What follows is the first of two excepts we’ll be publishing from Barbara Anne Kearney’s forthcoming memoir, Bough, Broken. Here’s a synopsis of the book:
For reasons I am still uncovering, the land of my ancestors was the birthplace of my imagination. I was born in New England to Scranton-born parents, whose grandparents were immigrants from the West of Ireland. When I was a little girl, the burning culm dump at the city limits was the first beautiful terrible sight of my life. My memoir, Bough, Broken explores the nature of this compelling touchstone, as well as the compulsion to research and re-imagine the lives of my forebears. I trace the etches of the deep memory of exile and emigration, the resonances of landscape and loss, and the truncation and displacement of the American Dream, inspired always by the words of poet Kahlil Gibran: “Time’s definition of coal is the diamond”.
“Elegy,” Preface to Bough, Broken
by Barbara Anne Kearney
From my earliest years I experienced a strange kind of quickening at any mention of the family dead. Perhaps every child does? It seemed there were so many: a half-brother, three grandparents, eight great grandparents, sixteen great greats. They all seemed to be lodged in some ancient crevice of my heart, even those I could only begin to fathom my way back to. Perhaps I felt this way because of something in the matrilineal bloodline, something that lent us a more acute or intuitive understanding of the dead’s grip and grasp upon the living?
After all, there’s my second cousin, Tom. His PhD was in geography with a specialty in the social archaeology of cemeteries. In a local newspaper interview once he attempted to wrest the moniker “Dr. Death” from its ignoble origination with Dr. Kevorkian, the “mercy killing” doctor. Shortly before he died, in the only conversation I had with him, he was still pitching the title, still hoping it would stick. He also told me that in the front lawn of his suburban home near Pittsburgh were two headstones that he transported three hundred miles from the family plot in Scranton, Pennsylvania. “I rescued them”, he said. I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant, but I understood. I remember him saying one grave marker belonged to the infant Molly, died 1897, from his branch of the family tree. I also remember how Tom chuckled at his own cleverness in having penned his epitaph, ”He’s not here yet.”
Perhaps the unnamed force field I felt myself being drawn into as a child was because the resting places of some of the ancestors were far from being places of repose. The remains of my great aunt Bridget’s youthful, nimble leg lie some two hundred miles away from her frame. Due to a doctor’s misdiagnosis just a few years after emigrating to America, Bridget’s leg had to be amputated after gangrene set in. As mandated by Catholic ritual, the limb is buried in consecrated ground in Cathedral Cemetery in Scranton. Bridget herself moved shortly afterwards to upstate New York, where she died – but not until well into her eighth decade. Such a long life of making do with truncated carriage and a crutch.
Bridget was one of the ones who left. One of the ones who stayed – Bridget’s brother, Owen – was also missing a leg, though he was a “cripple since birth.” My cousin Rose said her Grandmother told her how the people in the village rigged an ass cart for Owen so that he could play with the other children. I unearthed only one other story about his life: “If you stopped in to see the bachelor Owen, you might be noticing that he propped his wooden leg in the corner near the stove when it was unstrapped”, the neighbors’ tongues wagged. On that same trip to Ireland, I also learned that maybe, just maybe, there is a reference to my Owen in a folksong lyric describing some locals at the bar. “And over in the corner, there’s Ol’ Micky resting on his stick”.
I eventually traced Owen’s remains to an unmarked grave shared with other unclaimed, indigent elderly of the “county home” in Sligo, Ireland. And so, I wonder, could it be Owen and Bridget’s restiveness that accounts for my own?
Is it any wonder my ancestral kin who emigrated couldn’t outrun that other Irish scourge, eviction? There is the story of my great grandfather’s brother. John Hannon was a recent widower with three children, a miner, gravely ill at age forty-nine, facing eviction proceedings. He was served the notice in a hospital bed. He died the next day- while a lawyer moved by his plight was in court attempting to get a stay. His girls, ages eleven and thirteen, were working in the silk mill in an attempt to stave off the family’s complete collapse. His death invoked this headline in the local newspaper: “Death Angel is Hannon’s Best Friend in Need”.
Did we all have this watchful, wakeful companion at our side, the Death Angel? No one seems quite sure of what happened to another Tom in the family. Not many years into his new life in America, he met his demise in a cement chute accident in New Jersey. My mother often wondered whether this was the same Thomas that went out West, got into some trouble, and spent time in jail? Or a different Thomas? And there is Charlie, first generation American, who left home on a gasless day to enlist in WWI and was never heard from or seen again. Was it perhaps these mournful unanswered questions that created this potent undercurrent of my yearning for ancestors and answers?
My great grandfather Patrick Hannon at least once narrowly escaped death in the anthracite coalmines, where he spent nearly four decades as a laborer in “King Coal’s” army. His accident was a common occurrence – a dynamite blast gone wrong. His fellow miners – Polish, Lithuanian, Italian, as well as Irish immigrants – were the unaccountable, innumerable casualties of earth cave-ins and snapped hoist cables. Their last intake of breath, ebony dust. Their last exhale, hope. Trapped, sacrificed and dying with the American Dream stifled in their craw.
I sometimes felt them as well, these not fully transfigured dead of the mines, these ‘spirit kin’ to the caged canaries that were also brought down into the mines to detect poisonous gas. Even after burial, these men – and so many boys, like the ten-year-old breaker boy flattened to death by a roller – had no surety. “Graves of the Dead Rocked by Mine Caves” proclaims a Scranton newspaper headline from 1921. As a miner came across another casket that had dropped down into a mineshaft from a cemetery grave, I imagine him pausing briefly, offering up a prayer, his headlamp flickering in a poor imitation of an eternal flame. I know Patrick was one of these grim witnesses.
And my own Source? I was born to my parents in the autumn of the year, late in a day in late September, late in my mother’s childbearing years, twenty months after the death of my twenty-year-old half brother in a car accident. I was conceived not so much out of the longing of two people for each other, as from the woman’s need for forgetfulness from her grieving. My birth was both a make-up and a miracle after a tragedy, sort of a pre-ordained relief and rescue mission.
Yes, from the beginning I loved my dead in a strangled, strangely impassioned way. I felt a great responsibility. To give the vanquished and forsaken ordinary lives the heft of significance, to transform the dark weightlessness of these fractured shards, into something more enduring, something that can be held and maybe handed to another—like a pleasingly shaped, polished and lustrous stone. Or like coal become diamond.
My inheritance, it appears, is to write elegy. My dead’s grasp on me is firm, my birthright nothing less than the wasteful and useless effort of restoring patina.
Barbara Anne Kearney credits her early awareness of being an Irish-born coal miners’ great granddaughter with inclining her towards her first job providing social services to newly arriving Indochinese immigrants. This was followed by a career in teaching English in open admissions institutions serving working class and first generation college students in Greater Boston. She currently lives on Outer Cape Cod, where she writes, swims, surf paddles, Instagrams, and rambles in the dunes. She has recently begun a research and archivist internship for a local history organization.