The Washerwoman’s Genes

April 10, 2006

“Being dead is the same for everyone”

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 1:10 pm

“Being dead is the same for everyone,” Nuala O’Faolain writes in her book, The Story of Chicago May (299). “But—being alive?” she asks.

Each life is unique, of course, and personal: an inner experience that our family and friends only know about us in miniscule amounts.

“Are life stories even tellable?” O’Faolain wonders (297) . . . . “Any single moment of a life is so magnificently various, so rich in material and at the same time so multiply and delicately insubstantial that it is hardly served by being placed in a simple, chronological narrative. The thinness continues into character . . . “

O’Faolain has, in fact, much more to go on in her biography of May Duigan, Irish expat and prostitute-crook, than I do in my genealogical research. Not only are there many records of May in newspapers, police files,Pinkerton agency records, and other places, but both she (and one of her lovers) wrote a memoir. Despite the picaresque nature of May’s reminiscences, O’Faolain is able to imagine her inner life, to at least propose her inner feelings with some hope of accuracy.

In that regard, O’Faolain has her womanhood, also lived solo, like May, and her native Irishness, her escape of her origins, and her visitor’s outsiderness to America.

I have the skeleton of the censuses and vital records to create a chain of parents and children, and, indeed, marked graves and a few addresses to view. And I have some memories, of the elderly grandparents who were grandchildren to the early nineteenth-century progenitors I an examining. There are also vague notions and intimations passed down in the family.

But, mainly, to fill in what the experience of life was for them, there’s my own make-up, and that of my parents and other family I knew. Mainly, there’s genes: the long bones, the tall back, the blue eyes, the prominent cheekbones and slightly Roman nose, the sandy hair, the long, long fingers. And there’s character, which we all experience as somewhat intransigent, reflective of our upbringing, yet with a deep undertow of ancient tendencies. How we cope: it comes with the brain.

So I look at the washerwomen, the masons, the carpenters, the river pilots, the tailoress, the gardener, the women “keeping house,” and I see: stoicism, quietness, sensitivity to surroundings and to detail; I see an intensity of focus, a zeal in pursuit of knowing how or knowing about, a respect for skill; the stamina for hard work and long hours. I know the paces and timelessness of submersion in a project. I hear the ease with words, the fluency of language, but I also intuit the shyness, the reserve, the profound need to be unobtrusive. There’s a lack of ego, a humbleness, even a complacency or natural despair, that looks like lack of drive, lack of initiative, lack of ambition, that sets the family apart from extroverted, assured, bootstrapping Americans.

May Duignan’s choice as an Irish peasant was between crime—mostly prostitution and petty thievery—and domestic service. To her this was no choice, and she became a full-fledged citizen of the underworld. For my ancestors, many of them women alone, women with no resources who had to survive until marriage or after widowhood or abandonment, there also was no choice. Domestic work it was. O’Faolain reports that the Chicago vice commission concluded that arrests for Irish females were rarely for prostitution—only 1.1 percent—and “the Irish rated lowest of all ethnic and racial groups for crimes against chastity” (44). I doubt that the Dutch and the Scottish even made the database for any type of street crime.

O’Faolain’s research includes visiting places where May spent time. “The getting to them and the being there were certainties, not open to too many interpretations, . . . Her physical path through the world marked out actual ground. I could escape the transaction of reading her words and then turning to my own experience for a response” (129).

I too feel compelled to go to Esopus and Brooklyn, and Richmond Hill, and whatever other places the census shows my bloodline to have settled. They are hardly the swinging towns of May’s life, but they are mine.


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