There is no greater power on Earth than story. We all come from them. Even when we die, the stories are what will go on. Without them, I would never know who my grandparents were. Sadly, they both passed away when Mama was pregnant with me. Gratefully, the past beats inside her like a second heart, making Nana and Pa Kelly never lost, as they live on through our memories.
I grew up hearing stories about how my grandfather’s blindness gave him super powers so-to-speak, as his brain rewired itself to boost his remaining senses. As a wheat farmer, Pa would step outside on the front porch, take a sniff of the air, and predict that it was going to rain. He was always right, Mama said, even if there was not a cloud in the sky to see.
Pa loved going to baseball and football games. Because he couldn’t see the game, as a hobby he would go and count the cars in the parking lot, as he listened to the action outside. He would often do that at many events, so he could picture the crowd there, he’d tell Mama. Just as he would often feel her face, so he could picture her, as she grew up. Pa never saw my Mama with his eyes, since he became blind before she was born.
Nana of course possessed her own powers as an adventurous and fearless woman, who would take her family of seven on two cross country road trips from Walla Walla, Washington to New York City – something not many people did back in the 1930s and 40s. Their trip started in pursuit to buy a car in South Bend, Indiana and let Pa, a diehard fan of Notre Dame football, kiss the field where The Fighting Irish played. They drove onto New York to see family, watched the east coast premiere of The Wizard of Oz in 1939, and crossed the Hudson River to see Frank Sinatra sing in New Jersey. And that was just on their first trip to the Big Apple.
Both Nana and Pa were fearless in their own way, which I suppose drew the Irishman and young lady from Iowa together back in 1920. After his parents died in 1902, Pa, Edward Vincent Kelly, decided to travel from Ireland to America at just 16 years old to join his brothers in New York. With $18 in his pocket, the minimum amount immigrants needed to be allowed off Ellis Island, he boarded the Germanic ship in Belfast, Ireland.
When my sister, Kimmie, and I visited Ellis Island a few years ago, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude come over me, as I strolled through the Great Hall. Knowing that Pa had once walked through this room too, made my heart race, as I heard the stories of what the immigrants went through. Upon arrival, they were ushered into this room and paraded before a series of medical officers for physical inspection. Most were allowed to pass by in a matter of seconds, but those whom the doctors deemed physically or mentally deficient were marked with chalk and taken away for additional screening.
Obviously, Pa made it through, but my heart ached for the fear he and his fellow travelers must have felt, not knowing after such a treacherous long journey, if they’d even be allowed to leave the island. Then the guilt that would no doubt follow, as they saw the many people – some of which were often their own family, not be allowed entry and instead have to go back to where they came from. Nobody would make that trip and leave their homeland if they didn’t truly ache for a new start – something that I know well in my own life journey.
I had moved to Manhattan for a new start and the irony is that I learned that day, as I sat on a bench in the Great Hall, that my divorce was finalized. I got the email a few minutes after hearing that single ladies weren’t allowed to leave Ellis Island back then without an escort. I remember smiling up and saying, “Looks like I’m going to make it through too, Pa.”
He joined his brothers in the city before eventually making his way out west to become a wheat farmer. I often thought about how scared, excited, lonely, overwhelmed, and full of hope that 16-year old boy must have felt those first few months in the big city. I had a good idea since it was exactly how I felt when I arrived.
My Nana, Mabelle Loretta Barry, was starting her own life journey in Iowa. She was the first in her family to go to Teacher College. Like Pa and me, she had itchy feet too and took her first job in North Dakota. After a year of fighting bed bugs in her room for rent and never feeling warm during the long winter, she moved out west for her next job.
That is where she met Pa, who was a young widower that had lost his wife during the great flu epidemic of 1918. Pa would come visit his baby, Louis, who a family friend was taking care of while he worked. Nana was staying in a boarding house next door, and her heart went out to him and his young son. Tragically, Louis died soon after of Tuberculosis at the tender age of two.
They eventually started dating and raised five children on a farm just outside of Walla Walla. Like me, Mama, Mary Therese, was the youngest. As Nana was dying in the hospital following a heart attack, Mama told her that she was pregnant with me. “You’re still the champ with five babies,” Mama told her to which Nana replied, “No, we’re tied, Mary Therese.” She was referring to my sister, Mary Cecile, who died at birth just 18 months before I was born.
Mama had driven down to be with Pa initially, who was already in the hospital when Nana suffered a heart attack. Their children decided to spare Pa the news that his bride had passed away. But remember, Pa had super powers. Sensing something was off, he grabbed Mama’s hand when she went to see him later that day and asked, “So tell me, Mary Therese, how many cars were at your mom’s funeral today?”
Soon after, two months before my birth, Pa passed away too.
As I began my own cross-country road trips with my friend Shell, Mama started to pass on these stories. She would tell me how she’d ride on her Daddy’s lap both ways, almost six thousand miles round trip, constantly dodging the long ash dropping from his cigarette.
She shared how Judy Garland came out at intermission of the premiere and sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” dressed in her signature blue-and-white checkered dress with ponytails, which Mama copied with their own hair for the next several years. And more stories how my bold Nana bought scalped tickets from a cop outside Yankee Stadium so they could see a game.
These are the stories of my grandparents. They are the stories of my Mama. They are my history. Although my heart aches that I never got to spend time with or hug my Nana and Pa, I feel like I know them through story.
I always felt a pull to live in New York City that I could never fully explain. It was a feeling, I’d tell people. Now I know it was a calling, a legacy – a duty.
As I started traveling and moving to new cities in mid-life to start over, Mama told me that my adventurous spirit reminded her of her mom. I’d like to think that I have a little bit of my Pa’s courage too, even though his is incomparable.
Through their stories, I’ve been able to get to know my grandparents. I can hear all about their super powers, which inspire me to persevere and take the road less traveled, like that yellow brick one.