The day I met my great-grandfather’s sister’s great-grandson when he came to sell me air conditioning

Our town is small, as I’ve mentioned before. Not only is our town small, our whole two county area is small. Let me tell you how small.

A few weeks ago a guy came from a town about an hour from our new house to talk to me about the possibility of installing ductless air conditioning and as he got ready to leave he handed me his business card. His name looked very familiar and I immediately knew why.

A couple months before his visit I had been packing to move to this house and I found a letter sent to me about 20 years ago (I know, I’m old) when I worked at one of the local newspapers (I started when I was 10. Wink.).

The letter was from a man who recognized a name I mentioned in one of my columns. The name belonged to my great-grandfather’s sister Molly Grant Manley. The man who wrote me was one of her grandson’s.

Molly

When the air conditioning man handed me his card, I saw his last name and realized he was related, somehow, to the man who wrote me the letter because his name was included in the letter. Long story short, the man who wrote me the letter was this man’s great-uncle and his great-uncle and grandfather were the grandsons of my great-grandfather’s sister. This man’s was named after his great-grandfather, who was a former bank president and well-known in his community.

I wrote a column mentioning Molly because sometime in the early 1900s Molly used her new engagement ring to carve her name in the window pane in a window at her parent’s, or brother’s home. That home was where I grew up and the window was still there when I was a child. We were often warned not to break the window because it was a family heirloom. It wasn’t uncommon for my mom to call outside to my friends and me: “Go throw that ball somewhere else, please. You might hit Molly’s window!”

Somehow Molly’s window survived all those years with children throwing balls and playing outside it. It even survived my dad almost shoving a rake right through it . Luckily he only hit the storm window that was installed in front of it.

When my parents moved out of the house and in with my grandmother across the creek they gently removed the window, wrapped it up in a thick blanket and took it with them. It’s now stored behind my grandmother’s safe.

While the ac man (hmmm, maybe I should call him my distant cousin from now on?) was here I showed him his great-great grandfather’s discharge papers from the Union Army which all of the grandchildren of my grandmother was given a copy of several years ago after she and I discovered the original under her bed. Grandma knew the document was there but didn’t really realize what it was until we unfurled it and read it closely.

Molly is listed as Mary on the paper but from what we understand she was always referred to as Molly, not Mary.

I can’t help wondering what type of personality Molly had to have to decide to carve her name in a window with her diamond ring. I always imagined she must have been pretty spunky and fun.

My distant cousin had to head back to work, I had to tell him later we can’t afford his system this summer (hopefully next) but he said his family was going to be very interested in my information about Molly.

Now that I think about it, I’d be interested in some information from them about the woman whose name was almost literally engrained into my childhood. Hopefully, we can connect someday soon and exchange what we know about our common ancestors.

For now, most of what I know about Molly and her husband is on the website for the Pennsylvania Apple and Cheese Festival because it is held at the farm they lived on all those years ago.

Looking at her husband’s photo and reading on that he died some thirty years before her in 1935 and that she was 92 when she died, my creative brain is also sparking and I’m thinking a story based (loosely of course) on her life might be fun to write someday. We will have to see.

(P.S. Molly’s husband looks a lot like our AC Man. Of course, that is his great-grandfather but still, isn’t the passing down of family physical traits interesting?)

Next to the girl and her dog

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I posted this photo of my daughter and our dog on Facebook recently and my dad commented the following under it:

Next to the girl collecting Easter eggs with her dog stands a pair of sawhorses that belonged to her great great grandfather. Just to the left of them is a gnarly maple with different bark than the other maples. Behind her is a beautiful tall always liked ash. It is yellowed pale and almost dead now from the ash tree bores that have destroyed most all of Pennsylvania’s ash. To the right just out of focus is a large stone over the grave of one of her mother’s cats.

There is also a small dogwood tree planted by her grandfather nearby. Beyond that are some rotted boards of the dog house he built when nine years of age or so he claims.  A shag-bark hickory stood near there and fifty yards above that spot stood a balsa tree, the largest tree in the lot. Seventy-five feet behind the girl is a hand dug well that is now covered with heavy steel plates. This well gravity fed the house and chicken coops. Another well hidden just over the stone wall property line has a large stone covering it.

Just beyond the fence once stood one chicken coop. Water would be hand carried to that one as it was not downhill enough for gravity feed. Hid in the brush 100 feet to the left of the sawhorse is the foundation remains of the spring-cooled milk house. Also, the corn crib was near there. The granary still remains in that spot. A week later as this is being written the buds are opening to vivid green leaves, the forsythia flowers are bright yellow and life goes on.

Pulling it into the light

I have a photo of my daughter looking at an old, black and white photo of a couple and the woman in the photo is her namesake. The woman is my great grandmother and I’ve heard some funny stories about her over the years but I wish I knew more.

One story came from my mom who said great-grandma had once reached into a cabinet while mom was visiting her and pulled out a small bottle, took a swig, looked over her shoulder and told my mom “It’s for the heart, don’t you know…”

And then she giggled.

I guess there was always something about the photos of my great grandmother that caused me to imagine she had been a fun person, but also one full of strength and wisdom.

I know she most likely also had some big hurts hidden in that heart, especially the pain of a mentally ill daughter who was sent away from the family because back then no one knew how to treat schizophrenia. My grandmother probably felt that pain as well but I never heard her say. It was only her and her sister and then one day her sister was gone and in a hospital hundreds of miles away.

Onieta, my great aunt, sent letters, begging to be allowed to come home with her family. Her life was cut abruptly short in so many ways, not in a physical death but certainly an emotional one as the promise of a future as an artist, a wife, a mom were taken from her by a medical world that didn’t know how to help her and in many cases didn’t want to because of the stigma mental illness stamped on a person.

I didn’t know about her until I was almost nine or 10 when I traveled with my parents and grandmother to see her in a nursing home about an hour from us. I wasn’t allowed to see her, actually. I sat in the car with my mom who explained it all to me as my dad and grandmother went inside. Dad told me later she didn’t really know them but she hugged her sister.

I imagined the rest for myself-that sister bond that could not be broken, even by mental illness no one knew how to treat. I imagined how close the two were growing up and how shattered their lives must have been all those years apart. When my great aunt died, she died alone and I don’t remember her funeral.

For me she was merely a dream I’d once had and later her life was a tangible fear that when I turned 21 I’d go crazy like she has at the same age.She was an artist and even before I knew she existed I had liked art as well. Maybe art was the gateway to crazy I had once thought. Or maybe 21 was the magic age when the genetics kicked in and schizophrenia rose up and took over and you jumped out an upstairs window like she had.

But schizophrenia never tormented me, other than through fear that I would be the next in the family line to crack. Mental illness didn’t affect me the way it did Onieta , though I’ve dealt with anxiety and depression. It didn’t tear my life apart or pull me away from the ones I loved in the way it did her. I was lucky to be born in a time of more understanding and more pharmaceutical advances.

Maybe it isn’t the same for others in my family, but for me, Onieta was our big family secret, something hidden and dark, not because of her mental illness but because she was hidden away, pushed away and almost never spoken of within the family. For me, at least, she never really existed. But for my great grandparents and my grandmother the pain of losing her must have been unbearable.

There is something about a mother’s heart that is hit especially hard by the loss of a child, whether that child is lost in a world of confusion or physically lost. A mother spends nine months with a child inside her, feeling the movements, talking and loving the child before they are even born outside the body.

Then the first few years of life are spent caring for the child’s every needs until they are old enough to do it themselves. Back in those days my great grandmother would have done almost all of it – breakfast and lunch and bedtimes and middle of the night cries. For her the day they knew they could no longer care for a daughter whose mental illness had taken over her mind must have been mental and emotional torture.

My heart aches for the women I never knew – my great grandmother and my great aunt – for their heartache and their emotional anguish. I wish I could go back and take it all away for them, hand Onieta some medicine or find out if a thyroid or hormone issue or even a vitamin deficiency was the problem, and let them be a real family, let her live a life full of promise, fulfillment and joy.

I can’t, of course, do that but by dragging it all from the darkness into the light, maybe I can help to be sure history does not repeat itself. If a member of our family faces a similar tragedy I want to be sure they aren’t hidden away, pushed away and loved only in the darkness of secrecy and through memories of who they once were.

I want them to be loved in the light for who they are.

I’ve started to think about how I owe it to Onieta to live my life fully alive, with fears pushed aside, to experience life the way she was never allowed to. The best way to pull her from the darkness of exclusion and back into the family is to not keep her a dark, hidden family secret.

She’s gone from this earth now but if we keep talking about her and imagining even a little of the pain she faced, then we keep her memory alive and we keep the determination for it not to happen again alive. Because of what she faced and suffered through hopefully others will be spared. Hopefully I will spare myself from a life limited by fear, anxiety, illness and mental pain. Sometimes I feel like Onieta is urging me to really live, do what she could never do, be who she could never be and feel free the way she never did.