Category Archives: Holidays

A Tribute to a Strong Irish Woman, and a Curious Question of Fate

 Kate Byrne Mackin (1861-1918)

Although I never met my great-grandmother Kate, I’m guessing that she was a tough and determined women.  Kate married Joe Mackin on September 6, 1877 at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Drogheda, County Louth, Ireland.  Kate gave birth at least ten times, maybe eleven.  My grandfather Raymond often argued with his older brother Henry over this fact. Who knows.

The Mackin family immigrated to America in 1884. At this point, the family numbered only six individuals.  They stayed in New York City for a short time and eventually made their way to Portland, Oregon.  Joe loved Kate. Unfortunately, his love for whiskey and beer caused much trouble for them. The story handed down to me is that Joe was a steveador (dock worker).  Every two weeks, Joe was paid.  However, between the pay master’s office and Joe and Kate’s home were a number of drinking establishments. By the time Joe got home, his pay packet was often gone.

Kate, being the smart woman that she was, decided that she would be the one to pick up Joe’s pay packet.  I have often wondered whether her decision ever provoked bitter arguments between the two of them. But the scheme worked perfectly.

Because of Kate’s decision to manage the money in the Mackin family, they were able to buy two homes on Garfield Street in a suburb of Portland, Oregon.  The second home became a rental property, and provided additional income for the growing family.

In November, 1918 Kate died from pneumonia at the age of 57. She was a victim of the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918. Joe died much later, in 1937.

At the time of my great grandmother’s death, my grandfather Raymond was in the US Army and stationed at Camp Lewis, Washington. He was due to be shipped out with his regiment to fight in WWI.  However, he was given permission to attend his mother’s funeral. His regiment left for Europe without him, and soon WWI came to an end. He would never leave the US.

If my grandfather had left with his regiment, I wonder if he would have survived the war. Would he have been injured? Would my branch of the Mackin Family Tree ever have grown? Those are questions I often ponder, but will never be able to answer.

As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, what stories have you been told about your ancestors? If you could ask one question of an ancestor, what would that question be?

The Titanic, and my Irish vacation

My husband and I have deep ancestral roots that go back to ancient Ireland. So for our thirtieth wedding anniversary we went to Ireland to do a little genealogical research and some sightseeing.  With a Fodor’s guide on my lap, we drove around Belfast, the modern-day capital of Northern Ireland, looking for a place to spend the night. We eventually found a spot that met our needs and reserved a room. Much to our delight, this particular B & B  not only gave us a comfortable bed for the night, and a full Irish breakfast the following morning, but also a story that we would never forget.

Once we got settled into our room, the owner asked us if we would like a tour of this charming old home.  “Dunallan”, we were told, was built in 1881 and had been the home of the Andrews family at the turn of the 19th century.

Mr. Thomas Andrews, Jr. was an Irish business man and shipbuilder.  Okay, I said to myself, that makes sense. Belfast was after all a ship building town. But my ears perked up when I heard that Mr. Andrews oversaw the building plans for RMS Olympic for the White Star Line and its sister ship, the Titanic.  What? Did I hear that right?  The Titanic? Yes, the Titanic.  This serendipitous choice of a night’s accommodation had become an opportunity to touch and experience a little bit of history.

The owner of this quaint old house went on to tell us that Mr. Andrews and his family had lived in that house during the time he worked on building the Titanic. In addition, the design of the fireplace mantels and the adjoining tile work in this home were modeled for use on the Titanic. They were stunning.

We were told that Mr. Andrews was on board the Titanic, and died in the fateful crash.  And he died a hero.  Many survivors recounted stories of Mr. Andrews’ selfless actions which included urging reluctant people to get into life boats. He was also seen throwing deck chairs into the ocean for passengers to use as floating devices.

Gone are my Hollywood images of Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet.  They have been replaced with the thoughts of Mr. Andrews, his wife, and their young daughter. I wonder how they coped with losing a husband and a father, and a man who had designed one of the grandest ships of all time.

RMS Titanic sunk on April 15, 1912.  SS Nomadic is the only ship to survive that was designed by Thomas Andrews, Jr., and remains the only White Star Line ship still afloat.

On this St. Patrick’s Day, tell us about your family’s Irish roots. What stories did you uncover when you returned to Ireland? Are there any stories passed down from your parents and grandparents that you re-tell on special occasions? If so, we’d love to hear them!

Love at First Rinse Cycle, Or How the Arab Oil Embargo Changed My Life

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, I’m affectionately thinking about how my husband and I first met.  Not your conventional meeting, I assure you.

It was February 1974, and I moved from Maryland to Northern Virginia to be closer to my job.  This was also during the oil embargo which left much of the country having to deal with long lines at the gas pumps. To complicate matters further, drivers were assigned odd or even days in which gas could be purchased.  I was tired of dealing with this situation.

With the help of the Washington Post apartment locator section, I found an efficiency apartment in Arlington, Virginia. The rent was $190 a month! Imagine that?!

A couple of days after moving in, I was looking for the building’s communal laundry room.  This was not something I was particularly looking forward to doing.   But as it turned out, going to the laundry room changed my life forever.

I loaded my clothes into a plastic laundry basket, grabbed my detergent put five bucks worth of quarters into my jean pocket, and headed for the laundry room.  Upon entering the laundry room, my first impressions were “Yuck!” The room was steamy, musty and grimy.  Dust bunnies were multiplying everywhere.  I knew that I didn’t want to spend any more time in this place than absolutely necessary.

All of a sudden my focus changed.  On the other side of the laundry room stood an attractive, dark haired young man.  He was busy stuffing clothes into a washer and pulling quarters out of his pocket.  I thought to myself, ‘Hmmm, who’s this?’

I conveniently found a washing machine located not too far from his.  And then with a helpless little smile on my face, I said, “Hi. I’m new to this building. How many quarters does this machine take?”

Bill was more than helpful and brought me up to snuff quickly on everything I needed to know about washing and drying everything from clothes to bathroom rugs.  Such a helpful and pleasant young man! He was very friendly and so easy to talk to – a nice change from guys I had been dating.

Well, that’s how it all started.  Our friendship and courtship began at the Executive Towers Apartments in Arlington, Virginia while we watched our clothes go through the spin cycle.

We would meet up a few more times in the laundry room, chat about life and work and how we hated commuting to our jobs.  Bill eventually asked me out for dinner and a movie. I invited him to my place for dinner, to meet my friends and eventually to meet my family.

A little more than a year later we married.

Our clothes have been spinning around together in the same machine for the last 37 years. So now as I think of it – laundry rooms aren’t such bad places after all!

’Tis the Season to Write Romantically (Guest Blogger)

I bought my husband a Valentine a few days ago, just like I’ve been doing for the last four decades. Yep, we’ve been together that long, and even though it has been that long, I still want him to know I love him in that way.

He shows me in multiple ways that he still feels that way about me. We are lucky, I know, and I don’t take our relationship for granted.

My husband has a romantic side. He likes the Los Angeles Lakers AND Jane Austen and isn’t embarrassed to be one in only a handful of men in the theatre to see a Jane Austen-ish kind of movie. He’s also a generous and clever gift-giver–both clever in the kind of gifts he chooses for me, and clever in the way he presents them to me. I’m sure that store clerks who help him with his purchases wish they were so lucky.

I have lots of stories I could write that illustrate his romantic side. Why would I want to write them? Because I want our children and future descendants to know that we loved each other in that way.

Often our children only see us as fuddy-duddy parents and can’t visualize us having a life before they came into the world. I suspect you know what I mean. I’ve taught personal history writing for the last 15 years, and the majority of my students tell me they’re writing their stories because they want their children to know what their lives were like before they became parents. Writing stories about the romantic aspects of our lives is one way of expanding our children’s vision of who we are.

So write that romantic story. Here are a few story ideas you might consider:

  • Follow my lead and write a story that illustrates your spouse’s romantic side. When I gave this assignment to my class last year, I was greeted by a blank stare…followed by some mumbling…followed by some derisive laughter. “Now listen, folks,” I retaliated, “not everyone’s a hearts and flowers kind of person.” We then discussed various ways spouses show affection, like cleaning the house when you’re sick, or praising you to their children, or always looking nice for you, or watching a Jane Austen movie with you when they’d rather watch the Lakers…that kind of thing.
  • Write about an adolescent “crush.” Reveal your awkwardness and all the embarrassing details. Be real, and your family will see you in a new light.
  • Write about your first kiss. Who cares if it was a bomb? (Mine was!) Write about it anyway. Be sure to put your story in its setting. Let readers SEE where the deed was done. Was there music playing in the background? Johnny Mathis set the stage for my big dud…”The Twelfth of Never.”
  • Write about your first date–or any interesting/crazy/embarrassing/romantic date you had. Teens don’t date anymore. Show your children’s generation what it was like in “your day.”
  • Write about a marriage proposal. Be as specific as you can. Who said what? How did you feel?
  • Write about your wedding day. Think of some interesting, fun, or surprising incidents that made the day stand out so your story is uniquely yours. Keep it personal…and romantic.
  • Write about your honeymoon. One of my students, an 87-year-old widow, wrote about her wedding night in surprising detail. Yes! It was a lovely story, written sensitively, and with great love. Her children will read the story and be happy their parents loved each other so much.

Now, whatever topic you choose, I recommend you do the following:

  • Write honestly and personally. Reveal your feelings, your disappointments, feelings of awkwardness, embarrassment, and silliness. Show the real you.
  • Use lots of detail–about people and settings. Where did incidents take place? Let us SEE it. What were you wearing? What did other people look like? Add “sense details,” if appropriate–sound, smell, sight, taste, and feel.
  • Create scenes, if possible. Don’t just write a summary. Try to remember what was said, and re-create conversations as you remember them, capturing the emotional truth of the experience.
  • Snag readers’ attention from the get-go. Some experts advise beginning in the middle of things. Too often we feel like we need all kinds of back-story before we get to the interesting part. Don’t do it.
  • Don’t be in a rush to get it finished. Write a rough draft and let it sit for a while. You’ll soon think of things you’ll want to add.

That’s it. I think you’ll enjoy this writing assignment. Get into the spirit. Play some Johnny Mathis, or whoever rocks your boat. Browse through some old photos albums to resurrect old memories. Then sit at your desk and put it all down on paper.

Dawn Parrett Thurston has taught life story writing at Santiago Canyon College in Orange County, CA for the last 15 years. She and her husband are co-authors of the book Breathe Life into Your Life Story: How to Write a Story People Will WANT to Read, available from Amazon and the publisher, Signature Books. Dawn is on the board of directors of the Association of Personal Historians. Her blog, www.MemoirMentor.com/blog, was selected as one of the Top 10 Personal History Blogs of 2011 by Dan Curtis. 

A letter to myself on my (future) 80th birthday

Dear Me,

You have now lived a full eight decades of life.  Congratulations!   As you look back I hope that you will be able to say that it has been a good ride over these last eighty years.  I also hope that your body has continued to serve you well.  I sure hope that you have all your teeth, not too many wrinkles (except for those smile lines!) and that you still like to wear a nice fitting pair of black jeans.You will be the talk of the family if you do!

On your birthday, I’m sure you’re celebrating by remembering your long and amazing life. With the family by your side, you’ll watch the home videos we made, flip through the scrapbooks and photo albums, and talk about your favorite heirlooms from your grandparents that you still have on the mantle. You’re lucky, not only to be in good health but also to have recorded so much of your life history for the rest of the family to enjoy.

But please don’t forget – even though you are now an old lady (in body, but young in spirit), you can still continue with this legacy work.  Don’t forget to talk about your experiences, hopes, dreams, and what life has taught you along the way. Your children and grandchildren need to hear you tell your stories. They might be curious how you cherished the hippy era, living in San Francisco and that funny smelling stuff you smoked back then.  On second thought, maybe you might not want to tell them about that.

But do tell them about growing up. They will want to hear about how you felt when you became a mom for the first time.  They will be curious to know what got you through the tough times in life – through multiple miscarriages, the suicide of a close family member, and the disappointments  of rejection and failure. But most importantly, tell them how you bounced back and always kept your head up high. Life is all about learning from our hardships, and you’ve certainly done that.

Oh, before I forget, have a HAPPY BIRTHDAY and as you blow out the candles on your cake, please make a wish that you will live at least another 20 years. You still have a lot to accomplish and the energy to do it!

Photo credit: Birthday cakes blog