The old photographs are all that remain. There are few family members, if any at all, who had firsthand contact with my long-deceased grandparents. Those of us who may have heard a story or two are getting older. We don’t spend much time talking about our ancestors.
Is it true that once the collective conscientious no longer remembers us, we are well and truly gone, only to awaken on those rare occasions when someone, somewhere in the gene pool, conjures up our name? After all, we are mere mortals of little repute. We are just average working-class people who came from immigrants.
My grandfathers were immigrants. I never met them. Their hard lives bore down on their bodies as they joined the legions of other family members I would never know. Growing up without grandparents meant that any history imparted to me was second-hand. I only knew what I heard from their children and my parents as I studied fading sepia images.
My mother’s father, according to her, came across the Canadian border illegally. “He may have been running away from the law,” she’d say. I’d look at his face in the photograph trying to find something there I could identify with, something that I could weave into my own narrative. What I may have taken from all those wispy conversations was that he was a rebel, skirting the rules here and there to survive. That I understand.
Ma said that his dark complexion made the family believe he might have had American Indian blood. He was handsome in a rough-hewn way, unsophisticated, earthy, and known to have a raging, explosive temper. His name was Martin Billard.
Some contemporary family members have tried to research his past through computer programs that warehouse public records. Ancestry research has produced sparse results. The few records available show a man who became a naturalized citizen in spite of entering the country as an undocumented worker. Martin married a citizen, my grandmother Mary Ransom, who then also had to be naturalized after marrying an illegal. The rules in the early twentieth century were much different than today. Between his marriage and his death, there are only the stories nearly obscured by time and distance. All of his children are now deceased.
Ma said that at Christmas time, he would travel to New Bedford, where my grandmother came from, bringing back rare fruits and nuts, items we take for granted today, like oranges. He’d bring his children another rare treat, rock candy. How clearly I see her face smiling at that memory. It was precious to her.
The rest of Ma’s memories were filled with anger and the harsh realities of medical care of the poor before World War II.
Her father drank. He didn’t earn enough money to provide for his large family. His wife had to work, too. He had a stroke when he was only in his forties. People stepped over him in the street where he lain for hours thinking he was merely drunk again. He was placed in a bed on the first floor of the home that his wife had purchased. There he stayed, severely paralyzed, being cared for by my mother who was 12 at the time. He died years later in a hospital far from home. He outlived his wife who died in her fifties. That is the sum total of all I know.
My father’s father we know even less about. Dad was never predisposed to talk much about anything, least of all his family. But there the old man stands in pictures taken sometime in the late ‘40s or early ‘50s. In one picture he is standing with his wife, Nettie, and their oldest grandchild. Their clothing is very bedraggled. The grandchild is prim, tidy, and standing stick straight. Everyone is trying to smile.
Of this man, Nehemiah Newell, I was told the following: the family emigrated from England to Nova Scotia, they were fishermen, and they were a band of brothers who traveled to Cape Cod for the fishing opportunities. In another picture, the short somewhat squat man is standing in front of lobster traps stacked high against a shack. He was, indeed, a fisherman.
Nehemiah labored long and hard as a shore fisherman rowing a boat around Barnstable, Hyannis, and Yarmouth. Dad hinted that his father might have been a laborer working on the Cape Cod Canal at one point. I can’t confirm that detail. My paternal grandfather suffered from a “bad chest.” His wife begrudgingly cared for him. They lived their final years as they had lived all their years, in nearly abject poverty. End of story.
These were simple men in search of survival.
It is highly likely that, if there were rules governing the immigration of persons from Canada to the U.S. in the early 1900’s, my grandfathers avoided the paperwork. They could barely read. I wonder if my grandfathers would be allowed to immigrate now. My maternal grandfather may have had a checkered past, was uneducated, penniless, and did not have a sponsor. My paternal grandfather was uneducated, penniless, and also did not have a sponsor.
Of one thing I am sure: they were following the money, the opportunity, the hope of something better. They came to the U.S. to thrive. They managed that, but little more in their own lifetimes. But they set something in motion that continues today.
This I also know: their children scrambled up from the depths of poverty. Many of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are college educated, or are tradesmen, have achieved economic success, are contributing members of this American story.
Given the success of their flock, no doubt my grandfathers would believe as I do – they had accomplished what they started out to do, a chance at something more then mere survival. If that is the case, then this is a happy ending for my family. It is a never-ending story of humankind’s drive, as real today as when my grandfathers skirted authority in order to live in the United States of America.
This Mattapoisett Life
By Marilou Newell