How often have I done this myself—scribbled a note on a piece of scrap paper the instant I came across something I needed to remember, and then forgot where I put it, or where that last detail was stowed that needed to be recalled?
Coming across such a telltale sign while going through the papers of Agnes Tully Stevens prompts such a feeling of instant identification with her sister Lil. I can see myself, in a rushed moment, wanting to—needing to—note some particular detail, like the specific date of death of a now-gone loved one, but in the haze of present loss getting sidetracked despite good intentions to follow through with my quest.
On the outside cover of a folded note, in a hand not at all similar to that of the correspondent, was a quickly jotted note:
Died when? Did Lil just forget? Had it been a long time prior? Or just a recent occurrence? Why did she want to remember it at this time? Was it due to the subject of the letter, or was the letter just a handy piece of scrap paper that came to hand at just the right moment?
I don’t know how long it took Lil to look up that tiny detail whose precise recording loomed so much larger in personal impact than did the encoding of it. For whatever reason, Lil never returned to that hastily scrawled note to complete the record. But I know the date now, and have tucked it away for safekeeping.
Catherine, the only child, the daughter abandoned by her father when an infant of barely one year of age, the one whose intrepid mother refused to stand by and let the man slip away even if it was to be shrouded by the distance of a storm-tossed winter ocean—this Catherine lived a full seventy-four years, completing her journey from her native Ireland in a thriving Irish-American community on the south side of Chicago. She completed her journey there on March 6, 1922, being laid to rest by her children and grandchildren at Calvary Cemetery in Evanston, Illinois.
The funeral notice for Catherine was modest. Buried on page 21 of the Chicago Tribune the very next day, it said simply—and complete with the inevitable journalistic errors:
TULLY--Catherine Tully, nee Maloy, widow of the late John Tully, beloved mother of the late William, Mrs. Austin McGonogle [should be McGonagle], Lilly A., and Mrs. William A. Stevens. Funeral notice later. For information call Yards 0124.
There was, of course, no “funeral notice later”—at least, not as far as I can determine. But that was alright. For a widow of her age, surrounded by family who, mostly, lived within close range of the family home, and connected within a tight-knit neighborhood and church family at St. Anne’s Church on Chicago’s south side, everyone who knew her would undoubtedly not need a newspaper to discover the date or location of her funeral mass. In an age sans cell phones, texting and email, the connections were palpable, not “virtual.”
Some time after March 6, 1922, Catherine’s daughter Lily must have decided to arrange for special masses to be said on her mother’s behalf. Judging from the rather informal tone of the letter in response, the arrangements must have been made with an organization—or at the very least, a specific priest—familiar with the family. The Tully family women had—over three generations, as it turns out—developed the fine art of encouragement in communicating with several priests and nuns whose paths they had crossed during their time in Chicago. While I have no idea who the “S. H. Wand” of this particular letter might be, he is evidently someone whom Lil had already known for quite a while.
Inside that letter which bore the scribbled reminder on its cover, the message, though apologetic, was simple:
Dear Lil:Just to let you know that your letter with its contents came safely into my hands. I have not been able to say the masses as yet. I’ve been busy with some that I had taken upon myself to offer for your mother. I wanted to send you a “spiritual bouquet” card with that assurance, but was not able to lay hands on a card. –Hope you are wellHastily,S. H. Wand
While the letter bore no date, no return address, no envelope to reveal even a postmark, it whispered the slightest hint of a mother who was remembered not only by dutiful family members, but by those others who also appreciated her imprint upon their lives.