Thursday, March 04, 2010

More than a Century

My great grandmother died yesterday.

She was just over 102 years old. Agnes Doherty 2/20/1908 - 3/3/2010

This is one of those times, when one is relieved by a death, rather than saddened. My great grandmother has been in major decline for some time, and had to be put into full time care two years ago.

Of course, what's really amazing, is that it was only two years ago; and more incredible still, she still had all her faculties (though not for so many hours a day) up until a few months ago.

In her lifetime, she saw two great hot wars, innumerable small ones, and one giant cold one...

She was born in Ireland, and came to America in 1926. When she was Born, Ireland was not it's own country. When she left, it was. In between she lived through a bloody civil war.

When she was born, women could not vote in the US, and blacks generally weren't allowed in hotels and restaurants with whites... even in the north.

When she was born, there were barely any cars, or airplanes on the roads or in the sky... No Electricity through much of the country. Only a few private telephones.

By the time she was a teenager, the world had already been through "the war to end all wars" that, of course wasn't.

By the time she was 21, the world was in depression. By 30, she'd had half her 9 children (her first was at 22), and another world war was visible on the horizon. By 39 she'd had all her 9 (she herself was 1 of 10), the war was over, and America was getting ready to boom.

My great grandmother was already 45, and a grandmother, before Elvis appeared on the scene. 55 before the Beatles.

She was 19 when Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic. 39 when Yeager broke the sound barrier. 44 when the first jet airliner flew. 53 when man first rocketed into space. 61 when we walked on the moon.

I knew my great grandmother better than most men of my generation and background would know theirs; which is to say, not very well at all. She was old when I was born, and older still by the time I really became aware of what being "very old" meant.

But I've got a big Irish family, and she was always visiting with, or living with, one of my great aunts or second cousins etc... So I saw her throughout my childhood.

I don't think I've seen her at all since my Grandfather died... I'm pretty sure the last time I saw her, I was somewhere between 13 and 17 (my grandfather died when I was 19).

Frankly, she was a mean, hard woman. She outlived 2 of her children, and was estranged to some degree or another, from most of the rest, for most of the last twenty years... Perhaps she was too mean to die. I know that for my entire life, and my mothers entire life, she was always considered a mean and hard woman, it wasn't old age that made her that way (as sometimes happens). It was a hard, hard life.

She was born on a farm, in what was at the time a third world country, in the dark, in crushing poverty; and escaped to the United States just to end up in the middle of the greatest economic and social turmoil the U.S. had seen since the civil war.

All of this, made her hard.

I say this not to speak ill of the dead, but to help understand this womans life. Frankly, she shaped my grandmother, who is also a VERY hard woman. I still love her; and my grandmother still loved her mother...

I cannot imagine what the sweep of my great grandmothers life experience was like. What the mass of that experience and knowledge meant, or how it felt.

But, as I say, this isn't a time for grief. Agnes Doherty had a rich, full, and long life; and we should celebrate it.