McREYNOLDS: Our family secrets still feel haunting

Be Afraid, But Do It Anyway

Our family secrets still feel haunting

Erna Morgan McReynolds, raised in Gilbertsville, is retired managing director/financial adviser at Morgan Stanley’s Oneonta Office, and an inductee in the Barron’s magazine National Adviser Hall of Fame.  She lives in Franklin.

Nature or nurture is a question I keep asking myself. Why have I always been afraid? Did I learn fear?

Why did my parents keep to themselves? Kept us close to them?

No overnights with other kids. Or other kids sleeping at our house.

Maybe not just because our house wasn’t as nice as the other kids?

My family lived secrets. Were Mom and Dad just shy? Or were they really afraid? That they would be shunned by neighbors? That they couldn’t measure up? That they might jeopardize the life they wanted to build for their girls’ futures?

Dad had told us why he emigrated from Northern Ireland. But was this the real story?

I had believed his story. It shaped my life. With four daughters on a farm my Dad needed sons. In the 50s and 60s, probably, a man needed at least one son.

I thought that was me. My father’s only son. The one who would follow in his footsteps. Immigrate to a country halfway around the world. Make my lot in life and my children’s and grandchildren’s better than his had been. Keep his name. Pass the name on.

As kids, we had thought Dad was truthful because when we pleaded with him for his tales, he retold his stories word for word — the same as he had told them before. And over and over the same.

We did beg him too. Our family were outsiders. My sisters and I wanted to own some history like the other kids had. Growing up outside our little village founded in the 1700s, families and our classmates had history. Lots of relations. The cemetery was filled with their ancestors. They had grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins who lived nearby.

In contrast Dad’s stories came from Northern Ireland.

We knew the stories about his illegal spear fishing for eels, cutting peat in the Cloghog Lane where he grew up. His living on a farm in northern Ontario when he first arrived from Belfast. But he didn’t tell how he got to the U.S.? To his job on the Long Island Railroad where he met Mom’s Dad? Those were among his secrets.

Did he keep any of those secrets because he had been wounded by being called a “mick?” Did he want to stay out of the limelight? Was he trying to dodge the spotlight? For some reason? Why did it take him almost 50 years to get a U.S. passport?

What about something vague we had heard about a first wife in Canada? Did that really happen? Just kids’ fertile imaginations? We didn’t even dare ask for the truth. What if he had committed some crime? Escaped from the Mounties to the U.S.

My cousin Tommy had told me about my 18-year old Dad leaving for Canada in 1926. Let me believe that Dad went seeking fame and fortune. You know in my mind I believed I was his only son.

When I immigrated to New Zealand I was simply following in his footsteps. On my way to a better life.

Decades after Dad died, my cousin Tommy told me a different story.

And now more than 90 years after my Dad boarded that cattle ship from Belfast, I am not sure I know the whole saga.

Remember that Tommy was the same cousin who had me believing in the little people living in the hedges. He knew how to spin a yarn and completely suck me in.

Dad was a policeman, in addition to working the family farm, Tommy said. He patrolled the country lanes. During the ‘’troubles’’ in 1926, those lanes near Belfast had become a hotbed. One day cutting peat Dad found a warning note, “24 hours or you are dead.” A note from the IRA, Tommy said. And his story goes on. Dad had escorted the local Roman Catholic priest on his nighttime walks. That priest negotiated a week for Dad to leave. The community raised money to buy him passage on a cattle ship to Canada.

Now that was a big, long-kept secret. But what had he done? He always said “the troubles” were nothing big.

Then why did he get a death threat?

95 years later I still don’t really know. A mystery. A secret.

Did I learn being afraid from him? What about my Mom? She kept even more secrets. But that is another story altogether.

Did I lock those fears inside but charge forward anyway?

Fear? Or desire?

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