Family History

I think it’s pretty common among families to think and talk about the unseen influences on our lives. I”m talking about the little shreds of detail, or sometimes rich, complex stories, about our parents and maybe their parents that we think might explain something about them and about us.

Concrete example: Growing up, I was very aware that both my parents lost their fathers at an early age. My dad’s father died when he was 10; my mom’s dad died when she was 11. I came to assume, through small details I picked up over the years, that these events were traumatic if not shattering events in their families’ lives and that in one way or other they shaped my life and the lives of my siblings and maybe even the lives of our kids.

I was thinking about the biggest incident we heard about growing up, one that I think I heard my mom refer to simply as “the dunes.”

In August 1939, my mom, at age 9, was the lone survivor of a five-member family group swept into Lake Michigan at Miller Beach, in the Indiana dunes. I wrote a little bit about that a few years ago. Her account of what happened was pretty graphic–especially regarding her memories of trying to save a brother who was within arm’s reach and what it was like to have almost drowned (she said that by the time she was rescued she had stopped struggling; she was revived on the beach).

Mom suffered from depression for most of her life. It’s reasonable to think that one of the triggers was this terrible incident in the dunes. But she suffered a couple other major tragedies, too. The early death of her father, as I’ve mentioned, and the loss of a child–a brother of mine, the youngest of the four of us who arrived roughly annually in the mid-1950s, who died just before his second birthday. I saw some of the effects of that last tragedy. I remember that eventually my mom started seeing a psychiatrist–a move that may have saved her life and in some measure changed my life, too.

Something that was tucked away in the back of my head about the psychiatrist: Some years after my mom began seeing him, he suffered his own tragedy in the lake. He was out on his boat with his wife one August evening when a storm came up. The boat capsized, and the doctor and his wife were thrown overboard and separated. He was rescued after seven or eight hours in the water. She drowned. I recall my mom talking about this and overheard her saying that he told her that he simply didn’t want to get out of the lake when he was found.

Thinking about all this just now, I went looking for signs of the doctor online. He’d be in his 80s now, or even older. I checked news archives, and the lake incident came up as the only hit for his name in the Chicago area. And here’s what prompted this post: The date of his accident? It was the anniversary of the 1939 dunes drowning. I wonder if my mom and the doctor ever talked about that coincidence.

Cemetery Visit

Our mom died three years ago last week, and she’s buried (or interred or however you want to say it) at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery on the far South Side, along with her parents and a couple of her brothers, one set of grandparents, assorted uncles and cousins, and our brother Mark. Not that everyone is buried in one neat group. Far from it. There are two graves here, three there, and then a big grouping of about a dozen O’Malleys and Morans.

The earliest grave in the O’Malley-Moran grouping is from 1928; the latest 1964. Five of the graves date from a single year, 1939, and four of those from a single date, August 22. That’s the date of what I remember my mom calling “the dunes,” when Mary Moran and Mary O’Malley — her first cousin and aunt, respectively — and John Moran and John Hogan — an uncle and her 11- or 12-year-old brother — drowned at Miller Beach in the Indiana Dunes.

We grew up hearing about the dunes: It was the day after a big storm on the lake, and a rip current swept our mom, three months shy of her tenth birthday, and the others into deep water. How my Uncle Bill, who was 13, was nearly dragged in, too, but escaped and ran up the beach for help. How Mom was rescued just at the point of drowning and was revived on shore (the identity of the rescuer was unclear until a few years ago; a few years ago, it emerged as another cousin, Joe O’Malley, who was only about 17 at the time). The terrible aftermath of funerals and guilt.

But until my mom died, I never visited the cemetery or really knew where the family was buried. It was only last year that my dad showed me the Moran and O’Malley graves, and that was the first time I saw where the people who had drowned were buried. There’s a small mystery about the burials, though: One person, my mom’s brother John, is unaccounted for among the markers on the family lot. The cemetery’s records show he’s there, somewhere. But either his grave was never marked or the stone has been buried or lost. My dad’s started trying to sort out where he is.


In the meantime: Of course, the drowning always seemed real to me. My mom’s account was detailed and haunting. When I was 17 or so, we drove out to Miller Beach, and she showed me the big house the family had rented for a couple of weeks that August. Even so, coming upon the graves — This is the Aunt Mary that Mom talked about, the one who washed her hair that day and insisted she wear a bathing cap — gives the story another dimension, an objective dimension, it really hadn’t had for me before.

Technorati Tags: