NEW YORK, October 31, 2012. In any other recent year, Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village seethes on Halloween.
Usually on this block, come costume time, you see police and news helicopters bleating overhead and dueling searchlights playing over countless revelers who richly define modern bacchanalia.
But tonight, only a silence, strangely deafening.
Heading downtown from work, brother Erik and I crossed a new border earlier this evening, one that separates empowered New Yorkers north of 34th street from we who thought we were plugged in.
Park Avenue descended suddenly into a darkness not experienced recently on Manhattan—the kind prevalent upstate or in wilder places inside and outside America.
What to make of sudden exposure to city life without electricity or heat, and so many attendant perils?
Drifting unsteadily toward an early sleep, sunny Grandfather Ralph came to mind. Born in 1898, scant years after electricity was introduced, he passed away in 1994 on this same night, a lucky moment to leave the world, in some cultures.
Ralph was ever so fiercely proud to be an American. In 1970, he explained to Erik and to me that we should proffer no excuse but proudly serve in Vietnam, even if we were drafted in error. No modern sacrifice paled in comparison to those made in birth of this nation, or when cousin fought cousin as happened between 1861 and 1865 in our family and in many others. This stern warning from such a serene man made lasting impressions on young boys just 14 and 12 in what was a different American age.
Grandfather Ralph entertained Erik and me in a glorious Santa Barbara summer as he grieved over the sudden loss of his wife Margaret, an accomplished woman of pioneer Montana stock who we never actually met. How touching it was then to be with him and see the mist in his eyes as he showed us through their favorite places—the gardens, the beaches and the dry mountains above the ocean.
A special treat was to spend time then with Great-grandfather Will whose first memory was the Chicago fire of 1871 that he witnessed as a two year old.
In contrast to Ralph, Will was a stern man who never drank a drop of alcohol. During each of his adult years, all 85 of them, he kept record of every penny received and every one spent or invested. Thankfully we retain these records though we lost Will months after our return to the West Village apartment where sleep still eludes me.
Patiently, Will in his raspy voice and Ralph in his bouncy one, explained to us bits and pieces of our own story in America.
We learned of Eli Cook, Mayor of Springfield, Illinois from 1846 until 1849 when he rushed for California. Wiring home to Springfield from Nevada City, Mayor Eli was excited to announce his imminent return with hard won riches after four long winters. Instead, our ancestor Julia eventually greeted her father’s coffin. After that fateful wire was sent, a disgruntled customer murdered Eli over a dispute involving a silly barrel of pickles.
There is a shot of Mayor Eli’s California store, done in 1852 by a visiting photographer. Perhaps this picture and a desire to capture memories inspired Eli’s widow, Sarah Cook, to become a photographer long before women commonly worked outside the home. Sarah practiced her trade alone, just near where Abraham Lincoln lived. Ancestors played with Lincolns and other neighbors, life moved forward and solitary Sarah was eventually buried in Oak Ridge cemetery during 1893, well away from Springfield’s favorite, adopted son.
Sarah’s daughter, our Julia, was a woman of gumption. Julia married James Gormley, a much older miner who had crossed to California with Mayor Eli. Fortunately, she kept a detailed journal of her life starting in February 1860 scant months before she left Springfield for Colorado territory as a newlywed of 23.
The life of Julia Cook Gormley is one profile in determination and grit. Starting on highs, she eventually watched her only husband squander their hard-won winnings in “can’t miss” ventures of that heady pioneer era that did miss, and some spectacularly.
Five children came along the way: two died in childhood and two more before she herself passed away in 1920. For her surviving children’s years, Virginia City, Montana was home—a place made notorious by the exploits of vigilantes and outlaws, by Calamity Jane and in the shadows of Boot Hill. James Gormley is buried there just outside Virginia City in a grave still tended to this day.
Austin Carlos Gormley, Julia’s only surviving son, left school around Halloween 1881 as a 14 year old, two days after the death of his father. He then worked as a newsboy for the Madisonian, a paper that still operates today in Virginia City, now greatly diminished from Montana’s gold rush days.
After four years, Julia uprooted Austin and his sister Mabel Montana and moved them to Ann Arbor, Michigan where they enrolled at the High School. Great-grandfather Austin and Great-Aunt May subsequently, if briefly, went from strength to strength.
Austin was valedictorian in high school, standout in law at University of Michigan and a stirring orator. In 1891, he won a speaking contest considering a question worth asking today: Quo Warranto? (by whose authority?).
Following graduation, Austin practiced law and then entered politics, nearly winning a seat in the U.S. Congress following service as a trial attorney
May went on to study elocution at the New York School for Expression, performing at Carnegie Hall with fellow classmates and teaching many places back east and home in Montana.
Like Mayor Eli, May and Austin were eventually lost too soon. May succumbed to illness in 1901 in Great Falls where Austin settled, just next door to painter and sculptor Charlie Russell. Austin died visiting his in-laws in White Sulphur Springs on a hunting trip in 1909—the only doctor in town was too drunk to treat his appendicitis.
Musing back over memories on a challenging Halloween night, we can also try to imagine stories that never end up being told.
How much genius and inspiration is smothered outside America where more than 6 billion souls reside?
How many threads to our past have been snipped too soon?
How many lessons could help bring context to the vexations most face in the wired present?
With so many thoughts running riot last night, sleep came on visions of a tranquil day in New York harbor with my father, scientist Bill.
Sun glinting off far gentler waves than Sandy produced, tall ships preening, our craft gently rolling—4 July 1976 was a moment to treasure.
Father and son imagined then what various ancestors must have sought and what they left behind. We tried to picture what they ate, how they slept and how they cared for those on the long journey to new lives. And from then it has ever been abundantly clear just how special America is and how lucky each one of us is to be born here and to live here, whether pauper or potentate.
Tonight, we all lost one day to put on costumes.
However, we should instead grieve for those few who did not survive Sandy—men like Bill Sword who was felled by nature after having been cut cruelly by man.
Bereft of electrical power, chilled in the cold, all of us stand today inside America on the shoulders of sung and unsung giants.
The struggles of your ancestors and of mine are the lessons we need to cherish and to share, not our possessions or new kinds of unfulfilling experiences tethered across tenuous wires.
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