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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A black Irishman


My dad was black Irish, undoubtedly through the Ulster ancestors on his father’s side. His mother’s ancestors were County Cork, the source of all the enviable red hair of his many cousins. Both sides left the old country in the first potato famine.

They tended to marry more Irish of their own persuasion, until his not strictly Methodist father married into his devoutly Catholic mother’s family.

I cannot imagine why George Marion Lytle married Mary Emma Hogue, almost two decades younger.  I believe she wanted to leave the chaos of a large family where she was the oldest sibling. George Marion took her back to his hometown in Pennsylvania.

Marriage did not suit Mamie; fatherhood did not suit George Marion. He deserted the family when Mamie was pregnant with the fifth child in seven years, and Mamie took them back home to Ohio, to her large family.

My dad’s childhood may have been little different than any other poor child of his generation. He was born in 1907, not a prosperous time for most, and certainly not the unskilled Mamie. Her domestic service wages bought little. My dad fed his little band of siblings from the pot of cold oatmeal his grandmother provided most mornings, and coffee soaked bread for supper. Coffee-sop, according to my aunt. He was ten years old.

Many things angered my father, probably as a child as well as thinking back as an adult.  The foremost was that his mother’s Catholic relatives and church did not care for the children. When the family did intervene, the children were sent to the Children’s Home and his sisters educated by Catholic charities. Aunt Laura was deemed secretarial material, Aunt Ruth convent material. Uncle Bill went to a state school for retarded boys. Dad was helpless against all. In fact, he and mother could not reclaim Uncle Bill from the State of Ohio until 1975.

Education was the ticket out, and dad started where many poor young men began. At the end of his sixteenth year he joined the Army. Stomach ulcers sidelined him; he was medically mustered out after six years, a non commissioned officer with a background in radio communication. He spent his mustering out pay on a year of college, where he packed in two years of physics and mathematics.

Money at an end, Dad took to the Great Lakes as a radio operator on freighter. A cable snapped in a storm, caught and broke his ankle, throwing him overboard in the process.  He was rescued, put off at the next port, made his way back to Cleveland, Ohio, where he met and married my mother and I wound up with the father I've written about from time to time.

A tall man, my dad came from the time when few young men carried extra pounds. The ulcer surgeries reduced his probably 160 pounds to 140, not much for a 6’2” frame. And so life went on, until my late teens, when dad developed a chronic cough eventually diagnosed as histoplasmosis, a deadly fungal infection contracted when he tore down the backyard chicken coop to build a patio. 

Two surgeries eventually removed all of one lung and part of the other. At the second surgery he refused to have the suspension sling that would allow his ribs to reform, again.  He likened it to rowing the Atlantic in a gale. With a set of ribs removed, his spine curved, his shoulders dropped. He left another twenty pounds behind at those surgeries.

Dad retired from Goodyear Aerospace at sixty five; he and mom vacationed and camped with children and grandchildren, but not for long. To add insult to injury, as it were, dad developed something called adult onset seizure syndrome. He called it falling asleep in his chair and waking up in the hospital. He hated it. His body was frail and his spirit gave up, too.  He did liken the process of dying, that subzero winter of 1978, to riding a train to Siberia, naked.

We used to remark when a parent became twice as old as a child. When mom was fifty I was twenty five. It came to me that dad and I surely had such an anniversary. Then I realized he died in a February, at seventy, and I wasn't thirty five until March.

This isn't a sad story. The parts my dad didn't like happened in a childhood he couldn't control.  He fulfilled his adult plan; he married and had a family. He remodeled our house, built a garage, took us on vacation, had a workshop for puttering about, enjoyed his grandchildren. He absorbed illness, until the end.  

He didn't talk about his childhood. He never admitted being Irish; I had to dig through the archives to learn it. That is too bad; he would have enjoyed knowing he was a black Irishman.

Dad and  brother Bill, 1910

On the patio that once housed a chicken coop, about 1956

First five grandchildren, early seventies






35 comments:

  1. Wow...talk about tough! Kids today and my generation as well have no idea of the struggle and strength to survive that previous generations endured.

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  2. I love to hear peoples stories of the past, we live in a good time compared to what went before, they were tough times.
    Merle................

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  3. Tough times which bred tough and often truimphant people. Which of us now, is confident that they would survive all that was thrown at your father? Let alone survive, and build a future for others.

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  4. Despite it all, he did live a good life and accomplished much. Had he lived in this generation, he probably would have carried a grudge around or felt a certain sense of entitlement owed him for his rough childhood, yet he went out and figured what he needed to do to succeed how he might want to in his life and then made some of it happen. It is sad though that he was plaqued with poor health for the majority of his life, I am sure part of it could have been due to his rough childhood and perhaps not getting the nutrition needed.

    betty

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  5. It is sobering to hear about previous generations suffering from illnesses, some of which would not be a problem today either because they're curable or because we know more about how they are caused ... we are indeed lucky today in that way.

    Your dad was a brave boy and a productive man. Joanne, are you in that second from last photo? (eating at the picnic table)

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    1. Joanne is the last one on the left. I am the little face between her and Mom. Dad is in front on the right and Uncle Bill, Melvin and Walt in a line behind him.

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  6. Sad beginnings, but your dad retained his sense of humour and gentleness, his dignity.

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  7. Hari Om
    this is the stock from which we arose. No doubt we are much better off these days physically and materially, but I do wonder if each generation looses something when it comes to fortitude and self-realisation... I do believe you have a lot of your father in you Joanne - determination plus!! YAM xx

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  8. A very moving portrait of your father. I enjoyed this very much.

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  9. Once more, there goes the mascara.....for some reason, I am just drawn to his face. He has such a haunted, kind face.

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  10. Like so many from that era he fought against great adversity and triumphed. A daddy to be proud of.

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  11. Our parents were a tough old bunch weren't they? Nothing seemed to bring them down,whereas many today fall at the first hurdle.
    Jane x

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  12. Hi Jo, I read Sunday's post and this one. He made a lasting impact on you. He was of that generation, perhaps the greatest generation our country has ever known. You tell the story well, olive

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  13. That generation went through so much with nary a "poor me" heard. My Irish family ( father's side was Black Irish also) had a similar past, but they worked hard, raised their families and laughed hard.

    I can see your resemblance to your dad, Joanne. I am sure he would be proud of the strong, loving woman you are.

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  14. Love hearing family stories, Joanne. I wish I knew more about mine. My dad was also born in 1907 back in London. The story is that my Irish grandfather married my English grandmother and moved them all (wife and then 3 kids) to the US when Dad was 11. I never knew my grandparents, but my grandfather apparently was one of those happy go lucky Irishmen who tried almost everything in his lifetime. Some of the stories are quite wild, but of course I have no way to verify them. He seemed like a character I would have liked to have known.

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  15. life is so easy now for so many of us. we've dug into our ancestry too. those poor women before birth control. 8, 9, 10, 12 babies. one every year or every other year. no wonder everyone was so poor.

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  16. What an interesting story. Thank you for sharing it with us.

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  17. Joanne, thank you so much for sharing the story of your amazing father. It seems much of your strength of character and determination come from him...

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  18. Wow, your story was riveting. I can't believe how he suffered.

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  19. that was a tough life.
    I looked up histoplasmosis. Interesting it is also called, "Ohio valley disease."

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  20. What a tough beginning....nothing to celebrate about that.....but what a life he made for himself and his family.

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  21. Those are great family pictures. Your dad had a unique look.

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  22. You've got some great family photos!

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  23. What a man! I agree with the others, I reckon you get some of your inner strength and resilience from him. And now I must head off to find a tissue.

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  24. Fascinating story. Family histories are the best.

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  25. Life was surely hard for children in the past. It's interesting that you knew about your Uncle Bill in the institution. I found out only ten years ago from an older cousin that my mom had an institutionalized uncle they called Crazy Joe. While Mom was quite happy to tell me that my father had an aunt who was sent to an insane asylum, she neglected to mention her Uncle Joe. There was a great deal of shame over that years ago.

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  26. Nice family pictures. Thanks for sharing. It is nice that you are writing them.

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  27. If only we could reach back into history and rescue those abandoned by family. But then, our life stories would be on a totally different track.

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  28. When I read your post yesterday, Joanne, I couldn't put my thoughts into words. Your Dad was such an inspiring, courageous life. It's not what life deals you but how you deal with it. Anyone would be so proud to have a father like your Dad.

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  29. That's quite a sad story.Have you ever read Angela's Ashes? What does black Irish mean?

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. I've read most of McCort's work. I find it difficult to forgive people who abandon children. I think I should, and then I see them and find I must work at forgiving them all over again.
      Black Irish have black hair and a little more swarthy skin tone than fair skinned, red headed stock. It's tentatively traced to some Iberian influx, centuries ago. Not that Ireland hasn't been invaded by a lot more than that.

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  30. I'm glad your dad made the most of his life and got the things he wanted. An inspiring story. He sounds like an inspiring man. What is a "black" Irishman though? Maybe I missed the post when you explained this.

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  31. Joanne -- Couldn't get my comment to post so here it is again: Recording these moments of your father must be a very nurturing experience for you. I have been doing something similar myself -- recording different family stories for future generations. The story of your dad was very touching -- barbara

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  32. What an incredible man your father was! He had to struggle through so much but he made the most of what he had. So there's black Irish and Scots Irish. How many different kinds of Irish are there, I wonder.

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