Ever since I was 14, when my father first took me to walk the field at Gettysburg, I've felt the lure of the past. I've been struck by the fact that, while distant from the past, I'm nonetheless connected to it. Like becoming aware that, even though San Francisco is three time zones away from my home in Western New York, I'm connected to that distant place by a slender, but very real, strip of asphalt.
In an effort to understand my own past, I've been pulling together a history of our family. Like many American families, the strands of my own arise from disparate sources--in my case from southwest Ireland, eastern Germany, possibly Poland. I know little about the deeper past. Through my marriage, my children have been enriched by the blood of Spain. Some of the strands giving rise to our family have sent shoots into other recesses of the world--France, Mexico, Guyana, Australia. These shoots don't really support our line, but they are connected to it, and, for that reason, have a place in our family lore.
In looking into our plain family's origins, I discovered that if you lift the lid off your family's past you don't feel quite so plain.
The Quintessential Irish-American Tale
Like thousands of others with McMahon (or MacMahon) forebears, I'm descended (through my mother) from a 12th-century Celtic king, Mahon of Thomond, North Munster, present-day County Clare in southwest Ireland. The descendants of Mahon eked out an existence along this thin-soiled coast for many generations, and, in fact, still do. But five centuries after Mahon's death, following the defeat of Catholic forces under James II by William of Orange, a shoot took off in a new direction. A number of McMahons followed James into exile on the Continent. Through loyalty and hard work, especially in France, some members of the clan rose to the top. The one who climbed the highest was Marie Edmé Patrice Maurice de MacMahon, who in the 1860s served as Governor-General of Algeria, and, from 1873 to 1879, as President of the Third French Republic.
Those who remained in Clare suffered the quintessential Irish fate--oppression by a foreign power, unremitting poverty, starvation. My great-great grandparents, John and Mary McMahon, survived the potato famine of the late 1840s by building a raft and slipping off to Mutton Island, several miles off the rocky coast, where, for four grinding years, they subsisted on what they could take from the sea. Their son John, father of my grandfather Patrick, was born on Mutton Island.
Patrick, the second of nine children, found the small farmhouse in Clare too cramped and the future too bleak. In 1899, he sailed for America. Through the Irish network, the sturdy 20-year-old was quickly drawn to Buffalo, where he first shoveled coal for 25 cents an hour and later worked in a shipyard building one of two legendary local excursion vessels, the Canadiana. Patrick was not destined to be at the bottom for long. By the time he was 30, he had married Bridget Greene, also from Clare, become an American citizen, fathered three of the five children the couple would have and begun keeping a tavern in Buffalo's First Ward. I've been told that in 1924, when he paid cash for a new Buick, Patrick was one of the few in South Buffalo wealthy enough to own an automobile. I've also been told that one of his proudest moments was when the route of a 1933 presidential motorcade took FDR himself past Paddy's prosperous New Deal Tavern.
Spreading Out in the New World
One of Patrick's younger brothers, Tony, also came to America. Tony moved to Mexico, where he'd heard that a lot of money could be made by railroad laborers. While working on the Mexican railroad, Tony met Suzanne Bedell, a young nurse from Madrid living in Mexico with her Spanish mother and English father (a physician). Suzanne and Tony were soon married. Suzanne worked for the family of a prominent Mexican, Francisco Madero, as a children's nurse and governess. In 1910, Madero, known subsequently as the Father of the Mexican Revolution, caused the overthrow of President Porfirio Diaz, and the following year was elected President of Mexico. But two tragedies now struck Suzanne's life in quick succession--on Christmas Eve 1912, the 28-year-old Tony was shot to death during a card game in a Monterrey saloon, victim of a disgruntled card player with a poor aim. Two months later, on the heels of a coup by Victoriano Huerta, Madero was assassinated. The remainder of the Madero family fled north, with Suzanne, whose life in Mexico was finished. On reaching Atlantic City with her Mexican family in the summer of 1913, Suzanne Bedell McMahon wrote to Patrick McMahon in Buffalo and asked to be taken in. The young widow was to remain in Buffalo for most of her life, helping raise Paddy and Bridget's children in the family quarters over the tavern. (On a frigid December night in 1914, Suzanne actually delivered my mother Emily--Doctor Dooley having fallen into a deep slumber following a couple of snorts with the proprietor.) Never remarrying, she devoted herself to assisting the poor, especially Hispanics, in the Buffalo area, and for years after was spoken of with reverence and affection by the elderly Hispanic women who remembered her.
My family's Irish branches ran in still other directions. Five of Bridget's six sisters joined the Sisters of St. John of God, and shipped out to work among the sick and poor of northwest Australia. Most never saw their home again. One of Bridget's four brothers, Tom, migrated to British Guiana (present-day Guyana), and, through his marriage, grafted a Portuguese branch onto our family tree. One of Bridget's nephews, also Tom, joined the IRA. He was arrested and imprisoned, escaped, and moved to Chicago, a part of America unknown and inaccessible to our particular family unit, and probably, in those days, to Bridget as well.
If my Irish forebears don't provide enough scope for wonder, I can turn to my Teutonic roots. No kings that I know of in this line, but there was a baron, a rascal or two, and the same great underlying drive to succeed. Take my great-grandfather Franz, for example. Born in Berlin, January 1852, the son of the noble Carolina von Zittswitz (thought to have had Polish roots) and a commoner named Siepel. Carolina, disowned for her union by her father, the baron, died when Franz was young, and Siepel disappeared at this time. But as Franz grew up, he was--perhaps reluctantly--cared for to some extent by Carolina's parents. In later years, Franz would tell one of his children of his "going to the mansion where the porter would bring out food and clothing."
In 1879 the 27-year-old Franz, having given up on training for the Lutheran ministry and now turned to acting, found himself in New York City with Maria Geistinger's Light Opera Company. He liked America so much that he stayed, divorcing his new bride, who had refused to join him in his new home. (He would have three more wives.) He earned his living first as an itinerant actor (German and English), but then turned to the more dependable trade of cigar making. He moved around, living in New York, Chicago, Wilkes-Barre, Buffalo, and Boston. Franz was not spoken of with great affection in our family. In 1894, when my grandfather Charlie was 12, Franz abandoned him in Buffalo and left town with his latest wife, telling the boy he was old enough to take care of himself. An 1898 photo shows a somber Charlie, 16 years old, standing among the patrons of the East Buffalo tavern in which he evidently worked.
In April 1905, Charlie married Rose Haas and moved to Buffalo's Ideal Street, where William and my father Harold were later born. The adult Charlie had the misfortune of having a creative mind in a world that demanded only punishing work of him. He traded ideas by mail with inventors in other cities and made wonderful things with his hands (among these, a three-foot-long replica of a 1912 Buffalo streetcar, still in our family). But he trudged off six days a week to the Pierce-Arrow assembly plant, and later the Iroquois Brewery, to earn his meager salary.
Joe Haas was my grandmother Rose's brother. Joe followed the American army through France in 1918 as a member of Unit 303, Graves Registration Service, Allied Expeditionary Forces. His job: pick up the young American dead, identify them, embalm them, and bury them. He was 27 years old. Then there was my dad's cousin, Ken Schaefer, who represented our family in Round 2, going into France 26 years after Joe as a member of Patton's Third Army. He spent Christmas Day 1944 in the Belgian Ardennes, thigh-deep in melting snow, doing his part to contain Hitler's Wehrmacht in "The Bulge."
I married in 1975. My wife, Maria Carmen Garcia Pascual, was born and raised in Zaragoza, Spain, a city founded 2,000 years ago by the legions of Caesar Augustus. My children, therefore, have in their veins not only the blood of Mahon, King of Thomond, and Baron von Zittswitz of Berlin, they not only share their ancestry with a president of the Third French Republic, a vagabond actor, and many selfless Irish women, but they also have roots in the blood-soaked soil of Aragon, northeast Spain.
What we know of the Spanish strand is little, but it can easily be followed back to one of the most sanguinary wars of modern times: the Spanish Civil War. My children's grandparents lived through it. Their grandfather, Juan, was forced to fight on both sides of the conflict to stay alive. The alternative was the post and blindfold. My children's Spanish forebears or their relatives suffered grievous losses. Some were machine-gunned in the jailyard in Zaragoza. One had his throat slit as he lay wounded in a Madrid hospital that had been taken over by the opposing side. My children's great-uncle José Masedo died in the war. Their grandfather's cousin Felipe was killed at the age of 18. Their grandmother's cousin Rufino was also killed in the conflict.
A Part of All Ages
This is what I know of our family. I wish I could go back in a time machine and move around this interesting space and beyond--to discover what happened earlier, to have a look at my ancestors back in some Ice Age European cave, along their ancient migration route from the Middle East to Europe, or even farther back. I wouldn't care to be a resident of any of their times, surely, but would like to go as a well-heeled tourist who can get out when he likes. I'd like to be able to flit off from the battlefield when the shells started landing, to power away from Mutton Island when I got tired of fish and filth, or to fly back to my modern home when my rude Celtic forebears became intolerable. I'm certain there would be many ancestors to whom I wouldn't introduce myself. It's true that I don't have such a time machine, but I do go back periodically in my mind. It's important to me.
Russell Baker, Pulitzer Prize-winning essayist, observed in Growing Up that life is a "braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long gone." It can't be defined, he says, as a journey merely "from diaper to shroud." What makes the past important, says Baker, is that we all come from there; for that reason alone, it's worthy of our attention.
Luigi Barzini, in The Americans, touches on the same point. He notes that, for those who see life as a "short voyage in the light between two interminable darknesses," neither past nor future really count, and "a man must perform what he has set out to do before he dies, or consider his existence wasted." Yet in times gone by, claims Barzini, this was not so. "Each man in the Old World," he says, "knew that he was merely a link in a chain between ancestors and descendants. . . . If a man didn't make it, his sons or his grandsons might."
In this age of the Nuclear Family, and even the Nuclear Individual, this seems to me a consoling thought. I find it comforting to know that I'm not a disconnected atom that just appeared here, with no link to past or future. I'm part of an ancient and continually renewed organism with centuries upon centuries of human experience. I have a small but important function in the life of that organism. So while I'm necessarily wrapped up in the things of the new millennium, I draw strength from an awareness that I'm part of all ages past, and all those to come--part of something far bigger than myself, and more enduring than today.