Published 1:01 am, Wednesday, January 20, 2010
"Keep in mind, Bare, we're just working people. Common, everyday people is what we are."
My father said these words to me from the upstairs porch of the Sunnyside cottage one day as we sat watching the tide at Pine Creek. Dad often said things like that, leaving me to ponder not so much what he meant, but why he said it. Perhaps it was just something on his mind. He had been a boy in this same cottage and lived there during the summer with Nance Hansen, his iron-willed grandmother.
To be sure, there were mysteries enough at Pine Creek. Nobody seemed to want to say much about how we got there, or how my grandmother Mal became the new "queen of the beach" after Nance died in 1941. Nobody seemed to know anything about the old photo album we found in the attic of the Kenora. All our questions were placed squarely in the dead letter file of the past that the Irish kept in those days. It is clear to me now that they tried not to remember what they could never forget. The past haunted them with loss and failure. Hardship and heartbreak were the parts of life they worked so hard to conceal. "You wouldn't understand, Bare. Life was tough back then. People had to face things that broke them."
Dad may have been thinking of his own father, William John Wallace. Bill was, in turn, a sailor, carpenter, clown, roustabout, bankrupt and I'm sure a few other things, too. I do know this -- Bill Wallace made a short, fast ride through this vale of tears. In 43 years he went from fair-haired youth smoking a corn cob pipe at the beach to a drifting alcoholic crushed by the Depression and his own demons. My father struggled mightily to forgive his absent father, who had all the promise in the world but not a penny to his name.
Bill and his immediate family were gone a good number of years when we Wallace children found the old photo album. My grandmother Mal looked at the dusty thing with the half moon mirror on its velveteen cover and twisted her mouth as if she had tasted something bitter. And she certainly must have. Although the man she loved and the people she knew had brought her nothing but heartache, they did manage to leave her four ramshackle cottages on Long Island Sound. The rest of her life was spent maintaining them and trying to hold onto the cottages against storm, vandalism and lack of money. That she did so alone is one of the stories that redeemed our family and gave it some measure of victory over the past. But she never did tell us what she should have -- that book of pictures was a family scrap book -- our family. It held what she no longer wanted to remember.
She had her reasons. It's not clear that Mal and Bill Wallace ever did get married in church or anywhere else. In those days this brought great shame on a family. There were no wedding pictures on her mantle. And oddly, no photos of the three of them together -- Mal, Bill or my father, who was known at school as little "Bobby Clark" in the 1930s. The parish priest must have raised that thorny question, as my father's baptismal record is dated ten years after his birth.
"In those days it was hard, Bare. People were underneath the wheel. They did what they did to survive." My father was adamant about this when we asked him questions about the old days. Of course, as children we didn't understand what it meant to him. How did a man who deeply loved his seven children live with the pain of being abandoned by his father and then "orphaned" when his mother left to look for work in Houston and Detroit in the heart of the Depression?
When my sister and I began our genealogical search a decade ago, we collected family letters and photographs. Kathleen compiled a remarkable family tree, restoring to us some of the lost pages of family history that I never expected to see. Two photographs caught my eye in the old album -- a naked baby on a bearskin rug and another pose of the same baby in a sled dressed for the North Pole. They were shot in a photo studio in Brooklyn in the late 19th century. Our detective work led us to an easy identification that was nonetheless gratifying: these were baby pictures of Bill Wallace. Bill was the grandfather we never knew, also born out of wedlock and his mother's only son. She left Brooklyn with him to work as a domestic for one Amos Hansen, a Swedish immigrant who owned the Pine Creek properties. All Irish families of this period had the makings of a novel in the vast sweep and aftermath of their tragic history.
In the staged photos Bill Wallace seems to be a bright little boy looking right into the camera. His mother paid 25 cents for "12 of this style, J. Goodman's Studio, 791 Broadway, Brooklyn, N.Y." Bill looks the same in all the pictures, but there is something unsettled in his eyes, some knowledge that he will grow into that which will shadow his life. Maybe it culminated in the search for his own father when he went back to Brooklyn in 1936 to try and find a paternal birth certificate. But the City Hall had suffered a fire and whatever records that might have led him to his own father were lost forever. Lost as he would be when the bottom fell out of the country and of his own self-esteem.
The photographs came full circle for me when our daughter Rose gave us a Christmas picture of our granddaughter, Charlotte. It was taken recently in a local studio and Charlotte is dressed in a pink plaid dress. There is a sign pointing to the North Pole on a candy cane post, and the baby is gripping a snowball tightly in her hand. It is a different pose than the one my grandfather sat for in 1897 but the themes are the same: a winter scene with a small child. Charlotte is smiling adorably for the camera. It is the kind of innocence you want to hold onto forever, but you know it can't be. Her great-great-grandfather's script has already been written and all but forgotten in the book of time.
When I look at the photographs together on my desk I realize that time carries us all away. I want Charlotte's life to be a happy one. I want it to be so much better than Bill Wallace's was. I want her to know where she came from and how her people fought for every scrap of dignity in life. She won't carry our family name, but she does have the Wallace smile and likeness that goes all the way back to the earliest photos. It has been over a hundred years (and three different centuries) from photo to photo -- from great-great- grandfather to great-great-granddaughter. I am at an age now to appreciate the sheer heroism of human endurance, of trudging onward and going the distance. I know what it is to feel connected by history and the love of a family of common people.
I was lucky. I had a mother and father and didn't have to search for them. Then I was three times lucky in having a wife, a daughter and granddaughter to love me as I love them. Even when I was a boy, I realized my father was trying to tell me something he couldn't quite articulate, a truth that he wanted me to stand by and to derive my strength from in good times and bad. As we begin the New Year I find myself looking at two baby pictures. They encompass a universe and in them I try to read the immeasurable distances and close-keepings of the human heart.