Often on Sunday afternoons, toward the end of her life, Mary Ann Callahan Healy could be found in a rocking chair in a lonely room crying. This sadness came over her when she thought of her brother – a brother she had lost when she was a young child.
In about 1840, her family boarded a ship headed to the United States from Ireland. This family was made up of a mother, a father, a boy of seventeen, and Mary and her sister. The voyage took six weeks. In that time Mary’s sister and parents died from cholera. All three were buried at sea.
Finally, the ship arrived in New York. Mary, still a child, and her brother got off the ship and walked into this new world alone. Her brother searched frantically for a job there in New York, but each night he returned to Mary unemployed. Then one morning, he left in search for work and never returned.
She never understood the reasons behind her brother’s departure. Maybe he’d left so the State would place Mary into an orphanage where she would at least have food and shelter. This is what the State did.
In the orphanage, Mary met Dennis Haley. He had come from Ireland, too, and had also lost his parents during the trip to this New World.
Mary and Dennis married and had a daughter named Morgan in St. Clair County, New York. Morgan was later said to look just like her mother Mary: a plain woman of medium height, rather heavy, and known for her hair that was always combed back straight and parted in the middle.
Mary and Dennis had four more daughters and five sons. In 1889, Dennis moved his wife and ten children to Hope, Kansas, most likely on the railroads that had been built just four years before, attracting migrants from the East. Dennis purchased a home for his family there with the help of a State land grant. Later, their son, Jim, changed the family name to Healy.
There in the city with the motto “There will always be Hope in Kansas,” Mary came to be known for her good heart – and her temper. An excellent cook, Mary was particularly renowned for her cookies. She would give her cookie recipe to neighbors, but their cookies never turned out as fabulous as hers. She kept a neat and clean house. These were valued traits to have in a woman on the Kansas plains. And while she was not known to pray as often as her husband, who would pray for an hour each morning, someone had to see that the housework got done.
As the years passed, Mary went from being called “mother,” to “grandmother.” Her grandchildren always eagerly waited when they would go to Grandma and Grandpa Healy’s house for the weekend. Mary and Dennis gave their grandchildren toys and, most importantly, their undivided attention.
As Mary grew older, though, she had a heart problem develop and had to rest often. Because of this, Dennis moved her down the road to Herington, which had a resident priest, while Hope did not. Perhaps Mary felt her end approaching.
Often Mary was seen with a big clay pipe. She said it helped her heart. In truth, it was probably one of the few pleasures she was allowed.
Through it all, Mary had spent her life wondering what had happened to her brother, and the grief never left her.
But a story came down across the decades in our family. Mary’s great-granddaughter, Edna Steffek McKinney, my grandmother, wrote a five-page manuscript recounting the final chapter in the story of Mary Ann Callahan and the brother she lost in New York so many years before. The manuscript had been prepared for a 1983 family reunion. For some reason, this story was never read at that reunion. Its existence was not known until 2003, when my grandmother died.
It told the following story:
Toward the end of her life and in a fit of loneliness, Mary read in a newspaper that a man with the same name as her brother died in a town northeast of Herington. The next morning, Mary boarded a train headed to that town in hopes of visiting the man’s widow. Soon, Mary was recounting her brother’s story to the widow.
And as the widow listened, it became clear that her late husband was Mary’s brother. That’s all we know. It seems he eventually left New York; we don’t know when. He ended up in Kansas. There, he spent the rest of his life a few miles from the sister he left in New York and never saw again.
While I cannot say if this knowledge helped ease Mary’s pain, I like to think that from then on when my great-great grandmother sat in that rocking-chair, she did not cry.