I started this iteration of my blog (and corresponding instagram @instagrandma_100) as a daily ritual to remember and honor the women from whom I came, and to share their stories. But I wouldn’t have stories (or grandmothers) without all the fathers too. So today I share a letter fragment from my own beloved and exceptional dad, who made the startling point that I am “the next daughter” after dear Agnes and Margaret, both of whom died as children in 1911 and 1912. His own father and mother had only the two boys, and my father’s brother had no children of his own—only a son through marriage. His mother’s three siblings died in childhood, never married or had no children of their own—again, one son through marriage.
So it was my father and mother, seventy years after the last little girl died, who brought the next O’Connell daughter into the world.
Will and Alene would, if they were omniscient, be pole-axed at the idea that the only modern-day (and next) daughter of their family would be the one family member to visit their baby girls after 105 years. Sweet old Alene would gather you to her capacious bosom for sure!
In memoriam of the O’Connell girls and who they might have grown up to be, and to the mother and father who loved them.
Today I visited my great-aunts Agnes and Margaret, both of whom died in childhood.
They are buried in the children’s graveyard at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma. The sea of graves crowned with cherubs and lambs broke my heart, and I read every name as I walked through the rows searching for my girls. I met a man who feeds the cemetery’s feral cats and is followed by a murder of crows — birds so black and glossy they look cartoon. I told one stalking me to at least be useful and lead me to my O’Connell babes.
Finally I found them, a few rows away from where the nuns are buried.
The engraving was unlike any other I saw and I wondered if my grandfather, who was an artist in addition to a lawyer, had done the lettering himself, decades after his sisters died.
I spent a solid twenty minutes with a spray bottle and a toothbrush, uncloaking the stone of its chartreuse lichen and giving the lamb back its face. I don’t know who last visited their resting place, and my father has never seen it, but it’s been a good thirty years, if not much much longer.
When I visited my family in Ireland last year, cousin Ted told me it’s family duty to clean family graves. So here I am, in 2017, carrying on the Irish tradition of my ancestors in a Catholic cemetery in California.
Meet my great-grandma Alene, or Lena, or even sometimes Aileen. Born to the Wallace family in Essex, Ontario, Canada, in 1877, she and her sisters pursued medicine; her sister Margaret was one of the first female doctors ever, but more on her later.
Alene was a nurse in Hot Springs, Arkansas, when she met my Irish great-grandfather Will O’Connell, recovering in a hospital after more than a decade of prospecting and silver mining in the Yukon, Colorado and Utah. They eventually settled in San Francisco, at 588 Jersey Street in Noe Valley, and had two beautiful little girls, Margaret (b. 1907) and Agnes (b. 1909). But tragedy struck, and both girls died in childhood. My great-grandfather never recovered from the loss, and his son—my grandfather William Wallace O’Connell—felt haunted by the absence of his two sisters.
In a recorded history he made for me in those precious few years between my birth and his death, my grandfather said:
“My mother had a more philosophical mind. Of course it was a very great loss, a great sadness to her, but she had a child to care for — a son. And she also had a nice sense of fun. So I grew up in a cheery enough household, as far as my mother could keep us together…and keeping a stiff upper lip.”
It is also largely due to Alene that I have so much information on her side of the family, as she kept notes on birth and death dates, catalogued photographs and letters, and wrote names on the backs of photographs. I like to think she knew I’d come along sixteen years after she died and pick up the story where she left it.