Last week I cried.
I’ll let that sink in
Well… maybe not actually cried, but I was quiet, and walked s-l-o-w-l-y, which is a sure-fire sign that something is getting to me.
It all began like this:
1875- In the coal mines of interior England…
People are dying of black lung, starvation, unsanitary conditions, endless pregnancies, and unchecked industrial accidents.
My 2nd great grandmother, marries her widowed mother’s young boarder, and they settle in squaller in the town of Pensnett, mining coal, and having seven children in 20 years. All but one child lives to adulthood.
He disappears off of the census records at this time. Family legend has it that he went to America and would send for them.
He did not.
She waited 10 years before she listed herself as ‘widow’.
Ten years after that, she accompanied two of her youngest sons to America aboard the City of Berlin.
They arrive in NYC on 23 June 1882. She is listed as ‘Female’ and not ‘Female Lady’ like so many others on board.
She traveled to Kansas City with her sons (where they must have had some connection), and died three months later. She is buried there.
Another of her young sons, my great grandfather, Theophilus, had left the English mines two months previous to his mother’s journey.
He had travelled on the City of Richmond, through the US port of Philadelphia.
He made his way to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, by wagon and rail, where the steel industry was in full grind, and immediately took any job they offered. He eventually fed a steam furnace, shoveling coal freshly dug from the mines right across the river.
He married Mary.
She died of tuberculosis 98 days after the license was signed.
One year later, he remarried. This time to my great grandmother, Alice (She had arrived 15 years earlier, at the age of five, with her crazy daddy John, my great great Grandfather who was a Saloon Keeper and inventor- on the side).
My great grandparents eventually moved to Cleveland, Ohio where they opened their own Saloon and had five children.
My great grandfather must have loved his bar because he died of liver disease, due to excessive alcohol consumption, was identified by his sister, and not his wife, at the city morgue, and is buried in the Pauper’s Field at Lake View Cemetery in Euclid.
Alice was loved by her children, one of whom was my grandfather, also Theophilus.
They are buried near each other.
My grandfather saw to that- and to never working a day in his life in a coal mine.
Their stories sound harsh, certainly by today’s standards (mine at least), and sad, and dark.
However, last week, in NYC, I finally realized how lucky they had all been.
You see, last week, I finally visited a museum that I had wanted to experience for a long time.
I love museums! All beauty and light. Where’s the Impressionist gallery? Do they have a cafe?
La De Da De Dahhhhh
The Tenement Museum
In the lower east side.
My grown children were fascinated. They asked good questions, like…
“Mom, did we have family in NYC?”
No. They just passed through.
“Did they live like this?”
Not on top of one another. More like on a farm. Spread out and probably lonely.
“How many people to a room?”
Here, up to 12. Our family? I have no idea. Babies died so suddenly.
“How did anyone have privacy?”
“Did they just say that a lot of the husbands were drunks and beat their wives?”
They did. That seemed to go around.
“And many of the kids were orphaned and ran around on the streets?”
At least the city had a kind of orphanage system. On the farms, the kids just tried to continue on until the sheriff caught wind.
“And then what?”
You hopped a rail and ran away, and hoped you got a job, like my grandfather, in the mailroom at Republic Steel, and then he worked his way up and never looked back.
“We wish we had known him.”
I wish you had too.
“He sounds wonderful. Like this museum. You love this stuff, right?”
So many questions…
So many ways to answer.
97 Orchard Street
Lower East Side
The photo I took on the left, is the same view
of the photo on the right, taken in the 50’s.
At the turn of the last century, this one square block, was THE most populated place
on the planet.
doesn’t even begin to sum this experience up.
|My Great Grandmother Alice
with her grandson, my father.