Fiction Inspired by Ancestry by Eleanor Albanese
My mother had never visited the cemetery where her grandmother, Mary Mohan, was buried. My mother knew some things about Mary—she arrived in the United States from Ireland on board a coffin ship and was the only surviving member of her family. All died of typhus and all were buried at sea. My mother also knew Mary had died while giving birth and her husband had a drinking problem. But other than these few details, she knew little else.
A decade ago, my sister who lives in Winnipeg, offered to drive my mother to Ardoch, North Dakota where Mary had raised her family. The two of them set off on their day-trip adventure, hoping to locate Mary Mohan’s resting place. The cemetery was set in a cozy grove, with trees and headstones and rambling pathways typical of small-town America. Mary Jane’s headstone was found with little effort. What surprised my sister and mother wasn’t the epitaph, or the fact that the tombstone indicated that she had died in childbirth—rather, it was the date that left them astonished. There they were, staring at the tombstone exactly one hundred years from the day she had passed away. It was a significant moment, not only for my mother, but also for me when I heard tell of it.
I grew up with dozens of visitors gathered around my grandmother’s kitchen table, drinking coffee from the ceramic blackened percolator, or some of us dipping into the case of beer tucked beside the fridge. There was always plenty of storytelling and “good humour” but no one ever touched on the life of Mary. It was too far in the past—it belonged to another time and place. After hearing of the 100-day coincidence, however, I found myself intrigued. Could I bring her story to life? Could I conjure up the details, the hardship, and what it meant to be a mother long before my time? These questions compelled me to give Mary Mohan a voice, even though I had only a few crumbs to go on. And so, I began to write her story in first person.
Through my pen, both Mary and her dear friend Fiorella shared their version of events. I found myself jumping almost two decades to WW1 France, with my grandfather—Mary’s son—taking over the narration. Following that, his wife, Primrose from northern Ontario, spoke. And on it went, with one narrator after the other, eager to share their part in the storytelling. Though the first draft was completed, I knew in order to do the story justice, I had years of research ahead of me. I had strung the warp, but now needed to weave in the yarn. I had never felt the slightest interest in military history; yet suddenly I was diving into it with an obsessive interest. I also unearthed papers from a variety of academics that had explored midwifery and herbology in a historical context, as well as folk remedies and practices from old world southern Italy where my paternal grandparents came from.
The novel moves through the generations, and with the passage of time, the history became more accessible to me. I found myself interviewing all my living aunts and uncles to see what gems I could unearth. I’m not sure if it was the home-grown vegetables or the severity of surviving a northern climate with nothing but a wood stove to keep them warm, but either way, my aunts and uncles seemed to live longer than most. After many drafts, many cuts, I felt the novel was ready to share with a publisher. What stays with me most about this process is the understanding I now have about the creative process. With an emotional and familial connection to the characters, there was a well from which to draw; but without the rich layers of historical fact and oral storytelling, there would have been no story.