Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Family History

Grandma Julie - "Ma"

Great-Grandma Julie came from County Cork, 
married her husband,
who was working on laying track  
for the first railroad to cross North America.
There were still ruts in the ground near their house
in northern Montana, that had been 
made by covered wagons,
not too long before.

It was a harsh and make-do life:
travel by horseback, 
even through 30 below snowstorms,
tend the fields with horse and plough,
tend animals, grow gardens, preserve food,
and hope it lasts the winter,
haul water, wash laundry - and oneself -
in tin washtubs with a bar of yellow soap,
build your cabin of logs by hand,
give birth to your babies at home and pray they lived.
Some of them didn't.

My grandma told me stories 
about her mother and father:
how her father doted on my grandma,
who was his youngest child,
and how he sat in his brother's kitchen and cried 
when she left home to marry.

My Grandma - age thirteen - "Floss"

She told me about the night 
she and her mother fled in terror
to the barn,
when Pa got drunk and 
danced with the moonshine jug
in the kitchen,
before firing off random shots 
in the direction of the barn
where they cowered in terror,
till he finally fell asleep.
She could laugh about it by then,
the big man, dancing with the jug.
But my Grandma always hated "the drink" after that.
Still, it got handed down through all the generations,
and is alive and well today.

Or the time when Ma sent Dolly to town 
on Punch to pick up the mail.
The snow was deep and Punch didnt want to go,
rearing and whinnying in his stall.
"He had an instinct," my Grandma told me, darkly.
"I should never have let her take him."
Dolly headed him along the railroad tracks
for easier passage.
The snow started falling thickly,
vision was obscured;
the train whistle blew.
Later, they could see huge leaps
where Punch tried to escape the oncoming train.
They were hit. Dolly survived. Punch did not.

Hard times, those days. Hard times.
The women were made of steel; they had to be.

My mother always called her Grandma Julie
and told how, when the girls were in their teens 
and "Ma" lived with the family, in Saskatoon, 
she taught them all to smoke, 
and they'd line up their butts
on the window ledge and act innocent 
when their mom came in to check on them.

And the time she heard a ruckus upstairs 
and sent their father upstairs 
with the rolled-up Saturday Evening Post 
to "settle down those  girls - they're disturbing Ma".
He came back down, smiling.
"They were having a pillow fight,
standing up on the beds,
and Ma was right in the thick of it!"

My sister still has a small flowered cotton dress 
Grandma Julie wore back in the 30's.
My grandma, when she was in her own last years,
remembered how her mother would ask her 
to do her hair and then say
"Oh I know, no time, no time, no time!"
By then, my grandma understood, in her turn, 
how too busy all of her family always was,
in turn, who had so little time to spare.

We have the Irish in us:
the mischief, the cackle,
the ghosts and goblins,
the hopeless dreams, the unanswered prayers, 
the  resignation to our fate.
We are rife with unnamed longings
and misspent youth.

I look back at the line of strong women,
who walked here before me, with awe.
They lived through unthinkable times.
They rolled up their sleeves;
they did what was to be done: no choice.
Stoic, staunch and with cackles 
edged with hysteria
my foremothers, my clan.

My mother "Renee" and my Grandma

Such a cool prompt today from Grace at dVerse: family history
 I could write a hundred poems!


  1. wow. frontier life had to be hard...and so dependent as well on the land and weather and so much....yikes on the train...she was lucky it only took the horse...i bet she did have some stories to tell...

  2. Sherry, I think you are one of those strong women too, and I can see (and hear) the Irish in you. I loved reading about the women of your family. You too are one who does what has to be done & are unafraid of hard work.

  3. I love the pictures and intimate snapshot of your family Sherry ~ How strong the women were, doing chores and raising the family ~ I don't think I'll survive during those tough times ~

    Keep the Irish spirit alive in your eyes & bones~ Thanks for sharing your family story dear ~

  4. I've heard Irish are story tellers, so I am not surprised you know so much about these women and where your cackle came from. Amazing first settlers, too.

  5. I enjoyed reading about your strong grandma, Sherry. Interesting that you have some Irish blood in you. You seem to have inherited some very Irwin features. I wonder whether you read books by Irish novelists or writers of Irish decent and whether you feel a kinship.

  6. like a chapter from LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, like a historical novella, your family history appears rife with matriarchal memories; nice job; thanks for sharing.

  7. Truly loved this...and your prose writing; great insight into their personalities and revealing to us the really spirited and strong women they were. Thanks for sharing.

  8. what an interesting read Sherry...and i love this wonderful and the unique gift of strength to be had from 'foremothers'(a beautiful word)...

  9. Thank you for sharing your story and how wonderful to have such strong women for role models.

  10. What a great story Sherry, our forebears went through a lot, a much harder life than ours I am sure. though as my dad used to say, life was as it was, we knew no different.

  11. There is so much packed in here - so much love, disappointment, laughter, tears - speaks of times past with reverence. I think you have many stepping stones here for other , more in depth poems…

  12. oh wow... what a family history... love that you were able to tell so many of those little stories along the way... the funny and the difficult ones...

  13. What an amazing clan-i love the Irish charm! Gosh what they endured-

  14. What a hard life it was - still given what they left, they probably built a better life for themselves and the clan that came after

  15. Oh i loved your clan..and the pictures too..you all are made of steel..Very nice Sherry..smiles

  16. Beautiful photos to go with a lovely poem

  17. What a vivid picture you paint! Yes, it was a hard life indeed. Aren't we lucky, these days?

  18. I love the line, "It was a harsh and make-do life" and the whole stanza of "We have the Irish in us." Lovely portrait of amazing, strong women.

  19. Raise up "the clan"! A wonderful depiction of the day and a glorious tribute to a strong woman amongst strong women. Thanks for sharing, Sherry!

  20. I really enjoyed reading these stories about the women of your clan...the beauty in their resiliency!

  21. Oh Sherry, what a wonderful herstory! I didn't know you had Irish roots, but now I think, of course! What wonderful stories, even though the events themselves were often harrowing, or just plain hard. It really is amazing what our ancestors went through.

  22. Very interesting and amazingly oh so Irish. I think that sort of strength runs in the genes. Enjoyed this very much.

  23. You tell your family story so proud and poignantly...this is a gift, Sherry truly. There's so much to love about this piece you've offered...I think you'd write a beautiful memoir...you have a great voice for it, Sherry!


I so appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.
Thank you so much. I will be over to see you soon!