Taking The Past Exit

My husband and I were returning from vacation, northbound on Interstate 81.  The highway made a backwards question mark, cutting into the southern anthracite fields of Pennsylvania.  Signs indicated distances to old patch towns–Tremont, Minersville, Donaldson, Port Carbon. As we passed the Tower City exit our conversation took a genealogical turn.

T: “My mother’s mother’s people came from Tower City.”

Me: “The Monahans or the Carrolls?”

T: “The Carrolls. The Monahans were from Shenandoah.”

Me: “Hmmm…That’s a good 30 minutes up the road, even longer back in the 1870s.  How did Margaret Carroll and John Monahan meet?”

T: “I never thought about that.”

We traveled on, but my curiosity took the off ramp into nineteenth century Schuylkill County.  Once home, I burrowed down into Monahan and Carroll genealogy warrens before hazarding any guesses into how T’s great-grandparents met and married in 1878.

The story starts, as so many Irish tales do, with the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s.

Martin and Margaret (Kelley) Carroll made the trans-Atlantic trip by 1848, finding work and community in Minersville, Pennsylvania, the birthplace of their first child.  Margaret, the future Monahan matriarch, was their third child, born in 1854. The family moved west during the Civil War, to the coal seams surrounding the town of Tremont.

Map of Schuylkill County, Minersville to Tremont, 1854

Map of Schuylkill County, 1854. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, Washington, D.C. (Minersville is on the far right, and Tremont on the far left.)

Thomas and Bridget Mona(g)han left Ireland about the same time as the Carrolls, living for a few years in Liverpool, England, where Thomas earned the family’s fare as a laborer on the docks or the railroad. In 1854 the couple boarded the Andrew Foster with their little boys–the future Monahan patriarch, John J., and Michael–and crossed the wintry ocean to New York City.  By the end of that decade, the Monahans lived among the residents of Swatara, a patch town south of Broad Mountain, and a bit east of Tremont.


In 1870 both the Carrolls and the Monahans lived in the area serviced by the Swatara post office.  Margaret was helping her mom make a home; John was an underground laborer alongside his dad.

Patch towns had collieries, schools, stores, and churches.  Surely there was ample opportunity for John to meet Margaret.  Perhaps the young folks lingered after mass or danced together at the wedding of a mutual friend.   I find it perfectly reasonable to presume that Margaret and John flirted, courted and wed because of geographic proximity.

In the last decades of the century, the Monahans and the Carrolls drifted, with various members settling in different towns nestled among the Appalachian hills.  By the time T’s mother was old enough to have memories of visiting, aunts and uncles were centered–the Carrolls in Tower City and the Monahans in Shenandoah.  But that is story for another day.


Thankful Thursday: Sing A Song


The impeded stream is the one that sings.  ~~Wendell Barry

I have not written much on this blog since my mother died.  The daily exercise failed to distract my grieving brain.

Instead I hopped into a genealogical burrow and nosed around through its labyrinth of story lines, tumbling out in previously unknown family territory and time.  The research begged for more than a cursory post.  I drifted for a while, before I befriended a deadline, and realized how important these “time to stop writing” moments are in the process of developing a story, of finishing thoughts, of discovering what emotional responses to ancestral tales actually mean–to me, today.  An article has been published in my local genealogical society’s newsletter.  I drafted a 3000 word essay, that still sucks, but is the transformative story before the story, the first baby step in confronting my family’s legacy of enslaving.

Now I return to the blogger community, to embrace daily prompts, tiny deadlines.  This community is my channel, the place where my stream of words can bounce up against the research rocks, and rush over and under branches of “what ifs” and “whys”, to sing the past into the present.

Thank you for listening to my songs.

MyStory: I did NOT see a Broadwing

In an earlier post, I described my stalking of a juvenile Broadwing Hawk.  I wanted to see one so badly…but around here in northeastern Pennsylvania, late August and early September is Broadwing migration season, where huge kettles can form over mountain slopes as the hawks catch airstreams south.  So watching this singular young’un day after day circle with a stick in its talon or perching on a play set kree kree kreee-ing didn’t match seasonal behaviors.

My curiosity, and birder integrity, demanded that I reexamine my ID.


I do affirm that I have been listening and watching a juvenile raptor.  But that belly band and the striped tail are indicative of a young Red-Tailed Hawk.

Lesson learned.

The next time I think I have an unusual spotting, I will ask myself “why is it NOT a Red-Tailed Hawk” instead of the brain freezing question “WHAT IS IT?”


Wisdom Wednesday: 100>99

Within the last week I read an article about commitment, or rather keeping a commitment.  In sum, the author stated that it is easier to practice your craft or hone your skill, develop new habits and deepen your spiritual practice if you commit 100%.  No creeping “well, just this once I won’t take my binoculars” or “I’ll get to the writing tomorrow.”

So I am committed to this experiment.  If I write every day on this blog or on my work-in-progress Shared Legacy narrative (more on that later), no excuses, will the writer’s block melt?  If I take my binoculars or camera everywhere I go, will I  spend at least a few minutes mindfully every day?  And if I write and deeply look at my world, will I find myself energized and engaged?

What have you, dear reader, decided to commit 100% to?  What tricks did you develop to hold yourself accountable?



Birding by kayak, with camera AND binoculars. Not seen in this shot, the Great Blue Heron fishing off to my right.  Later on I watched a Green Heron play hopscotch on bank-roots.

MyStory: Birding is the only good reason to garden


Edited to reflect reality…*

Yesterday I tried to get super close to a bigger-than-a-crow hawk that sat perched on my neighbor’s play set. Tawny,heavy brow, white lores around the very big, very curved beak, yellow legs, brown and tawny back, white chest, several black stripes in the white tipped tail.

It was not a Coopers, and not a Red-tail.

It just rested and looked around, up and down, barely paying me any mind as a skulked closer, with either  camera or binoculars at my eye. The hawk let out a high pitched whistle, which I instantly recognized as that sound that had pulled me outside for the last month.

It let out another whistle as it unfolded its wings and drifted over the treetops. I raced into the house to examine my shots and ID the mystery raptor…only to notice that my card was still in the computer from last  photo edit. Drat!!!  Fortunately, trying to frame a good field ID photo had focused my attention enough on the hawk’s details that I could trip the empty-camera-card-slot-failure into a success.

I got really close to an immature Broad-wing Hawk!!!

And I ran out of time to weed before dinner prep.  *snaps fingers* Shucks…

Just so we are clear…Gardening is merely the prompt to birding in my backyard.  Binoculars, I have found, must accompany the trowel, or at least be a dash distance nearby, or I just procrastinate the dirt work.  Even then, birds trump plants. Like yesterday…

Night temperatures fell past dew point, and this morning’s herb garden was bejeweled in water beads, leaving even weeds pretty.  Yesterday’s chore had to be completed before the cilantro got crowded out by crabgrass and some mystery choker.  Summer contact calls were music to weed by so out I went, binoculars, trowel, weed bucket.  When I could distinctly see sage, oregano, cilantro seedlings, and thyme, I declared gardening done, and strolled around, glasses in hand, just in time to watch a mustached Northern Flicker and his partner send their sharp beaks between blades of dew-soaked grass.  In the distance, an adult male Northern Cardinal fanned his feathers wide, and a pair of Mourning Doves fluttered in to join his hedgerow morning spa.

Gardening is a gateway chore to my passion.  I relax, content.