Thursday, September 01, 2005

A heritage worth holding fast to

Published September 1, 2005

My mother, a native of Nebraska, loves to tell stories about the old aunts who tucked her into bed in the house on Toluca Street with the bed warmers and the big front porch. She was the youngest of five children so she essentially grew up after her older brothers and sister had already either moved out, went into the military or married. I guess it’s safe to say that even though she came from a rather large family by today’s standards, she also knew what it meant to be an only child. Her mother’s sisters were the old spinsters from the Walton’s. They were born and died in the same house. My mom loved them both.

The family of my mother’s mother (Grandma Margaret) are a long line of Irish from the family “Barry” in County Cork, Ireland. They came here and pioneered Iowa and Nebraska. Great-Great Grandma Bridget came into Ellis Island and headed west to Iowa and pioneer living. Her daughter, Great Grandma Rosa made her home in Box Butte Nebraska. My kids’ only point of reference for pioneer living is the “Little House on the Prairie” books. I really need to dust off my Willa Cather books. The Barry’s must have been strong women. I’ve been to Nebraska and unless you’re in town, there isn’t much more than long grass, bluffs and corn. Your only friend is the wind. One thing I learned over the last two weeks about the Barry clan, is that they come from goodness and faith.

It wasn’t until Grandma Margaret was married and grown, that my family made its journey to California when my mother was around 4 years old. They settled into Sonora and Oakdale. You can still see my Uncle Bill’s mural in the Horseshoe Bar, something he painted 20 years before I was born. It takes up the back wall of the entire bar. If you know old timers in Sonora, they’ll tell you all the people depicted in the mural were locals in the 40’s, people my Uncle knew.

After Grandma Margaret and Grandpa Chet settled in Sacramento, our roots took hold in California. My mother lost touch with her Barry cousins after her 8th grade graduation and hadn’t seen any of them since then. That is, until two weeks ago.

My mother took up interest in genealogy several years ago and was able to hook up with her cousin Kay on a road trip to Kansas City. This prompted continued communication with her by letter and phone. My sister Terry took the “bull by the horns” and really climbed into the family tree. She turned up mounds of information by sending away for records, using the internet and following up on leads. We would get the updates at each family gathering as to who she had found, how far back, and their names. Only by cross reference was she able to confirm their link to the family.

When Mom heard that the Barry’s were having their family reunion in Oregon last week at Newport, she asked us all to go with her. We headed up I-5 wondering if the California cousins would be welcome. They opened up their hearts and home to us in a reunion weekend I am sure my mother will not likely forget for a long time. I saw my Uncle Chet in cousin, Danny. Barb, Peggy and Geri were reminders of my grandmother in little ways I can only now comprehend. Cousin Tim was born when my Mom last saw them. He was the baby and you could tell that his sisters still care for him like mothers. In getting to know these people over the weekend, I thought of the aunts on Toluca street who tucked my mother into bed when she was little.

All the cousins sat in the same pew for Mass on Sunday. I couldn’t help but think that the faith of the Catholic Irish, born long ago in the time of Saint Patrick, has survived long into 2005. Even though these cousins were separated by 50 years, some things never change. It’s a heritage worth holding fast to.

Tammy Maher is a resident of El Dorado Hills and bi-weekly columnist for the Mountain Democrat. You can reach her at

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