Tuesday, October 8, 2019

52 Ancestors - CONTEXT: Reading Between the Lines

Mary Theresa Sheehan Killeen Walsh https://jollettetc.blogspot.com
A young Mary Theresa

My dad did not have the easiest of childhoods. As a little boy, he lived in the home of his grandmother, Mary Theresa Sheehan Killeen Walsh. Probably his father’s run-ins with the law over his moonshine enterprise accounted for the financial instability that necessitated the multi-generational living arrangements there on Charleston Avenue in Portsmouth, Virginia.
The Walsh home on Charleston Avenue about 1920
A maiden aunt lived there too as did an alcoholic uncle whose VERY important job in the shipyard could not wait for his hangovers to subside. It was Mary Theresa’s job to sober him up and get him to work. According to my dad, it was not a good environment, but Mary Theresa was a stabilizing force who took care of everyone.

Daddy’s aunt Helen Killeen Parker (and my grandaunt) saved a couple letters that Mary Theresa wrote during visits with her youngest two daughters who lived near Washington D.C. I suppose we all expect mothers to care for their children when they are sick, are relieved when a marriage is a happy one, and are generally just gentle and kind. The letters reveal Mary Theresa to have been exactly that. Still, there is just something about the tidbits of news she shared and the words she chose that make me see her more clearly.

 A Loving Mother
The warmth of the greeting to “My Dear Helen” is matched by the complimentary closing: “fond love to all, Mother” and “fondest love to all from Mother.”

Mary Theresa’s visit in 1937 may have been prompted by the illness of her youngest daughter Theresa, affectionately known as “Tate.” Apparently Helen shared her mother’s worry as well, judging by the apology in the opening of the letter: “I know you are anxious about Tate and I should have written at once. Well She is better, no more pain nor cough and insists on doing everything around here herself.” I sense Mary Theresa may have been amused by Tate’s recovery: “I think Tate will be alright now. Of course she thinks my coming cured her.”

Tate was the baby of the family and according to family lore she was Mary Theresa’s “pet.” But Mary Theresa wanted to be fair to all her children. Her 1936 visit was a long one – three weeks. Apparently she stayed part of the time with Tate and part of the time with Katherine (“Kat”). “I think now that I have seen how both girls are I will terminate my visit. Really I have been mighty happy for nearly three weeks. Steve & Kat didn’t want me to leave them but I had spent more time with them so I wanted to even up my trip by staying a few more days with Jim & Tate.  “even up my trip” – LOVE that!
Steve and Katherine Barany, Jim and Tate Crewes https://jollettetc.blogspot.com
Mary Theresa's two youngest daughters and their husbands
Steve and Kat Barany
Jim and Tate Crewes
Committed to Family and Church
Daddy always described Mary Theresa as a strong woman who kept the family chaos under control. I see her sense of commitment to family in the letters. When she visited Tate and Kat, she did not take the grandchildren with her. One time, she left my father and his brother, “Sonny” and “Buddy,” with their older cousin Evelyn, known to family as “Ebby.”  “I don’t like leaving the children too long but I had a nice letter from Ebby this morning and they are behaving real good.”

It is obvious she was a proud grandmother who did not hesitate to boast about my dad’s accomplishments as a 9-year old: “Helen, am sending you the letter I got from Sonny don’t you think it is good, all the news he put in it. Keep it for me.” Oh, what I wouldn’t give to see that letter. Unfortunately, it did not get saved with this one from 1937.
Leo Slade and Fred Slade about 1937 https://jollettetc.blogspot.com
Leo "Buddy" and Fred "Sonny"
probably about 1937
Often we see our children’s good behavior and successes as validation of our parenting. Mary Theresa certainly did not have it easy taking care of multiple families under one roof, but somehow she kept everything going. She was the one who made sure my dad and his brother went to school and to church. She also saw to it that they served the church as altar boys.

The church was obviously important to her. In one letter, she expressed regret at not being able to visit with the Rosemunds longer: “They wanted me to stay with them longer but I wouldn’t be able to get to Church.”

In the same letter she rattled off a laundry list of activities for the day including seeing “The Prisoner of Shark Island” at the movie theater. Afterwards they visited a Catholic church and the 5&10. Wow –  could the day get any better? Why, yes, it could and it did. She took a long nap at the Rosemunds and afterwards they enjoyed dinner at 8:00. In a self-deprecating way, she said, “Some class.

Compassion for Others 
The way Mary Theresa spoke of the people she met during her visits makes me smile. As she wrote about the Rosemunds, she said, “I declare Helen they are awful nice.” The words “I declare” make me think she must have been especially touched by them. She also wrote with warmth about Mrs. Williams, an employee at Tate’s husband’s place of work, who was such a good seamstress, and Reta Greely, Tate’s good friend who “can drive real good” and took them all around Quantico and Washington D.C.
Mary Theresa Walsh and Kat Barany in DC https://jollettetc.blogspot.com
Mary Theresa and Kat in Washington D.C.
1936 or 1937
(photos obviously taken on the same day are captioned differently)
Inquiring about folks at home might be just a polite thing to do, but Mary Theresa did more than that. Apparently Helen’s mother-in-law suffered from frequent headaches. (I wonder if they were sinus headaches or even migraines.) “Well I hope Mrs. Parker is getting stronger and not suffering with her headaches. Tell her to get ready to come back with me next time I am coming. I know she would love this place. . . .  I think it is beautiful around here.” The implied invitation and desire to share her good times speaks volumes about the kind of person Mary Theresa was.  

Happy in Her Life
Probably the one attribute that stands out in both letters is her satisfaction with her life. Her letters exude gratitude for every little kindness shown her and pleasure with each outing whether it was taking a walk or drive or seeing another movie (“It’s just grand every night a different picture.”). Her positive view was very much like my dad’s approach to life. He too was always optimistic in business, even the risky ventures. He too was cheerful and positive – most of the time, anyway – and grateful for all the blessings of his life. I think Daddy and Mary Theresa must have been very much alike.

My dad loved his grandmother. He spoke of her always with admiration and fondness. Oddly, he called her Mary Theresa, never Granny or Grandmother. Maybe he just wanted to be sure we didn’t forget her name.

Amy Johnson Crow continues to challenge genealogy bloggers and non-bloggers alike to think about our ancestors and share a story or photo about them. The challenge is “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.

© 2019, Wendy Mathias. All rights reserved.


  1. She seems like a gem of a lady! I like her attitude about life; you don't see that very often. Glad it "rubbed" off on your dad too! And now that you shared her on your blog, I don't think I'll be able to Forget Mary Theresa either.


  2. What a lovely find and the letters create such a vivid picture of a loving, kind, caring, but firm grandmother who was a great influencer on your father. Sometimes simple words convey so much and bring a person “alive” to us.

  3. Great letter, and very helpful that you put in who was related how to whom! Thanks for introducing us to her!

  4. Your last comment about not forgetting her name brings a smile to my face. When my oldest daughter was about 2, my grandmother used to ask her "who am I?" as she loved hearing her say "Great Grandma Loraine". She didn't just ask once or twice but every. time. she. saw. her. One day my daughter said "why does she always ask me that? Does she not remember who she is?".