Friday, February 3, 2012
The Other Side of My Family - the Pictorial Review, Part Two
This week I continue my review of family photos in my possession – this time my dad’s side of the family.
My Dad’s parents were Melvin Chester James and Mary May McConahy James. This is, I admit, a difficult generation for me to deal with. My father and my grandmother appeared to revere my grandfather, but as I have tried to look objectively at his life and behaviors, it seems that at best Melvin was a dreamer and at worst he was a self-centered drunk who took advantage of his wife’s love. He was an alcoholic who died leaving his wife and the three youngest of their children without means of support. But Mary was accustomed to being left alone while Melvin went traipsing about – most famously when he left her to study to be a Native American shaman in the midst of the Great Depression. I know, I need to refer to my own code of family research on this one, however, I think that because I knew and loved the people he hurt, I just am not able to look on Melvin with affection or humor.
But enough of my failings as an objective historian! On to the rest of the family.
I like this photo of Mary May McConahy – she's the one on the right. I understand that she wore her hair in two braids like this long into her adulthood. When I knew her she always sported the traditional grandmother haircut.
This photo is of William Albert James and Amanda Elmira Gray. Amanda Elmira was affectionately known as “Ellen” in that inscrutable way that people have of creating nicknames. William and Ellen were deeply in love, and William was hear-broken when she died. But like many who find married life wonderful, William soon remarried and lived to regret it. Well, lived and possibly died. We know that William met a bloody end, and his second wife spent the end of her life as a voluntarily committed inmate of a state hospital. The sheriff ruled William’s death a suicide, but the facts do not seem to support such an allegation. But that is all fodder for another time.
While this is a photograph of a document, not a picture, I still count it among my family portraits. This is the Union Army discharge for John William James, the father of William Albert. John William appears to be one of many men who suffered from PTSD after the war, and when I tell you the stories of the things he lived through and witnessed, you will understand why I believe it was PTSD that led to him one day simply leaving his wife and child and returning to live with his parents. Interestingly, he maintained a good relationship with William Albert, and moved in with his son later in his life.
Here is one of the most unfortunate photographs in my collection. I say “unfortunate” because one look at this haggard woman and most say “I would have left her if she was my wife”. This is Rebecca Catherine Ritchey James Hicks. After John William left her Rebecca petitioned the courts for and received dissolution of their marriage, freeing her to remarry. Her second husband, Matthew Hicks, was proof that today’s blended families are nothing new. The grandchildren of Rebecca and John knew both grandparents and Matthew Hicks, whom they referred to as “Uncle Matt” and no one ever seemed too concerned with the odd family arrangements of the older generation.
Back to the McConahy side of the family, first, to look at a photograph of my grandma’s brother, Braden McConahy. I met Braden once, back oh-so-many years ago, and all that I remember was that he was just another old man who I had to be polite to and endure several boring hours in his boring house while he and Grandma talked. How sad that I was too young to realize what a potential treasure trove he represented.
Next we have two truly beautiful people: Thomas Braden McConahy (above) and his wife Mary Rachel Fletcher McConahy, the parents of Braden and Mary (and more). These photos were taken around the time of their wedding. Mary is a wonderful example of what a stylish lady wore in her days, and Thomas seems so young and healthy that it is hard to imagine he literally worked himself to death in a tin mill before he turned 39.
I have written about the tragedy of Thomas “Big Tom” McConahy’s life already, so there is nothing more to say at this time, except that he was the father of Thomas Braden and left Pennsylvania before his granddaughter, Mary, ever knew him. This image is particularly dear to me because the handwriting is that of my Grandma James.
I have also included a photograph of the headstone of his wife, Minerva Ward McConahy. This lady is amazing to me - she had to put up with the most foul accusations from Big Tom (he accused her of openly living with other men, and of trying to foist her illegitimate children off on him). Her marker also offers more clues into Big Tom's behavior: note that Mary Bell died at age 4, and Sadie at age 16. Death and tragedy seemed to stalk Big Tom.
My last two photos also appear to have been taken together, although not on their wedding day. Perhaps an anniversary or maybe it was simply an opportunity they couldn’t pass up. These are Mary Rachel’s parents Hugh and Sarah McElheny Fletcher. Hugh represents a Civil War mystery – was he the same Hugh Fletcher who deserted the Army? And Sarah provides a challenge in her last name, which, like McConahy, can have about a dozen different spellings!
So there you have it – my family photo album. With some hints and sneak peeks. I’ll start telling the stories next week!