In the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday, I’d like to express my gratitude for a woman I have never met, but, without whom, I would not exist in my current molecular configuration. Whether one is a boulder, a plastic Lego, or a human depends entirely on how those wily little atoms and molecules band together like cosmic play dough. Without my great great grandmother, Bridget Hanley Fogarty, in the long line of my ancestors, my molecules could have taken who knows what form. But, I sing Bridget’s praises for more than just her genetic contribution to my life.
There is precious little known about Bridget – some dates, a listing in a census, a land claim and an obituary. There are no anecdotes, no personal recollections, no letters or journals. As far as I know, she was photographed only once. Here she is.
And here is what I know. Bridget was born in 1851 on Alderney in the Channel Islands. It is believed that her father, John Hanley, hailed from County Cork, Ireland and her mother, Ann Savige, from County Down, Ireland. It is also likely that they were on Alderney to work on the breakwater under construction at the time and to avoid the famine back home. Bridget and her family immigrated to America around 1856 or 1857 and moved west to Minnesota around 1858 or 1859. She married in 1865. She was 14. That’s my great great grandfather, Michael Fogarty, next to her. I think the beard is one of those retouching jobs gone bad. He was 26 when they married, newly returned from the Civil War. They homesteaded 200 acres, 80 of which were in Bridget’s name. Michael and Bridget had nine children together and she died shortly after childbirth with her last. She was 32 years old.
That’s it. One little paragraph covers her documented life. I didn’t know Bridget, but I kept thinking there had to be more to her story. There had to be a full internal life there in between those scant details. How could those details translate into a life? I spent a long time thinking about this, then imagining…and then inventing. My fascination with Bridget extended to the generations of women between Bridget and me. My writing-self woke up again. I began to write, and it was Bridget’s story that emerged.
So, Bridget, here is an accounting of my gratitude:
- You created the people, who created the people, who created the people, who created me.
- You reminded me to go to the family as a source, bringing me back to my grandfather’s brother Len, the youngest of 12, in whose presence I was reminded of my beloved grandfather and whose company was a gift.
- You inspired me to bring piles of books home from the library and relearn my history, in the process fleshing out my knowledge of the Irish migration, the rigors of homesteading and the unaffected realities of childbirth and death.
- You opened up an interest in the rest of my family history – the Irish, the French, the farmers and lumber jacks, the Swedes and the Syrians, the German and the true stories too wild to imagine.
- You brought me back home to writing, returning me to my gift.
Dear, dear, dear Grandma Bridget, for you and these gifts you’ve given to me, thanks from the depths of my heart.