My grandmother, Lily Myrtle Kneisly Yarnell, was one of nine children born to George Blue Kneisly and Clemency Roark.
Prior to getting into genealogy, I knew nothing about the Roarks. The Roark line is quite interesting, running parallel with Irish and American histories.
Available records allow for tracing the family back to the 1500s and to County Leitrim, in the province of Connacht (or Connaught) in Ireland. Leitrim is in the North of the current Republic of Ireland, bordering on Northern Ireland. Leitrim is one of the smallest counties in Ireland, and is known for its “slow pace of life;” however, the county is growing rapidly in population and has a highly educated citizenry.
Leitrim has many nicknames, including “O’Rourke County.” The O’Rourkes are one of the prominent families in the area. Historically, O’Rourke has also been spelled “O’Roark” and Roark.
The first of our ancestors to come to America was Martin Timothy O’Rourke who was born in Leitrim in 1700. The date he arrived in the New World is uncertain, but records indicate he married Sarah Parker in Philadelphia, in 1738. He made his way down to Virginia, where he died in 1769.
Records are sketchy, but Martin and Sarah had a descendant, William Roark, born in 1757 in Orange County, North Carolina. William served in the Revolutionary War, with records indicating his official rank was “Musician,” in the 1st Regiment from North Carolina. William married Sarah Dorris in 1780. He also served in the War of 1812, as a Private, with the 11th Mounted Regiment of Kentucky Volunteers.
William was rewarded for his time in the Revolutionary War, being given a Bounty Land Grant of 1000 acres of land in Allen County, Kentucky. William became a Baptist minister.
William and Sarah had a son, Levi, born in Orange County, North Carolina, in 1788. Levi, also a Baptist minister, married Clemency Pipkin in Smith County Tennessee in 1809. They had children born in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri, as the family migrated westward.
Levi and Clemency made it to Miller County, Missouri. They brought their children, including Benjamin Downing Roark. Benjamin had been born in Kentucky. At the age of 18, Benjamin married Rachel Gilleland. The Gillelands had followed a similar migratory path to Missouri, where Rachel’s father was appointed Postmaster for the small town of Enon.
Benjamin Downing Roark was born in 1835 and he died in 1928. Rachel Gilleland Roark was born in the same year as her husband, and she died in 1916. They were my grandmother, Lily Myrtle Kneisly Yarnell’s maternal grandparents. Benjamin and Rachel had many descendants, as shown below, in a family photograph of a gathering for their 50th wedding anniversary.
One of their offspring, Clemency (named after Clemency Pipkin), married George Blue Kneisly, and they had several children, including my grandmother, born in 1899.
The information above covers just one line of Roarks that came to America. There are others with amazing stories.
County Leitrim is on the borders on Northern Ireland (Ulster). The O’Rourkes were originally Catholic, but some of them converted to the Presbyterian religion, and were forced into hiding. That was a factor, for at least some of them, in leaving Ireland. Family lore describes some of the males coming to America as boys, stowing away on ships with extended family.
Nathan Roark, from Belfast, hid away on a ship at the age of nine. He spent several years on the ship, which never returned to Belfast, and ultimately disembarked at Baltimore and stayed in America. At the age of 15, he set out to make a home in this country.
It is believed that the Roarks, O’Rourkes, and O’Roarks in the United States all came from around Leitrim, and all share common ancestors.
I have always pictured Sister Mary Irene FitzGibbon, the originator of the New York Foundling Home, as a humble servant doing God’s work in taking care of abandoned infants. While this image may be correct, the more I learn, I realize she had to be so much more.
Prior to starting the Foundling, she filed incorporation papers with the state of New York, part of the process of working toward a more secure financial foundation.
Recently, while researching the Foundling’s history, I ran across a report from a commission appointed by the State of New York. The Extract from the Ninth Annual Report of the State Board of Charities of the State of New York Relating to Orphan Asylums and Other Institutions for the Care of Children, summarizes the workings of all orphanages in New York, and includes several pages describing the Foundling.
I was stunned to read the following statement: “The primary objective of the institution is to prevent infanticide.”
While I knew the Foundling served to save abandoned babies, I had never heard it described in such a direct manner.
The report went on to say: “Those identified with the work assert that ‘there is no class of suffering humanity whose cry for help and life is so sad and touching as the foundling’s. Scarcely has the unfortunate inhaled the vital air, unaware of all of life except its first necessities and sufferings, before its disposal becomes a grievous question with the attendants upon its birth.'”
In current times, it is nearly impossible to imagine the plight of an unmarried woman giving birth around 1870–without a husband or other family to support her, the woman would face the daunting task of survival. The primary work available to the woman would be as a teacher or a servant, and neither would be available to a woman with a child. So what was she to do? A facility such as the Foundling gave her the option of leaving her baby with an agency that would care for the child and, ultimately, find a home for the little one.
The work the Foundling did was not popular. As the report notes: “Many and almost insurmountable difficulties necessarily attended the beginning of such an undertaking; the wants to be supplied were numerous and varied, and many voices were raised to oppose, and even to condemn, the whole work as a real evil under the guise of an imaginary good.” Opponents argued that the Foundling was encouraging and supporting sin.
The report noted: “The first month of its existence twenty-eight little unfortunates were admitted, which the Sisters considered abundant proof not only that vice was prevalent, and that such an asylum for the waif was sorely needed, but also that the opening of the asylum had nothing whatever to do with the existence of the waif or the sin of its parents.”
Sister Mary Irene went against many of the views of her time in that she focused on the child rather than the “sin of its parents.”
Sister Mary Irene is quoted in the report as she summarizes the, at the time, brief history of the Foundling Home:
“We began work about six years ago, without a cent, in a dwelling-house of Twelfth Street, our principal object being to prevent infanticide and save the reputation of the women.” The very idea of “saving the reputation of the women” was a radical concept–she wanted to care for the mothers as well as the children.
“Since that small beginning we have received over six thousand children and over one hundred women.” (At this point in the Foundling’s history, it primarily received infants–6,000 is an astounding number. The women were mothers who stayed at the Foundling to nurse their babies. In order to stay, they nursed their own baby and one other baby. The goal was to get the mother back on her feet so she could resume her place in society, and hopefully take care of her own child. The idea of trying to help a woman keep her baby was revolutionary.)
“The three Sisters who began the work with me were Sister Teresa Vincent, Sister Ann Aloisious (sic) and Sister Frances Liguori. They all continue in it except one. We remained on Twelfth Street one year, and then rented a house on Washington Square, paying $7,000 a year in rent. We remained there three years. In the meantime, we obtained this lot of ground from the city on lease for ninety-nine years, at a nominal rent. By an act of the Legislature the city was authorized to grant us $100,000 provided we could procure a similar amount by private subscriptions. We collected it in about a month. At one single fair we realized $71,000. The rest was derived from private subscriptions. The sum of $320,000 has been expended on the property, buildings, etc. We left Washington Square and came to our new building Feb. 1, 1873. We had about 50 children then.”
That such a “humble nun” had the vision to incorporate the Foundling Home and the business acumen to raise large sums of money and create an economically viable agency is astounding.
Sister Mary Irene summarized: “We commenced this work with two cups and saucers. The first morning we had to beg our breakfasts. We slept on straw on the floor the first year, rolling the mattresses up during the day.” The report noted: “Since that time about a million dollars have been expended by the Sisters, and they now have what is said to be one of the best buildings in the city.” (A million dollars…in six years…)
The report noted: “On the date of the visitation (when the commission members went to the facility), there were five hundred children, and about one hundred nurses in the institution. In addition about one thousand children were being boarded out, at the expense of the asylum. These children are brought, at frequent interval, by those having them in charge, to the Sisters, to be examined as to their health. On Wednesday, preceding our visit, one thousand children were thus brought to the asylum, and after passing inspection, were taken back to the homes in which they were being nursed.”
“‘A great many children in the Asylum,’ Sister Irene said, ‘are between the ages of two and five, the oldest child is about six years. Our first plan was to take the children and keep them; now we return them to their mothers who sometimes come and claim their children. There is no child that cannot, from its first arrival be traced. We have returned hundreds to their parents.'” (Again, the idea of “family reunification” was quite forward-thinking. It is not clear how children could be “traced” or what this means exactly.)
The report contained detailed physical descriptions of the facilities: “Nursery No. 1 contains sixteen iron cribs and sixteen iron bedsteads. Each crib accommodates two infants, the larger beds, which stand one beside each crib, are for the nurses. The cribs have straw mattresses and husk beds.” (The nursing women slept next to each crib, immediately available to the babies as needed.) The cribs also had mosquito netting to protect the little ones.
The facility, located on 68th Street, between Third and Lexington Avenues, consisted of an Administration building that was five stories high, made of brick and stone. It was ninety-nine feet wide by sixty feet deep. It also had a kitchen for the community, dining rooms and offices.
The day-to-day operations were a huge logistical undertaking. There were sewing, linen, and visiting rooms, as well as dormitories and an infirmary. On each side of the Administration building, Ward buildings with large pavilions at each end were under construction. Each story would have a children’s washroom, a small kitchen, a room for stem drying of linen, and a closet and bathroom for nurses. In the basement would be offices for physicians, dispensaries, waiting rooms, nurses and sewing rooms, small kitchens, storerooms and closets. (Imagine the endless work of maintaining food and hygiene for so many little ones and the staff.)
Basements also had coal bins and ices vaults. The entire facility was heated by steam and lighted by gas.
The facility had very tall ceilings, with the first floors having ceilings that measure 15′ 6″, and upper floors being a minimum of 14′ tall. The height of the ceilings and the large windows allowed for considerable light and airflow, minimizing the contagiousness of illness.
So, Sister Mary Irene led an agency from the equivalent of a single family apartment, to a larger home, to a facility that was the size of a small college. While she certainly must have had considerable help, she also must have possessed amazing leadership ability, business skill, and compassion to have brought this about.
Shortly after the American Civil war, New York was a bustling and chaotic place. As Stephen O’Connor described it, “torrential immigration and the nation’s easy transition to industrial capitalism had divided American cities into hostile camps of the affluent and the desperately poor. In no city was this division more pronounced than New York, which started the nineteenth century with a population of less than 40,000 and ended it with close to a million and a half.”
The commissioner of the almshouse (poorhouse) stated that many of the Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine would have been better off “cast in the deep sea than linger in the pangs of hunger, sickness and pain, to draw their last agonized breath in the streets of New York.”
Desperate parents discarded infants or left them at churches. These abandoned babies died at extremely high rates from disease, exposure, or malnutrition. Those providing care to infants generally accepted that they may simply be providing the child with a “better death.”
Older children living in the streets may have lost a parent to illness or alcohol. These children might sell newspapers or find some other means to make a little money. They often slept in alleyways.
Traditionally, cities dealt with these children as young criminals. Charles Loring Brace, founder of the Children’s Aid Society, wanted to provide the young ones with an education, jobs, and a place to stay. He opened a home that fed them and offered classes and religious services. He eventually came up with the idea of “orphan trains” where he would send children away from the filth and disease of the big city, and to Protestant farm families, where the children would learn the value of hard work and they would have fresh air.
Around the same time, Sister Mary Irene Fitzgibbons approached her superior, Mother Mary Jerome, about her idea for a hospital for foundlings. Mother Mary Jerome took the idea to Archbishop John McCloskey who enthusiastically supported the idea.
In October 1869, the Sisters of Charity purchased a four-story brownstone, and they planned to open within a few months. They had to adjust their plans when, the very first evening they occupied the new home, October 11, they heard a crying baby. And later that night, another arrived. Within three weeks, the nuns were caring for 45 babies. Two and a half months later, the total was 81. Their mission had begun, as the New York Foundling Home.
Within a year, they had to move to a new location. In their first two years, they cared for over 2,500 infants.
While the need was tremendous, not all were supportive. Some people argued that such a home would make it easier, or would even encourage, parents to commit adultery or to abandon their children. On the other hand, babies were already dying in large numbers, and the need was great. The archbishop also knew that the Children’s Aid Society was a “competitor,” and was providing children with a Protestant faith foundation.
Taking care of so many little ones was physically and emotionally exhausting. Little was known about germs and disease, and this was a time where illnesses could spread rapidly. Prior to the invention of infant formula, malnutrition was common, and infants often died for lack of mother’s milk. The Foundling developed a program where babies were sent to live with women who served as wet-nurses throughout the New York and New Jersey area. The Foundling would check up on the condition of the little ones, and once a month, the women were required to bring the infant in for a medical examination. If the child was in good condition, the woman would be paid a small amount. All infants placed out would be returned to the institution when they reached the age of two.
While many of the children at the Foundling arrived there as infants, some children arrived at older ages, frequently due to a change in life circumstances in a family. Perhaps the death of a parent, loss of work, alcoholism or other illness–a desperate parent would leave a child for safekeeping, hoping to return later when things improved. Sometimes a mother would stay at the Foundling, nurse her own child and one other. The Foundling hoped to get the mother back on her feet and she’d be able to leave and care for her little one.
By the 1870s, multiple organizations were following the example of Charles Loring Brace’s Children’s Aid Society and using “orphan trains” to place children in new homes. The most widely accepted estimate is that approximately 250,000 children were sent on trains, but there is no single record to verify the actual number.
While modern thought may see the placing of children on trains and shipping them to new families to be naive and unimaginable, the sheer number of children coming into the small number of aid organizations in the big Eastern cities dictated that something had to be done. The Foundling, for example, within 25 years of opening its doors, had over 2,000 children in residence, plus additional children in outplacements, and had an active program of sending children to new homes. All of these children had immense needs, and the Foundling did its best to meet those needs. And while the exact numbers cannot be calculated, there are millions of descendants of those children who survived because of the care provided by the Foundling.
While researching the Yarnell branch of my family, I came across an amazing piece of history. I had long known that the Yarnell (also spelled Yarnall) family is well-documented from colonial America to the present.
Philip and Francis Yarnall came to America in 1683 to be part of William Penn’s new colony of Pennsylvania. Philip Yarnall is my 7th great-grandfather.
Recently, I thought to look at eBay for items related to my family history. One particular item caught my eye—a book titled Forty Years of Friendship: Correspondence of Lord Coleridge and Ellis Yarnall.
Ellis Yarnall was a great great grandson of Philip—I will have to do more work on the family tree to calculate our exact genealogical relationship.
Ellis was very well-traveled and was, truly, a citizen of the world. His friend, Lord Coleridge, was an English lawyer, judge and Liberal politician. He held the posts, in turn, of Solicitor General for England and Wales, Attorney General for England and Wales, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas and Lord Chief Justice of England.
I purchased Forty Years of Friendship, thinking there might be an interesting bit or two of family details, but I’ve found it to be an incredible piece of history. The letters between Coleridge and Yarnall provide a window into the thoughts of two prominent gentleman about the events of their times—and they contain ideas very relevant to the present day.
The book was published in 1911, about six years after the death of Ellis. It was edited by Charlton Yarnall, Ellis’s son. (Charlton is a fascinating character himself, and I may write about him down the road.) The book opens with letters dated in 1856, as the two men discuss issues of race and slavery.
Regarding slavery, Coleridge states: “It has always seemed to me that there are peculiarities in the question which a foreigner cannot understand. I have heard Americans, with whom on every other subject I seemed to agree generally in feeling and principle, use language on this which filled me with horror, and I am sincerely persuaded that there must be something more than a foreigner can see, on the surface of the question, to explain the intense disgust which very good and gentle people among you feel for negroes and negro blood.”
Coleridge does not express support for immediate abolition of slavery, though, as “Southern men cannot be expected to submit patiently to absolute ruin, and to what I suppose would be in many cases confiscation.” He continues: “But what puzzles me is to hear the institution, pure and simple, defended, and that nothing seems to be done, or attempted to mitigate its iniquities or prepare the way for gradual abolition.”
Coleridge’s next letter brings up the presidential election of 1856, a time when tensions were running quite high in the buildup to the Civil War: “At Washington one would expect some, at least, of the best men in America to be met together and the prevailing tone of the place ought to be decorous and gentlemanlike…I really feel that either we do not in the least understand America, or else that what is bad and ruffianly has a greater ascendancy there than any true friend of liberty can think of without sorrow and mortification.”
Ellis Yarnall replies: “I rejoice that you feel interest in the great struggle in which we are engaged in this country…You do well then to watch the present contest, and your sympathy with those of us who are struggling for the success of liberal principles, is well bestowed. I have given myself to the cause with ardour, and there are many around me who are like-minded. Here in Philadelphia there is a great deal to be done; we are in one sense a pro-slavery community, for the influence of the money-getting spirit is very much opposed to the love of a wise liberty. Then, too, people of Southern birth are among us, and there have been marriage connections and there is neighbourhood—a sort of border feeling. And, as you say, timid and refined people are averse to entering into what they call politics.”
Yarnall then gets more specific: “In regard to this Slavery question the South is now greatly excited: they are a fiery people and at present are not in a condition to listen to reason. Their leaders have told them the North is refusing them their rights, and the story is believed.” Later Yarnall notes that a Southern leader had advised his constituents that if Mr. Fremont wins the election, then Southerners should “march to Washington and seize the Archives and the Treasury.”
To be continued…To be notified of future articles, enter your email in the box in the right side of this page and click Follow.
“I think healing happens in spite of what actually goes on. It creeps up on you.” –Kim Schotte
My grandfather, Joseph Aner was born on the last day of April in 1896. He was not given a middle name. This fact bothered him throughout his life as he viewed this as a sign of how quickly he was given away to be placed in an orphanage. It is not even clear than his surname was Aner—one database interprets the handwriting as saying his name was “Auer.” The New York Foundling Home records say it was Aner.
The question of his original surname is unanswerable and irrelevant really—whatever the name, it was made up. Neither of his parents bore that name. That name, like the those of his mother and father, was created to take away any traces of his true identity.
Prior to the age of five—I have not yet been able to find out exactly when—he was placed on an “orphan train” to Nebraska where he was taken in by a couple willing to raise a child. Unfortunately, the mother in that family died, and the father was unable to both work and take care of a little boy. Joseph returned to the Foundling Home to live.
What did it feel like not to have a family as a young child? Then to have one for a short time? Then to return to the orphanage?
As a psychologist, I know that children often have a type of “magical thinking” where they blame themselves as a means of making sense of their experiences. What did Grandpa think and feel?
I have talked with various people who know bits and pieces of my grandfather’s life. I know that when he came to Wardsville, Missouri, he first went to a family where he was physically abused. I have heard details of this, but see no benefit of sharing them here. Somehow he was then taken in by the Markway family, a surname he ultimately took on as his own, a name I now share.
When I began searching for Grandpa’s history, I was focused on finding his parents. After two years of searching, I knew the name of his father. A year later, I knew his mother. And, I had a photo of her.
I thought my search was complete.
But then new questions emerged.
I had noticed that Grandpa had changed his date of birth on documents. Why? Also, he had told a few of his descendants that his mother was named Abbie Doyle. How had he discovered her name? His actual birth date?
My mother had once said that Grandpa had gone back to New York and found his mother. But she didn’t know any details. This could explain how he would know her name. I have speculated that learned his actual birth date on that trip. How would I ever know if this is true?
I wondered how Grandpa ended up with the Markway family. I heard from someone in the family that the parish priest came to the Markways and persuaded them to give Grandpa a home.
I wanted to know more about Grandpa going to Nebraska—where? What exactly happened? How old was he? How long was he there?
As the questions kept growing, I had to accept that I would never know the answers, that the answers were buried under the sands of time.
Over the past twenty years, my siblings and I had requested information from the Foundling Home several times. My sister received a response stating the date Grandpa came to the Foundling Home, and that he went to the Markway family where he was “dearly loved.” I was told that there were no records, and how 120 years ago, they didn’t keep the kind of records I was seeking.
In 2019, I heard that the Foundling was digitizing their records. In February 2020, I made one more request. I didn’t have any expectations, but I had a little bit of hope. Then Covid hit New York City, and the city came to a standstill.
In early January 2021, I received an email from the Foundling, an email including “all the records” they had on Grandpa. There were just four pages. Two pages were the front and back of an index card that gave one or two sentence annual updates on Grandpa with the Markway family. (There was no mention of Grandpa going to another family in Wardsville first, nor of his time in Nebraska.) The front of this index card didn’t tell me much.
Then I looked at the back of the card, the second page of the records I received. A one-sentence note dated December 13, 1926 says: “Joseph asking about his History. Joseph Markway” So, Grandpa did return to New York and ask questions. That is where he learned his mother’s name. I still don’t know if he met his biological mother, but it now seemed possible. He was motivated, and it appears someone told him some things—his birth date for example.
The other two pages of Grandpa’s records consist of two letters from St. Stanislaus parish in Wardsville, the town where he grew up.. One, dated February 24, 1903, reports that Grandpa was placed with another family, after the man is his previous home “passed to eternity.” The letter also notes that this was a “change no doubt for the better.” This suggests Grandpa’s first home in Wardsville was abusive, as I had been told.
I have always wondered how Grandpa endured so much trauma and became such a loving person that I wanted to honor him by filling in the missing information of his life. How was Grandpa so resilient?
Psychologist Louise Silvern describes resilience as “that wonderful word for something we don’t understand.” Maybe I don’t need to understand why Grandpa survived and thrived to the point that his descendants revere him. It’s enough to have known him.
At age 30, he was searching for his mother, and in some ways I suspect, he was searching for himself. The pain of not knowing his parents, of being left in an orphanage, stayed with him. But Grandpa showed that the opening of his life did not define him. As he watched his kids and grandkids grow up, the healing crept up on him.
April 30, 2019 is my grandfather’s 123rd birthday. Joe Markway was friendly and sociable, making him well-known around Jefferson City, Missouri. Grandpa died when I was just 11, and the main thing I remember about him is his sense of humor. I can still hear his laugh and see his smile. I had no idea how much sadness he must have endured.
He was born in 1896. His birth certificate lists his mother as Adelaide Auer, or Aner, depending on how you read the cursive handwriting of the time. He was born at Misericordia Hospital in Manhattan, a hospital that primarily served poor, unwed mothers. The next day, he was left at the New York Foundling Home, a Catholic orphanage run by the Sisters of Charity.
Grandpa came to central Missouri in 1901 on an Orphan Train, and he was taken in by Fred and Catherine Schnieders Markway. I have seen only one photograph of him with the Markway family and it is clear that he is not their natural-born son, as he is several inches shorter than everyone else.
His early life could not have been easy—being left at an orphanage, first going to Nebraska on an orphan train but having to return to the Foundling Home when the father in his first adoptive family became ill, and then going on a second orphan train to Missouri and becoming part of yet another family.
He endured more trauma as a young man fighting in World War I. My older brother, Jack, asked Grandpa about that once, and it was clear that my grandfather was haunted by his experience in the war, and he didn’t want to talk about it.
At some point—no one currently living knows exactly when—Grandpa returned to New York to look for his birthmother. Upon returning to Missouri, he supposedly said that he was “a Markway now.” No one knows what he found in New York. Jack recalls our grandfather as sometimes starting to talk about being left at the Foundling Home, and then stopping, as though talking about it made the emotions all too real. But once, Grandpa spoke of his mother being named “Abbie Doyle.” I have no idea how he would have found that name.
Joe Markway married Bernadine Katherine Bruegging in 1921, and a year later, my father was born. Two years later, the couple had their second child, Mary Dolores, but she would die at the age of two. They went on to have two more daughters.
As I put together this summary of my grandfather’s life, I am struck by the sheer quantity of sadness. At the same time, all this sadness is somewhat surprising because that is not what I saw from him. I don’t know how he handled it all.
As a relatively young man, in his early 30s, he opened his own business, an automobile dealership. He sold Hupmobiles, and up and coming brand at the time. I remember hearing stories about how to sell someone a car, you also had to teach them to drive. He eventually also sold other brands—Plymouth and DeSoto. His business was growing and he was well-liked. He knew how to sell and he loved the mechanical aspects. He repaired the cars he sold—he did everything.
But then, the Great Depression hit. The Jefferson City newspapers report that he was touring Hupmobile factories in September 1929 to learn about the new models coming out. One month later, the stock market crashed, and I assume new cars became few and far between. Newspaper ads for Cole County Motor Company show new cars for sale in 1930, and then used cars for sale, and by 1932 the classified ads primarily focus on automobile repairs with only an occasional car for sale. There are no signs of his business after 1932.
After that, Grandpa appears to have had a few different jobs, but his primary career after that was as an auto mechanic, working for local tire and auto repair companies.
I have many memories of my grandfather, but they are more like photographs or short film clips. I can’t connect them all to the broader story. He died in 1970 when I was 11.
When my family moved back to Jefferson City from St. Louis, I was just three. Our family of seven moved into a two-bedroom house, and Grandpa and my brother, Jack, finishing the attic of the house into one big bedroom I shared with my two older brothers. For a while, Grandpa shared that bedroom as well. That attic, with no air conditioning, was rather unpleasant in the summer.
I don’t remember how long Grandpa lived with us, or why he left. I seem to remember him going to live with my aunt and uncle, the Fergusons, and their kids. (If you live in Jefferson City, you may very well know one or more of them—Rob, Gary, Shelley, and Lynn.)
I was always curious about Grandpa’s past but never really expected to learn more.Over the years, I had contacted the New York Foundling Home (now the Foundling Hospital), seeking information. Once they responded that they had no information, and another time they said the only records they had showed him as being adopted by the Markway family and that he was happy there.
A little over two years ago, I took an Ancestry DNA test. I hoped to find Grandpa’s mother—I don’t know why I didn’t think about finding his father. I really had no idea what I was doing. I had searched online for Aners (and Auers) online previously but hadn’t found anything too promising. When I got my test results, my DNA matches, several weeks later, I had no idea what I was looking at. I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who shared DNA with me. As of today, I have approximately 34,000 people who have taken an Ancestry DNA test and are related to me.
My mother, Ruby Yarnell Markway, was related to everyone in the United States it seemed. Many of her ancestors came to colonial America in the 1600’s, and they were prolific to say the least. So, it was quite a task looking for people who were not part of her family. Eventually, though, I identified a small number of people who turned out to be connected to Grandpa’s father. I have communicated a great deal with them and hope to meet one of them this fall.
To that point I still had not identified anyone connected to Grandpa’s mother. I had searched everywhere for an Abbie Doyle, but searching for a common Irish name in New York at the turn of the century is not a very productive use of time.
I scoured census records for women named Adelaide Auer and Adelaide Aner, but couldn’t find anyone by those names who would have been the right age.Then, one day, I found one of my DNA relatives had an “Ada Auer” in her family tree. I was so excited—this could be the one! But, further research revealed that she only became Ada Auer years after my grandfather’s birth when she got married.
I felt like giving up. What were the odds I was going to find Grandpa’s mother when I didn’t even really have a name. Adelaide Auer likely was a fake name.
I have asked myself why I’m so obsessed with this, why I feel a need to know where Grandpa came from. My answers are hard to explain. I somehow feel I owe it to him, I know that with each passing generation, the task grows more difficult. He clearly felt that need to know his roots and going back to New York. I don’t know where he would have even started, other than maybe returning to the Foundling Home and asking questions.
So, I tried to start with a clean slate. I was able to identify a group of people connected to my paternal side—they shared DNA with me, my brother, and my cousin, Gary Ferguson—but did not show any connection to my paternal grandmother (the Brueggings and their ancestors) nor to the Van Stens (my grandfather’s father). As I searched, I realized I was tracing a vein of gold in the gold mine.
But things were far from simple. Where do I go from here? How do I figure out how these people connect? I started looking through the family trees of those people who had shared them online. There was good news and bad news—I was finding some recurring names…but they were Irish. Every family had children named Michael, Patrick, John, and my favorites, Mary Margaret and Margaret Mary. Every generation was like this!
As my frustration grew, I was looking at a family tree, and there it was—Abigail Camille Doyle, born 1873 in Northampton, Massachusetts.
“Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is ‘cor’-the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant ‘to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences—good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as ‘ordinary courage.’”—Brene Brown, psychologist
I feel vaguely anxious. I can’t really identify what it is, or what thoughts I’m having that trigger the anxiety. Last night I couldn’t fall asleep.
Tomorrow I am running a 5k, something I’ve done many times before. I’m not a particularly fast runner—I usually come in somewhere in the middle of the pack for my age group. I’m fine with that. I use the races as motivation to keep exercising. It helps me get on the treadmill when I know I have a race coming up.
This past November, I was training for a 5k. It was taking me a bit longer than usual to get my distance up to where it needed to be, but I was confident I’d be able to do the race. I had run a little over 2 miles on a Saturday morning. Then, on Monday morning, I had a heart attack.
On Tuesday, I had a catheterization that revealed serious heart disease and I had a stent placed in the “widow-maker” artery. I recovered well, went through rehab, and gradually returned to exercising.
On paper, I didn’t have many risks for heart disease. I have always exercised. I played sports through college and I’ve been a runner for the past ten years. I ate decently, watching my fat intake, except for a remarkable fondness for pizza. I have always been thin. I still remember my first baseball game in college. When Coach Dix brought me in to pitch in New Orleans against Tulane University, I heard this guy with the most charming southern drawl say, “Gee, number 13, you’re so skinny you could tread water in a garden hose.”
Throughout my life, I have had recurrent dreams of being able to fly. Sometimes, I have had a cape and have been Superman. I’m not quite as skinny in those dreams.
“The universe is not short on wake-up calls. We’re just quick to hit the snooze button.”—Brene Brown, psychologist
Back in my 20’s, I had my first real brush with my mortality. I had some health issues that knocked me over the head and reminded me that I was not Superman. I still remember the neurologist starting our conversation by saying, “You’re probably worried you have a brain tumor, right?” I stammered in reply, “Actually, no, that had never occurred to me…”
It was around that time that I had a dream, a dream that made me wake up laughing, a dream that I didn’t need to be a psychologist to interpret—I dreamt that I was Clark Kent and could not find a phone booth. Yes, I was just as vulnerable as everyone else.
Last November, I had no idea that I was about to confront kryptonite. On that Monday, November 15, I was walking down the hall at work and stopped briefly to talk to a friend. As we finished our conversation, I had a strange tingling sensation in my left arm and heavy pressure in my chest. I began having tunnel vision and it took everything I had to remain conscious, to remain alive
I made it back to my office, sat down, and the symptoms all went away. I knew I had to get to the hospital. I didn’t want to go by ambulance though—all I could envision was getting wheeled out of the building with hundreds of people watching. I knew I could get there on my own—because I was Superman, of course.
I drove myself to the ER. Apparently Superman is not too bright.
Within seconds of arriving at the ER, blood was drawn, I had an IV, and EKG was done. The EKG was abnormal. My troponin level was mildly elevated. They handed me some chewable aspirin that still had that orange flavor I had liked as a kid. I flashed back to being a kid, being sick, and being taken care of.
Within 75 minutes of my arrival, I was upstairs in a room in the cardiac unit. Electrodes were monitoring my heart. I received clot-busting medication through the IV. Physically, I felt fine. Emotionally, I was in a daze. There was so much to process, but I didn’t even know what it was…
As a psychologist, I used to work with heart patients, at the very hospital where I was now a patient. I knew many of the nurses. One of them had organized a 5k I ran in a couple years earlier.
As a patient myself, though, I didn’t know what was going to happen. Would I recover? Would I be disabled? Would I even survive? As all these thoughts sped through my head, I felt a strange feeling of relief, a feeling of acceptance (or was it denial?). I was able to let go of many of the things I worried about on a daily basis—it was clear that they didn’t matter.
The next day, I had the cath and had the stent placed. In another day I was home. All went well. That’s the short story.
The longer version is this…
When I left the hospital, I was exhausted walking the short distance to the car. When I got home, I plopped down on the couch, short of breath. With the heart attack, the catheterization, and the meds, I became short of breath just walking across the room. After a few days, I tried walking on the treadmill at a slow speed. I lasted only a few seconds before feeling dizzy and out of breath.
I got bored doing nothing and began loading and unloading the dishwasher. I got light-headed when I bent down and stood up. This eventually got better and I was thankful for being able to do simple tasks.
After about a month, I started cardiac rehab. I couldn’t do much at first, but my confidence grew over time as I increased both intensity and time on the equipment. I started doing some exercise at the YMCA.
I’ve continued to train, and it has all led to this. Tomorrow I run.
But why am I nervous? Running, in some ways, is my return to life. Running is an affirmation. Running is also a reminder that all this can be taken away. Just as I developed an appreciation for being able to do simple tasks after my heart attack, I appreciate being able to run, to move. Running is part of my identity, a part I came so close to losing. I am a runner.
Tomorrow is a reminder that I will lose this ability someday. Tomorrow is a reminder that I am vulnerable. I am not Superman. But I can feel like him for 30 minutes.
Afterword: I completed the race in 28:30, a minute-and-a-half faster than my goal. I felt good during the race and even better after. Thanks to all for your support!
I had a heart attack nine days ago. The next day, a cardiac catheterization found one coronary artery 80% blocked (a stent was used to prop this one open), another 70% blocked, and one on the right side was 100% blocked.
I had been feeling fine and had been training to run a 5k on Thanksgiving day–tomorrow.
I had been a little more tired in the afternoon, but hadn’t really given it a second thought. I’ve always been on the skinny side. (The first game I pitched in college, a vociferous southern gentleman suggested I was so skinny I could “tread water in a garden hose.”) I had a decent diet (conscious of watching the amount of fat I consumed). I never smoked. I had annual checkups that found my cholesterol and triglycerides to be in the acceptable range.
Last Monday, I was walking down the hall at work. I stopped briefly to talk to a coworker. At the end of that conversation, my left arm tingled like it was falling asleep. I felt pressure in my chest. I had a moment of tunnel vision.
I knew something was wrong with my heart.
I walked back to my office and it all went away. My denial kicked in and I momentarily thought everything would be ok. But, thankfully, I knew better. I needed to go to the hospital. I told my assistant I was leaving to go to the doctor, but I didn’t tell her why–I didn’t want her to worry.
I still had enough denial, though, to drive myself to the ER (what in the world was I thinking?).
Within moments of arriving at the reception desk of the ER, I was in a room with three sets of hands on me (starting an IV, giving me an EKG, and drawing blood).
I had not yet called my wife, Barb. I didn’t have my cell phone with me. You see, I had given it to her in the ER the night before when I had gone in due to a weird sensation in my arm. That night, my EKG was normal. The strange feeling in my arm followed a specific nerve pathway. It appeared that I may have had a pinched nerve. (Even in retrospect, that was a reasonable hypothesis.)
This time, my symptoms were much stronger, much more clear. I asked the nurse to call my wife, and Barb was there within minutes.
At various points, I thought about my brother Steve who had died suddenly from an apparent heart attack 18 months earlier.
As brothers, Steve and I had some things in common. But we also had significant differences. We were twelve years apart in age and sometimes it felt like we were from different generations. When I was younger, I sometimes felt that he was a parent more than a sibling.
We also had significant personality differences. He felt queasy even walking into a hospital. I became a psychologist, spending some of my time consulting on medical units, primarily with cardiac patients.
Here I was, sharing one very important thing with him. I was having a heart attack. But mine was different–I had some warning.
That day, I felt I had a choice. When I had the tunnel vision, it seemed that I had the choice of whether or not to live–not whether or not to go to the hospital–but to LIVE. I felt I could have allowed myself to let go, to die, right then and there.
I can’t explain it. Who knows if what I’m describing is literally true. All I can do is say how it felt.
I did not feel fear. I did not feel that I needed to run from death. It felt okay to leave, but I wasn’t ready.
I didn’t want to leave Barb. I didn’t want to leave our son, Jesse. I didn’t want to leave the rest of my family.
It wasn’t my time to leave.
When I was wheeled up to the cardiac floor, I saw several nurses I knew from the time I worked there. It was comforting that they still worked there, that they are so committed to their work, and that they remembered me.
Physically, I felt fine. Emotionally, I was in an altered state. I knew my life had forever changed, even though I didn’t really know what that meant.
Barb was with me the whole time, loving and supportive, knowing just what I needed without me having to say a thing. Other family members came to see me. By this time, Barb had brought me my phone and I had emailed and texted friends and coworkers.
Late that afternoon, I encouraged Barb to take a break.
As I rested quietly in my room, I looked out the window and could see the tops of some very mature trees. I watched them sway gently in the wind and thought about how good my life has been.
I have a beautiful wife that has loved me for 27 years. We share a grown son who brings kindness and compassion to the world. I have done important work. I have always had everything, and more, that I needed.
Death was close, but for some reason, now was not my time.
The next morning, I went through the cardiac catheterization. I came out feeling fine. The next evening, I was home with instructions to relax for the next couple weeks until my follow up appointment with the cardiologist. At that time, I may need another stent, although that’s not certain.
I’m not saying this has been easy. I have experienced a whole range of emotions and shed some tears. But, for some reason, I am still here and I don’t exactly know why. Maybe I’ll never know. I have been rethinking my priorities without really knowing where this process is taking me.
I encourage you to read the whole column by Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester. He describes how we should not just be thankful for things, but for time. Time is the real gift we have been given.
This year, more than ever before, I am thankful for the time I have been given.
Please consider Frank’s thoughts as part of your Thanksgiving prayer:
“…this Thanksgiving, I’m shooting for being thankful of when. I’m hoping this long moment which is my life will find its knife’s edge at that table, filled as it will be with bounty and surrounded as it will be with love. I’ll try to be aware–keenly aware–that this moment always comes unbidden and, in that way, I am always being given a great gift. For that, I’ll be truly grateful.”