“Can the dead talk to the living,” the article begins. Apparently they can in Ireland–through their census record that gives them a chance to “speak” to their families one hundred years from now.
Reporting for The New York Times, Ed O’Loughlin wrote an article called On Ireland’s Census, a Blank Box Gives Residents a Chance to Tell Their Stories, about the unique way Ireland has decided to allow its people to share their stories to their future great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren. The 2022 Irish census includes a blank space, which they are calling a “Time Capsule” for individuals and families to write or illustrate a message that will be made available to Irish people a century from now, in 2122.
The Irish people–many of whom emigrated to the United States–are known to be great storytellers, and this mechanism through the census, suggested by Irish senior census statistician Cormac Halpin, allows the men and women of Ireland to share with their future heirs whatever they find most dear to their hearts. According to the Times, no other country has fostered a cross-generational dialogue in this way.
Many people who filled out the blank box on the Irish census form have shared on social media what they wrote. One woman named Amy Dutil-Wall composed a tribute to her much adored daughter, Estlin Luna, who was killed in a car accident when she was nearly 4 years old. She wrote:
Estlin was our 1st born child and the love of our lives. She was never counted in a census and so we are so relieved to be able to mention her here. She was beautiful, creative, funny, so smart & clever, and confident beyond her years. We were honoured to be her parents and honoured still to grieve her for the rest of our lives. Estlin Luna, we carry you in our hearts — love always, mommy, daddy, Mannix & Lucie.Amy Dutil-Wall
Heartbreaking. Yet exalting, because Amy found a way to honor her daughter’s unique qualities, to proclaim that she was deeply loved, and and that she has not been, and will not be, forgotten by her loved ones.
If only our own country had created such a mechanism one hundred years ago. Perhaps my beloved maternal grandparent could have written of her love for my father, and of the terrifying risk she was willing to take to give him life.
As my sister Lisa and I were growing up, our father, Roy Rotha Allen (whose Allen relatives called him Rothie), told us a few bits and pieces of his childhood–and all of his stories were difficult to hear.
“It was hard growing up without a mother,” he would say with great sadness. “I never knew my mother. She died just after I was born. I had a stepmother who was good to me, but my alcoholic uncle who lived with us, ran her off. My mother’s name was Darcus Montgomery, and she was Mormon. Her family were from Virginia.”
We knew very little about Daddy’s family, and what we were told was heartbreaking. After his mother died when he was only 4 months old, Daddy grew up in abject poverty with his illiterate father, Hodge, who worked on the killing floor of a local meatpacking plant; his grandmother Lucinda (which they pronounced Lu-cindy); and his alcoholic uncle whose name we never knew.
Daddy would point to his cheek where he was told a rat had bitten him when he was a baby. It is not hard to imagine that a tenuous situation got worse after his grandmother died when he was 5 years old leaving Daddy in the “care” of his father and uncle. Daddy recalled being threatened with a hot poker, meals mostly of cabbage, and sneaking around to find clean clothes to wear to school. “There were lots of women and drinking,” he would say, but he did not elaborate on the details.
Daddy’s second stepmother, Sarah, threw him out of his home when he was a teenager, and he lived at the downtown YMCA until he and Mama married when he was 21. When I was quite young, Sarah decided that she and my grandfather did not want to see my family any more–which was fine with me because I was terrified of both of them. Their manner was dour and off-putting, and they constantly dipped snuff. With tobacco juice dripping from their mouths, they would kiss my sister and me. The sticky mess would stay glued on our cheeks until we could wash it off when we got home.
It is not surprising that we grew up knowing very little about either side of Daddy’s family. But since we were very close to my mother’s parents, we did not want for grandparents who loved us. We wondered about Daddy’s mother and her story, but we had no means to find out anything more.
However, when I lived in Ft. Worth, my then husband had a co-worker who was Mormon, and I became friends with his wife. I knew that followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly called Mormons, were very attentive to their ancestry. I decided to search for my grandmother through the Mormon database in Ft. Worth, and and learned that her birthdate was, September 7, 1903, in Carroll County, Virginia, and that she had two brothers that were still alive in Kingsport, Tennessee.
It was a start, but I wanted to know more, for Daddy’s sake as well as my own. However, I moved back to Tennessee with my two children–one a toddler–and, after my divorce, became a single parent working full-time to support my children. There seemed to be no time to search for my grandmother.
Decades went by, and my sons Justin and Aidan were grown when my father’s mental health began to decline and he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. My husband Kurt and I felt an urgency to learn more about Daddy’s mother so we could share it with him. In addition to searching genealogical sources online, we traveled to Carroll County, Virginia, in the fall of 2015, to find her grave and to search whatever hard-copy records we could find in Carroll County and Grayson County, where Darcus’s family lived before they moved to Kingsport, Tennessee.
In the 1800s, the Montgomery family owned large tracts of rolling farmland in Carroll County, Virginia, and we found many Montgomery family cemeteries before we found the right one. Finally after checking with the local funeral home, we followed their handwritten map to a huge open pasture.
It was raining, and Kurt and I were both crying when we found not only Darcus’s grave, but those of her parents John and Cordelia, her brothers Robert (who fought in World War I) and Clarence, and the graves of her three little sisters who died when they were young: Rose Elizabeth, the family’s second born who lived and died the same day in 1899; Willie Hazel, who died at 2-1/2 years old); and Luva Vera, who died of the “Spanish flu” at the age of 10. Altogether Cordelia gave birth to 10 children and only seven lived to adulthood. The early 20th Century was rife with diseases that killed children.
Through online sources, Kurt found the granddaughter of Darcus’s sister Eutaw Regina–who was named Jeanie to honor her beloved grandmother. And through Jeanie we came to know my cousin, Linda (Darcus’s brother Stephen’s daughter), Both Jeanie and Linda live in Utah and have countless family photos and stories about the Montgomery family. We corresponded and talked on the phone, but Daddy died on December 2, 2016, never having seen a photo of his mother.
We visited Jeanie and Linda in the Salt Lake City area over the next few years, and they shared many photos of Darcus when she was young, and even a photo of Daddy who visited his Montgomery family in Kingsport when he was teenager.
On our third visit, Linda shared a photo of Darcus she had just found. It was probably taken just after time of her wedding to Hodge on February 10, 1934.
My eyes filled with tears when I saw the photo of my beloved grandmother Darcus with her shy smile, long neck, and thin arms. Intuitively I have always thought my sister Lisa and I must have many traits from our Darcus because we do not resemble anyone in my mother’s family. We look like our Mimi Darcus–for that is what I call her when I ask for her help to find the strength and courage to make my way, to be true to my essential self, to be grateful always for every gift of love and friendship that comes my way, to aspire to be gracious, and to make a difference in the lives of those I love.
What a marvelous God-send it would have been for Daddy to have known his mother, to have seen her lovely face, to know her story.
It was too late for Daddy, but we learned Darcus’s story.
Due to his ill health, Darcus’s father John sold the family farm in Carroll County when she was a teenager, and they moved to nearby Grayson County where she and her sister Eutaw Regina worked as spinners in a newly established cotton mill. Their family doctor cautioned Darcus and her mother Cordelia that she should never marry because, in his opinion, she was not strong enough to risk having children.
Darcus was sensitive and emotionally fragile, and was protected by her mother and sister Eutaw Regina. She loved to dress stylishly, adored her family, and was especially fond of small children.
After Darcus’s father died of cancer in 1924, Cordelia eventually decided to move her youngest son Wilford and Darcus to Kingsport, Tennessee, where they had relatives. Cordelia remarried, and perhaps having a 30-year-old daughter living with her was an impediment. Or Darcus met Hodge Allen of Knoxville, Tennessee, and fell in love. Her mother remembered their family doctor’s warning, and took Darcus to a doctor in Kingsport who declared that motherhood was not incompatible with her sensitive nature, and that she should not be afraid to marry and have a child.
So Darcus Montgomery (age 30) and Hodge Allen (age 31) were married in Sullivan County, Tennessee, on February 10, 1934. They made their home an hour and a half from Cordelia, in Knoxville. Within a few months, Darcus was pregnant. Some of her relatives visited her, she seemed happy, and Hodge was openly affectionate to her. Some time during her pregnancy, however, Darcus’s health began to fail.
My father was born on April 2, 1935, but his birth certificate does state whether he was born at home or in a hospital. Darcus’s family said they were told that she was never able to hold Daddy after he was born.
According to her death certificate, Darcus died on August 12, 1935, at the age of 31, of insanity from pellagra psychosis. Pellagra was a severe vitamin deficiency that afflicted many poor Southerners in the early 1900s. Its hallmarks were the “four D’s”: diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death. Whether the diagnosis by the attending physician was accurate we will never know, but usually it takes four or five years to die of pellagra. It is a mystery how Darcus died of it in a year and a half.
It is a further mystery why she did not die at home or at a hospital. Her death certificate states her address as 208 Jones Street in Knoxville, but it notes that she died in “Maloneyville” at the George Maloney Home which was the work house for the poor in Knoxville. Archival records at the East Tennessee History Center, record that “vagrants, minor offenders, un-wed mothers, and insane persons” were committed to the George Maloney Home. Darcus’s death certificate shows that she died in the George Maloney Home where Knoxville housed its paupers, homeless, and insane people who were not violent. Knoxville’s mentally ill who were violent were committed to the Eastern State Psychiatric Hospital which was officially closed in 2012.
Since my grandmother died only 4 months after Daddy was born, I had always assumed that she died of complications from childbirth, and I suppose you could make a good case for that being true. We will never know how much she suffered, and what the hell she was doing in Knoxville’s Dickensian combination workhouse/poor house/insane asylum for the indigent. And why did Hodge, her hapless and derelict husband, neglect to tell Darcus’s mother that she was desperately ill?
Although it is indeed fortunate that my father never knew the squalid details of his mother’s death, it would have been a gift beyond measure for him to have seen a photo of his mother, to have read a message from her declaring how much he was a much loved and wanted child, even before he was born.
We yearn to know where we came from so we can remember who we are. As in this gorgeous song Remember Who You Are, by South African musician Zolani Mahola:
If the birds up in the trees
Know how beautiful they are
If the mountains and the sea
Know how magical they are
If the stars which made our skin
Show how radiant they are
Won’t they shine their light until
You remember who you are?
You who cried yourself to sleepFrom the song “Remember Who You Are” by South African singer/songwriter Zolani Mahola who performs under the nom de guerre, “The One Who Sings“
Oh remember who you are
You who thought you were broken
Oh remember who you are
You who thought yourself ugly
Child remember who you are
You who tried to bury you
Ooh remember who you are
It is a tragedy for me that I did not “find” Daddy’s mother before his dementia began and before he died. However, for me, knowing her–even the little that we have been able to learn from her family–has given me a home within myself that I never had. It has helped me remember who I am: I am the proud granddaughter of Darcus Nickaline Montgomery Allen and the daughter of Roy Rotha Allen, Darcus’s beloved son and my beloved father.
In the moments when we most need it, may we all Remember Who We Are.
// Anna – 4/30/2022