I rather like this old photograph. A portrait of a young Irish girl taken in the 1880’s. Something familiar in the expression, especially in the eyes. A touch of melancholy.
Her name was Mary Ellen Ballentine, but everyone called her “Maime.”
Census records show that her father John and mother Anne Kelly arrived on separate ships during a time the Irish called “The Great Hunger.” Anne Kelly was only two years old, so her memories of the Emerald Isle were little more than the songs and poems of her homeland:
When Erin first rose from the dark swelling flood,
God bless’d the green island and saw it was good;
The em’rald of Europe, it sparkled and shone,
In the ring of the world the most precious stone.
In her sun, in her soil, in her station thrice blest,
With her back towards Britain, her face to the West,
Erin stands proudly insular, on her steep shore,
And strikes her high harp ‘mid the ocean’s deep roar.
Perhaps Anne passed this lyrical tradition to her daughter, Maime.
The 1880 census shows that John and Anne were married in January of 1869. They settled in the little town of Whistler, Alabama. He was 34 and she was 21.
A young bride might make a man whistle on his way to the blacksmith shop in Mobile.
Maime would follow a path much like her mother. She married a man 15 years her senior, a carpenter named Anguish George (no easy delivery, that one.) Anguish gave her three children, but didn’t hang around long. Dropped dead in his yard from a heart attack before they called them heart attacks.
Maime moved across Mobile Bay to Fairhope. Most Alabamians know the place. A quaint little tourist town inhabited by writers, artists and those who have more money than God.
But I’m guessing Fairhope wasn’t quite that way in 1920.
Maime was a single-mother with three young children. Tough row to hoe in any day. She became a telephone operator with AT&T. Probably the first on the east side of Mobile Bay. She continued to raise her little family by herself. The oldest child would someday graduate from the University of Alabama, an unlikely debutante. The second daughter died in a horrible accident as a child. The third, a rather boisterous, mischievous boy, would test her patience. But he turned-out well, a baker and bread-delivery man with a love for bawdy little songs, poems, and limericks that would make a Baptist openly cringe but secretly smile.
Maime spent her days trying to make ends meet with her day job. But she liked to write in her free time. She was a member of a Fairhope ladies’ group, “The Scribbler’s Club.”
I’ve read her journals. They ramble. A poem here. An observation there. Writing from some undefinable need. Writing for the writer. Readers not necessarily the end-game.
You learn a lot about yourself when you start turning over the stones of your past.
Ancestry.com took my DNA and showed me that I’m 48% Irish, and not English as I always presumed.
The story of my great-grandmother Maime showed me why my mother feels a need to write, and I as well.
So here’s another post in a little blog about nothing, indelibly linked to some yellowed journal-pages from the past.
I hope someone out there enjoys the read.
If not, that’s okay. It’s in my DNA.
*The Emerald Isle, by William Drennan, the first known usage of that phrase to describe Ireland.