“The pictures do not lie, but neither do they tell the whole story. They are merely a record of time passing, the outward evidence.” ― Paul Auster
Stories from the past can be great teaching tools for today. Being left alone in the room with my grandfather when he passed away taught me to be more protective of my children and grandchildren, as well as to reflect on the way most children were raised in those days.
I’ve thought about the stories told in our old photographs – both what I see, and what I don’t see. Our family pictures show people wearing their best clothes and posing for the camera. What I don’t see is how hard daily life was. Surviving was all my grandparents did. There are some vacation pictures, but few. And I don’t see any diversity in our family pictures.
Did we have any friends who were not like us?
When I hear politicians talk of wanting America to be great again, I wonder what America they are remembering and whose family photo albums they are looking in.
When my grandparents were born, the scars were still raw from The Civil War. They raised their three children during World War I.
Those hard times aren’t shown in the old prints. I have to imagine what their week had been like, what worries and fears they carried with them every day before dressing up and smiling as they got their picture made.
There are no photos showing the many jobs my grandpa worked to support his wife and family during his 80 years. Sheriff was his last, the one that cost him his life.
As a young man, he had done some farming at first, then worked in the mines. Coal mining was hard, “off to work early each morning and returning late at night – covered in black dust, dead tired with only time to eat and sleep, just to do it all over again the next day – six days a week.”
Those pictures aren’t in the album – showing the toil of working the land or the layer of coal dust all over his body, with only a plate of cold food before bed. When my grandpa was too old for mining he still needed to work. He did maintenance at the dress factory a block over from their home where my grandmother also worked.
Women worked outside the home even then, though the pictures that prove it are in my head. During summer visits, I would walk over to the factory, and we could talk, as long as I didn’t interrupt her work or get in the way around her machine.
Some days, I took grandpa a hot lunch at his work bench in the boiler room. His tools, many now in my shop, were spread out on the bench. He would clear off a spot so we could have lunch. Southern Illinois is hot and humid in the summer and nothing was air-conditioned. The steamy temperatures made the work challenging but not worthy of a photograph.
Nostalgia for the past sometimes neglects what life actually felt like to those who lived it.
There were no photos of grandpa and grandma dating, or getting married on April 30, 1901 when he was 27. I don’t have pictures of him learning to play the fiddle and mandolin, I just know he could.
Those instruments came out from their spot in the tall wardrobe on special occasions. Grandpa’s feet danced with the music, wearing his ankle high slip on boots with the elastic sides, just like the ones I wear today.
We have pictures of my grandparents’ home with its three porches. I don’t remember if any people of color lived in homes as nice as theirs or even on their street. I don’t imagine there were single parents with children or same sex couples in that part of the town either.
Certainly we would have heard about it as life was lived as much outside as inside in pre-air-conditioned days and conformity was valued.
My Great-Grandfather From Ireland
Grandpa’s full name was, Martin Steele McIntyre. He was born on June 12, 1873, as the ninth child of Martha and James, my great-grandparents.
James McIntyre was born in County Antrim, North Ireland on March 16, 1833. He was the fourth of nine born to Margaret Graham (daughter of Martha Steele) and Neal, my great-great-grandparents.
In 1855 the newly-weds, James and Martha Graham, left Ireland to settle briefly in Troy, 150 miles north of New York City. My great-grandfather had a way with horses and found work as a coachman for a wealthy local family. When the newly-weds announced their intentions to join his brothers and sisters in Sparta, Illinois his employer allowed him to keep the handsome livery coat.
Years later, James would wear his fancy coat, telling stories to amuse his grandchildren: Gladys, K.B. (my dad) and Thurlo.
My great-great-grandfather was only one of many with the given name of “Neal.” His father was a Neal, born in 1770, as was his father, born in about 1745, as well as his father, born in about 1700. All these Neal’s were born and died in County Antrim until my great-great-grandfather Neal who died in Illinois in 1870. The name of Neal, with Irish origin, was thought to mean ”champion.” We had our share of champions over the years.
Aunt Sophia Wylie McIntyre, grandpa’s half sister, was born September 17, 1881 to James and Mary Eliza Hughes, great-grandpa’s second wife.
Before Sophia’s death on November 24, 1961, she put together nine pages of notes on our large family. Her typed sheets outline the start in Scotland, and how, in the 1400’s and then 1700’s, McIntyre’s migrated from Scotland to Northern Ireland to escape religious persecution.
The Straits of Moyle, between south-west Scotland and north-east Ireland, only measure 13 miles at the narrow sections, so the crossing was not difficult if done in good weather.
Sophia’s notes say her ancestors came from the Isle of Roses in Scotland and how Margaret McIntyre Benson mentions her father talking about the family coming originally from the Scottish Highlands.
Like many homes at that time, the porch on the east side had a bath tub on it until the tub moved inside when it was replaced by a clothes washer, complete with a hand powered wringer.
Clothes washing and drying was a huge ordeal and all done by hand and in public view. If you had holes in your britches, everyone would know about it because laundry was hung out to dry in the back yard. We forget about how much people gossiped about each other when we romanticize the image of laundry hanging on the line.
Grandpa worked all day, but grandma’s work was never done, cooking, cleaning, washing, canning, caring for children as well as working outside the home. My grandma did all that but could not even vote until her youngest child was ten.
That doesn’t seem fair.
The stories, when I’m truthful, show a much different life than we live today. It’s fun to reminiscence, to recall only the soft images of a time that feels great in my memory. The reality is that in those days, life was narrow and hard. I don’t want to go back, do you?
How much of the history in your family do you know? Do you know only dates and names or do you have stories to share?
How would the stories of my African-American friends differ? My LGBT friends? Do these friends want the good ol’ days back?
As always, the conversation starts here.
“In the ordinary choices of every day we begin to change the direction of our lives.” – Eknath Easwaran
Archie Bunker was a master of unfiltered speech. Do you remember him? Do you know people like Archie today?
I think Edith and Gloria would have snuck out of the house to march on January 21, 2017. What do you think?