Letters for a New World
“Mither, mither, I want to pish in the strone,” he said in Scots slang, looking into the Atlantic as the steamer sailed from Scotland to Philadelphia in 1872. My grandfather, about age two or three, was telling his mother he wanted to piss in the stream.
“So you can judge how much of an impression the great Atlantic made upon the small Scotch lad.” I read this from letters my grandfather wrote to his son, my uncle, always referring to himself in the third person — he or lad. In life, he also went by Mac. The letters covered 1934 to ’37, the last three years of Mac’s life, about two decades before I was born.
Four generations, rather than two, might have separated us, but my father was born later in Mac’s life and was 41 when I was born. The reach of fathers now spans more than 150 years through the telescoped generations.
Mac’s family were weavers in Paisley, one of the poorest towns in Scotland. Using handlooms, they wove shawls in the paisley teardrop pattern using wool dyed in colors such as seaflower bled, pearl ash, Congo orange. The weavers had their own poets and were considered the most well-read among Scottish workers. Laboring tedious hours, they listened to books read aloud and kept canaries to entertain them. The town was known for its paradoxes, puritanical extremes and yet its political radicalism and drunken squalor. Or maybe the religious fanaticism roused those fierce contradictions.
When the shawls were no longer fashionable, Paisley weavers struggled for work until Philadelphia factories recruited the craftsmen to make carpets and rugs in the States. My great grandfather left to work as a weaver in a Philadelphia mill and brought his family over later — a wife, Mac, a frail girl of five, and a baby boy.
The whole ship vibrated from a loud propeller in the crossing to “the New World,” as my grandfather called the U.S. The dank-smelling steerage was an open area with tables and bunks secured to hold steady through the roiling North Atlantic. Many passengers were too sick to move for most of the voyage but left steerage for the deck when they could. Mac might have played there with a weaver’s broken loom shuttle, twirling it like a top.
In Philadelphia, the sound of horse-driven streetcars and wagons rattling over cobblestone streets could be heard for blocks. Men with buckets of water sponged off horses collapsing from heat in summer.
Mac’s Scottish burr was so strong he wasn’t understood. “Mam, mam, a laddie threw cly in your bine,” he tried to tell a neighbor about a boy muddying her washtub.
When Mac was older, he helped at a horse stable and had a finger crushed in the cogs of a hay cutter. He turned a streetcar track switch for a conductor who paid him a few cents, money he spent on chewing tobacco. At the shipyards, he tried to join a ship’s crew to leave home but was too young.
In his letters, Mac began to reveal more about his father and the harsh childhood that would follow him for life.
A stern Presbyterian in religion and a strict disciplinarian, he inspired fear rather than affection in his children . . . If I were chastised for something I did not do or was not guilty of, no amount of whipping could make me even whimper. It only intensified my hatred of my father. I believe I never feared him. I never loved him. I never feared him. I believed I really hated him . . . I can now see that he was but following out what had been “bred in the bone,” that the wife and children were not equals but only subjects to himself.
My grandfather’s earliest memory was about inadvertently bringing a hatchet down on his brother’s fingers as Mac dug a hole in their yard, impatient for his brother to move quicker. Mac crawls under a bed to hide from his father, who grabs his leg and lays on a razor strap.
The picture of the hole, the dangling fingers with blood running from them, the bed, and the frightened boy, and the hand that seized the leg and the strap that came down with a stinging sensation are all vivid after more than fifty years, a half a century. For memory not only recalls an experience but says, “I passed through that experience.” Such a record is part of one’s very life and helped to make . . . individuality or personality.
One of Mac’s favorite memories was going to a circus with an undercurrent of fear that he’d be punished for it.
Now the city had been decorated with billboard pictures of the Great Railroad Circus . . . — fierce lions in cages. Monkeys. Leopards . . . And above all, the clowns . . . But the idea of ever seeing a circus was beyond me. First your grandfather was a Presbyterian of the old school. Theatres, circuses, cards, dancing were all roads to perdition and strictly forbidden. Besides, I had no money.
A friend told Mac not to worry about getting a licking and paid their way into the circus with coins he’d stolen.
We visited all the side shows. . . . Drank pink lemonade, ate quarts of peanuts. Saw the bearded lady and tattooed man . . . Elephants. Camels. Beautiful women riding wonderful horses . . . We sat with mouths open . . . It was 3:30 in the afternoon when we started for home. Then the realization of what was coming dawned upon me.
His schoolteacher had sent a boy to his house to inquire where he was, and Mac’s mother was worried he’d drowned in the river.
I told her of the wonderful day I had at the circus and all about it, with ardent promises of reform. The wood was split, the coal brought up from the cellar . . . Promises were made of the most righteous kind if only she would not tell. Finally your grandfather came from work. I waited in breathless suspense. The story was not told. Your grandmother had an understanding heart, and she would not spoil a perfect day. So no licking came.
Mac would ditch school, “bag it,” whenever he could and head for the Schuylkill River for a swim or to slide and skate on the ice in winter.
We had a good time and everything was forgotten till it came time to go home, then life was not so rosy. I knew what was in store for me . . . A hand was run through my hair and if the roots were wet, I got what was coming to me . . . But I tried to comfort myself with the thought, Well, I have had plenty of fun. Why dread the strap? . . . For what is five minutes of licking to five hours of fun?
At last your grandfather saw that force from without could not change the force from within. . . . So he said to your grandmother, ‘Since he will not go to school he must go to work.’ The three R’s were supposed to be enough education for the average boy. He was then ready for work in the mills. . . . He said he could keep his eye upon me but I fooled him in many ways. I was always quick to pick up a thing and fast in doing it. So I would wind up a lot of bobbins and sneak out for the day, often getting a whaling when I got home. By 16, Mac was skilled at weaving staircase carpets.
They were narrow so I could easily reach from one side of the loom to the other, and I became proficient. . . . In fact, I could bring home a bigger paycheck than my dad. I got cockey [sic]. A very unwise attitude . . . If we should disagree, there was only one solution and that was the strap or blows . . . Here were two antagonistic spirits, one that dictates what you must do and one that seeks to express itself in its own way . . . It is the right of the individual to direct his own life and not have it directed by an outside force.
I came home one evening when your grandfather had been imbibing too liberally in scotch. In that condition, he was usually belligerent. He first picked on me, and when your grandmother intervened, he struck her. Well, that was too much for me. With a high hander, I laid him out. Fearing the consequences, I left the house. Near where we lived was the Lancaster Pike, a road that led from Philadelphia.
At a railroad construction site, Mac hid in a dirt-filled cart that was hauled away by horses. Maybe he was cold as he bargained with the severe God of his upbringing, worrying about his mother and brother left behind. He thought of his sister, who had died a few years earlier from illness, now watching the family with exasperation or maybe repose.
Mac ended up by a wheat farm in another county. He was hired on to work in the fields, paid in room and board. Later he took a job as a driver working on the railroad.
I was able to get a few dollars ahead and at the end of the season I was determined to get back to Philadelphia and look up my people. But I found that they had moved from Philadelphia to Canada.
After my grandfather’s death, my grandmother found a remaining letter to my uncle that Mac may not have sent.
Well, I went to work at my old trade of weaving. And at that time I began to have a desire for a better education. I worked during the day and went to night school. As you recall, up to my 8th year I hated school and every chance I had would play truant. I did not even pass the primary department.
Of course when I went to night school I had much to learn . . . But I was quick to learn and in earnest to get ahead. I worked that way for two years, saved my money, and decided to go to Canada where the folks were.
I had not seen my people for four years. I recall the greeting I received. My mother gathered me into her arms, held me tight, and tears rolled down her face. Dad and I just shook hands.
Mac worked again in a rug factory with his father but left after his mother passed suddenly, and his brother died from an accident a little later.
Finally I decided to give up the work and go to school. That was the beginning of my real education.
Years later I’d learn about the schools my grandfather attended and moves he made around the country. Bucknell Academy and then a BA in Literature in 1894 from Amherst, at the time a school for “indigent young men of piety and talents for the Christian ministry.”
Mac worked as a coach and an English literature instructor at Stetson University in Florida. He then attended the Divinity School at the University of Chicago and took classes toward another degree in English. Later he became an assistant pastor in California and a pastor in Chicago.
In 1900, he enrolled in Yale Divinity School and Yale Graduate School, receiving a master’s in philosophy in 1901. My grandfather tutored wealthy students to help pay his way through Yale. A photo shows him and another student in suits and ties, peering into weighty tomes in a Victorian study. Mac is handsome with sandy hair, a moustache, and glasses.
At Yale he tattooed a cross on his arm. Maybe it was religious passion or possibly self-punishment. He might have been at a desk, jabbing a sewing needle and fountain pen ink under his skin for the painful creation.
My grandfather became a pastor in Connecticut and then moved west to Washington state in 1903. From the moves, it would seem he was restless, conflicted, maybe pressured by inner dictates to pursue ministry, but his interest was in literature and philosophy.
Mac had already turned away from the Presbyterian Church and ministering, maybe struggling with a God who melded into his harsh father. Perhaps he could no longer advise others how to live, or maybe ministry was what his father wanted for him and he rebelled, the conflict on his arms, one with and one without the cross.
In 1910, Mac came to White Salmon, Washington, to campaign for Teddy Roosevelt. Arriving after dark, too late for the ferry, he took a rowboat across the Columbia River, according to the local newspaper, and reached the town hall in time to boost for Roosevelt.
Mac stayed on, sold real estate, and helped develop an orchard company, using a root graft method. He became the town’s mayor and part of the effort to build a highway to the Portland area through the Columbia River Gorge.
Mac first saw Viola in White Salmon where she was on vacation. The sky is grey and about to rain. Mac makes an inquiry at her hotel. A school teacher in her early 30s, intelligent, friendly. Her long brown hair is swept up in a twist on her head. Viola, my grandmother, rode in the Oklahoma Cherokee Strip Land Run when she was a teenager. If she hadn’t been cheated out of her land claim by relatives, maybe she wouldn’t have ended up here at this time and place.
She notices he’s missing a button on his jacket, and there are worn spots in the weave that require mending. He’s a man who needs a woman but may not know it yet.
They married and moved into a two-story house with a view of the Columbia River. But in 1916, the house burned down. My grandmother watched the smoke from across the river at a hospital where my uncle was born.
My grandparents didn’t have fire insurance, and most of what was saved from the fire was stolen later. I have a teacup that survived the fire, the glaze bubbled over the Asian holy figures on it, their halos flamed from the intensity of the heat.
I believe the fire did something to my grandfather. Disappointment, despair at trying to get ahead and being thrown back into lack. Maybe he believed the fire meant a force taking away good, a damnation for leaving the ministry and his religion.
They moved to Portland where he tried this and that to make a fortune, believing in the promise of America. Mac proudly displayed the flag on holidays, even though it was outdated with only 46 stars and embarrassed his sons.
There were inventions that didn’t pay off, a Mason jar opener and a cleaning solution for chimneys. He tried selling ultra-violet light machines that were supposed to improve health. When cigarettes and soda were selling in vending machines, Mac decided to try apples. He hocked my grandmother’s wedding ring, according to a story, and traveled to California to start a business, but the plan didn’t work out.
My grandfather had realized part of the American Dream, fleeing from the mills to a higher education, but the Depression, hard luck, ill health, and maybe self-sabotage thwarted his plans. He spent his time reading and took jobs cleaning furnaces.
I think of Mac’s health problems — a chronic ulcer and nephritis — as the manifestation of anger and punishment he could never stop. His father still at him from the inside, maybe yelling that whatever he does isn’t enough, not even getting an education. What good was it now anyway?
Maybe it was logical that Mac insisted my father go to a vocational high school instead of one that focused on academics. Mac followed what his own father had done, trying to push his son into a trade, not encouraging him “to direct his own life,” as Mac had wanted for himself. Even in his last years, my father was still bitter toward his father for trying to control him just as Mac had felt.
But Mac had shifted in some other ways — in his religious and philosophical views. In the end he believed in Christian Science and the power of a positive mind.
“Christian Science was just because he was too cheap to pay for medical care,” my father once said. But maybe Mac’s new faith signaled something else, another way of seeing divinity as loving and good, not separate from the world and shaming it.
At the end of his life, Mac was weak from a heart condition, pneumonia, and the effects of chronic alcoholism. He was in pain, bedridden in a hospital, maybe looking out a window at the rain, an apple tree with petals blown loose and sticking on the greying glass. He might have been thinking about what he’d done in his life and still wanted to do. There had to be more time. Which God was with him, punishing or healing? He was a boy again, fearless, without pain, gliding over the bright ice of the Schuylkill River.
In 2005, my husband, Henry, and I made a trip to White Salmon. I saw why my grandparents loved this place with its view of Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge. I got up at dawn to find what I could of my grandparents, trying to locate the foundations from their burned home. I looked in the window of an abandoned, dilapidated house from their era. They might have visited friends there, laughing, singing parlor songs as I’d seen in a photo, someone playing “Pineapple Rag” on a piano.
Henry and I located the orchards my grandfather had helped establish and manage. On the ground was a seedless pear, a sign of the grafting method the company had started a hundred years earlier. At home I planted the whole pear anyway, as if it would magically sprout.
I bought flowers in White Salmon and took them back to the Portland columbarium where my grandparents’ urns were interred in the walls of a locked room on the bottom floor.
As the dead took up residence, the building was expanded. No one goes to the Daisy Room anymore; most people who would remember the dead there are also dead.
A few days earlier, I had located my grandmother’s urn but not my grandfather’s. The place was about to close. A workman tried to help by unscrewing the glass panel that covered what looked like an outdated card catalog drawer in a library. He pulled out the long metal box that held my grandmother’s cremains and looked in the niche for my grandfather’s urn, dropping the screw and then searching for it on the floor. I was startled at first and then wondered if the dead would be amused at human small blunders no longer relevant in their solemn archives.
When we returned from White Salmon to the mausoleum a few days later, I found my grandfather’s urn in a wall adjoining my grandmother’s. Among the papers my grandmother had left when she died was an aged card with a number, possibly a room number. Maybe it was from the hotel where they first met or their honeymoon. I couldn’t find it for a while. They hadn’t wanted to give it up, keeping the number to themselves. What had the card been to them, a reminder of romance, intimacy? Passion so alien now to the ashes contained in separate walls.
Mac wrote that the history of one’s people is “handed down from parents and children,” that “all history begins with traditions.”
Traditions, the transmitted beliefs and customs, the precedents that become future influences — like genetics and generational behaviors. From Mac’s letters, I saw the distillation of both passed down. Possessed by his father and fathers before him, Mac followed in their traditions, alcoholism and the harsh physical punishment of children so common in the past.
As my grandfather had, my father resented his father for the whippings, the expectations he didn’t fulfill, for missed opportunities, for never feeling he was good enough. My father vowed never to physically punish his children but was lost in alcoholism and dark emotional ills.
Too many of those traditions carried over in my family, the chain of human errors, as well as a railing against the reach of fathers. My brother Bill became a behavioral geneticist involved in researching the physiology of alcoholism, an unforgiving genetic disorder stringing DNA through generations. He committed suicide a day before my father’s sixtieth birthday.
In my immediate family, there are no traditions to pass on. There are no descendants. But when there is a next generation, it’s like traveling to a New World with the highest of hopes.
The voyage was supposed to make Mac’s sister stronger, but she’d die in 11 years. In Philadelphia, the father is waiting. Mac will be a boy mesmerized by a circus or hiding under the bed from his father, not realizing that his father was once a boy hiding from his own father’s grasp. Mac won’t know that years later he will be the father, doing what he swears he’ll never do. If he could, he might see the pattern, his father and his sad son as one. Mac might hold them both and tell his boy that he was only doing what he knew, but he knew something else now.
Crossing the strone will bring the new and unexpected. Spectacular as the phosphorescent waves that splashed up on the ship deck at night, illuminating the immigrants’ worn shoes as they laughed and held on in the pitching ship. Someone yelled to step into the waves, that the sea foam was lace and pearls at their feet, a sign from the New World of all the good ahead.
About Patricia MacInnes-Johnson
Patricia MacInnes-Johnson is the author of The Last Night on Bikini (William Morrow and Company, Inc.; published under Patricia MacInnes), a collection of short stories about the nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands during the 1940s and ‘50s. She has been a Wallace Stegner Fellow and a Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellow. In addition to receiving grants from the California Arts Council and the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, MacInnes-Johnson has been the recipient of the Nelson Algren Award for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in Chicago magazine and the anthology The New Generation, among other publications.