In the family room of my childhood home there was a large wall covered with photographs – vintage tintypes and black-and-whites were set among school portraits of the kids and snapshots from family vacations. My grandma Agnes and I would sit in that room for hours, playing a little game: I pointed to an old picture and she identified the subject, provided the appropriate backstory, and shared an entertaining anecdote.
This is where I learned about my family tree – appropriately, in the family room.
Most of the old photographs were of my grandma’s family – brothers, sisters, parents, and grandparents. But some of the images on the wall were of her in-laws, my grandpa’s family. My grandpa John Regan died in 1971, the year before I was born, and my grandma considered it her responsibility to keep his story alive. Agnes and John shared some common family ties – two of their grandfathers came from County Cork together in 1864 and settled in Fisherville, New Hampshire before answering Bishop John Ireland’s call for Irish Catholic colonists to relocate to the fertile prairie of western Minnesota. Clontarf, MN was established in 1877 by these pioneer settlers, and Clontarf is where my grandparents were born.
There were two photographs on the wall that always caught my eye. The first was a formal portrait of a serious-looking and attractive young couple. The second photograph was of the same couple, more relaxed and a bit older, with the addition of a young boy. Grandma identified them as my great-grandparents Annie Hill and Cornelius Regan, and the boy as my grandpa John.
She would tell me all about Neil (as Cornelius was known). He was a dear, gentle man who was patient and loving. He lived with my grandparents for quite a few years before he died, and enjoyed spending time with his grandchildren. Grandma would chuckle as she remembered Neil, after having cataracts removed, exclaiming, “It’s a miracle! I can see!” Neil was a devout Catholic; he said the Rosary every morning and lived a good life. And what about Annie Hill? At this point, our spirited game of “Name That Relative” would come to a halt. This was the only question that ever gave my grandma trouble. She would sigh, and say the same thing every time I asked about Annie:
“Well, now, I know very little about Annie. She passed away before I met your grandpa. I heard she was a mail-order bride, and people said she was a bit aloof. Your grandpa told me she liked to have nice things and that her backseat driving really got on his nerves.”
The absence of the usual light-hearted anecdote or any personal connection to Annie created an aura of mystery around my great-grandmother. I wondered why my grandma didn’t know more about Annie since she knew so much about everyone else, even those who had passed away before her time. I got the sense that my grandma somehow did not approve of Annie. Ordinarily, I trusted her assessments, but with Annie I wasn’t quite convinced.
While Annie seemed mysterious, there was a hint of familiarity about her. This went beyond the fact that I was her namesake (everyone called me Annie) or even that my mom looked exactly like her. Throughout my life I had been surrounded by the very “nice things” that my grandma mentioned. My mom decorated our home with the artifacts of Annie’s life – her rocking chair sat in the corner of the living room and her beautiful collection of tea pots were displayed in the china cabinet. I longed to know more about the woman who had a set of twelve crystal champagne glasses in her rural home and who used an ornate, engraved handle to carry her umbrella around town. I felt there was more to Annie than my grandma’s description let on.
The years passed and I moved from my parents’ home. I may have left my youthful fascination with Annie behind, along with the physical reminders of her life, but I certainly never forgot about her. In 2004 my mom and I set off for Clontarf, Minnesota to see what we could uncover about our ancestors who helped establish the town. I secretly hoped to learn something about my mysterious great-grandmother, Annie Hill. We arranged to meet with my grandpa’s cousins Donald and Gerald Regan, who grew up in Clontarf.
Donald and Gerald dazzled us with their memories of the “old days,” so I thought I would ask if they had any memories of their Aunt Annie. Gerald’s eyes lit up and he said, “Well, of course we remember Annie. Donald, you remember Annie’s fried potatoes? She made the best I have ever tasted, perfectly seasoned, crispy on the outside.” Donald nodded and smiled in agreement. I quickly discovered that we had hit the “Annie Jackpot.”
Bit by bit, the cousins revealed Annie’s personality and habits to us. Annie was extremely good-natured – she loved a good joke and teasing came easily to her. She had a competitive spirit, which was displayed every time she sat down at the card table. Her house was immaculate, she decorated with fresh flowers from the garden, and she proudly displayed her fine china dishes. She could be a bit of a complainer, but only because her standards were high. Donald and Gerald described Annie as smart, independent and friendly, yet reserved around people she did not know well.