Forging a bond with ancestors

March 17, 2002|By Thomas Belton

HADDONFIELD, N.J. - In the sixth grade, my son asked us to help him draw a "family tree" for a school project.

Compared with my wife's family - bolstered by bedtime stories from her aunts and uncles - my side looked more like a trimmed hedge.

Resolving to fix this in time for my daughter's attempt at a family tree, I set out to interview some dying relatives, only to discover that part of this amnesia was induced by religious bigotry and also by an immigrant's desire to forget the past.

My mother didn't know a lot about her Protestant grandparents because they disowned her father when he married Bess Starr, an Irish Catholic girl from Philadelphia. She only knew that they owned a wheelwright shop in West Chester (making horse-drawn carriages) and were from an old Dutch immigrant family distantly related to the owners of Valley Forge - that's right, George Washington slept there after arriving with his army in 1777.

A little incredulous at disinheritance by religion, I subsequently discovered that riots broke out in Philadelphia when the Irish arrived during the Great Potato Famine of 1845 to 1850.

Arriving in WASP-dominated Philadelphia during the Industrial Revolution, they were fed into the factories to produce cheap manufactured goods, which put the traditional American tradesman - the weaver, tinker and potter - out of business. The immigrants, rather than unstoppable technology, were easy targets of frustration. Mayhem ensued with lynchings on street lamps and even an assault on the Irish ghetto by a mob pulling a cannon.

Ironically, after 16 years of my own Catholic education, I decided to let my son, Daniel, choose his own religious affiliation, whereby he nimbly joined the Methodist Church because they had a wonderful choir. I hope my great-grandfather, wherever he is, has a sense of humor, because God sure does.

My father's side of the family was more problematic. Most of them were dead, so I wrote to the cemetery where they were interred and was stunned to find 18 people had been buried in that tiny plot extending to the 1840s. My father took us for picnics there on Memorial Day.

And although it was interesting to gather these names, no clear connection with the past came out of it except a sense of immigrant restlessness. A legacy of abject poverty, possibly a family loss to disease or starvation on the crossing and then hard days of manual labor and uneventful death. This was the legacy on my great-grandfather's death certificate, "Born in Ireland, age 49, pneumonia."

All I had was a name on a piece of paper. And the city records are filled with these pieces of paper: birth certificates, enlistment papers, property titles and, finally, death certificates. All those nameless immigrants coming ashore thinking the streets were paved with gold, only to find a hard living, but still a better living than the ones they'd left behind. So they didn't talk about the old days to their children. They talked about the now and the future. America was the universal present, ever youthful and full of hope. No looking back, only tomorrows.

But now, paradoxically, I'm their future, and I'd like to know them a little better.

For instance, my grandfather and his indomitable wife, Annie Rooney - the first of the lines to be born Americans - met when he was a Teamster, driving four-in-hand horses through the cobbled streets of New York.

They married and crossed the Hudson River to Jersey City, where Tom said "crime was nonexistent and the party bosses handed out jobs like candy."

Unfortunately, Annie missed the old neighborhood. So every Sunday she badgered Tom to row her back across the river, in his poor-man's dory, for High Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

So I tell my daughter, Laura, this story about her great-grandfather rowing in the storms of April, Annie enthroned on the stern seat like the Queen of Sheba.

I tell her to close her eyes and envision Tom pulling for the tall buildings on the far shore, then desperately back watering around paddleboats and caroming barges that appeared out of the fog like ghosts.

I tell her to listen closely and she might hear her great-grandmother singing a Tin Pan Alley tune, like "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean."

And I sit there watching her face.

Thinking of her immigrant ancestors, their lives only a short step behind us, as unknowingly they row toward this great-grandchild who now sits on this living room floor trying to sketch out the details of their lives on a large poster board filled with their names.

Thomas Belton is a free-lance writer who lives in Haddonfield, N.J.

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