Who says miracles don't happen?
She sent me that brief message by email, after settling in with her coffee and a photo of Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley sitting side by side on the front page of the morning paper one day last week.
I suspect one of the reasons Campesinas moved me so deeply today is this: I've had my great great grandmother on my mind.
My great great grandmother's name was Johannah Lowney. I've never seen a photo of her. I know her from old bound notebooks: marriage records, baptism records, Civil War rosters, a letter announcing a widow's pension, an obituary. Johannah emigrated to New Bedford, Massachusetts from Ireland in the late 1850s with her parents. There she met another newly arrived Irishman, a lad named Corcoran. She soon found herself pregnant and shortly thereafter, married.
I have baptism records for 4 children: 3 boys and a girl. I have a copy of a page from the roll call of an Irish Regiment in the American Civil War with her husband marked present and accounted for every day until the day perfectly formed penmanship declares him absent: "killed in action".
My fascination with Johannah Lowney has always centered on that one perfectly written line. What happens to a 20-something immigrant when she loses her 33 year old husband to a tiny skirmish in the horrible, bloody war dividing her newly adopted country? What did Johannah do between that day and the day she next appears in my paper trail, 8 or 9 years later, the day she remarries and moves to RI with her new husband?
My father loved the story of Timothy, Johannah's husband, as he loved the story of Johannah's two young sons, who went west to find their fortunes building a railroad. He loved to describe the tintype he'd seen in his grandparents' home: a pale Irish face in Union blue, on his way to fight a war. My cousins are still hard at work digging up Timothy's brief life story. My brother asked me to take him on a long detour through Timothy's native County Leitrim during our wander through Ireland last summer.
Me? I've always been fascinated by Johannah.
How did she raise 4 children? Bury two husbands? Live a life that spanned 2 continents and 91 years?
Years ago I dug through microfiche files at the Providence Public Library for hours until I found Johannah's obituary. She died in the 1920s at the age of 91.
I forget the details of her obituary. Truth is I forget the exact date. What I remember is the front page that preceded it: a photo of Eamon de Valera taking his oath as the first president of an independent Ireland. (Note: if you know Irish history you know Ireland's transition to a 26 county Republic - with Northern Ireland ceded to Britain - was a long, complicated and bloody affair. I don't have my genealogy notes in Salamanca, so I hope you'll forgive my historical looseness; I don't remember just which de Valera presidential swearing-in occurred the day Johannah died.)
I know nothing about Johannah's reasons for leaving Ireland; I can assume they included poverty. I don't know how closely she followed the war going on in her homeland in the years before her death.
But I have always loved the front page of the newpaper that includes her obituary.
I secretly hope she decided she could go, once something she had likely thought would never happen had happened.
I thought of Johannah when I looked at my El País last week, with Adams and Paisley stiffly smiling side by side. I don't pretend all is solved or that anything will now be easy in Northern Ireland. But I see pragmatism and a people's exhaustion with war. I see the results of years of painfully hard work. I see hope.
And I think Johannah Lowney is smiling.
Labels: an american abroad