Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Problems of Digging Up the Family Tree

Duncan Rankin McKean
I only remember him as an old man with a shock of snow white hair.  His face showed little sign of his 86 years.  His sky blue eyes gave the notion he had stories to tell.  He spoke with that distinctive burr that some born in Scotland would have, though I rarely recall him speaking of his youth in Glasgow.   He spoke so softly you had to listen to hear what he was trying to say.  The smile (some say a grin) was a permanent fixture on his face.  He was immensely proud of his Scottish heritage often telling his grandchildren not to admit to their Irish side from their grandmother.  (Research would show Clan McKean made many trips originating in Donegal and moving to Scotland over the centuries.)  He would sit in the chair in the corner of his apartment in the housing at 323 Adams Street, rarely having much to say.  It was only after he was gone we learned the truth of my grandfather’s story. 
Duncan Rankin McKean was born in the bleaching fields of the township of Milngivie, Scotland in 1875.  The family story was that he left at 16 to work on a cattle boat to make his way to Lowell.  That was all he would admit to.  But technology changed that as I went in search of my grandfather’s roots.  Both his parents worked jobs in the woolen mills.  He was one of 6 children before his father died when Duncan was still a boy.  The young mother was left with the children and her father in law to take care of.  The family situation declined quickly with the death of the grandfather leaving the mother alone.  Soon she is pregnant and gives birth to another child with a different surname. That surname reappeared soon after when she married a much younger man whose father owned the factory where she was employed.  It is at this point that Duncan leaves Scotland.  Under what conditions no one knows, but one can only surmise.  He was working in Glasgow as a shoemaker.  He traveled alone to Rhode Island where he continues the same occupation living with a family member, maybe an uncle or cousin.  The only possession he carried with him was a photo of himself taken just before he left.
He stayed briefly with family before making his way to Lowell where he worked at the Lowell Machine Shop.  He met Jennie Sweeney and they married at the Rectory of St. Patrick Church.  The day before the nuptials, he was baptized a Catholic forsaking the Church of Scotland.  He rarely entered another Catholic church again until his own funeral, but kept his promise and saw that all his children were raised Catholic.  He kept his King James Bible and told people, “You read yours, and I’ll read mine.”
Research can sometimes have its downfalls.  My grandfather, like so many others of this period, did not have an easy life.  The more I dug the more I found he was haunted by his demons.  He never saw his mother again.  In the 1900s there were pleas for money.  Then there were pleas for tickets for passage over, then the announcement that she was dead.  That’s when his name appears in police blogs time and time again.  His life took on a series of misfortunes.  Years later his wife died too soon, and that’s when he transforms to the kindly old man I remember.
Fifty years ago I was in the 4th grade at St. Patrick’s.  It was recess time.  We were out in the freezing cold.  The bell in the church tower began the funeral toll.  I stopped and turned to see them carry my grandfather down the steps of the church to the waiting hearse.  The school bell rang for us to line up.  I stayed in the yard.  Sr. Margaret Paul came over and asked why I was crying.  I told her that was my grandfather.  She walked me back to the line.  It is the last memory I have of him.
Should I have researched his story?  Should I have stopped when I saw what happened in Glasgow?  Should I have hid his life from my own genealogical accounts?  Maybe so.  When my aunts were still living I thought it wise to share his story and his encounters with them.  I was sorely mistaken.  They did not want to hear about his previous life, or merely wished to deny it.  They smiled and told happier stories of times past.  But his story is probably not that much different from others.  I cannot imagine going through what he did or how I would react.  So I share this with you and let you judge. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing your grandfather's story. Illuminating Duncan McKean's difficult life adds to the collective understanding of the human experience, and can deepen our capacity for empathy and compassion, which is all good.