Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Purge

During the Purge, I am packing things I no longer wish to carry with me, sorting what goes off to relatives who care or want, and what goes to the antique dealer or the garage sale or the trash. The giant Secretary is at least 125 years old by my estimate, coming down to me from my father’s family, his grandparents and is now stuffed with photos, old bills, documents and the accumulated need-a-place-to-keep-it-safe stuff of a 23 year marriage.

Her name was (Mary) Claudia Keenan and he was her father’s friend who lived at their house for a time, no reason given. John Zachary Holliday Scott was a Civil War veteran who migrated to Texas from Virginia after the war to start a law practice. He married and raised a family in Galveston in the 1880’s and wrote several important pieces of Galveston legal history. The family tells Zachary married Claudia in 1900, and then died while she was pregnant with their daughter, who would become my grandmother. Well, he was considerably older than she and in that day people died. She raised her daughter with the help of her family and the trust that was established for their care. My grandmother knew her Virginia cousins and told us kids tales of glory about our lineage, living in the house owned by her father until she died in her 70’s.

The only thing is, there is no record of this marriage. My great grandfather’s wife of record died after he did, according to Galveston County. There is no record of a divorce. And her name was not Claudia. What happened to all those half siblings my grandmother had, her father’s other children? Galveston is a small city where everyone is either related or knows your relatives. I never knew them or of them until I was older and heard the dribbles of information about a first family.

This Secretary is bound for the antique dealer.

I open another drawer and find a large manila envelope addressed to me in my other grandmother’s hand. Well, not really my grandmother, she was really my great aunt, but she served the role very well. In the envelope are photos and documents from her parents. An old fragile yellowed certificate documenting the marriage of Mary Ellen Dodd to Thomas Francis Myers, both of Galveston. The paper is heavy and crumbly at the edges and it smells of the old wood in which it had always been stored.

Mary Ellen Dodd nee’ Carroll, was the widow of a man murdered during a crime war, and found floating in a row boat in the bay. Organized crime and politics intermingled much more freely back then, or perhaps more openly, and her husband was made an example of something for the attention of someone, don’t know who.

Thomas Francis Myers was an Irish immigrant and a police officer for Galveston. Most people only know of Ellis Island, but many many people came in at other ports to the south. Galveston was one of them.

The 1900 Great Storm washed over Galveston with the storm surge rising 10 feet in under 6 seconds, above the already flooded island, carrying everything in it’s path. 6000 people drowned. When it was over and the water receded, the clean up began. Bodies buried in the rubble presented an enormous risk to public health and there was no where to get rid of them. Burial at sea was tried and the decomposing bodies just washed back in on the ravaged beach. Giant pyres were erected. The ones who could be identified had the chance to for a decent burial by their families, if their families survived. The stink of decomp, the smell of burning rot, went on for months. My great grandfather the cop was part of the recovery crew finding bodies weeks and months after. And got typhus for his trouble.

Mary Ellen worked at a boarding house since the murder of her husband. The boarding houses were commandeered as hospital space, and there she met Thomas, nursing him while he was sick.

A sepia toned photo of a bride and groom, stiff and serious because exposing a photograph back then took a long time and movement blurred the photo. Were they happy on that day? By the time I could ask that question there was no one left alive to answer. She bore 6 children in the next 10 years and managed to get 5 past infancy. One picture of a fat baby with Mary Katherine written on the back in copperplate. Seven people in a tiny house, a yard with chickens and a garden and a dog who kept the rats at bay and the rabbits out of the garden.

Mary Ellen died of pneumonia in the Spanish Flu epidemic during WW1, leaving her children teenagers and younger. The oldest girl Mary Katherine, third born, stayed home with her father and raised her siblings. She didn’t marry until she was nearly 30 and the last of the siblings were grown.  Her sister Bertha Margaret was my aunt/grandmother. She never married. She was engaged twice and broke off both of them because “they tried to tell me how to spend my money.” Bertha was the keeper and teller of the stories. I heard the funny ones and the daily life ones as a child for my bedtime stories. As a grown woman she told me more, describing her father as “a hard man”. And she never married because she loved a married man for 20 years until he died not too long before I was born. His brother brought her the news and $5000 in an envelope. She did not get to see her man buried. His name was Sam.

This envelope goes in the box to be shipped to my mother.

Another drawer open and here I find another marriage certificate, mine, to my high school husband and the divorce papers I knew I would eventually possess as I stood before the judge marrying. And the marriage certificate to the second husband, from whom my divorce inspired this Purge. These are dropped in a box labeled Keep and Store, with the tax records and other legal documents I have to keep but would like to burn.

I am itchy and sneezy from the dust of old papers and overwhelmed by the memories being sorted into categories. The boxes are carried out to be shipped tomorrow, or stored on a shelf until the next Purge comes.

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