The tattered cardboard box wasn't much to look at, but inside were the remains of lives gone and worlds long past. The box belonged to my uncle Milton McKenna, who died more than a year ago. In it were family pictures and letters, some going back more than 100 years, as well as scrapbooks and newspaper articles that summed up the lives of the Clements and McKenna families.
There was the tiny picture of George Clements, Milt's grandfather and my great grandfather, a handsome young man with pale eyes and a handlebar mustache, his miniature portrait encased in a silver pin stuck on a little, striped-silk pillow. George Clements came to the Wyoming territory as a young cattle driver in the mid-1880s, where he married my great grandmother, Lucy Etta Kelly of Kahoka, Mo., in 1889.
One yellowed newspaper clipping describes George's run-in with three bulls: "One of the animals started to run in George's direction, closely followed by one of the others and coming in contact with the pony threw both it and its rider to ground with terrible force, the pony falling on top. The infuriated bulls fell upon the pony and the tremendous weight of the three animals almost crushed the life out of the man beneath, When aid reached him, he was found to be unconscious, and remained so for 17 days."
Yet, to hear George tell of it, the life of a cowboy was mostly boredom. In a letter to his wife, postmarked June 19, 1899, George writes of his work on the Crow reservation on the Wyoming-Montana border, "The outfit has kept a man here all summer to keep the cattle drove back from the Indian farms and to keep the Indians from killing beef, but something went wrong with him, and they sent me here to take his place. There is not much work about it but a good deal of sneaking around trying to catch them killing beef."
A final clipping, "Old-Time Cowboy Thrown from Horse with Fatal Effects," describes his deadly accident while roping a yearling steer: "The animal ran in front of the horse and tripped him and pulled him down on the rider. The horn of the saddle was buried into Mr. Clements' side, and the steer kept pulling on the horse, which made several lunges before getting up and away from the rider." He was 42 years old when he died in 1904.
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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