My family's story of chance, sacrifice, loss, and faith - all forged long before I existed.
I don’t know who they are, but their fingerprints can be found somewhere along the double helix of my DNA. They are only two men. One if them is the man who rented the garage on Missouri Avenue in Southwest Detroit. The other, is the one who grieved. They are both a part of the story I grew up with. And though it was my grandmother’s story, it became my mother’s. And she shared it with my father and it became his as well. In turn, they passed it on to me and my siblings and now the story belongs to all of my family. And it all happened long ago. Before my mother and father were even born…
Although they had come from the same county back in Ireland, in fact, even the same small town, my maternal grandparents had never met. Both were from Castlemaine, County Kerry. But he was from Keel. She from Shanashill. And in my family’s history it would only make sense that they meet 3500 miles away from their home to fall in love.
My grandfather had been a soldier in the Irish Republican Army. And a wanted man too. In fact, one of the first stories I ever heard was about how he had avoided the Orangemen by hiding out in an abandoned house in the Kerry Countryside. On the eve before he escaped for America he hid in silence as the English closed in. And had it not been for a cloudy night, (Are there any other kind in Ireland?), he would‘ve been caught, too. Because while searching the pitch-black house, as my grandfather lay still on the floor, one of the Orangemen stepped on his coat. The next day, he took the first boat headed West. It was 1923. He was 24 years old.
My grandmother was the youngest of 16 children. She came to America in 1924, where her brother John helped her find work as a maid for the famed Pulitzer family. While working for the Pulitzers, my grandmother picked up many a trait that she passed along to my mother. Most notably, expensive taste. Though she came from nothing, my grandmother learned quickly how the upper crust of American society behaved. And she would use this knowledge when she had her own family.
Though they wouldn’t have money, my grandmother’s children would look and act like they did. Boys would be dressed and styled in a variation of Little Lord Fauntleroy. Girls would appear genteel and ladylike. And all would have the best table manners. But greater than passing the idea of “class” onto my mother’s family, was passing the virtues of her Roman Catholic faith.
There was no amount of stress that saying the rosary couldn’t alleviate. And there wasn’t a problem in the world that couldn’t be solved by making a novena; nine consecutive days of receiving the Eucharist. For my grandmother, this belief system was not merely a philosophy, but rather a way of life. This was a woman whose idea of profanity was yelling “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” Scones would be mixed over prayer. Soda bread was not crossed to help the dough rise, but to give praise. And there was nothing in the world lost that couldn’t be found after whispering an infant dear Jesus lost and found. My grandmother’s answer for everything was prayer. And if it didn’t work, more prayer. It was a very simple philosophy passed down from her mother and passed onto my own.
Though they had met at a dance sometime in the mid 1920’s, my grandparents did not marry until years later. According to the 15th census of the United States, my grandmother was still living in the Pulitzer’s servant house in Ladue, Missouri at the beginning of 1930. My grandfather, on the other hand, boarded with the Courtney family on Wabash in Detroit, listing “Irish Free State” as both his mother and father. The two married in the Spring of that year.