Feeling Lucky to Be Irish

I was raised with an Irish Blessing that unknowingly helped to guide me through life. The prayer was displayed on the wall, of our humble kitchen. I remember it was carved into wood with delicately painted green shamrocks all around the verse. The blessing went like this:

“May the road rise up to meet you,

May the wind be ever at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face,

and may the rains fall softly upon your fields.

And until we meet again,

may God hold you in the palm of his hand”. (Author unknown)

My mother was 100 % Irish and she loved this blessing because the message mirrored her intent to teach her four children to appreciate the simple things of life and that God is ever present. She felt that we were lucky by the mere nature of our Irish ancestral blood. She took great pride in the strength and ingenuity of her ancestors. She taught me that I was lucky to be born Irish, although I am only 50%. I quickly learned to blame the unlucky events in my life on the other half of my heritage that came from my alcoholic father. In spite of being raised in a crazy and chaotic home I learned to value the intangible gift of feeling supported by the divine as in this Irish blessing. The image of the sun on my face, illuminating my way and the wind at my back urging me to move forward carried me through many a difficult passage. The gift of Mother Nature showering my dreams with rain so my hope and faith in myself and life could grow has sustained me. And finally, the image of God holding me like a holy child, gives me a sense of protection and care.

My mom always reminded me and my three siblings that when things got hard, that the luck of the Irish was always with us. As we struggled with poverty and alcoholism in our home, she remained ever constant in her outlook that we were lucky because there were people much worse off than us. If we forgot how lucky we were to live in a small house in the country, she would load all four kids into the car and drive to the inner city where children had no yards to play in. She also reminded us of our ancestors who survived the great potato famine in Ireland and that we came from hearty stock. She sited memories from her own childhood, being one of ten children who shared two rooms. Then she would tell us how all ten children grew up and graduated college in spite of their frugal upbringing.

On hindsight, I see now that I was programmed to feel lucky from a young age. This sense of luck had nothing to do with fame or fortune. Instead, the luck I was taught was to count my blessings and to trust God no matter what. I also learned that if I worked hard and sacrificed my short term goals for long term rewards that I would live a lucky life. So even though from time to time I would look at others and think they were luckier than me because they had more material gains, more knowledge, traveled the world or seemed more successful than myself, I would stop myself and remember that simple Irish blessing and give thanks that I was being held in the hands of God with the sun on my face and the wind on my back. May the luck of the Irish be with you too.

The Napoleonic Wars

An ancestor of mine with the surname of Livingstone was believed to have been killed in the French wars and left a child named Ann but it is also possible that his death occurred just prior to her birth. Ann married a William Stewart from Stirling in 1834. He was a cooper. William, was born in Stirling. He was the son of John Stewart and Janet Thomson.

The Napoleonic Wars killed over 32,000 soldiers from the British side. It was likely that Mr Livingstone fought in the battle of Waterloo which was the last of the 20-year Napoleonic wars and ended in June 1815.

I believe that the ancestor I am searching for may be William Livingstone because my great grandfather Robert Stewart whose mother was Ann Livingstone used the names of his own relatives in naming his children and his first child’s name was William Livingstone (Stewart). This is just one possibility. William and Ann never named any of their sons William. They were John, and Robert, therefore it is possible that Ann’s father’s name could have been Robert or John Livingston (e). My theory is based on the fact that under the Scottish naming traditions of the 1700s & 1800s, the second son was often named after the child’s maternal grandfather.

I understand that the wives of some servicemen were eligible for some kind of government allowance providing they were classed as poor and had children but it is unlikely that Ann’s mother would have been one of those unless Ann had an older sibling and there is no evidence of this.

We believe that Ann’s mother remarried a Mr. Miller and they had at least three children named Robert, Walter, and Andrew. It was noted in the 1841 census that an Andrew and Walter Miller were staying with William and Ann Stewart (Livingstone) at Old Kilpatrick. What was the connection between the MIller’s and Ann and William I wonder?

Our ancestors from 3 and 4 generations back were all adamant about the David Livingstone link and that Ann Livingstone’s father died in the French wars. It is just a matter of putting all of the pieces together.

If anyone has information about this story that could help fill a much-needed gap in our family tree then it is much appreciated. I believe that the British military records are held at Kew in England. If anyone is able to visit them and check them out for me it would be much appreciated.

Recording a Life History – Simplified

Last summer I found out that my husband’s grandmother did not have any kind of life history recorded. She does not have any journals and pictures are scarce. She is the last living grandparent on either side and the thought of my children not knowing her or even being able to learn about her through pictures and memoirs is devastating. I was determined to make some kind of record of her life history but found myself in front of a very daunting task.

I learned that making a record of someone’s life does not have to be as overwhelming as a novel-long biography or a cinema-worthy video- but that even a simple photo or handwritten story can be a treasure for years to come.

Recording a life history can be simplified.

First, decide on the structure you would like to use. For example, would you prefer a video, picture book, timeline in journal entries or biographical articles. Consider your resources, skills and time available for this project. Find the one that is the most practical and achievable in the time allotted for this project.

The next step and the most challenging will be gathering as much information as possible. Much of this information will be obtained by simply asking the right questions. Prepare your questions before the interview so that you can organize the stories into a chronological timeline. It was helpful for me to talk to her children before the interview. They remembered events that their mother had long since forgotten. Here are some thoughts to consider while planning your interview questions:

~ Were there any significant dates in history during their life? How were they affected?

~ Other than big historical events, the trivial things can be fun as well if they remember them- for example the price of bread or how they received the news.

~ Are there other people you would like to interview to get a different perspective of this person and their life? Children? Friends?

~ Try to include stories instead of just facts. Stories can reveal someone’s character in a way that questions and answers cannot.

~ Legacy questions- keep in mind that what you write is how future generations will remember this person. What kind of legacy would they like to leave? What are some life lessons they learned that they would like to pass along? Financial? Family-oriented, etc.

During the actual interview, remember to have fun and enjoy getting to know the person. Be genuinely interested instead of simply filling in your answers. Try to be flexible with your questions and let the conversation flow naturally so they feel comfortable sharing details of experiences with you and reminiscing.

Lastly, put your final project together. Whenever possible ask for the person’s opinion on the structure or layout before the project is completed. Respect that, although you are doing much of the work, this is their history and they may have a preference on how it is presented. They may have not given this much thought, but it is polite to ask.

When the life history project is completed, keep it in a place where you can pull it out often to remember them when they are gone and if possible make copies for other family members or friends to treasure as well. Be sure to keep a digital copy if possible for backup. This is one project you will never regret having completed and with a simplified approach it need not be overwhelming.

Quilts Are Very Much Alive

My grandmother lived during the Great Depression. We loved hearing her reminisce about the hard times but always reverently encompassed in the love her dad gave his 5 children. My great grandfather lost his wife (my great grandmother) two weeks after their youngest child was born due to scarlet fever. Great Grandfather was left with 5 children to raise ranging in age from 2 weeks to 7 years. My grandmother was second to the oldest and the only daughter. I can still hear her tell us how they were quarantined at the time of their mother’s funeral due to the scarlet fever in their home and watched from their living room window as their mother’s casket passed in the funeral procession on its way to the cemetery.

My great grandfather never remarried. My grandmother, being the only daughter, did much of the housework. If the kids ever dared complain of school she would gently remind us how lucky they were to go to school. She cried when as a sophomore in high school her dad needed her at home and she no longer could attend school.

Times were lean during the Great Depression so scrimping and saving and reusing everything possible was a way of life. Today people still love to save money and reduce waste through clever DIY projects but in those days “doing it yourself” wasn’t a trend; it was a necessity.

In those difficult times, if women wanted to provide for their families, they had to get creative–especially when it came to clothing.

During the 1930’s flour sacks featured colorful patterns for women to make dresses. Innovative and desperate, women often emptied the sacks and used the fabric to make clothing. When flour manufacturers saw women turning their flour sacks into clothing, diapers, dish cloths, and more, they started packing their flour in pretty patterns. And it wasn’t just children. Women made dresses for themselves out of the bags as well. Whether in the kitchen or helping my grandfather outdoors, my grandmother wore these dresses she sewed from feed sacks!

When the clothing finally wore out, after being passed down from older sibling to youngest, my grandmother cut the salvageable pieces and made them into quilts. There are stories and memories in every square. My mother can still look at some of the quilt pieces and see her mother wearing that particular dress or recognize pieces in the quilts from clothing she wore as a child.

There are many ways to keep one’s ancestors alive. Pictures speak volumes, stories especially when recorded in an ancestor’s voice are treasures, videos are priceless, and many other ways. Yet the one that speaks to me every night is the quilt that covers my bed with warmth and memories in each lovingly sewed square. Some amazing bedtime stories are told to great grandchildren as they too snuggle in their great grandmother’s handiwork.

My grandmother passed away in 2012 –appropriately on the first day of spring. It was a gorgeous bright day in Ghent Minnesota as we gathered around her grave site. The viewing at the funeral home was arrayed with grandmother’s handiwork-jars of home canned fruits and vegetables on a table covered with one of her treasured quilts. A tribute to her life of giving and sharing.