Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Anna of the Snows

Who was she? I wondered as my husband’s cousin spoke about their relative. What did she feel? What was going through her mind? What had her life been like, all those years ago in Montana and Ireland and Montana again?

It was my husband’s family reunion, people from his mother’s side of the family. I like them. They are generally gentle-humored and gregarious. They generally have happy children who are all cute as the dickens, even when they are no longer children. They are very Irish-American and sometimes I’m not even sure I’m qualified to know what that is in spite of my own roots. They embrace others to their family so it was not a 100% Irish crowd. And there are gazillions of them.

OK, perhaps that’s an exaggeration. When I compare to my own family, my family is definitely dwarfed in numbers. I have four cousins. I met one of them once. People in my family apparently decided, based on their own experiences, not to have children. I’m not sure what that is, exactly. I do have nieces and nephews and they have children, so at least from my father’s side of the family the genetic possibilities have not died out. For the most part from my mother’s side, though, my brother in Texas and I are the end of the line. We were my father’s second family and neither of us had children. Having what I think of as a “reduced” family experience, I’m always curious about other people’s families.

My husband and I feel a part of a couple of other families we know. Rocky and Kay were very close to us before they died and we enjoy their children’s families whenever we can. And we are close to Geraldine and her family, happy to be included as often as we are, honored to be considered family to them.

The family reunion last summer was special because so many of my husband’s family whom I adore attended. It’s not that everyone always gets along; it’s family after all. But they really did very well. We laughed and said, No bloodshed, no stitches, no police action, no fire department, no emergency vehicles. The kids were happy. The adults were happy.

It was even more special because people in my husband’s family whom I had never met also attended. Such sweet people! And Cousin Margaret from Massachusetts presented a family history lesson to show everyone how everyone was related. It was more than that, though. It showed us just a glimpse of who these people were, almost like they had attended too.

Con O’Neill died in the mines in Butte, the “richest hill on earth.” Just thinking of that, you could tell how difficult life was for the miners and their families. But there was more. Just after midnight in the first hour of June 9, 1917, a fire started in the Speculator Mine and spread to the Bell-Diamond Mine. Con was a foreman, risen within the ranks, a respected man. He and his family lived in a little better home provided by the mining company. A memorial stands today in Butte listing the names of those who died. Uncle Con had leapt from his bed when he heard the alarm and, ignoring his wife’s pleas to stay, had gone down into the mine to bring more miners, “his boys” back out to fresh air. He saved some but died himself. He was mourned as a hero.

There’s more of course. The moment he died, his wife and family were no longer eligible to live in foreman’s quarters. Anaconda came knocking soon after the funeral. Con’s wife Julia found herself a widow with her four young children and homeless within the same moments. How did they manage? It wasn’t until the early 1950’s it was discovered that Anaconda owed Julia and her family a pension, which, after some discussion apparently, they paid until her death in 1955.

My favorite historical relative, though, was Anna of the Snows. She was my husband’s grandmother’s twin and Con’s sister. She lived in Butte and while visiting relatives in West Cork in Ireland, her husband Mr. Harrington died. She returned to Butte and later married a Mr. Reilly who left her. She lived with her sister Mary.
When I think of this part of the story, I always think of, “Home is that place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

It seems that in spite of the hard knocks of life, Anna Reilly was a gentle soul. She worked at the WPA sewing club which met at the old high school. On Saturday afternoon, October 15, 1938, Anna went to the sewing club and afterwards about 3 pm, as a blizzard moved in, she started the short walk home. Dressed in a hat, a black dress and red sweater, she became disoriented in the swirling snow. Search parties, over 100 people including nephews and other relatives, were sent out but the blizzard was relentless. She was not found until three days later on the slopes of Big Butte.

There’s more of course. It seems she had declined to wear a coat when going to the sewing club. And when last seen after the meeting, she was walking in the opposite direction from her home. She was just 60. There was speculation that she had been struck with “a sudden amnesia” or slight stroke. She had been forgetting things lately. Maybe she just lost her way in the world.

I think about her life and losses. I think about going home to Butte and what her sister said about her, that she did not have many interests outside the home besides sewing. I think of the swirling snow, her inadequate sweater and hat.

The Michael Martin Murphy song “Wildfire” goes through my head, written 30 years after her death. Anna was not chasing after her lost beloved pet pony. She was just trying to get home and instead stumbled and fell near the site of the Big “M” on Big Butte, her hat and purse found nearby.
I imagine she did not notice the cold for a while as she wandered confused. In the swirling blizzard, the notions of up, down, east and west start to be meaningless. I have one picture of her, a dark haired woman, tall for those days, with rimless glasses and a lace collar on her black dress, looking life directly in the face. I imagine she grew tired and as she stumbled on the side of Big Butte, determined to rest a bit before rising to gather her things and go home.

That was not to be her path. Instead, she walked away from the comforts of home and the love of family into a fate that haunts me just a little. I see in her the 8 of Cups, that gentle soul, a traveler on her way, who ventured through her life which took her away from love not because it was her nature to deny it, but because Nature Itself called her to a different path. She is my Anna of the Snows.

She reminds me that life’s path does not always take the direction you want, towards what you ask for. Instead, it takes you to your path, whether you ever know why or not.

Best wishes.

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