[Editor’s note: I’m filling in for Kerri Miller for the next couple of days so blogging may be a bit problematic. But that works out well for you because my colleague, Sasha Aslanian, a gifted writer, indeed, has agreed to let me post her essay on her search for the past. We’ve chatted this week about my fondness for obituaries and life stories and this fits right in. People — like Sasha — who won’t let the past die, keep people alive forever. Journalists are diggers. Diggers make great genealogists. And the past is waiting for us.]
My friend gave birth to her daughter and was disappointed things hadn’t gone according to the birth plan she’d written up ahead of time. An emergency cesarean section denied her the chance to try natural childbirth. “It was like training for a marathon I never got to run!” she complained. But her baby was a glorious, chubby pink 10-pounder.
I had just gotten a death certificate from the Massachusetts Archive for another 29-year old mother. My great-grandmother.
Mary Agnes Hughes McCann of South Boston, pregnant with her seventh child, slipped and fell in the winter of 1920. “Exhaustion” said the death certificate. My grandmother, a skinny girl of 10, was there to see her fall.
Death had visited the McCanns before. Hazel, the first baby, died at 9 days old. Jody, the only son, died of pneumonia when he was 2.
But this time, with his wife and baby gone, Mary Agnes’ husband couldn’t bear up. Frank Joseph McCann took his four daughters, ages 10, 8, 6 and 18 months, to his aunt’s house in Dorchester, visited them once and walked out of their lives.
“He was kind of a ne’er-do-well,” my granny explained.
My grandmother was a shy, careful girl with green eyes. She was called Mary Agnes like her mother. Her aunt wasn’t pleased to have four extra mouths to feed. Mary was allowed to complete eighth grade and took a job in a shoe factory trimming heels and turned her paychecks over to her aunt.
When she was 18, her aunt died, so she rented an apartment and raised her three younger sisters, insisting they finish high school because she didn’t get to. She worked as a telephone operator through the Great Depression. She always answered the phone like she was at that switchboard with a nasally “Nello?”
When the Depression ended, she accepted a proposal from an Armenian neighbor, packed up her youngest sister and little dog and drove to Seattle.
There she grew roses. She had a daughter and son. Then grandchildren.
One day in the mid-1990s, granny told me she sometimes wondered whatever happened to her uncles. Uncle Frank drove a tonic wagon and Uncle Jim drove a coal truck. Uncle Bart was a banker in Milton, and Uncle Ned lived in New Bedford and was rumored to have shot his wife. I scrawled notes on the back of a paycheck envelope. For months, I would rush home from my job as a journalist to write letters to archives, churches and cemeteries.
A man in Maryland recognized their names. When I finally dialed him up, he cried, “I thought I’d never find you.”
Granny was “deaf as a haddock” as she liked to say, but they talked on the phone and shared what they could about a family that almost succeeded in erasing itself.
On a work trip to Boston, I called Granny from South Station. “Bless your heart,” she said. She still said “haart” with her Boston accent.
I took the train to a tidy suburb and walked until I came to a stonewalled cemetery.
There was no gravestone for her mother. I took the dozen white roses bought at the train station and laid them on the grass.
“We found you,” I said. Her first bouquet in 86 years.
That spring we bought a marker. Mary Agnes Hughes McCann who didn’t live long enough to get her kids out of diapers, who never made it to the roaring twenties, got a gravestone over the internet.
My granny’s been gone almost a decade now, but every few years, I search again for the “ne’er-do-well” who eludes me even in the age of Ancestry.com. In my 20s and 30s, I thought I was racing to solve an old woman’s mysteries before she died. Instead, I found the records of a different time. Birth plans would have seemed a folly. Life never went according to plan. Their vital statistics are an amber of small agonies, mothers, fathers and children gone.
My 5-year-old lies limp in my arms, Strep feverishly draining her. The ER fluffs her back up with intravenous antibiotics and she chatters exuberantly about the Popsicles. I weep for the luckiness. I get to keep my children.
— Sasha Aslanian