Sunday, July 6, 2014

An Unobtrusive Life


While Charles Andrew Creahan, well-known businessman in the Chicago area, saw his life’s trajectory arc from obscure origin as the son of Irish-Americans in rural Indiana to successful board member and president of his own company, his sister Edna never left her quiet life in Lafayette. Second-born child of John and May Frawley Creahan, she was welcomed into the world on an undisclosed day in January, 1895, and remained in town until her burial there in 1961.

What little can be discovered about Edna is now there online for all the world to see: census records for 1900 through 1940 (though the record for 1900 won’t come up in FamilySearch, nor will the record for 1940 come up on Ancestry), city directories as late as 1960, and the entry provided at the end of the tale, courtesy of the volunteers at Find A Grave.

There was, of course, a smattering of newspaper mentions, thanks to online newspaper archiving services. For instance, the Bloomington Evening World mentioned, on the front page of its August 14, 1917, edition:
Miss Edna Creaham, of Lafayette, is the guest of Lyman Fulk and family and Mrs. Ella Fulk, south Grant street.

Other than a visit to her aunt and cousin, however, not many details emerged that could help a family history buff reconstruct a sense of Edna Creahan’s life. She never married, it is clear, and remained in the family home, likely until the time of her own passing. There was never a mention of career or even temporary occupation in the census records, nor in the Lafayette city directories.

Into such a dearth of information, a mind steeped in family history research would rush in to fill the vacuum with questions. What did she do all day long? Who peopled her social circles? What did she think of her lot in life? Did she act the wallflower as foil for her brother’s obvious flair for success? Did she resent her role in life?

If we were discussing a recluse as notable as Emily Dickinson, we could flip through the pages of her poetry as confirmation that yes, this was a life worth knowing. In stark contrast, with a life as obscure as Edna’s, she could have been a darling of her social circle, but without a significant product or service to define her, hers was a life unconfirmed, a slate left blank. To be remembered, a life needs someone to report it.

10 comments:

  1. I too look at female ancestors who are recorded "at home" and/or "without occupation" and wonder what they did all day without TV and the Internet. I know laundry consumed more time than it does today, as did cooking probably. Maybe they rolled bandages for the hospital.

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    1. Yeah, Wendy...it was probably the laundry ;)

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  2. I wonder how if she was at home without a career did she support herself? Is the Bloomington Evening World the only newspaper? Perhaps there are other papers. Was she a member of a church? There might be church newsletters describing volunteer work. Or maybe some nieces or nephews of her will have memory.

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    1. I get the feeling, Lisa, that this generation of our typically Catholic Kelly family were not among the faithful in their parish, so church may not have been an option for involvement--though in general, that would have been a logical guess.

      I know Edna did--as I'm sure many of her generation did--take care of her aging parents until their passing. After that point, I presume the family's home became hers (though I'd have to follow that one further to make sure). Because of the financial success of her brother, perhaps he made sure to see that his parents were well taken care of--and, by proxy, eventually, that would include his sister.

      There is at least one other newspaper in Bloomington that I am aware of, though not one that can be accessed online...something to add to a research to-do list for the next trip back east.

      Better yet, I am close to locating some descendants of those nieces you wondered about, and may soon find out if there are any lingering memories of their maiden grand-aunt.

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  3. I have an ancestor that did just as you mentioned above, lived with parents and helped care for them until they died (she was widowed at a young age.) Because her daughter wrote about the laundry her mother took in, and the church her mother cleaned for a little income, we know that those things were a support for her, although record of them can not be found in any public record. I think often, private records trump public records in such cases. Hopefully those descendants will have something to share!

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    1. I've heard similar stories, Michelle, of widowed women--mothers--who cleaned the church, did laundry, helped in the church office, or whatever extra little jobs needed doing. Of course, if it weren't for another family member mentioning it, like your ancestor's daughter, we'd never know about those little tasks that filled the days of women like this.

      It never ceases to amaze me how the little trivial things a person may choose to write--often in their own private collection--become the only means of gaining a clear picture of our past, many generations later. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a celebrated author for her recollections of everyday life in her childhood, but that recognition comes partly for her standing in the gap and filling in the details that, at the time, seemed too trivial ("Everyone knows that!") to record.

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  4. I was thinking maybe Edna was a Sister - but you seem to think not - perhaps she was someone's helper - or worked somewhere in the "school" (Bloomington IS Indiana University - there isn't much else there!) and was unsung. I think if there is ever a chance, a skim/peek through the College yearbooks might turn something up...

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    1. Unsung she may be, Iggy. Of course, back then, there were many tasks women occupied themselves with that were sure to bury them in anonymity. I'll keep my eyes open for more clues, of course...and keep this on my list of research needs, next time I head back east!

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  5. An old maid ...probably didn't have time to date after caring for her parents:)

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    1. Sometimes, scenarios like that make me wonder. It may have ended up that she was preoccupied with caring for her parents...but what did it start out like? Did a girl like that ever think that was the way her life would end up?

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