At the beginning of 2012, I decided to create a story drawing from family history. This is a new direction for me as a storyteller and my progress is slow-going. I began with a typewritten document compiled by one of my father’s cousins about my Irish immigrant great-great grandparents. I soon found myself wanting to know more about my great-great grandmother whose story is condensed in a few short lines in this document.
Canal Boat bringing history to life at the Wabash and Eerie Canal Interpretive Center
In this brief account, I learned her name – Catherine Meehan. I learned that she was born in County Cork, Ireland, in 1826. In 1833, at age 7, she moved, with her parents, to Fort Wayne, Indiana where work building the Wabash and Eerie Canal had just begun. Ten years later, in 1843, when she was 17 years old, she married Daniel Heffernan, another canal building Irish immigrant from County Tipperary.
Between the years 1845 and 1873, she gave birth to 12 children. From 1851 until the year she died, 1902, her life was spent mothering and farming on an 80 acre homestead in Davies County.
There is one more interesting story about Catherine contained in the typewritten family document. This story says that shortly after she was married, Catherine read and responded to a letter from Ireland written by a priest for Daniel’s brother, Michael. In the letter, Michael gave an account of the potato famine in Ireland and reminded his brother that he had promised, when he first left for America, to send money as soon as possible for Michael’s passage to join him.
“When Catherine heard of Daniel’s promise to his brother,” the cousin who compiled this family history writes, “she was infuriated and immediately wrote to Michael and enclosed the money necessary for his passage without Daniel’s knowledge. The priest read the letter to Michael and they had a ‘tea party’ to celebrate the occasion and Michael sailed for America, and Lafayette, IN. One afternoon on the narrow streets of Lafayette, a funny little man strolled down the middle of the street speaking to everyone he met. No one knew him. But arriving at the gate of the Heffernan home, he saw Catherine, and said “Would you be Katie?” inquiring with a shy grin. She realized that this must be her brother-in-law. What a sight he was. He wore an old straw hat with the top out and his fine mop of hair stood out the top. He began work with Daniel on canal building. “
This amusing anecdote, the only remaining detailed story of actions Catherine took in a long, hard life of immigration and the physical labors of canal building, child birth, and farming, reveals clues to her character and her mind. I realize from it that she is educated because on her own she read the letter from Ireland and wrote a response. And, in her swift response to Michael’s plea, she shows a strength of character and independence which makes me, her female descendant, want to know more about how she dealt with other conflicts and problems in her life.
And wanting to know more about this great-great-grandmother has awakened a new creative process for me. To know about her, I have begun learning more about Irish and Indiana history during the 1800’s, piecing together historical details of the world she lived in, seeing her as the protagonist in the story I am creating, a protagonist who arrives in Fort Wayne of 1833 when it was a frontier outpost newly incorporated into a town with a population of around 300 people and who grows into womanhood amidst the hard life of the canal workers who lived in shanties built along the work sites where whisky was abundant and there were far fewer women and children than men in these shantytowns.
To know about her, I also sift through genealogy. And this record of names and dates of birth and death makes me keenly feel time as a web of forgotten stories. When I study the family tree leading back to her, I find a pattern of woman, man, woman, man, woman woven between us. Catherine William Margaret Paul Liza. I am the daughter of the son of the daughter of her son. She surely held her son William’s daughter Margaret after she was born. My grandmother, Margaret, surely held me after I was born. I will be the same kind of physical link to Margaret when I hold, someday, in a decade or two, my future grandchild (to whom Margaret will feel as distant and mysterious as Catherine does to me). I find myself thinking of this passing on of simple physical touch, as if somehow I can find in the long distant physical memory of being held by my grandmother who had been held by my great-great-grandmother a residual trace of that great-great grandmother’s existence.
And as I begin to piece together these historical and genealogical details, I feel a deep longing to imagine Catherine, as a real figure, living out the actual human struggles of her time period. My imagination brims with more questions than answers:
How poor were Catherine’s parents when they left Ireland? What was their life like in Ireland? Was she the only child who came to American with her parents, or did she have brothers and sisters? How did they afford the passage to America? Who did they leave behind? What was life amidst the rough canal building shantytowns like for Catherine and her mother? Who were Catherine’s playmates? What childhood games and imaginings did Catherine play? How did she and her family avoid cholera and dysentery and malaria?
And when she became a woman, what were the reasons she loved Daniel Heffernan? Did she call him Danny? And what were the details of her wedding day?
And what were the things he did that made her angry or broke her heart? And what are the ways she came to forgive? What did they say to each other when they woke in the morning? What songs did she sing to her children? And what were her favorite recipes? And what stories did she tell her children about Ireland, about her own life? What color were her eyes? What color was her hair? What were the questions she never answered? What were her regrets? What were her prayers?
Two generations of Catherine Meehan’s descendants ride the canal boat
Many of these questions can be answered only by more efforts of imagination. I will need to imagine a woman living in the years between 1826 and 1902 in the Ireland and Indiana that I also must imagine in order to illuminate historical facts. Her story will come alive through the creative effort of fiction which takes the bare bone record of her birth, marriage, and children’s names that have been passed on to me and embodies them with carefully woven, lovingly imagined story.
I feel like I can almost touch Catherine Meehan’s life but I will have to gather it up like the quickly fading details of a dream.