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Family Traits

2 Mar

My grandparents were storytellers.  My grandfather always told the best stories, managing to weave humor into his stories, always entertaining everyone around him.  My grandmother wasn’t as humorous of a storyteller but always as fascinating – listening to her was like what it must have been like to listen to Laura Ingalls Wilder talk about her childhood.  I never got tired of their stories, not even when my grandfather developed Alzheimer’s and would tell the same story over and over again.  I listened, committing them all to memory, and now, I repeat those stories to my children, who laugh at them like I did.

In college, I took a course on playwriting.  One of the projects was to write a short play, which would then be handed over to someone in the directing class and a couple of acting students to do a read through of it.  I think it was Josh who suggested using one of my grandfather’s tales.  But instead, I chose a story from my grandmother’s life.  The story of her sister Agnes and her mother’s determination.

Agnes was the youngest of the five children, the baby of the family.  To me, Agnes was the girl in the black and white photo, with chubby dimpled cheeks, bright eyes and a slightly curled bob.  Agnes was the little girl who never grew up.  When I was little, my grandmother would tell me how Agnes walked home in the rain one day, caught something, and eventually died, which usually was followed up with “And this is why you need to wear your rainboots/coat/stay dry/never go out with wet hair.”

But there was more to the story, as it always turns out.

Agnes and my grandmother, Jual (pronounced Jewel), had been sick with something else (possible scarlet fever) which led to them developing rheumatic fever.  My grandmother Jual, five years older than her baby sister, recovered from it (years later, she would discover the fever had left some scarring on her heart.)  Agnes, the family doctor stated, would not recover.  Her heart had been badly damaged.  There was nothing he could do for her.

When confronted with the news that her child would die, my great-grandmother – Mary Ann Catherine Healy O’Hanley – did not let the news defeat her.  Yes, it was the Depression.  Yes, they were as broke as anyone else.  But she wasn’t going to let lack of money and pride stop her from making sure she did what she could.  So Ann O’Hanley found out who was the top heart specialist in Chicago, went to his office, and asked to be seen.  The secretary asked if she had an appointment – she said no.  The secretary told her that she could not be seen anytime soon.  Ann stated that she would wait.

And she waited in the office until closing time.  Then she went back the next day and waited more.  Eventually, the doctor asked his secretary who that woman in the waiting room was, and the secretary explained the situation.  The doctor told her to send the waiting woman into his office.

Finally able to meet with the doctor, Ann explained to him the situation – the fevers, the family doctor stating Agnes would not recover, how they really didn’t have the money to pay him, but how she wanted his opinion on Agnes’s case.  The doctor stated that he might not be able to do anything for Agnes either.

My great-grandmother said, to the effect of “I understand.  But at least, if she dies, I’ll know I did everything I could to help my daughter.”

The doctor went to their house to see Agnes.  There wasn’t anything he coud do for her but make her comfortable.  Agnes died at the age of nine, in 1934.  And her mother at least had the peace of knowing she did all she could to help her child.

To some, it’s a sad story.  And there is sadness to it.  But I always thought it was a wonderful explanation of the type of women that come out of our family.  Strong, determined, stubborn women. As I was re-telling this story recently, it hit me – I’ve done the same thing.  In being Maura’s mother, I’ve sat in countless doctors offices, where they tell me that they’re sorry, they can’t give me answers.  But I go away with the comfort of knowing that at least, I’ve tried that one.  I’ve checked that off my list.  While I don’t have answers, I know it’s not because I’m not doing all I can.  No one could ever accuse me of that.

I always found this story a bit inspirational, long before I ever dreamt I would need that inspiration.  Until a few days ago, I never even thought to compare what my great-grandmother went through with what I’m going through.  But now?  I have more sympathy for her as a mother, and I think she’d be glad to see that her tenacity was passed down through the generations.  And for a bit of irony – Maura’s middle name is Catherine, partially for her great-great-grandmother – Mary Ann Catherine Healy O’Hanley.

Maybe I now know who up there is looking out for Maura.

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17 Responses to “Family Traits”

  1. Brigid Sullivan March 2, 2012 at 8:26 am #

    Wonderful story..put a tear in my eye. I remember many stories from my Grandmother ,Mother and Great Aunt Margaret. I have been a fan of yours for a few months. I has hooked on the very first read.

    Been to Ireland quite a few times…love it. Have friends there, but no family. Am 65, have a bit of arthritis, and hope there is at least 1 more trip in me…..

    Keep up your good work.

    • phoebz4 March 2, 2012 at 8:38 am #

      Thanks! And I’m sure there’s another trip here in you’re future 😀

  2. Beth March 2, 2012 at 8:43 am #

    an absolutely beautiful story-thank you for the inspiration.
    I also have 2 children with special needs and often feel like I need the reminder that I’m doing all that I can, searching for answers to unanswerable questions.

    • phoebz4 March 2, 2012 at 9:06 am #

      sometimes, all you can do is your best. If they can’t give you answers, well, it’s not your fault. At least, that’s what I remind myself! 7 years going, and we still don’t have answers. But no one can say I haven’t given it my best!

    • ntouch2cher March 2, 2012 at 11:45 pm #

      What a touching story! Thank you! My grandmother was a midwife (I was born in her bed) and the village nurse…saved me and my sister from scarlet fever by giving us shots that we could not afford from the doctor. I find myself thinking of her and my mom who also has Alzheimer in advanced stages a lot these days, as I turn 60 in a few days. Bless you for your tenacity! Your blog is an inspiration for many out there…

  3. Heather N Travis Burnham March 2, 2012 at 9:17 am #

    Beautiful and inspirational story!

  4. Shari Blue March 2, 2012 at 10:05 am #

    Thanks for retelling a story from your family…beautiful. Inspiring to all mom’s everywhere to never stop “going to the mats” for your children. There is a story in the news online today, about a Missouri woman who is facing charges for “assaulting” the drug dealer that was harasssing her heroin-addicted teenage son….that woman get’s it….do anything to save your child, to protect them and facilitate them reaching their full potential. Have a beautiful day, and I look forward to reading your blog everytime!

  5. Courtenay Bluebird March 2, 2012 at 11:57 am #

    My grandmother did some similar things for another family member, and those stories, passed quietly from her thorny voice to my ear, definitely inform the way I look at tenaciousness.

    What I’m really saying is that I love this piece, and I love your unpacking of the family myth. The writing here is so elegant, so exacting, and I am thrilled to be able to read it. Thank you so much!

    • phoebz4 March 2, 2012 at 12:13 pm #

      thank you for all your kind words! I truly appreciate them.

      • Courtenay Bluebird March 2, 2012 at 12:15 pm #

        I am so impressed with the muscularity of this piece. So, it truly is my pleasure!

  6. Audrey March 2, 2012 at 12:21 pm #

    This is so inspiring, it brought tears to my eyes. What a powerful lineage you come form and that tenacity still runs strong in your veins. Thanks for sharing this.

  7. Suzanne Young March 2, 2012 at 2:58 pm #

    It was a beautiful story, and your story telling abilities are amazing. I’d love to hear (I mean read) more!

  8. Susan Holmes March 2, 2012 at 3:53 pm #

    Your great-grandmother and I would have gotten along wonderfully!!! What a wonderful story! You can’t tease me about medical stuff with this in your background. 🙂
    Keep writing.

  9. Madonna March 2, 2012 at 5:56 pm #

    Oh that brings a tear to my eye. What a beautiful story and yes, Mother’s of special needs children have tenacity and endurance to bear what we’ve been given. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Nanette Quigley Malloy March 3, 2012 at 12:09 pm #

    What a beautiful story Phoebe. Thank you. My mother had scarlet fever in 1929, she lost her left inner ear and some of the hearing in her right ear. You remind me how lucky I am to be here. She had seven children and eight grandchildren.
    My best to you and yours.
    How lucky Maura is to have you, each and every day.

    • phoebz4 March 3, 2012 at 12:26 pm #

      Interesting – my grandmother also lost hearing in one ear b/c of the fevers. Though she could always hear us use improper grammar, lol!

  11. Angel Brookins March 4, 2012 at 1:11 pm #

    Absolutely beautiful. Though my fingers bleed and my nails have long since broken off, you inspire me to keep haning in there, thank you so much.

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