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I have a picture of my great-grandmother Kate McLaughlin, whom I keep with me - sometimes on my writing desk - sometimes hanging above the piano.

She travels with me on school visits and kids ask about her.

It's a youngish picture of her - a kind of headshot but she isn't looking directly into the camera. Her hair is pulled back into a modest bun, and the top she's wearing is made of lace that gathers around her neck.

She kinds of looks like Helen Keller from the pictures I've seen of Helen Keller, but I'm sure it's the style too.

This is what I know about Kate McLaughlin, my great-grandmother on my father's side.

When she was a young girl her mother left Malin Head, Ireland to visit her own grown children who had immigrated to the States.

Malin Head is the most northern tip of Ireland located in County Donegal. I found Malin Head by hitchhiking in 1982 when I was an exchange student in England, and on Christmas break I went to search out my Irish relatives to see where Kate McLaughlin had lived.

Kate's mother, Katherine, had something like nine children and most of them emigrated from Ireland to places like New York, Philadelphia, and Washington DC. She missed them terribly but still had two young daughters in Malin Head, and her husband, who was a fisherman.

The fisherman husband didn't want her to go to America to visit their children. He made it clear he didn't want her to go. So she made plans and went anyway. The day she sailed away without his permission, her husband, John McLaughlin, was out fishing and saw her and called, "Katherine, come back! Katherine, come back!"

But she waved and went on to America to visit her kids. Kate and her sister, Maggie, stayed behind. Sometimes, I wonder what it was like for little Kate and Maggie alone with their father, waiting for their mother to come home.

And Katherine did come home, eventually, and then her daughter, Kate, moved to America. I don't think Maggie did. I think Maggie stayed in Ireland and raised a family.

Kate McLaughlin, the daughter of Katherine, moved to Washington DC. She married a John too. They had four children: Joseph, Mary, Bubby (John), and Benedict. Benedict died of scarlet fever when he was three.

My mother told me that when Joseph, her father-in-law, was "in his cups," he would cry out, "Benedict! Benedict!"

My mother found this ridiculous as Benedict had been gone fifty years, but I used to study the picture of Kate's children - Joseph, Mary, Bubby, and Benedict - and I often wondered how she stood it.

This is what else I know about Kate.

She was very tall and they said, "The height of her would scare you half to death looming in the doorway."

I think she was six feet, but was she? She didn't look that tall in pictures.

She hated having her picture taken in later years, and so the few pictures I've seen only show the blur of a woman dashing out of the frame and up the stairs.

She was a terrible cook. My father said she'd make things like bologna or boiled fish spaghetti - awful stuff. He hated going to dinner at Mama Dear's house.

Kate became "Mama Dear" to her grandchildren.

I keep Kate McLaughlin's picture in a red frame. My cousin, Mary Margaret, gave it to me. Or maybe Mary Margaret's sister, Tricia, gave us each a picture of Kate McLaughlin. We are second cousins and it was thrilling when we realized as teen girls that we shared the same great-grandmother.

These days, I hang Kate's picture on the wall. I carry it to my desk. I study it for clues. I think of her as a young girl watching her own mother sail away to America.

I think of her as a young woman sailing away herself.

I think of her terrible cooking and wonder if she ever wanted to do something besides cook.

I think of her losing a child and carrying on.

So her picture is a keepsake of mine. It's not large. It's not worth anything, but I hope that after I am gone, one of my kids will want to keep it.


Box of Letters

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