There is a theory that most people will be completely forgotten within three generations. After that time nobody still living will have heard the sound of their voices or felt the impact of their personalities. They may leave behind photographs or documents attesting to their presence on this earth but essentially they are defined not by memories but by images. Of course the modern era is rectifying this with digital footprints that might include recordings and moving pictures. Such used to be the purview of only the wealthy but now even common folk have access to technology. This is not the case for most of those who came before us and so they are slowly but surely being forgotten.
I have a great grandmother who is a mystery. I think that her name was Marion Rourke but of that I am not certain. She was the mother of my grandfather, William Mack Little. He told us that she died three days after he was born. There is no record of any of this. In spite of my relentless searches, Marion remains a cipher, as though she never even existed.
Of course there has to have been such a person because William was not just found in a cabbage patch. He had a father named James Mack who took him to live with a woman that he called his grandmother known as Sarah Reynolds. Sadly I have been unable to find any records for these individuals. They walked on this earth as though they were ghosts, phantoms of my grandfather’s imagination.
William never knew Marion but he thought enough of her to name his first born daughter after her. It was his touching way of honoring her. I suspect that he always wondered who Marion was and what she was like, just as I do. It saddens me to think that she died at what should have been one of the happiest moments of her life. She had a good strong son who would ironically live to be one hundred eight years old. He was a very kind and intelligent man who treated women with the highest regard. He no doubt would have been a dutiful son to the woman who brought him into the world.
Marion’s last name indicates a connection of some kind with Ireland. My grandfather always claimed to be half Scottish and half Irish and I have verified such roots with a DNA test that I once took. I wonder if she was born in the Emerald Isle or if she was a descendent of someone who originally came from there. She had a beautiful name and was someone’s daughter, but who might that have been? She was obviously quite poor according to what little my grandfather knew of her. He was her first child and I wonder what happened that made her so ill that she died.
When I had my first daughter my labor was long and hard. There were complications and my doctor later told me that in the old days I might have lost the baby or even died myself. I wonder if I somehow inherited the same genetic disposition for difficult birthing that Marion had. Do I have an idea of what she might have endured? Was she alone and frightened as things went awry? Did she realize that she would not live long enough to see her son grow into a man? Such thoughts haunt me as I attempt to remember her without any facts to steer me in the right direction.
I try not to forget Marion. Someone has to think of her. Each St. Patrick’s Day I celebrate the Irish in me and attempt to imagine my great grandmother. I cook corned beef and cabbage and celebrate my own life that would not exist were it not for the sacrifice of her own. I so want to know her and probably never really will.
My grandfather is not quite sure where he was born nor where he spent his childhood. It was somewhere in Virginia where he was able to see hills in the distance. By the age of thirteen he was orphaned again when his grandmother died and he became a ward of the state. He chose John Little as his guardian because he was an honorable man, a graduate of West Point. Grandpa took “Little” as his last name in honor of the individual who helped him to complete his journey into adulthood. Sadly John Little died of typhus when he was in his early thirties leaving my grandfather all alone again. Grandpa had to fight hard to find reasons to to stay alive, and somehow he always did. He had an optimism that was inspiring. I wonder if he inherited that trait from Marion? Would she have been proud to see him overcoming one challenge after another?
I feel a kinship with Marion both as a woman and as her great granddaughter. I know that she lives somewhere in me. I would love to know where she was born, what she did as a child, how she met James and where she was finally buried. It has been a kind of holy grail for me to find out who she really was and I am not yet ready to give up even though I have spent years searching for someone who seems not to have even existed. She deserves to be known and loved and treasured.
On St. Patrick’s Day I will once again prepare my traditional meal and think of her. It is possible that I will be the last person to do so. She will one day become forgotten just as the countless individuals who came before her. I am determined to tell her story even if I have to fill in the blanks to describe the details. I know from the scant information regarding her untimely death that she had been loved enough by James to bring forth a child and that hers was a difficult existence devoid of the medical help that might have insured her survival. I know that her son was a strong, bright and healthy man who would have been a joy to her. I know enough about genetics to realize that she must have been an intelligent woman. Her DNA has helped to produce some quite outstanding descendants.
Marion is a name said to have derived from the Hebrew “Miryam” which means “sea of sorrow.” I hope that this is not an accurate description of hurt and pain that my great grandmother may have endured. I would like to believe that she found peace and that somehow she knows how well things turned out for her son and his son and finally for me.