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.   

They had not heard of the mail-order bride scenario, but they had other memories to share, which gave us insight into what brought Annie to Clontarf. Donald mentioned a niece of Annie’s who visited Clontarf in the 1920s. Her name was Irene O’Brien and she came from Montana. Irene was a fun-loving girl, who adored her Auntie Annie.

We took the information we had learned from the cousins and began to search public records. As my mom and I looked at the records from St. Malachy Catholic Church in Clontarf, we happened upon some familiar names. A woman named Mary Hill, a daughter of Margaret Kelly and William Hill, baptized at Kill, County Kildare, married Thomas O’Brien in 1894. We had found Annie’s sister – Irene’ O’Brien’s mother – and discovered that Annie, too, was baptized at Kill. Further research proved that the O’Brien family lived in Clontarf until 1912 when they moved to Montana. I admit I was relieved to learn that Annie more than likely came to Clontarf because her sister was there, and not to be married, sight unseen, to a lonely farmer in rural Minnesota.

Immigration records shed further light on Annie’s life. We learned that she arrived in America in 1899, “passage paid by her brother-in-law Thomas O’Brien, destination: Clontarf, Minnesota.” In the 1900 Census, Annie was working as a servant for the McDermotts, a prominent Clontarf family. Dominic McDermott ran the Clontarf general store. Perhaps this exposure to a family of means fostered Annie’s appreciation for nice things? I imagine that during the next ten years, when Annie moved from Clontarf to work as housekeeper for a Father Molloy in Willmar and Shieldsville, Minnesota, she saved some of her money, perhaps sent some home to Ireland, and spent a little on herself.

Annie Hill and Neil Regan married on February 21, 1911, twelve years after her arrival in Clontarf. My grandpa John was born in 1913, and by all accounts, Annie doted on her only child. The family lived several miles west of Clontarf until 1921, when they sold the farm and moved to a comfortable home in town. There was a country school a mile from the farm and yet my grandpa did not start school until he was eight, after the family moved to Clontarf. From what Gerald knew of Annie, he surmised that she would have been lonesome in the country and kept John from school as company.

Neil and Annie had one of the first automobiles in Clontarf, and my grandpa started driving at an early age. Donald said it was the most comical thing to see – Annie seated in the backseat of the 1926 Model T, wearing a large fancy hat, shouting directions, warnings, and critiques at my grandpa, who served as Annie’s personal chauffeur until he left home in the mid-1930s. By then the Depression had taken its toll on Annie and Neil – their house was headed to forclosure and Neil was losing his eyesight. Annie was tired. She died in 1937.

I always thought it strange that my grandma knew so little about Annie, but it turns out she did her best with the sparse information my grandpa shared and what she had heard over the years from people in Clontarf. I am not sure those people actually knew Annie. The older, Irish-born settlers lived in sod houses when they first came to the area, and may not have had much time for Annie’s fine hats and fancy dishes.

I am happy to say the story that Annie was a mail-order bride is unlikely, but everything else my grandpa told my grandma was spot-on: Annie certainly liked nice things, and she was a backseat driver. As Donald and Gerald described Annie’s personality, I experienced an odd feeling that I already knew Annie. It was at once unsettling and comforting. My mom’s resemblance to Annie goes beyond a physical one. She shares Annie’s high standards, good sense of humor, shyness if you don’t know her, independent nature, smarts, and competitive instinct.

Then, of course, there are all of those nice things.

– Aine McCormack, St. Paul, Minnesota