What Do the Grandmothers Say?

d552dd4f-ba83-4ab3-891d-3ac90c162874I’ve been thinking a lot about my great, great grandmother, Katherine McCabe. Like me, she was mother to three boys. I discovered her last Spring while doing family history research (I’ve been an avid family genealogist since 2000) – even finding this photo online of the McCabe family, who came from Cavan, Ireland in the 1800s. Here she is, dressed in black, standing right above my great, great, great grandparents John and Eliza. The family settled in Campbell and Bath, New York and Kate eventually married my great, great grandfather John C. McNamara, who left her a widower in 1905.

For some reason she has stayed with me. Perhaps it is because I can see a bit of myself in her expression here. Or perhaps it is because she also had three sons. Perhaps it is because I’m about to birth my third child, and the continuation of my family tree is unfolding. In gestating a new member of my family, I can feel the cells from thousands of ancestors and places culminating in my story, my baby’s story. These moments before birth connect me to all the women before who have birthed my lineage into being. I can feel some of their journeys tangibly through my research: traveling across oceans during tumultuous times. Fleeing the potato famine. Living in crowded boarded houses in Brooklyn. So many mothers losing so many children. Accidents. Whole lifetimes of stories. Widowed. Old… The heartbreaking cycles of life coalesce here and now as I wait for baby to be born. Days aren’t just days – they are actually the culmination of millions of years of evolution, genealogy and history.  Days aren’t just days – they are the ongoing writing of deep, rooted story lines, weaving pattern lines on my skin, my children’s skin, right here.

So what do the grandmothers say? They remind me that each lifetime is but a blink in the annals of time. Birth, Death, Childbirth, Marriage: these are the key signposts of a life that remain in the records of family history. They remind me to take the ‘long’ perspective: seeing beyond any given moment into the vast continuum of life. They remind me to marvel at what has survived. They remind me of the preciousness of each of our individual life stories. And, finally, they remind me to confront my own mortality. They have come and gone and so will I…

What will survive? What will be forgotten? What is important? These are the questions I ask as I prepare to welcome a new life. What do I want to leave for the future? Yes: Letters to my sons. Yes: Family stories. Yes: Meaningful work in support of Earth and Life. Yes: Good food. Yes: Nourishing traditions… Yes: Love…

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67 Years and Three Generations Later…

67 years and three generations later, I learn firsthand the details of the last months and hours of my grandfather’s life through a series of conversations with WWII veteran Bill Rhodes, who was with my grandfather right before he died.  I look at my father, my brother and my son – the living issue of Pvt. Robert Patrick McNamara Sr., who was killed by a mortar shell on the night of July 7th, 1944 in a foxhole on Hill 122 in Normandy, France.  I quietly marvel at the powers that be, the ebbs and flows of life and connections that bring me to a phone call at 4:30pm on August 3rd, 2011 with Rhodes, a 93-year-old veteran – and one of the last survivors from Company L to still be alive – and a man who trained and fought side by side with my grandfather until the last moments of his life.  “Is this the granddaughter of Robert P. McNamara?” He says when I answer the phone.  Yes.  Yes it is…

We connect serendipitously through a website page where his war memoirs were published.  He’d mentioned my grandfather here, writing about how my grandfather had visited his foxhole the night he was killed.  It was a pitch black night and he wondered how my grandfather had even found his way.  They’d talked about the good old days and how my grandfather was a Golden Glove boxer in Cleveland, Ohio.  He took a swig from Rhodes’ canteen.  At the last minute he traded foxholes with another soldier, Alfred Sheridan.  Shortly thereafter, my grandfather was killed during the onset of the infamous Battle of Hill 122 – some of the worst fighting those in the war would know – and Sheridan and Rhodes lived on to tell the story:  The training in England with tents pitched on a hillside overlooking the Channel.  The nighttime jaunts to English teahouses in search of food. The startling announcement that it was already D-Day.  The rope ladders off a cliff into the ships.  The landing together in assault boats on Utah Beach, Normandy.  200 men started together, and within five weeks Rhodes and Sheridan were two of only 27 men to survive in Company L.

This is history, yes – but it is also the story of living bones and tissue coming to a tragic end at age 19.  This was a young man who was already a husband and father. I reflect on how without his blood and body, my existence would have never been. So it is with absolute awe that I listen to Bill Rhodes recount the last wanderings of his life.  Here is the father my dad never knew. Here is the man who was my grandmother’s first love. Here are the genes my son Rowan’s wiry body has also inherited:  genes of a Golden Glove boxer from Cleveland, Ohio.

This story points to the tragic mark of a whole generation of boys and men lost to war. One particular story, my story, a human story.  The story of who came and went before. The story of a genealogy.  The story of loss.  It’s a testament to memory, and the indelible mark of death on our lives.  The details shared are vivid.  The pangs of regret live on.  Its a story that transcends space and time – an uncanny and unexpected chance for my grandfather to speak through the words of another veteran who was by his side. It’s as if I heard directly from him.  “This was a slice of my life… This was the end no one knew about but always pondered…These were my actions.  This was the tragic close – so normal:  a drink of water from a fellow soldier’s canteen and a chat about the old days… This was war.  It all ended in a foxhole, some four weeks after crossing the English Channel into France…”

This is also a story come full circle.  It so happens that the man who posted Bill Rhodes’ memoirs online is the son of Alfred Sheridan, the other veteran who was with my grandfather the night he died.  Sheridan and McNamara switched foxholes.  McNamara died and Sheridan lived.  Sheridan’s son tells me that in the 1980s, shortly before his father’s death, his father cried, saying, “It should have been me, not McNamara.”  Rhodes tells me he felt badly about this foxhole switch his whole life.  A crazy twist of fate meant life for one, death for the other.  A simple switch at the last minute determined the course of history for at least our two families.  And now, the Sheridans and McNamaras connect.  We give each other blessings.  The son thanks my grandfather, and all of us, on behalf of his whole family.  He only wishes his father were alive to speak with us.  We all agree:  something has come full circle.

Here we all are, 67 years and three generations later, creating  a web of story and connection in the year 2011, where the tides of history ripple in our bones and minds -converging in this rare and precious moment of revelation and homage:  A mystery that life would have us meet to share a story that was waiting to be told.