School in Byfield, Massachusetts, I never took for granted my commute along Rt. 1. I always rhapsodized about how easy and relaxing it was. Even though it would have been faster to take Route 95, I nearly always opted to go the slower road. For those of you thinking, Gawd, who would choose willingly that nightmare of a road? I point out that Rt. 1 between Danvers and Salisbury is a delightful departure from parts both south and north of there. In Topsfield, the way is bordered by old stone walls, behind which can be seen rolling meadows and antique farmhouses. Postcard worthy images, for sure. Further north (and part of my daily path), the marshland through which the Parker River flows was a constant source of pleasure, especially early in the morning. Each day, by the time I crested the hill above the Parker, I opened my mind to the anticipated landscape. Often, the mist was just beginning to dissipate, exposing the salt marsh hay stacks above a fleecy blanket of white-gray. Other times the mist traced a serpentine path directly above the river. And there were plenty of mornings, too, when the long shadows cast by the rising sun distorted all the features before me, creating a surreal canvas of darks melting into lights. No matter the season, there was joy in the scenery. With only three traffic lights between my house and school, and few cars on the road so early, I was pretty much alone with my thoughts for the twelve minute ride to work. Given how easily I was distracted by the landscape, it’s remarkable that I never crashed into anything. I was probably most at risk when I knew the sun would just be edging above the horizon as I crossed the Merrimack — I could never resist craning my neck at precisely the mid-point of the bridge. And I always always remarked — to no one other than myself — about how beautiful it was.
Inasmuch as I might entertain a sentimental wish that we could return to a more intimate era when our major roadways sported names that reflected regional character, such an invocation to revisit the past can provoke unpleasant consequences. Who, really, would think it wise — or sensitive — to reintroduce and perpetuate, for example, a highway that contains the word “dixie”, given the word’s association with a romanticized antebellum era? My wistful thinking is modulated further when I consider that the earliest (successful) efforts to name our “trails” were outcomes of merely the noisiest promoters of road names. It wasn’t any governmental body that affixed the names to our major roads up through the early decades of the 20th century. It was trail associations (with very defined motivations) who often competed for naming rights, and who — in fits of pique — might change the course of their routes and completely snub offending cities, making it all be known by slapping up new signage on barns, rocks, trees, or other visible objects. Say what you will about governmental interference, but the national systematizing of our roadways was an inarguable giant step forward. The fact that anyone can reasonably navigate from one part of the country to another is largely due to the imposition of a systematic and simple strategy — north-south routes were given odd numbers, east-west even numbers (with the more substantial transcontinental routes being further categorized: east-west were two-digits ending in zero, and north-south ending in either one or five.) Think of any numbered route and apply this formula — it works!
It is my great hope that you — loyal readers — don’t get overly mired in the nomenclature, and instead aim your car for destinations that provide ample roadside distractions. Even before I was retired and traveled the same 12 miles to work each day, I never ceased to be surprised by the landscape along Route 1. I’d like to think that roads aren’t empty, colorless lanes between point A and point B, but rather conduits to experience nature’s ever-shifting kaleidoscope of images. It’s worth it to leave for work just a few minutes earlier in order to luxuriate in the details that we’re forced to overlook when it’s a frenzied commute down the interstate. I’d like to think that for over twenty years I took a Sunday drive — every work day — so that I wouldn’t miss out on the blanketing mist that hovered over the Parker River flood plain or the occasional Northern Harrier who glided above it or the sun rising over the Merrimack, all images that bolstered me, centered me, imbuing each day with meaning and purpose. Such memories I hope to always hold dear.
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.
Each day I get an alert from History.com’s “THIS DAY IN HISTORY”* and (nearly) always find something about it that fascinates me. A couple days ago it was about Christopher Columbus’ mistaking manatees for mermaids, and that sent me down a rabbit hole. I learned about the Steller’s sea cow (and of course that recalled for me the recent sightings of the wayward Steller’s sea eagle who is having trouble finding his way home to Eastern Russia), their namesake (George Wilhelm Steller – quite an amazing fellow in his own right; I’ll have to study this 18th century botanist/explorer further), manatees, and ending with a perusal of mermaid-centered 15th century art. I hardly need to point out that all of this took place in the comfort of my home via the internet. How would we otherwise manage COVID restrictions?
This morning was no different; I happily descended the rabbit hole; in fact, I haven’t fully re-emerged. On this day in history in 1964, the U.S. surgeon general Luther Terry reported the findings of a two-year commission: succinctly put, smoking was hazardous to your health. Its obviousness is laughable now, but you can’t help but time travel back to 1964 and re-experience — in your imagination — how prevalent smoking was, and how accepted its practice was. My parents were both smokers, and I’m sure nearly half of my readers can say the same thing. We can commiserate about all the joyless car rides in which our greatest challenge was how not to breath in the secondhand smoke. Meals were typically followed by a ritual lighting up of either a Kent or a Winston, and no project by Dad went unaccompanied by a smoldering cigarette notched into the rim of an ash tray. With just the merest effort, I can re-imagine the distinctive aroma of a filled ash tray. I was forever emptying the abalone and clam shells that we used as improvised ashtrays and washing them out, but of course the cycle was perpetual, therefore making my gesture pointless.
Surgeon General Terry’s 1964 report was a watershed moment. As the percentage of adult smokers had surpassed 40% and there was no sign of the upward trend reversing, he had done something quite courageous. Knowing that the pushback by the enormously powerful tobacco industry would be fierce and prolonged, and mindful of Wall Street ramifications, he nevertheless put his (unsurprising) findings in front of the public. While it took decades for legislation to subsequently be enacted, Terry’s principled stand serves as a heartening example of one influential person’s choice to prioritize the public good. In a world where profit, expediency, and self-interest on the one hand compete with public health, humanitarianism, and charity on the other, today’s leaders could use such a reminder.
For those paying close attention (and I’m not suggesting that you should be paying close attention), you might have noticed a thematic repetition in some of my choices of books lately. It began with Circe, and having loved that book, I eagerly read The Song of Achilles by the same author, Madeline Miller. I just finished A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, and walked away from it with that same feeling of satisfaction. So, now I’m left puzzling over why I am just now being turned on by stories inspired by Greek mythology. Why now? Why not before?
One would think that there might have been a smidgen of curiosity way back when I was in high school. After all, our school mascot was a Trojan. Perhaps the turn-off was that everyone always considered the name’s other connotation much more naturally than any association with Odysseus, Helen, or Achilles, or just generally the whole Heroic Age. It’s possible that I quailed at the prospect of mispronouncing all those Greek names with a preponderance of vowels (and off-putting diphthongs). It is equally likely that the ancientness of it all failed to inspire me. I think I’m closer to understanding why I now can embrace these stories. The gradual shift within me has to do with a new acceptance of ambiguity, uncertainty. What I mean is, in the past I wouldn’t have been caught dead reading a story centered on the Trojan War, mostly because of archaeologists’ inability to say definitively where Troy was. While the accepted wisdom is that the walled city held an unassailable position at the southern approach to the Dardanelles (along the Turkish straits), I couldn’t imagine investing all that time into reading about an event that may or may not have taken place where the experts were in reasonable agreement that it did take place. Moreover, hedging their claims about the real names behind Homer’s characters only left me even more frustrated. If I were to read a book about war, I wanted a war from the last couple of hundred years. Everything about them seemed more conclusive.
The reason A Thousand Ships appealed to me is because Haynes freely admits (big surprise) that there are enormous gaps in our understanding of the role of women during that ten-year war (and the ten years that followed). With her imagination thus unfettered, she wove a vibrant, highly entertaining tale, one that portrays the female characters in ways that allow us readers to nod vigorously and say, “Yes, I can see how it might have played out that way.” There’s nothing high-brow in Haynes’ writing style; in fact, she very artfully transforms the unapproachable and fabled characters into flawed, mortal, touchable beings.
If you can get beyond the challenge of accurately pronouncing Greek names*, you’ll love this book. (I’m trying to ready myself to read The Odyssey, and maybe I should do the audio version to avoid my own mishandling of names.)
*As I read, I used online pronunciation guides, but even they were not in agreement. Sometimes, the British pronunciation deviated from the U.S. pronunciation, and other “guides” were just rubbish, contradicting rules of Greek phonetics (as I am beginning to understand them).
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.