Flat fields of Ohio corn and apple trees as far as the eye can see and the spire of St. Augustine’s Catholic Church beckoning to followers for miles. It was 1917 and Frances Catherine was newly married.

1918, no children.

1919, no children.

1920, still no children. 

Resigned to childlessness, she and her husband Edmund built a beautiful new house in the country and had a living room furniture set custom-made in luxurious, deep, dark purple velvet. 

Their neatly ordered life together was punctuated one otherwise unremarkable afternoon when Frances heard the voices of two friends as they passed by in their horse and buggy.

“She would rather have a fancy house than children.” 

She was crushed. 

In a seeming miraculous turn of events, however, Frances soon discovered she was pregnant, and gave birth to a daughter, Mary Catherine, my paternal Grandma Mary. She eventually had a total of 15 children in that small house in the country. Enough to field a football team with a deep bench to boot.

I heard this story for the first time when I interviewed Grandma Mary with the StoryCorps app last June. The thing I find most interesting about it is, besides the incredible fecundity, the fact that the following two things survived the century:

  1. The beautiful purple furniture ("Oh, it's in the other room." PRISTINE CONDITION.)
  2. The shame about the beautiful purple furniture (the comment from the buggy survived four full generations word-for-word)

That furniture, in the other room and in perfect condition - even though a full century has passed, even though it furnished a home built for two that stretched for seventeen - must have represented some aspect of her psyche worth carefully preserving. 

My Grandma Mary recently passed away at 95. This was our last conversation. My sister, meanwhile, inherited the gorgeous furniture.

Everything changes, and a few things survive. Rarely do we have control over what fits in which category, but sometimes we do.

I'm still parsing through everything this story means to me, but in the meantime, velvet furniture past down through a huge and otherwise humble farming family is probably one of the larger miracles I've witnessed.

Rest in peace, Grandma.

 

 

Grandma Mary and I on interview day. If you haven't yet downloaded the StoryCorps app, check it out and interview the interesting people in your life - starting with your family. Interviews recorded on StoryCorps are preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. StoryCorps' mission is "to preserve and share humanity's stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world." Yes, please.

 
 

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