Family Traits

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.