Follow Friday: Calm after the Storm

My cousin, Shawnique Ford Richter and me a week before Hurricane Sandy with glasses that belonged to our great, great-grandmother, Tempy Burton and our great grandmother, Josephine Ford.

I’m happy this Friday not to be following any storms like Hurricane Sandy or the subsequent Nor’easter that dropped about a half a foot of snow on our town, up to two feet in other areas.

I’d always wondered how my New Orleans relatives could put up with all of the Hurricanes sweeping in from the Gulf like clockwork every summer.  ”Why don’t they move somewhere above sea level,” I always wondered.  But look what good being above sea level did for us here in New Jersey.  I lost power for five days which is lucky compared to my compatriots.  Rockaway Beach in New York looks like a war zone and parts of the Jersey shore have been swallowed by the Atlantic.

Things are just starting to get back to normal here as my daughters have returned to school after missing a week and a half due to the storm and train service in our town resumed today after being suspended the past few weeks.

The only thing working for us during the power outtage was my cell phone (when I could get it charged).  I got lots of emails and text messages from friends and family checking up on me including genealogy buddies, my New Orleans cousin, Shawnique, and my linked descendants,  people who I am connected with through slavery.

Just before the storm hit, I traveled to see the latter two in Louisiana and Mississippi. Shawnique and I reminisced about her dad who just passed away in October and we marveled at our family history that he had passed on to us.  I got to have lunch with the sister of one of my genealogy buddies who worked just miles from my grandfather’s resting place where I also went to pay my respects.  After my aunt gave me a special prayer and blessing for a safe journey, I left New Orleans and continued to Canton, Mississippi for a family gathering with my linked descendants. (But not before I bought some beignets from Cafe du Monde). In the perfect bookend to that trip, I came home the following day and spoke at my town’s historical society about what I’d learned about researching African American genealogy by tracing my own roots these past few years.

Then the storm hit.

During those five days without power, oddly, I felt at peace.  Spending so much uninterrupted time with my family, when we weren’t all getting on each other’s nerves, I noticed how they all are thriving.  My daughters have inherited my husband’s sense of humor and compassion, all of them packing up stuff to give storm victims even while we were still powerless. In our community, people dug each other out of broken tree branches and offered each other a spot around their living room fire if that’s the only thing they had to share.  Through the sometimes stormy trek through  my ancestors’ history these past few years, I gained a fantastic relationship with my cousin Monique, and a budding one with my linked descendants. Maybe the calm feeling was just because power was the only thing we lost – no property damage like last year when Irene came.  That hurricane wrecked my grandma’s car which was in our driveway and a lot of our personal belongings that were in a storage facility at the time that got flooded. But I prefer to think this calm after the storm is a Sankofa thing.  Looking back at my past has put me at peace about my present and where I’m going.

My family and me at the Montclair Historical Society after my talk on African American genealogy. Photo courtesy of Tony Turner.

Follow Friday: An Ancestral Journey From Roscommon to Rockaway Beach

The Manifest of Alien Passengers where my husband's grandmother, Lucille Mulcahy is listed arriving at Ellis Island. She's the last entry on both pages.

A few months back, I posted about a trip to Ellis Island with my daughter’s fifth grade class and how it got me thinking about my husband’s family, some of whom probably came to America through that historic portal.  The post prompted our genealogy genie, Shannon to do a little more digging on my husband’s people and she found the above documents among others.  Here’s what my husband had to say about the find:

I always thought that phrase about how we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us to reach new heights was a great movie line, but didn’t apply to me. Then my wife, through her friend Shannon put a new perspective into who I am and who will fly here because of me in the future. It was pretty spine tingling when I saw what they had found:  documents of my family’s life in Ireland and subsequent arrival in America. Through the census forms, baptismal records and passenger manifests Shannon forwarded to us, my paternal grandmother, Lucille Mulcahy Kurtti, came back into my life in a way more fully than I’d experienced her as a boy visiting her home in the Bronx and her summer rental in Rockaway Beach, a vacation enclave for the Irish-American community.

Nanny Lucille tended not to talk about her history.  Not much info came directly from her, but was filtered through my sisters. So, I was excited to learn where she was from,  Castleraegh, Roscommon in Ireland and that she had three siblings. Now I see where my confirmation name, Jeremiah, came from. It was passed down from my great-grandfather, to my father and then to me. My brother Gordon’s  talents as a painter flowed from that same  great-grandfather, Jeremiah listed as a coach painter on his 1911 resident housing form.   My sister’s proclivity for fashion and a career in that industry was also inherited  from our  great-grandmother, Ellen Mulcahy, listed as a milliner on that same housing form.

Now I also see where Nanny’s fiercely independent streak came from.  According to her Alien Passenger Manifest, she left her homeland from Dublin and arrived in New York City in 1926.  She was 19 years-old,  traveled alone and planned to make a living as a domestic worker.  She had $50 in her possession when she arrived at Ellis Island.  Ironically, when she died, she had accumulated almost $250,000 in savings.  I think that original $50 was part of the pile of money. (Besides the summer rental in Rockaway Beach, I never saw Nanny spend money). Her description on the manifest as fair-skinned, auburn-haired and blue-eyed describes me as well and makes me wonder if looking at me was a joyful reminder of what she was passing on or a sadness for what she had left behind?  I do know it instills in me a new sense of gratitute for all she was willing to do. Nanny Lucille finally revealed some of her past to me.  I thank Shannon and Dionne for giving me a path to my history that I never knew could be so profound and deeply felt.

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