A Century of Life and Death

I was startled and relieved when they fell out of my journal at the Al-Anon meeting Tuesday. It was a blessing though. How nice it was to be reminded of these two women, the McManus sisters, whose names I endowed upon my daughter, and who had died decades and days apart from one another. I feel they are still so alive today.

I always felt connected to a woman I never knew, my great-Grandmother, Ellen Hannigan. She died a few weeks after my Grandma Burns was born. For years I thought she died from appendicitis but learned shortly before Bridget was born that it was related to the afterbirth from my Grandma’s birth. Her cause of death instilled great fear in me. Before Bridget was born, I made my husband swear that he witness the passing of the placenta. I needed to know that it passed and was intact. I did not want to die. I did not want to die like Ellen. My fear of death was not solely sourced around Ellen’s death, but also my own mother, who nearly died for the same reason after the birth of her first child, my older sister.

Fears like this are not openly communicated. We bury them like we do the dead. But they are very much alive. And my darkest fear was to give birth to a child and then die. I couldn’t bear the thought of having my child live without a mother. I’m unsure if my feelings were grounded in ego or purely unselfish, but what I do know is that I wanted nothing more in life than to be a mother.

In August of 2004, I attended a women’s retreat in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I remember sitting on a rocky cliff, looking down at the valley below where cows from the north came to graze in the pasture for the summer, writing in my journal slowly and thoughtfully, page after page that I wanted nothing more than to be a mom. Being a good wife, daughter, sister, friend, or having a successful career, none of that was penned. My only thought was to be a mom. Bridget Ellen was born 11 months later.

When I have thought of Ellen Hannigan, what her life was like, what she was like, I always thought of a strong woman. She had to be. Her daughters were. Her son, too. They were all warm. Their smiles combined could melt the iciest heart. There was goodness in all of them. And I was always in awe, that my Grandma, who was raised without her mother, could be the best mother of all.

What we don’t know about people often helps develop our loving mysteries. That is especially true for the dead. My Grandma was hardly motherless. She was surrounded by love. Bridget Sloan was her aunt. Bridget was Ellen’s sister. Two McManus sisters, out of 11, I think? Bridget took her niece Dorothy, my Grandma, after Ellen died, and raised her for the first year of her life. Bridget, or Bryde as my mom referred to her, wanted to adopt Dorothy and raise her as her own, but my Great-Grandfather Martin would have nothing of it. Dorothy was raised with her siblings James and Veronica.  Auntie Annie, a cousin of Martin’s, would raise the children, together with her own son.

God didn’t abandon my Grandma when Ellen died. He surrounded Dorothy with the likes of her mother Ellen, strong women, kind women, determined women, who together made her the woman that she was.

McManus sisters Ellen Hannigan and Bridget Sloan
McManus sisters Ellen Hannigan and Bridget Sloan

I felt that God blessed me Tuesday when the prayer cards fell out of my journal. First, because I thought I had lost them. Second, because of the dates. My Great-Grandmother Ellen Hannigan died 101 years ago today, and her sister Bridget, my Great Aunt, died 50 years ago next week. Ellen was buried three days later, on January 8, a day upon which her daughter, Dorothy, would celebrate the birth of her second daughter, Marie Terese, who is my mother. I have come to associate January with a month of Craven, and Burns women. My Aunt Mary was born at the end of the month and her two daughters celebrate birthdays the first week of January. My mother and Aunt Patsy Craven were born within the first eight days of the month, their mothers, my grandmothers, shared a room at St. Bernard’s Hospital. My sister in law and her daughter, my niece were both born this month. And my niece Hannigan was born this month and is named after her Great-Grandmother Dorothy Burns, without whose birth I wouldn’t be writing this today.

It is a splendid circle of life and death spanning more than a century now. And what a gift to possess the prayers cards that recognize the life and death of two sisters, whose lives continue on today in my own Bridget Ellen.

Dorothy Burns meets Bridget Ellen
Dorothy Burns meets Bridget Ellen


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