It happened during the opening keynote session at RootsTech 2019 in the cavernous conference hall at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City. The stage lights were shining brightly on Steve Rockwood who was delivering the introductory keynote about connections across generations with our family and ancestors. The rest of the room was movie-theater dark.
Steve was talking about connecting, about how you FEEL, about the extremely strong emotions brought to the surface as we connect with and belong to family, both past and present.
I was but a dot in the massive sea of humanity, huddled side-by-side on plastic chairs in the darkness.
Then I felt my phone buzz in my pocket. I ignored it the first couple of times, but when it vibrated a third time, I thought perhaps I should take a look, just in case, with my family so far away.
What I saw was an e-mail from a cousin who I had found a few days earlier. Perhaps “found” isn’t the right word, because I had met Patty some 25 years ago when we had lunch at a local restaurant to discuss our family.
Patty is my second cousin. We didn’t know each other growing up, because our grandmothers lived in different parts of the country – mine in Indiana and hers in Texas. Her grandmother, Mildred was known to me, but I never met Mildred since she lived in Houston, even though she didn’t pass away until 1987.
My own grandmother, Edith, Mildred’s sister, died in 1960, leaving only one other sister, Eloise, the baby who didn’t pass over to join her sisters until 1996 at the age of 92.
My mother was always close to Aunt Eloise, a bond that tightened after my grandmother passed away. Eloise always talked fondly about Mildred who was 4 years her senior, born in 1899.
Back in the 1990s, Patty and I met one time at the local Big Boy Restaurant and exchanged stories. Since then, Patty and I lost touch with each other and we both lost the older generation.
I was quite surprised and pleased to find a DNA match at 23andMe and recognized the person as Patty.
Just before I left for RootsTech, Patty and I exchanged a brief e-mail wherein Patty said she found a letter from Nora, our great-grandmother, to Mildred.
I wrote about Nora Kirsch Lore’s life, here, but Patty had more information that she was willing to share.
That’s the thing about genealogy, you just never know what might pop up.
Nora’s life began in 1866, just after the Civil War and long before automobiles. Those were the days of horses and buggies. Nora’s daughters rode in the carriage with their father to check on his race horses, shown in the photo below. Nora’s earthly journey ended just 6 years before the beginning of the space race.
It’s hard to fathom that one person’s life could be bracketed by that much change in only 82 years.
I recently found a few newspaper articles that mentioned Nora.
In 1921 Nora was living in Wabash, Indiana, then Chicago, Illinois later in 1921, 1922 and 1923. She followed where her husband’s job took them.
By 1930, Nora was living in Wabash again, and the 1930 census tells us that her mother, Barbara Drechsel Kirsch was living with her. They rented a house on Sinclair Street and Nora gave her marital status as widowed.
Nora had married her second husband, Thomas Harry McCormack, in 1916 in Rushville, Indiana.
In 1920 they were married and living together, but sometime between 1920 and 1930, they separated.
Eloise or mother told me that Nora believed McCormack was dead, and that could be why she called herself a widow in 1930. It could also have been due to embarrassment. Nora and Tom never divorced, but she also wasn’t exactly married either. He just left and she had no idea where he was.
I recently found a death certificate for Tom indicating that he died on May 1, 1936 in Chicago. Mother mentioned that eventually, someone in his family told Nora that he was dead. She wasn’t notified when his death occurred.
In the 1940 census, Nora was still living in the same location in Wabash, at 123 West Sinclair, with a note that the information was provided by a neighbor. I’ve never seen that type of note before. I wish all census takers made notes like that.
Nora is again listed as a widow, and this time, she actually was widowed. Nora was shown as 65 years old, but she was actually 74. Obviously the neighbors perceived her as younger than she was.
In a September 1940 newspaper article published in Rushville, Indiana, Nora mentioned that she was living in LaFountain, Indiana with her daughter, Mildred, but was thinking about “returning some time to Wabash.” She clearly liked Wabash and lived there longer than she lived anyplace else in her life, except perhaps her childhood home of Aurora, Indiana.
On April 28, 1941, the Warsaw (Indiana) Union mentioned that Mrs. Nora McCormick from Wabash was visiting her daughter, Mrs. John Ferverda and family who lived in Silver Lake, Indiana at that time.
My mother would have been 18 years old and she loved her grandmother.
Based on this information, it appears that Nora began living with her daughters in 1940, but may have returned to live in Wabash for some time. On the other hand, the newspaper article may have been inaccurate or made an assumption, knowing Wabash is where Nora had lived. Wabash and LaFontaine are only 10 miles apart.
Mom had a few photos of Nora and we can piece together a bit of her life between 1941 and her departure for other worlds on September 13, 1949.
This photo of Nora appears to have been taken about 1944, judging from the approximate age of the young man in the photo, Mildred’s son, Jerry Martin. Jerry was born in 1924 and I would guess to be about 20 in the photo, or maybe a couple years older.
Based on this information, it appears that Nora began living with her daughters in 1940.
In the last photos of Nora, she has a somewhat vacant or disconnected look on her face that I’ve come to associate with dementia.
If I recall correctly, Mom said Nora went to live with Eloise in Lockport because she really couldn’t care for herself anymore.
Patty found two things – a letter and a tax receipt for the mysterious property in Florida.
We had heard about property in Florida for years. We don’t know where it was, who owned it, or when it was either acquired or disposed of.
There’s a photo taken in Florida when Nora was much younger, with “Aunt Lou Fiske” who married Arthur Wellesley in 1920. It’s possible that this Florida property had been in the family for some time, since the 19-teens.
There is also a much later photo of Eloise and Mildred riding bicycles in Florida that I would guess are from perhaps the 1970s. Eloise looks to be in her 50s or 60s and Mildred perhaps in her 60s or even 70s. Given Eloise’s hair style and Mildred’s birth year of 1899, I’d wager this was taken about 1970-1973. I remember Eloise’s hairstyle being wildly popular when I was in high school and Mildred looks to be about 70, give or take.
The properties behind them look to be inexpensive modular type homes, maybe even double-wide trailers. I can’t tell.
Would it be possible for this same property to have been in the family for that long?
We were in luck. The 1940 tax receipt for Nora McCormick was sent to 123 West Sinclair, Wabash, Indiana – the same address where she had lived in both 1930 and the 1940 census and the location of the Florida property was given as lot 19, block 4 in the city of Okeechobee.
Utilizing the Okeechobee GIS system, I found a property matching that description about 25 or 30 miles from the oceanfront beaches that had been discussed in family stories, but much closer to Lake Okeechobee.
The parcel is bordered in red, with the property description card, below.
Today, this property is a vacant lot.
Clearly, this was a plotted subdivision.
It’s not exactly “in” the city as I expected, but this property is listed with a city address.
Using Google Maps, I was able to take a closer look and found the property.
I was able to “drive” down the street, much to my surprise since it’s clearly a dead-end with no center line.
While this property is vacant today, it doesn’t look like it always was. Notice the gravel patch under the tree.
“Driving” up and down the street, some homes are newer, but there are still many remaining that look similar to the homes in the photo of Mildred and her sister, Eloise.
I wonder how Nora was able to afford this property. Who bought it originally, and who sold it? She was widowed with children and no money when her first husband, Curtis Lore, died in 1909, then abandoned by her second husband sometime before 1930.
Perhaps when Barbara, Nora’s mother died, in 1930, Nora inherited something. Patty said that Nora had paid the taxes since about 1935 and that Nora would always send the tax receipts to Mildred, telling her to be sure to save them, because it’s the only proof she had that the taxes were paid. In 1939, the payment was returned because it was 40 cents short.
Clearly, Mildred did a fine job of saving those receipts. We still have this one today, 79 years later!
The second thing that Patty had was a letter from Nora to Mildred, postmarked February 12, 1949.
The handwriting isn’t bad for a woman who was on the far side of her 82nd birthday.
Amazingly, I can actually read those words that would become the last thing we, her remaining family, have from her. Her handwriting was a little wobbly, but far better than mine ever has been.
By 1949, Nora was living with Eloise in Lockport, New York. Nora had lost one daughter in 1912 to tuberculosis, two and a half years after the same disease took her husband. Nora’s three surviving daughters would have been 61, 50 and 46 that year. Nora had 4 grandchildren, 2 sons by Mildred and a daughter and son by Edith.
Mom was that daughter, Jean, born in 1922.
By 1949, Nora would also have had 5 great-grandchildren, including my brother John born in June of 1943. Unfortunately, Nora’s grandchildren lived no place close to New York so she wouldn’t have been able to see them☹
Nora’s letter reads:
Lockport, New York
Dear Mildred I want to write and thank you for the lovely Tan Kid gloves you sent me for Christmas I sure was so pleased with the gloves they sure were lovely Tan Kid gloves I was so pleased I did need the lovely Kid gloves and I want to thank you for the nice Candy you sent I do love candy and I want to thank you for the lovely candy you sent I do love good candy. But my dear you spent to much on me of course we all enjoy the Candy and I thank you again fore your nice selection of candy and I sure appreciate the nice selection (over) so many thanks to you ? and I sure was surprised by the lovely things and I wish you all a very Happy New Year we are all well and hope you are all well and wish each one of you many more Birthdays. I hope little Johnie is fine and I hope he keeps well I would love to see Him and each one of your family. I do hope Johnie is well and is a fine little fellow and that each and every one is well Wish Jean good health and lots of good Health for little Johnie I Hope he got the little Horse and was so pleased I thought little Johnie would like the little Horse I sent be a good Boy Johnie I hope to see you some time. Hope John and all Keep well we are all well. I’d love to see you all lots of Kisses. Mawmaw. Nora.
I didn’t correct the punctuation or the spelling, because that lends to the authenticity of the letter and the place where Nora was in her life at the moment in time.
I found Nora’s letter heart-wrenching.
Nora clearly did have dementia. There’s no doubt based on this letter which confirmed what I suspected from the photos. We don’t know why she had dementia, of course, but Edith, her daughter was showing signs at 72, although Edith also had undiagnosed heart issues that caused her death. My own mother was having small strokes that probably caused her dementia before her death of a massive stroke at 83.
It took Nora more than 6 weeks to write the thank you letter, although you can clearly tell that she had been excited to receive the gifts and wanted to write the letter. She repeated herself over and over and couldn’t really make conversation about what might have been going on in their lives. If you live just outside of Buffalo, New York in mid-February, you’d likely talk about the snow. But no mention of that or anything else in her world.
Nora seems to be struggling to convey the social niceties, such as saying thank you and wishing everyone well. I so want to hug this woman who died before I was born.
Mildred’s children were Jim and Jerry and neither had a son named John. My mother, Jean, had the only Johnie (Johnny) in the family, and he would have been 5 years old, the perfect age to indeed love a little horse. Nora confused which of her children had daughter Jean, thinking that Mildred would know about Jean and Johnie. Nora’s other daughter, Edith, was Jean’s mother and Johnie’s grandmother.
It’s unclear if Nora had ever seen Johnie who was born in 1943, but one thing is for sure, she never saw him again. By this time, Nora couldn’t travel alone, that’s for sure – although you can feel the aching in her letter to see Johnie – even 70 years after she penned those words.
Eloise never had children, her husband, Warren, having been disabled not long after their marriage in 1929.
In 1949, Eloise was caring for both her mother and her husband, or perhaps her mother and husband were caring for each other while Eloise worked to support the family.
Nora passed away 7 months after she wrote this letter, on September 13, 1949. I don’t have her death certificate, so I don’t know the official cause of death. Maybe Patty knows or has that document.
I do know that Nora specifically requested that she NOT be buried under the surname of McCormack. Her body was transported back to Rushville, Indiana for burial where she was laid to rest beside her daughter and her first husband, Curtis B. Lore, 40 years, shy 2 months after his death – as Nora Lore, not as Nora McCormack. Thomas McCormack had been nothing more than a bad dream, a flash in the pan, as permanently erased as Nora could make him.
But the final ache in my heart was seeing Nora’s next to last word. Not her name, Nora, but the word Mawmaw.
As I sat in the inky darkeness of the conference center, with Steve Rockwood’s voice in the background, I looked at Nora’s handwriting on the tiny screen between my knees. I read that word and vividly remembered the pink ribbon banner on my mother’s own casket that said “Mawmaw.”
Tears filled my eyes, blurring everything except memories.
Mawmaw was a tradition. Barbara Drechsel, Nora’s mother was probably Mawmaw too, as my mother was to her grandchildren.
Mother was adamant about that. She was never Grandma or anything other than Mawmaw, as my grandmother was to me.
I realized sitting there as Steve talked about traditions and generations that I had failed to understand the importance of Mawmaw. That the grandmothers for who-knows-how-many generations in my family had called themselves and been called Mawmaw. It was right there in this sad letter in Nora’s own handwriting, in what was probably the last letter she ever wrote. She blew kisses and signed off, calling herself Mawmaw. That, she knew clearly.
Without intending to, I had failed to continue an important tradition. I never chose what my grandchildren call me. I should have been Mawmaw. At least a 4 or 5-generation tradition has been lost forever. I wish I had realized.
My son will never be Pawpaw and my granddaughters will never be Mawmaws themselves now either.
I’m so very sorry.
It’s such a little thing that’s a big thing that could have been the umbilical cord linking future generations through that special name to the past. A torch to be passed, a right of passage.
A simple word that provides a connection and immediate comfort to those who have their own Mawmaw.
Salve for the soul aching with loss.
On September 13, 1949, as mother dealt with her own broken marriage, fiancé’s death and tragedy following on the heels of World War II, her Mawmaw slipped away forever through the veil of dementia into the twilight beyond.