Great-great grandparents sounds so remote, but it’s really not. My grandmother’s grandparents, Charles Ambrose and Mary Mackin Plamondon were killed when the Lusitania was torpedoed 100 years ago this week. It was their wedding anniversary that week, one that by all accounts they celebrated with great tenderness.
My mother was enormously close to her grandmother, Charlotte Plamondon Ripley, and these were her parents. Lolo, as we called her, was 32 when her parents died, a young mother. Her sister Marie was 34, Blanche was 29, Charles was 25 and Harold was only 23.
Here’s a photo of Mary. She looks like the kind of mother a person could rely on, the kind of mother you’d really miss. They were both missed, enormously. I have a big diamond ring that originally belonged to Charles Ambrose, and that was passed back and forth between a couple of branches of the family. My grandmother gave it to me when I turned 40, and I love wearing it since it’s odd and distinctive and has a great story.
Mary’s parents met on the boat over from Ireland. She was born in New York state, and eventually the family made it to Chicago, and then out to Leland, following the railroad. When Mary’s parents died, a group of the Irish relatives sued for the property, claiming that the oldest male relative should inherit. Mary and her sister Sarah wound up in court for years, and eventually took the case to the Illinois Supreme Court and where they established that women in this new nation, unlike women in Ireland, could indeed inherit property.
Charles’ family had immigrated from Canada, and had a foundry business out of Ottawa, near the Mackin farm that is still in the family. They were a big and merry bunch, who from all accounts spent a lot of time in and out of one anothers’ houses, cousins being raised, as we were in my generation, like a big pack of siblings. My cousin Elizabeth Plamondon (Cutler), descends from one of Charles’s siblings, and yet, even as distantly related as we are, we were raised close, and then spent much of our 20s together in Telluride.
Charles Ambrose and his siblings still had the foundry started by their father, and he had built a gear company — they did the gears for the big ferris wheel at the Columbian Exposition, as well as for the first elevators in the Eiffel Tower. They’d been on the Lusitania because they were going to Dublin to sell a pneumatic malting system to the Guinness factory (which led to a contract dispute arbitrated as part of the reparations settlement by the international courts after World War l), and it was the Swift family who brought them, and the other Chicago victims, home in their newly-invented refrigerated cars (Maria Swift and I grew up together — we share a birthday, same year, same day).
I don’t have an image of it, but there’s a heartbreaking letter in the family archive — Charles and Mary and their children used to come out to Yellowstone, on the railroad, the one that comes right through Livingston where I now live. They travelled like the Edwardian rich people they were — staying in big canvas tents and eating off real china with table linens etc. But they came back, year after year, and there’s a condolence letter from the people who ran the outfitting company, who were based out of Helena. They’d seen the news in the paper and wrote a letter so touching that nearly 100 years later, going through that box with my grandmother, it brought me to tears.
The funeral was at Holy Name Cathedral, and was a big public event. Here’s the photo of the crowds being held back, and there’s another one that’s difficult to see that shows people lined up all down the sidewalk. They were prominent in Chicago, and of course, they’d died in a huge public event, akin to the 9/11 of their day, so it was also an occasion for patriotic display.
A century on, it’s tricky to pinpoint the personal ripples in the family from their deaths. The family fortunes began their long slow decline, and who knows, perhaps with a vigorous patriarch (or matriarch, knowing our family) the following generations might have had both the encouragement and the capital they needed to grow the small fortunes they were left with. Or perhaps not. They were still a fascinating bunch, who built settlement houses and ran the logistics for the liberation of Italy during World War 2 and played polo and foxhunted and had a pretty grand old time. That my mother’s generation seemed eager to spend the last of the capital, rather than build anything out of it, might just be one of those things. Life is funny, and you never really know how people will turn out.
The big mausoleum is still there. My brother Michael was the last one buried there, in 1972, after he died from childhood cancer. And as eager as I was to flee Chicago, where I felt suffocated by the way all our families are all still so entwined, I also find it a comfort that I found a Mackin relative out here (a fellow North Shore expat). People are always sort of shocked that Dan and I discovered we’re cousins, but as I like to say, if you’re Catholic, and Irish, and your people were well off in Chicago at the turn of the last century, well, we’ve all intermarried in the meanwhile, so chances are we’re cousins somewhere along the line. I like to tease Dan about trying to steal our farm, since he comes from those other Mackins, the ones none of us even knew existed until some Plamondon relative from the Michigan side (descendents of Blanche, the third Plamondon sister) came out to the farm to talk to my grandmother in her old age. They had scrapbooks filled with clippings about the case. . And all these years later, Dan and I are both living out here where he and his wife run a restaurant and catering business, and I have my weird little high-tech job and try to write books. The American saga, migration, reinvention, and in the case of Irish families like ours, lots and lots of storytelling.