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I wanted to reflect today on just how far I've come in researching my maternal family history. For years, when I was a child, I plied my grandmother with questions about her family and about Ireland. Being Irish, really Irish, was a great source of pride among my siblings and I. For some reason, none of us ever called her Gram or Grandma. Rather we referred to her as Kearney, her married name. Doing so didn't seem disrespectful at all. In fact, Kearney referred to herself in the same fashion.

Oh , she shared some interesting tales, ones that I now recognize as wonderful fabrications meant to thrill children --- especially the one about her father encountering a leprachaun in one of the fields of his farm and snatching him up. The poor, tiny one begged for his release, But my great grandfather, being the practicle man he was, narrowed his eyes to slits and said, " And how is it my friends will believe me when I tell them about you?" The two bargained, and finally the leprachaun parted with one small shoed that would serve as proof of John Browne's adventure. When I asked where the shoe was at the time, Kearney replied, "Ah, that shoe --- it's likely still hidden in the barn."

Other times, though, Kearney didn't want to talk about her childhood or her family. Her response then was most likely, "Arg-g-gh --- why is it that yer interested in that? It's of no consequence." This woman of my heart died on Easter Monday in 1977. At that time I wasn't ready to put my love of my family's past into action, and I certainly wouldn't have rummaged through her papers and belongings.

Fast forward to 2007. I've decided that i'ts imperative to begin my search. Following Kearney's death, my mother must have boxed the little that remained of my grandmother's life with us and placed those boxes in a closet. My dad took over Kearney's room and turned it into his office. He would die in 2001. Little was touched. When I asked my mom if I could go through Kearney's boxes, she gave me full access. What I found there would eventually enable me to chart a path.

The woman who was reticent to share details of her past life, had kept boxes of cards, letters, pieces of envelopes with return addresses, mass cards from funerals. scraps of paper on which she wrote her thoughts, prayer books, rosaries, news clippings. I've searched through these materials multiple times, each time finding something new, something that had new meaning for me than it did earlier. Now I ask myself the questions: why did she choose certain letters to keep --- she certainly didn't keep them all; why specific envelopes or return addresses; why would she leave behind such deeply personal statements of her life's philosophy?

I'm choosing to believe that at some point she wanted to preserve enough information for one of us to do what I'm doing today. Without the precious fragments that Kearney left behind, I have no idea how I would have possibly navigated my way back to County Mayo, Ireland, and to the various family lines that emerged there. Thank you for the bread crumbs, Kearney. Trust that I'm following the trail you left for me to find. Blessings upon you.

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Comment by Katie Heitert Wilkinson on September 9, 2009 at 1:47pm
Thanks, Sherry, for the lovely compliment. Actually, I'm an old English teacher --- one who's taught various writing courses over the years. There's an old saying among educator's that one truly learns something when he has to teach it to others. I think that's what happened for me.
Comment by Sherry Hightower on September 6, 2009 at 9:36pm
You really do write very well. Are you a professional writer?


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