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Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Five years ago, grieving the loss of my father months earlier, I decided to find my grandfather. My dad’s dad died before I was two, so my knowledge of him growing up stemmed from black and white photos hanging in the dim hallway of my grandmother’s last home, a three bedroom colonial walking distance from our house. My father referred to his dad as a “glad hander,” and perched at his corner stool in our narrow kitchen, painted stories of a man he deemed “a mover and a shaker,” but somehow I never understood the specifics. I own one of the remaining pictures of my grandfather, seated at a round table with my grandmother and then Senators John F. Kennedy and William Saltonstall, but have no idea as to the occasion. We might have learned more, but in a move across town a few years after he died, my grandmother lost her photo albums, so there was little visual left to share.

A few years before my dad died, I had begun to attempt to write seriously, so awash in grief and full of the questions I never asked him, yearning for the stories I’d never copied down, I reached I think, for bricks and mortar—a physical manifestation of my bloodlines. I knew that my grandfather wrote for the Boston Herald way back; that he was an executive with Boston Edison and President of the Clover Club (an upscale drinking club for men of Irish descent; picture tuxedos, political commentary and scotch four times a year).

My longing to know more though, gelled into a mission the day my sister called me to tell me that she had discovered a yellowing copy of my grandfather’s obituary while cleaning out my father’s papers. This supplied a few more details.

The next day, I called our local library, asking if they had archives of Boston newspapers on microfiche. To no surprise, an apologetic librarian told me that our library was too small, directing me to Quincy, our next largest city. There another helpful librarian advised me that my best resource would be Boston. So, one spring Saturday, after explaining my mission to my supportive albeit bemused husband, I drove twenty minutes to the subway, clacked my way back and forth for another 25 minutes, and arrived at the doorway of the architectural masterpiece that is Boston Public Library, a stone fortress which could probably cover the entire acreage of our little downtown.

Obtaining a red library card, I climbed the marble staircase to the archive room, tiled in worn white linoleum lined with rows of three-sided booths housing microfiche projectors. Serious looking people attached spools of film to these unwieldy metal boxes, peering intently at the screens. In my mind, these were doctors, researchers and scientists seeking history to corroborate eminent findings. Feeling sheepish, I threaded my way through the aisles to the librarian, expecting a sigh or a smirk when I told him that I was seeking articles by my grandfather appearing in the Boston Herald--I didn’t quite know when. With a smile, he showed me how to fill out a request slip, suggesting that I seek my grandfather’s obituary for a start. Once I supplied the date of his death, he produced a film; and instructed me how to feed the spool to view the material recorded within.

Shortly, I had copies of my grandfather’s obituaries from local newspapers and was abashed to discover that there were something like seventeen ordained celebrants at his funeral Mass; “Honorary Bearers” included two US Senators, a Secretary of State, a former Mayor of Boston, several US Representatives and the Ambassador to Canada. While that was all well and good, what mattered to me was discovering the specific dates in which he was the Washington Correspondent for the Boston Herald.

With that information scribbled on a slip of paper, I returned to the archivist, who offered me additional films. Squinting at the worn type, I found a January 1, 1929 Boston Herald article by my grandfather titled: “System used to Name Baker Successor Hit—Civil Service Commission View Called Backhand Slap at Coolidge.” Turning the crank, I discovered: “Kellogg Pact Foes Hurl Taunts at Borah in Hot Senate Session,” then “Robinson May Join Fight on Kellogg Pact,” and “Hoover Asked to Pick Prince for Cabinet.”

Digging in my pocket for a supply of quarters, I fed them into the machine, printing out copies of his articles. Before long, my change was gone, but I had a stack of pages, evidence of my grandfather in print and ink that I could bend and fold and shuffle in my hands. Returning home, I made copies for my siblings and mailed them off.

Today, the sheaf of articles lays in the drawer of our living room desk along with sympathy cards for my dad that I haven’t been able to part with yet. The sheets containing my grandfather’s work are shadowed and difficult to read and with a lack of context, almost impossible to understand. None of which matters, because I left Boston that day peaceful with the knowledge that in finding this side of my grandfather I had somehow touched my dad, and that this visit to the city had also reaffirmed an intrinsic piece of me.

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