As I sifted through the bits and pieces of other people's lives, I realized how little remains of who we were or what we did in life once we are gone. The only things left from my great uncle Thomas J. McKenna, a Catholic priest, are his prayer book, the hand-embroidered cloths he used to administer the Church's "last rites" to the dying, and a few photographs. His obituary tells little of his life, just that he was "the beloved pastor" of St. Brigid's school of Grand Junction, Iowa.
Thomas' younger sister, whom I know only by the name she took as a Dominican nun, Sister Catherine di Ricci, left behind a few pictures and a letter written by one of the nuns upon her death, at age 32, in the great influenza pandemic of 1918. "When the influenza broke out in the school, she gave herself unflinchingly to the care of the sick girls as well as to the encouragement of those whom the Sisters tried to save from the deadly epidemic. She overtaxed her strength and became a victim of the disease itself," the anonymous nun writes of her colleague. "Meantime a panic of quarantine had been instituted and the Sister's body could not be brought to our chapel for Mass. The coffin could not even be opened and the grief-stricken parents could only be present at the burial at the early dawn of morning."
These small scraps of paper, lovingly passed down from one generation to the next, are all that remain of full and rich lives that can now only be imagined. I'm thankful that my Uncle Milt saved what others might have discarded. So, the next time some "old-timer" passes on in your family, spend time going through those old cardboard boxes buried in the closet. You may just find where you came from.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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