Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Dinner of Remembrance

This post was written for the 41st Edition - Carnival of Genealogy

For Sleep’s Sake

“Finally!” I said out loud to not another living soul in the room as I turned off the computer. Between work and genealogy projects not to mention the menial tasks of daily life, I was exhausted. And it was late.

As I got ready for bed and hoped for a decent night’s sleep for a change, I pondered the theme of the next Carnival of Genealogy: If you could have dinner with four of your ancestors who would they be and why? For some reason, even after having read that on Jasia’s blog over 10 hours ago, I couldn’t free my mind from its grip. What was it about the question that would not let me turn my brain off? Was it having to select only four dead ancestors? Was it having to decide which ancestors? Or was it the fear of the actual event of sharing a meal and interacting with these people? Would I try to get answers to questions which I already knew would be difficult for them to answer and whose answers I would surely have difficulty understanding?

“Too many questions, Thomas. Now go to bed!” As I hit middle-age I found myself talking in this “outer voice” to myself but still no one could hear me. I hope.

And so I tried to drift off into a long awaited and needed slumber.

* * *

In Dreams

Drifting away into a deeper and deeper sleep, I could barely hear a conversation, or so I thought. But in dreams people often interpret real noises in the exterior world as different noises in the dream world. Sort of how a bell ringing in a dream is really the alarm clock.

Clarence’s Voice: You sent for me, sir?

Franklin’s Voice: Yes, Clarence. A man down on earth needs our help.

Clarence’s Voice: Splendid! Is he sick?

Franklin’s Voice: No, worse. He's discouraged. He’s trying to decide which four ancestors he should invite to a dinner. He’s afraid that he’ll find out more than he bargained for or that he won’t be able to interact and get along with these people.

Clarence’s Voice: Oh, dear, dear! Then I've only got an hour to dress.

Franklin’s Voice: You will spend that hour getting acquainted with four ancestors of Thomas MacEntee. Convince him that his life is made up of the influences these people had, whether directly or indirectly. If they hadn’t existed, neither would he.

Clarence’s Voice: But why does he have to interact with them? Can’t he find out all this information through his research?

Franklin’s Voice: Research will only take him so far. Sometimes in family history there are so many questions left unanswered that ancestors take with them to the afterlife. Why? Because there was no one there to challenge them, to question them. Not only does Thomas need to see that the challenge must be made, show him what his life would be like without those people or those answers.

Clarence’s Voice: Sir . . . If I should accomplish this mission –– I mean –– might I perhaps win my wings? I've been waiting for over two hundred years now, sir –– and people are beginning to talk.

Franklin’s Voice: Clarence, you do a good job with Thomas, and you'll get your wings.

Clarence’s Voice: Oh, thank you, sir. Thank you.

Franklin’s Voice: If you're going to help someone in this situation, you’ll want to know something about those four ancestors, won't you?

Clarence’s Voice: Well, naturally. Of course. But which four are you proposing he should invite and why?

* * *

And so, Franklin began telling a story of Thomas’ ancestors that stretch back over 500 years but the focus right now was from 1865 up to the present day. The four ancestors that Thomas had been pondering during those hours since he first read the theme of the carnival, were as follows:

- Bridget Farren McGinnis, a maternal great-great-grandmother of Thomas’ born about 1865 who died about 1930.

- Anna Henneberg Austin, Thomas’ maternal grandmother born in 1912 who died in 1965.

- Dulcide McCrickert Sidden, one of Thomas’ 1st cousins twice removed who was born in 1921 and died in 2006.

- Jacqueline Austin MacEntee, Thomas’s dear mother, born in 1941.

Clarence’s Voice: But sir, what is the death date for his mother? Is she still alive?

Franklin’s Voice: Yes she is, Clarence. But wait for all the details and you’ll understand how she fits in with this mission.

Clarence was able to get all the facts as Franklin went over details of the lives of each of these women. But it was more than details that Franklin imparted – at various points in “the telling” he would also describe not only the character traits which Thomas inherited, but also the questions that seemed so mysterious to him and why Thomas needed these four ancestors to be “completed.”

An Irish Girl from Belfast

Bridget Farren arrived in New York on May 25, 1885 aboard the ship Aurania. She was traveling with friends, or possibly the family of her sister, Mary Farren Martin, according to the passenger manifest. The city that she arrived in was on the cusp of greatness: in 1885 the cables for the Brooklyn Bridge were being laid; in 1886 the first cross-town trolley would start and the American Telephone and Telegraph company was founded and developing a new device called the telephone. But Bridget’s main concern was getting settled, finding employment and securing a husband.

Where or when she met Matthew McGinnis is unclear but they were probably married around 1887 in New York. He had come from Ireland, which part is not known, earlier in 1883 with his brother. He married Bridget and then became a naturalized citizen in September, 1888. Over the course of the next 12 years, he and Bridget would have six children – five girls and one boy – all of which would grow into adulthood, save for the boy, his namesake, Matthew McGinnis who died in 1893 at age 18 months.

With four children you can be sure that Bridget had her hands full in February 1899 especially since her fifth and final child, Gertrude would be born within days. She could use every bit of help she could get. But as fate, not luck, would have it, her husband Matthew died on February 15, 1899. And their daughter was born one week later on February 22, 1899.

Life wasn’t easy for Bridget in Ireland nor would it prove to be so in New York either. But as it has been for women centuries before and would continue to be so for many more, she gathered her strength, was bolstered by her faith, and rounded up her children and made a life for herself and them. Things were tough, no doubt, but over the next 25 years, those girls would grow into beautiful women. They would all be married off into their own lives, with their own children by 1923 and gather around Bridget when she took her last breath in 1930.

In the ensuing years, Bridget’s daughter Therese Rose and her husband, John Ralph Austin would give birth to their first son Alfred Austin who would then marry Anna May Henneberg and give birth to a daughter Jacqueline, mother to Thomas.

A German-American Girl from The Bronx

Born in The Bronx, New York in 1912, one month after it had become a county independent of New York county, Anna May Henneberg was the eldest child of Richard Henneberg and Frances Pressner. They both had arrived from Germany sometime around 1906, each of them at the age of 18.

Anna, known to her grandchildren as “Nanny” would first marry Lars Larson around 1932 and then give birth to a daughter Ann Patricia in 1933. Whether by divorce or death, Anna somehow was apart from Lars and soon married Alfred Austin, the eldest son of Therese Rose McGinnis and John Ralph Austin, in 1935.

Over the course of the next 14 years she would give birth to 11 more children for a total of 12 – eight daughters and four sons. Raising a dozen kids, even with the help of a husband, was difficult in Jersey City, New Jersey, especially coming off the Depression years. Years later there would be tales from the children of fights over food at the supper table, having to take what you could get the first time, since there were no “seconds.” Clothes were always hand me downs and probably threadbare by time they reached the littlest one.

And when not pregnant, Anna would continue to work as a nurse in local hospitals. Sometime in the mid-1950s, the entire family would move up to the “mountains” as they called the Catskills back then. Anna had spent time up at the retirement farm owned by her in-laws and would often send the children up for the summer to escape the dirt and heat of the city.

Separated from Alfred for much of the late 1950s and early 1960s, most of her children would be married by time she died on May 4, 1965 in Liberty, New York of a cerebral hemorrhage.

An Irish American Girl from Long Island

One of many grand-daughters of Bridget Farren, Dulcide Veronica McCrickert was born in 1921 and would spend her entire life on Long Island in New York until her death in early 2006. She was the daughter of Elizabeth Agnes Veronica McGinnis and John B. McCrickert. She was the middle of five children, with sisters Ethel Agnes and Grace Elizabeth and brothers John Bernard and Matthew Thomas.

Life was much easier for Dulcide’s family than it had been for her mother or her grandmother. Del, as she was called, would grow up into a stunning young woman who married Harold Sidden in late May, 1946. But within two weeks, tragedy and heartache would set in: her youngest brother Matthew, age 20, would die in a military plane crash in Freehold, New Jersey.

Del and Harold had two children Elizabeth and Harold who were also raised on Long Island. And then in late 1955 and early 1956 both of Del’s parents would pass away within six short weeks of each other.

It was sometime after their deaths that the relationship between the siblings somehow seemed to implode, over what and why is not clear. But the stubbornness of not wanting to talk to one another would persist for some of these children until their deaths many years later.

A German Irish American Girl from The City

Jacqueline Austin was born in New York City but raised in Jersey City, New Jersey most of her life. She is the sixth of the twelve children of Anna May Henneberg and Alfred Austin and, as typical of the “middle” child, was the peace broker and negotiator in the family, up until her untimely illness beginning in 2000.

Clarence’s Voice: Wait, so Jacqueline is still alive?

Franklin’s Voice: As I said before Clarence, yes she is. But when a person suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease, especially the early on-set type that strikes in their mid-50s, they become a shell, a husk of their former self. The disease robs them of the same pleasures and joys that death does, but only over a course of time that is painful for families to watch. That is why Alzheimer’s is often called a “death in slow motion.”

Clarence’s Voice: Oh, I see. But being someone who raised him, why would Thomas still have questions about his mother?

Franklin’s Voice: Please, let me continue.

Jackie or Suzi as she was called (the practice of nicknames totally unrelated to their given names was sort of an inside joke played by the Austin family), spent her early life in Jersey City but moved up to the Catskills in upstate New York by the mid-1950s. She graduated from high school and then married her high school sweetheart, Richard MacEntee in 1961. Within 13 months she would produce two sons, Thomas and Michael and along with her husband try to raise them as best as possible. But Richard soon left, they filed for divorce, and soon Jackie was left in much the predicament of her great-grandmother, Bridget: alone, and supporting children by herself.

During much of the 1970s life was not easy but using smarts and determination she managed to secure a well-paying job, buy a house and settle into a life filled with family and friends. Her two boys would take off in the 1980s, one for college and one for the military, but there were many homecomings, celebrations, cookouts and even a wedding.

As well, she felt blessed to be able to care for and house her great-grandmother, Therese McGinnis Austin, during the mid-1980s until her death in 1986. And she would do the same thing for Dulcide’s sister, Ethel McCrickert Hannan until she died in 2002. But by that time, the Alzheimer’s Disease had already taken root to the alarm of her family. While the “death” happened in slow motion, the legal and financial plans behind the scenes which helped to protect her couldn’t happen fast enough.

With time, Jackie would progress from early retirement to in-home care to long-term nursing home care. Nowadays Thomas makes the trip from Chicago back to New York several times a year to check on his mother and to work with other family members who lend their valuable time and support in her care.

* * *

Clarence’s Voice: Ok, so I think I have all the facts. Now comes the easy part, helping Thomas form his questions, prepare him for what may not be easy answers, and assure him that he needs to do this in order to find not only his ancestors but himself, right?

Franklin’s Voice: Correct and incorrect. This will not be easy. But it will be worthwhile and, Clarence, you will earn those wings.

* * *

Call Me Angel in the Morning

“Who the hell are you?” I said to the darkness as I awoke suddenly. I wasn’t sure if my mind was playing tricks on me or if it was just the half-awake extension of my dream.

“I’ve come to help you with your dinner,” said a voice still without form, only black space.

“Great, just what I need, a caterer that I can’t see!”

“I’m not a caterer. I’ve been sent here to assist you in selecting the ancestors you want to invite and what questions you need to ask.”

“Need to ask? You make it seem so important. Like I’ll die if I don’t do this.”

“Well, I could easily show you what things would be like if you had never been born. But there isn’t time – they’ll be here in a few hours,” said the presence as he made himself known more clearly. What stood before me could best be described as a very short, balding, elderly man but with a strange, not quite American English accent, wearing some sort of a nightshirt. I wasn’t necessarily frightened but more amazed. Wanting to ask “who” exactly sent him, but sensing the fleeting hours, I sat on the side of the bed and began to pepper this phantasm with questions.

“Who are you? What are you? Where do you come from?” I asked.

“My name is Clarence Odbody, A-S-2, and I come from heaven.”

“Heaven? And A-S-2, what’s that?”

“Angel, Second Class.” Clarence stated.

“Great. Now I have some angel on my hands that wants to convert me or something. And besides, where are your wings?” I said with skepticism. Perhaps this was just one of the “over served” at the bar down the street.

“Oh, I have to earn them and that’s where you are going to help me. And I’m going to help you.”

“How?”

“I’m here to help you pick those dinner guests and formulate the questions you should ask, have to ask,” said this quirky but increasingly lovable character. “Sure, life will go on even if you don’t hold this dinner and get those answers, but life will be so much better. You’ll see how all the pieces of your family puzzle fit together. And which ones are still missing.”

“Why can’t you just give me the answers and we can do away with this whole production?” I figured, why not just get to the obvious? But my response surprised even me since I wasn’t raised to look for shortcuts. I had been taught that anything truly valuable and truly desired had to be earned, just like wings.

“Don’t you know everything being an angel and what not? I bet you could even tell me who wins the primary here in Illinois next week!”

“Not so easy. If I knew everything, wouldn’t I have my wings already? And besides, elections and politicians are handled by a different department - down below,” Clarence eerily said with a hush and a pointing to his bare feet.

“So where do we start? I have some ideas as to who I want to invite, what will be served, how to set the table . . .”

“Don’t bother with inconsequential details – you probably won’t even get to serve the meal, nor will these dead ancestors be able to eat it. Just go with the four people you thought about right before you fell asleep last night.”

It was already morning then, I realized. Being late January, and with the winter grey in Chicago, it was hard to tell exactly when the sun rose or set anymore.

“So I should invite Bridget, Anna, Dulcide and my mother, Jackie?” I asked hesitantly to the angel.

“Yes,” he said. “The four strong, independent and persevering women who’ve given you so much but still leave so much unanswered.”

“Well, now that we’ve got that settled, here’s the hard part: What do I ask? I have so many questions? Will I aggravate them? Will I annoy them? Will they avoid answering?”

Clarence cut me off by saying, “Hold it! You’re annoying even me right now! Why not do this: where you would normally have small menu cards on each plate, just print five questions for each person. Then see how it goes.”

“Ok, then what? Do I just sit and wait all day for them to show up? Will they appear all at once? Will they knock on the door or just scare the crap out of me by calling from the darkness like you did?” I was impatient and Clarence could tell.

“Your problem, kid, is going to be keeping this list to five questions each! So get cracking.” Clarence was dusting off his nightshirt and started to retreat into the darkness of the bedroom which was just beginning to fill with sun.

I yelled, “You’re not going are you? You have to help me with this!”

“No. You know what you want to ask. You just need to get the right mix of questions to produce the answers you want and need. My role is to simply act as a muse and to lend inspiration from time to time. I’ll be right here,” he said.

“But how will I know if it’s right? What if I don’t get it right?”

“You’ll know. Now go ahead. This time tomorrow you’ll have had a wonderful, albeit too short a visit with these women, and you’ll have some but not all of the answers, or at least leads for research, and I will have my wings.”

And with that, Clarence was gone.

* * *

A Menu of Questions

I can’t tell you how the dinner went or what I found out since it hasn’t happened yet. I’m still waiting. But since Clarence disappeared over four hours ago, I was able to assemble the following menu cards:

Menu for Bridget Farren McGinnis

Appetizer

What prompted you to make the long journey to America?

First Course

How did you feel during those first 15 years in the United States, having gotten married and having six children?

Second Course

How did your husband Matthew McGinnis die?

Side Dishes

What did you do for an income after his death?

Dessert

Did you have any role models or did the determination to survive and raise your daughters simply come from within?



Menu for Anna May Henneberg

Appetizer

How and why did you and Lars Larson become separated?

First Course

Was it your choice to have so many children?

Second Course

Did your second husband, Alfred Austin abandon you?

Side Dishes

Were you ever abused?

Dessert

Why do your letters to your mother-in-law sound so sad and desperate?



Menu for Dulcide McCrickert Sidden

Appetizer

Did you get along with your older sisters Ethel and Grace?

First Course

What was it like to endure the death of your youngest brother Matthew?

Second Course

What led to the rupture of the relationship between you and your siblings?

Side Dishes

Did you want to contact your sisters and did you try?

Dessert

Did you know where your sister Ethel was living near the end of her life, and if so, why didn’t you attempt to contact her?



Menu for Jacqueline Austin MacEntee

Appetizer

Can you describe the descent into Alzheimer’s and how it feels?

First Course

Did you always feel caught in the middle being the sixth out of twelve kids?

Second Course

Did your father abuse you and your sisters as I suspect, and if so, did you tell anyone?

Side Dishes

Why did you try to find your missing sister after she had disappeared after 35 years?

Dessert

Do you know you are my hero, my role model?

Copyright January 29, 2008 by Thomas MacEntee
Inspired, in part, by the screenplay “IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE” by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, and Jo Swerling

9 comments:

Miriam said...

Thomas, it's hilarious, touching, and always beautiful. If there were a prize for best post for this COG, you should get it.

Terry Snyder said...

I love it! What a great idea and a fun/touching piece to read. I agree with Miriam - this entry is a winner!

Jasia said...

Wow T! You just blew me away. You're wasting yourself in IT man. You're much too creative. You should be writing instead of debugging.

Wonderful article. Wonderful life.

Thomas MacEntee said...

Thank you so much - the comments of my genea-colleagues really means alot to me. I want to also say thank you to footnoteMaven for a great and challenging topic!

Chery said...

Thomas - When can I buy tickets to the Broadway play? This is excellent, and we all love Clarence. The main question is, will you be playing yourself?

Terry Thornton said...

Thomas, What a sensitive and beautifully written tribute to your four ancestors. You framed the story so neat. Thanks for sharing your writing with us.
TERRY

Apple said...

I wish I were half as creative as you are! There are many things that families just don't talk about. Sometimes I wish I had the answers to my family's secrets and mysteries and sometimes I'm glad I'll never have to know for sure.

Lidian said...

What a wonderful piece you wrote - just beautiful. I loved reading this, and it made me think of how genealogy really does illuminate the mysteries of the ordinary.

Jewelgirl said...

Very clever, you should be writing
books! Another great view into
your family. They would be lucky
to meet YOU!