The last words I heard Nana say were the only ones I remember.
“I’m laughing and I’m crying. I’m laughing and I’m crying.”
I could see her waving and smiling, though the sun obscured her expression through the shadowed screen door of my grandparents’s house. Its three stories seemed to loom over Washington Street, with hardly a sidewalk separating its front steps from the traffic. It was slate blue, the same shade as my parents’s place hundreds of miles away. That’s still my favorite color.
Nana died a few Novembers later, at 61, months after my beloved aunt’s wedding, her youngest child. It was the same year the Beatles had given their final live show, at Candlestick Park. By coincidence, she passed on the fifty-seventh anniversary of her grandfather’s death, peritonitis contracted from an ill-advised gall-bladder operation.
Nana left the earth on a Saturday afternoon after walking back from the market. My father, her eldest son, had taken our Cub Scout troop to a college football game, and my mother gave him the news on our return. He sat in his rocking chair for awhile without moving or speaking. It was the only time I can remember him in a state that excluded me, one in which he did not appear to be conscious of my presence.
Fifty years ago, there were no ATMs, online stores of cash, credit cards, or EZ-checks. Dad had to leave right away by rail, a trip that would take about eighteen hours. Boston was over 800 miles away. Amtrak was a cash-only operation, and there was none in the house. So as to exacerbate the awfulness of his afternoon, Dad was forced to go door to door to our several neighbors and ask to borrow a few dollars from each of them for the train ticket. On Monday, my mother would be able to pay them all back because the bank would be open. And she did.
Nana’s death was fairly sudden and completely unexpected, a heart attack. This is the only unchanging account of the event I know. All other details have been contradictory, since my mother, cousins, aunts, and uncles have said different things. Nana had walked back from the market with heavy bags of groceries. Or she had been forced to climb the steep stairs at Forest Hills Station. Or there had been no onerous hike with packages, because no one would have allowed her to do that. She had complained earlier about not feeling well. Or she had seemed perfectly fine all day. On her return from the grocery, she showed no signs of stress. Or when she got back from the store, she was pale and shaky. One of my uncles who lived with my grandparents thought Nana should go to the hospital. Or my grandfather did not appear concerned because she looked fine to him. She died at home. She died in an ambulance. She died at the hospital. The sacrament of extreme unction had been performed. Or it had not.
Nana was devotedly Roman Catholic, a daily attendee at Mass at her local church. However, few people knew that she had descended from an old Yankee Protestant family in Newburyport, on Cape Ann.
Her father’s family, the Posts, had been in America since at least the early nineteenth century, and the various branches, such as the Ellsworths and the Noyses, had emigrated to Massachusetts in the 1630s. My great-grandfather, Samuel Dexter Post Jr. (1861-1926), was the second son and fourth child of Samuel Dexter Post Sr. (1834-1909), a shoemaker, and Harriet Noyes Ellsworth Post (1834-1910), who were married by a Congregational clergyman in 1854. There were nine children. Harriet’s first cousin, Captain Thomas Fouldes Ellsworth (1840-1911), was a Civil War hero. Samuel Jr. appears in two censuses with his family in Newburyport, in 1870 and 1880, in the second one listed as a farm laborer and a seaman along with his older brother John William. By 1885, he had moved to Boston and was working as a waiter in a restaurant. On 11 October of that year he married an Irish immigrant named Catherine Donoghue, sometimes spelled Donohue. She was Catholic, and he converted, presumably for her sake. By 1891, Samuel Jr. was employed as a captain mariner. Ten years later, he listed his profession as a meat-cutter, or butcher in the Census of 1900 (7 June). He and Catherine had six children by then: May Ella, Harriet E, Fannie (Frances) N., Albert B., Ellsworth E., and Cathelene [sic] E. They listed their residence as 33 Suffolk St., Chelsea, still its own town rather than part of Boston, separated from Charlestown and East Boston by the rivers Mystic and Chelsea.
My mother, Nana’s daughter-in-law, along with my Aunt Virginia, her eldest child, said the same thing about her. She didn’t like to talk about the past. Apparently there was no discussion about her father or his family or her relation to it. When there were interactions with relatives, it was always the in-laws, my grandfather’s family, the Stapletons. Several years after Nana’s death, Aunt Virginia heard something about her mother or her family and investigated it, but didn’t want to discuss it, she said, because she wasn’t sure she was right or didn’t know what it meant. The other thing that she and my mother had said was about Catherine. She had “flown the coop,” but it wasn’t clear why or how.
Thirty years ago, the prospect of finding anything out was, to put it mildly, dim. By the time I had been able to conduct any research, Aunt Virginia, who knew all, and my father had died (1990). There wasn’t an ancestry.com because there wasn’t an internet yet with easily accessible files that computer algorithms could reconcile and robotically send in an email as a notification because there was, of course, no email, either. There were the LDS records on microfilm and microfiche, but they were not searchable because no one knew what that was yet. I didn’t even know where Nana had been born. I had guessed Newburyport and contacted the town clerk by mail, paying my $25. He did not seem sorry to inform me when I called that he had discovered no information and rewarded himself for his tiny effort by cashing my check and pocketing my money.
Twenty-five years later, all those aforementioned unimaginable modern contraptions and contrivances were in existence. Websites gave me access to census information, and selected records gradually arose from the chaos of virtual archives that unaccountably flew through the air from satellites to cell phones, wireless tablets, and laptops via invisible applications. At first, the data came fast and was hard for me to process. The Census of 1900, above, made no mention of Nana because she wouldn’t have been born yet. However, the Census of 1910 (16 April) suggested that a major change in the Post family structure had occurred.
In 1910, my great-grandfather Samuel Jr. listed his profession as a deckhand on the ferry, perhaps the Newburyport-Boston line that he later skippered. Five of his six children with Catherine from 1900, ranging in age from 21 to 12, lived in the house, with the eldest, May Ella, presumably having married a Mr. McCluskey by this time. There were Harriet, Frances (Fannie), Albert, Ellsworth, and Kathleen (misspelled phonetically as Cathelene in 1900). But Catherine was no longer the spouse, presumably having flown the coop by then.
Instead, a Mary E. is the wife, aged 31, with “M1” noted as her marital status and “M2” for Samuel, 48. It was her first marriage and her husband’s second. He and five of his children with Catherine have each aged precisely ten years. Now there were two more little girls who seem to have been born to Mary E.: Alice Elizabeth, 8 as of 19 February (b. 1902), and Edna Gertrude, Nana, 4, who would turn 5 in another month, on 12 May, the feast day of St. Pancras (b. 1905), the second of the “ice saints,” whose name in Greek means “the one who holds everything.” What happened, and when did the seismic family shift occur? Was it when Alice had to have been conceived, in May, 1901? Or did things change later, or even earlier? If Mary E. was thirty-one in 1910, then she had to have been born around 1879, which would have made her twenty-three when Alice was born. Samuel would have been thirty-nine. So it would have been only eight months after the Census of 1900 that they had united to create Alice.
These figures added up, so to speak, though the circumstances of Catherine’s departure, Mary’s promotion to spouse, and the births of Alice and Nana remained mysterious to me. Then I came across yet another piece of evidence that to some extent, confused rather than clarified things, the Census of 1920. Again, everything seems to have been in order regarding names and ages with not only the two youngest daughters, but with three of the six children from Catherine: Ellsworth, Harriet, and May Ella, now a widow. Albert was out of the house by that time, as were Fannie and Kathleen. Maybe they had all gotten married. By this time, the Posts resided at 25 Beacon Place in Chelsea, the house that my grandparents lived in by 1930 with their four small children, Virginia Marie, Leo Jr., Richard Dexter, and James.
But something about this listing of my relatives from 1920 struck me as odd. Everyone who had been listed in the Census of 1910 had aged approximately ten years, give or take a few months, to account for birthdays that occurred before or after this census had been taken. Well, not everyone. Although a decade had passed since 1910, when my great-grandmother Mary E. Post had given her age as 31, in 1920 she claimed to be 35, which would put her birth year as 1885. This meant that she had only aged four years since 1910. So, which age was correct? Was Mary E. born in 1879 or 1885?
Then something else turned up that initially made even less sense to me. Again, in the Census of 1920, Mary E. had been listed as spouse. So when had she married my great-grandfather? Two records manifested themselves and were consistent. The Boston City Register listed Samuel Dexter Post Jr. as having taken a wife in 1905.
And there was a handwritten record, as well, though it is difficult to read on this medium. I’ve marked the marriage in green.
Here the record is enlarged as much as this platform will allow. I’ve cut it into halves so that its left-handed script should be somewhat easier to read.
My great-grandparents were married on 1 June 1905, by Father Thomas E. Power, a Chelsea priest, who recorded the event on 20 June. My second great-grandparents, Samuel Sr. and Harriet Noyes Ellsworth, were accounted for, as were Mary’s: John and Elizabeth Tracey Davidson. Samuel has aged five years from 1900, as people usually do over half a decade. He was 43. But this time, my great-grandmother gave her age as 30. So, here is the tally. Mrs. Mary E. Davidson Post said that she was 30 in 1905, 31 in 1910, and 35 in 1920. Clearly, something does not add up.
Why this chicanery? One thing was obvious. There were the embarrassing circumstances of the births of Mary E.’s daughters. Alice and Edna were born out of wedlock. At their parents’s marriage, Alice would have been 3 years old, Nana about 3 weeks. These days, parents are frequently unmarried when their children are born, and some of them stay that way. Some of Edna’s great- and second great-grandchildren, in fact, fall under this description. And no one bats an eye. Nor should one be batted, frankly. In the USA and Europe, “illegitimate” and “bastard” are almost never used now in their original senses, thankfully, because of the advances against patriarchal structures by second- and third-wave feminism. As we now understand, the terms in the previous sentence were created by men who were trained to think of women and children as primarily theirs, almost like property. In 1905, this would have been standard thinking. It was, I must say, the norm in 1965. There were still homes for unwed mothers then. And in 1985, such residences were scarce but the scorn remained. Now, “Bastard” is something you say about someone who cuts you off in traffic or cheats you on eBay. And no baby could be described credibly as “illegitimate.” We know that this adjective is itself inhumane in its implications. It was used to oppress women and children, to justify slavery and indentured servitude, to fuel the obscenity of Nazism.
But Nana and Alice did not have the advantage that their descendants do, who live in a more enlightened world. Technically, before 1 June 1905–and for the rest of their lives–they were considered bastards. They were, after all, illegitimate. Their culture conditioned them to be ashamed of themselves for something they obviously could not help. And one can imagine how their mother felt.
I can’t believe that these circumstances were freely discussed at 33 Suffolk St. in Chelsea, at any time. Clearly, my great-grandmother adored her youngest daughter, given the formal portrait that she had made of her at age 14 or 15. I can only hope that Nana and Alice were treated decently by their step-siblings, and that their father possessed at least some of the bonhomie, courtliness, and sweetness of his grandsons if they needed his comfort about the matter. One of them was my father, who could charm virtually anyone at any time.
There remains the issue of my great-grandmother’s wildly fluctuating ages on the census and the marriage record. It is possible that none of the numbers is correct. If she were 30 in 1905, 31 in 1910, and 35 in 1920, her birth years would have been 1875, 1879, and 1885. These disparate figures have one thing in common that I can see. To some extent, they (somewhat) respectably complement my great-grandfather’s reported ages, all of which square with his recorded birth year, 1861: 43, 48, and 58. Why would Mary have obfuscated her age and birth date for the benefit of the census-taker, who was creating a public record?
To my mind, there is only one reason to be dishonest about such a matter. There was something to hide. Perhaps at her marriage in 1905, Mary E. gave her age as 30, and as 31 in 1910 because she really was born in 1885. So the reported age of 35 in that year was absolutely truthful, and had been the correct figure all along.
Perhaps an important clue lies in the date of Alice’s birth: 19 February 1902. If her mother, my great-grandmother, had been born in 1885, this means that at most, she would have been 17 at that time, maybe even 16. Samuel would have been 40, 41 on 5 September. This means that my aunt had to have been conceived in approximately May 1901. For the sake of historical perspective, this was the spring before the assassination of President McKinley and only a few months after the formation of the American League, which included the Boston Pilgrims, later known as the Red Sox. Samuel would have been 39 going on 40. My great-grandmother would have been 16. Or even 15. At this time, then, my great-grandfather was the father of six other children and married to Catherine Donoghue.
I have withheld one detail. I had known that Mary had begun as a housekeeper-nanny in the Post household at 33 Suffolk Place. Her parents, the Davidsons, were Irish immigrants, presumably Catholic. Perhaps Catherine had been acquainted with the family: the same Chelsea church or parish. Mary’s profession as a live-in babysitter is still a viable one. Mrs. Post needed help. There was enough money and space in the house to provide room and board for a teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood. From a good family. Maybe from church. What could go wrong?
These days, in the early twenty-first century, there is nothing respectable or decent or excusable, nothing at all, about a man of 40 who takes up with a girl of 15, 16, or 17. Films such as Gigi, Pretty Baby, or Blame It on Rio, released in 1958, 1978, and 1984, respectively, could not be made now. Believe it or not, though there were teen mothers in the early twentieth century, wedded or otherwise, the usual age for marriage was somewhat higher. As far back as the sixteenth century in Europe, the median for both sexes was 25, though there was the notable exception of young William Shakespeare, 17, who stood before the priest at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford with Anne Hathaway, 26, heavily pregnant with twins. Putting that observation aside, the consequences for my great-grandfather would not have been as fatal as they would be now, but the behavior would not have been considered appropriate no matter how old Mary actually was.
Surely this intimate knowledge would have created another level of shame for Nana and Alice, not to mention Mary E. It would explain what my Aunt Virginia discovered and kept under her hat, and why Nana didn’t like to talk about the past. It might also account for Catherine’s departure from the household, though not why she seems to have gone without any of her children. There is no record of a divorce because, of course, the Church frowned upon this heathenish Reformation innovation. There were annulments, but these were not easy to procure. When was Mary’s pregnancy discovered? How was it handled? What did the Davidsons or the Donoghues have to say about the matter? What did Samuel do or how did he account for himself? How did his Protestant Yankee family back in Newburyport, including his parents, take the news? How could he have lived with himself?
Roman Catholic standards for wifelihood decreed that sex was for procreative purposes only, which in the strictest sense would have ruled out even rhythm as birth control. Yet men were understood to have their needs that required gratification. Perhaps Catherine had had enough of fulfilling these after her sixth child. Perhaps Samuel did not wish to forego sex for the rest of his life. Husbands sometimes had other relationships in such circumstances, which wives silently tolerated as a compromise. There were unwanted pregnancies in as well as out of wedlock. This is one reason why virtually every urban neighborhood in America, including Boston, had its abortionist, usually a middle-aged woman who made her living this way.
Another document suggests what might have happened: Catherine’s death certificate, dated 20 April 1904. It mentions her Irish parents, Timothy and Mary O’Brien Donoghue. It gives her burial place as “Cavalry” in “Roxbury,” which was sometimes called Old Cavalry, now known as Mount Cavalry Cemetery in West Roxbury, Mass. as opposed to Roxbury itself, an inner-city neighborhood in Boston proper. It also mentions her cause of death: tuberculosis, or as it was sometimes still known, consumption. It was a terrible scourge from the ancient world into the twentieth century. It has remained so even after the discoveries of streptomycin in 1944 and isoniazid in 1952 as non-toxic, antimicrobial cures, or means of arresting the disease. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the afflicted sometimes went to sanatoriums. For the poor, these were prisonlike. For the middle and upper classes, they were humane, with good food, exercise, and medical attention. But those with TB usually died anyway, regardless of social class. It has always been a contagious disease, but not from casual contact, only from breathing in the bacteria expelled from the sufferer by coughing or spitting.
I mention these details because of another discovery. Frances, “Fannie” Post, the middle daughter, died of the same disease, 16 October 1910. She was 20. Likewise, a year later, Kathleen E, the baby of the family, succumbed to TB, 28 July 1911. She was 13. Both had been ill for two years, and are buried in New Cavalry Cemetery, in Mattapan, away from their mother, whose early passing at least spared her from watching her children die. Did they contract TB from Catherine? Many people harbor the bacterium, but most of us have immune systems that are strong enough to neutralize or destroy it. This is why those with weakened immunity from HIV-AIDS are sometimes susceptible. The health records of the mother and her daughters list their address as 33 Suffolk St., with Samuel as the reporter of the deaths. Hence their absence from the Census of 1920. One comforting circumstance was that the attending physician for Fannie and Katherine was George B. Fenwick, M.D. an expert in the understanding and treatment of tuberculosis, whose location was Chelsea. By 1922, he was the leading physician for the Chelsea Board of Health.
Samuel, who was spared none of this parental agony, ensured that Fannie and Katherine had the best care available to them. I imagine that he made the same efforts for Catherine, regardless of the probable strain in their relations. Nana and Alice lived in the same house with their consumptive sisters for perhaps as long as five years. Miraculously, they did not become ill. If two years of recognizable symptoms and suffering were the norm in the first decade of the twentieth century for those with TB, Catherine was already ill by the time that Alice was born. She might have been sick and in a sanatorium by the time Samuel and Mary had conceived this little girl. Their amours would have been difficult to conceal from the children, and the older siblings surely intuited it. Mary and Samuel could not marry as long as Catherine was alive. Once she had died, it was possible to wed. And they did. Father Powell saw to that.
If this slightly less than hallowed union had not occurred, I would not be here. Neither would any of my aunts or uncles, my father, my siblings, my nieces, my cousins, their children and their grandchildren.
In 1920, Mary and Alice were employed as packers in a candy factory, perhaps the New England Confectionary in Boston, where Necco wafers were made. After this date, I can find no trace of Mary E. or Samuel Dexter Post, Jr. I conjectured his death date based on a line in my father’s notes about him: “Died at 62.” However, the records show that he died at 65 in 1926. Perhaps my father read the 5 as a 2. Nana was married on 19 August 1923, so Samuel lived to see her wedding, since his birthday was 5 September 1861. I have been told that he is buried in the same cemetery as Catherine, Mount Cavalry.
We were fortunate to have Nana and to know her as a person. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about her. I am getting to know her older sister a little better because her life is fairly well documented in various censuses. I was able to trace Alice because of another note of my father’s, probably based on my Aunt Virginia’s extensive family knowledge: “Married a Thompson.”
I have hope that someday I will make a connection with one of her grandchildren who knows her family history, just as I hope I can meet one of our cousins who is a descendant of Grandpa Leo’s brothers Bill, Jack, Eddie, and Harold, or perhaps of his sister Madelaine. Alice E. Post Thompson (1902-86) outlived her little sister by two decades. In one picture, perhaps taken on their front porch at 33 Suffolk St in Chelsea, they seem to be about 19 and 16, respectively, which would make the year 1921. Their facial expressions and postures are fascinating. They seem to have enjoyed a close relationship and were all dressed up for some autumn or spring occasion. In those days, of course, ladies did not leave the house without their hats. Alice and Edna appear as though they posed for the photographer with bemused reluctance, as if he or she were a parent who had cajoled them into cooperation. It would be interesting to know more about them at this age, or what relationship they had with their half-siblings, Catherine’s children.
Alice was married by 1921 or so to a Clifford Henry Thompson (b.1899), whose family had immigrated to Chelsea from Nova Scotia. Like his future brother-in-law Leo J. Stapleton Sr. and Leo’s brother Bill Stapleton, Thompson registered for the draft for World War I. His mother was a widow by 1920 and he defined his profession as chauffeur of a grocery truck.
The family listed its native tongue as French, which is an intriguing detail. His nickname was Frenchy. In 1930, he was unemployed like millions of Americans, and they lived at 56 1/2 Library St., Chelsea. By 1940, he worked as a stevedore who moved ground cargo on the docks of the Boston waterfront. He and Alice had seven children according to that year’s census, all at home at 26 ½ Spencer Ave. in Chelsea, the eldest at that time Doris, 18, the youngest Lawrence, 4. One daughter is named Mary E., probably for their grandmother. In a slightly later picture of them, taken about 1927 or 1928, they still seemed close and have cut their hair short, as was the fashion of the decade. In the part of the 1940 census dated 4 April, Edna and Leo, now at 54 Falcon St. in East Boston, have seven children themselves, from Virginia (15) to Thomas (2), with another on the way, Edna, who would share a birthday with her grandfather Samuel, and her brother Ronald, 5 September.
Perhaps it was not coincidental that Nana was born on St. Pancras’s Day, the saint whose name means “the one who holds everything.” That describes not only the famous London train station that bears his moniker, but also Nana as a spouse, parent, and grandparent. Just as the men in their lives worked at their professions, Edna, Alice, and Mary E. were engaged in theirs for every day of their adult lives, with no time off. They ran their households: children, food, cooking, baths, cleaning, marriage. And surely the profession of housewife was no less exhausting then than it is now. What’s more, Nana and her sisters enjoyed few or none of the conveniences that we take for granted, or only experienced them in the beginnings of their technology. Fresh fruit and vegetables were hard to find out of season, needless to say, so people were forced to be locavores.
There were no microwave ovens or frozen food. There were no disposable paper products such as diapers, Kleenex, or paper towels. There was little prepackaged baby food or premeasured medicine for children. There were no pediatricians or professional child care centers. There were no antibiotics. There was not always reliable hot running water for convenient bathing and for keeping messy children clean. For that matter, not everyone had indoor plumbing for baths or toilets. There was no refrigeration besides that provided by the iceman, no supermarkets, washing machines, dryers. Central heating was uncommon, and many stoves were still wood-burning into the early 20th century. Lighting was frequently gas rather than electric. Irons with easily adjustable settings, synthetic clothing that resisted wrinkling, convenient hair care and skin products, inexpensive new clothing and corner drugstores would have been unimaginable luxuries.
Frankly, I don’t know how they did it or how they stood it. But they did. I appreciate it more than I can say. However, I will say it anyway. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.