Friday, March 11, 2005

stories worth a thousand words #2



Written: December 21, 2004

From: JL Pagano
To: Maura Lee
Date: December 8, 2004 2pm
Subject: Brain Picking


I was wondering if you could help me with an assignment I'm working on. Inspired by Grandpa's memoirs, I have decided to do something similar for my kids. I‘d like you to contribute in the form of a chapter entitled “Before I Came Along”. The only restrictions would be that the piece covers the family history from 1909-1969, and that it contains exactly 800 words. I know that is pretty brief, but conciseness is one of the themes of the project as a whole. Should you agree, whatever you put forward will go in to the completed work verbatim. My aim is to have the whole thing completed by New Year’s Day, so any time before that would be ideal.


From: Maura Lee
To: JL Pagano
Date: December 8, 2004 9pm
Subject: RE: Brain Picking

Let me think it over, ok? I'm working straight through the holidays and another deadline does not sound very appealing, but I may be able to do it.
Maura Lee
Executive Assistant to ***** *. *****, Ph.D.
****** *********

Should this text make the final draft of my book, it will indicate that my mother found herself too busy to comply with my request, from which you can draw your own conclusions. I will attempt to account for this period with what little information I have.

The Lee family as we know it today can trace its origins to Boston, Massachusetts, USA, on July 13, 1909. On that day my grandmother Anna Mary Kilroy was born. Her father was in the US Coast Guard and travelled all over the country. At the age of about 4 she was shipped over here to Ireland with her mother and her younger sister Sarah Elizabeth, and they were to stay with her own grandmother in Carlingford right up to the end of the First World War in 1919. Even today she loves telling the story of how she stood up to the Black And Tan soldiers who would come into her gran’s tea-room using their guns for currency. The nine-year-old would valiantly proclaim to the dubious patrons; “You can’t do anything to me, I’m an American!” After the war, they returned to America and she continued to move around the country while growing up.

Joseph Francis Lee was born on August 21, 1913 in Nashua, New Hampshire. The eldest of eight children, his family lived at *** ******* St in Nashua, where the youngest sister N****still lives today. His father worked for the post office while his mother, the only great-grandparent I was to meet, was of French-Canadian origin and looked after both the children and the home.

The impression I have of him as a young man was something of a “wide-boy” with a keen eye for the ladies, a reputation he was to keep right the way through his life. He did various low-paid jobs before finally settling on being a teacher at Nashua High School, a job that was to become his chosen career.

I understand they were introduced by their respective families through mutual acquaintances; him being an unstable casanova and her being a 26-year old spinster, something virtually unheard of in American Catholic families in those days. The word is that they were married less than three months after meeting, in something of a shotgun wedding without the labour pains. It is easy to be judgemental here in the twenty-first century about the perils of getting hitched so soon to someone you don’t know too well, but back then it was a whole different ball game.

And so the couple lived in Nashua from their wedding in 1936 up to the beginning of World War II, when their lives were to drastically change. He enlisted to military service, and he was sent all over the country for several months to receive his training before being shipped off to Europe for the war, where he worked in intelligence in Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia.

My grandfather only ever once spoke of his war experience, the night he and his wife met my prospective in-laws shortly before my wedding in 1992. With a few whiskeys on him, he proceeded to relate, through me as translator for his whispery larynx-less voice, a dramatic account of how he and a colleague had to interrogate a prisoner with the “good cop bad cop” routine (he was good) only to find the captive had hung himself in his cell the following morning aware of his fate should he fall back in the custody of the Nazis.

One account he was sure not to share with us all, was one of how he had an affair with a German frauline while over there, and he returned to the USA in 1945, informing his wife that he wanted a divorce. Devout in her faith and no doubt uncertain of what her future would hold, she refused to give it to him. Although her decision was clearly the pivotal one in my coming into being, I can’t help but feeling sorry for the two of them being forced by their religion to stay together, when this incident had to inflict deep psychological wounds on their relationship.

And what did they do to make things right? They had three kids! They adopted Joe Jr and Chris, and had Maura naturally. They lived in Nashua until around 1957, when Joe Sr declared that they were going to up sticks and move clean across the country to California. What the man was running away from, or indeed thought he was going to, remains a mystery.
And so The Lee family finally settled in a house in Pittsburg, California, where I was to be “illegitimately” born on March 21st, 1969. Thanks to lack of compliance from those still around today, that is pretty much all the detail I have for this period. Eventually I hope to learn much more.
© JL Pagano 2004
Next, #3 : 1000 Words on...My Life Before Ireland


Anna said...

But, but's not Sunday!

Just so you know, I can't get the link on the egg post to work.

JL Pagano said...

Yeah, I'm all impatient...there's 50 chapters in all, and posting every Sunday would mean I wouldn't be done till Feb 2006!!! I decided to up the tempo to once every 5 days :-)

Mike Todd said...

Guess I won't have to wait as long to see how things turn Irish, then! Nice work -- and an interesting story.