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The Women in My Family

By Elizabeth Bernier

Today women in America are struggling with and attempting to balance the ideals of nurturing and caregiving, a focus on having children and raising a family, with the ideals of independence and self-development, a focus on life-work or career. In the process of researching the history of the women in my family, two themes become central. These are not separate and distinct from one another, rather they are like the prominent colors in a beautifully woven fabric. The first theme that takes shape for me is the contrast in the lives of my grandmothers; their family structure, origins, interests, and giftedness.

The second theme is one of similarities of attitudes and personal virtues, not only in my grandmothers but in their ancestors and descendants. These prominent colors weave together to create the fabric of women's lives that are often nurturing and independent; care-giving and developed (or developing) into careers or life work.

My mother, Marguerite Katherine Sullivan Bernier, could trace her roots back to Ireland. All of her grandparents were born in Ireland and immigrated during the years of famine in that country. They came as young single women and men. Her maternal grandmother, Mary 0’Conner, left home alone at the age of sixteen, spending three months on a sailboat to cross the Atlantic during the summer of 1849. (1)

During the crossing she met the man who would become her husband twelve years later, Patrick Casey. Due to a cholera epidemic, the port of New York was closed to Irish immigrants and they landed in Montreal, and crossed the Canadian border into the United States settling in northern New York State and finding work on the farms in that area. Mary 0'Conner was employed by a Scotch family as a dairymaid. She told her grandchildren that the experience of crossing the ocean was so difficult, she would never return to Ireland, and so she never saw her mother again.

Mary 0'Conner and Patrick Casey married in November of 1861, establishing their farming homestead which still stands at Casey's Corners between Potsdam and Canton, New York. They had five children, the oldest being my grandmother, Katherine Jane Casey, born 1864. Patrick and Mary saved enough money from what had to have been a meager living off the farm, to send for his mother, still living in Ireland.

Two stories emerge about what she (also named Katherine Casey), did with that hard saved money. One story is that she sent her youngest son to America instead of herself. The other story claims she bought a horse for her youngest son. Whichever story is true, Patrick and Mary Casey again saved enough money to send for her and she eventually came, making her home with her son, his wife and children.

The five children of Patrick and Mary Casey attended district schools up to the 8th grade. Girls went to school more days out of the thirty week school year than did boys because of the need for boys on the farm. The three youngest girls attended a state normal school nearby studying teaching, dressmaking and millinery. The youngest daughter, Mary, died of typhoid fever while she attended the school for millinery. Less than a year later, her father, ill with appendicitis, advised the second youngest daughter, Abigail to stay with her mother. Patrick Casey died from a ruptured appendix and Abby never finished her trade. Daughter Julia finished school and was a teacher before she married. Katherine believed that it was "a bad thing" for her father to tell Abby to stay home, giving up her education. However, Abby subsequently became a business woman, co-proprietor of a card and gift shop in Canton.

Katherine Jane Casey married Dennis Sullivan on Valentine's Day in 1888. They probably met at a church social, picnic or wedding, as these provided most of the social life of the farm community. Dennis was the third child of twelve born to John and Mary Devlin Sullivan.

John and Mary had immigrated from Ireland, met and married in northern New York and lived in a log cabin. Religion played a crucial role in the lives of these Irish families; they were expected to marry within their own religious tradition. The rural population was small, there were only three Catholic families in the locale and people didn't travel much; hence, of the ten Sullivan brothers, six of them married sisters.

Katie and Dennis Sullivan lived in a log cabin, then on a farm about a mile away from her parents. They had eight children, the oldest a boy, John, and seven girls; Mary, Abigail, Marguerite, Myrtle, Evelyn, Genevieve and Eleanor. Large families were important for running a farm and birth control was unacceptable to Catholics. After Patrick Casey died, his mother came to live with Katie and Dennis. She was Katie's grandmother and Katie was her namesake. A month before Katie delivered her fifth child, her grandmother Casey died at the age of 95 during a spring snowstorm.

Farming was a hard life with many jobs to be done under the pressure of daylight, weather and season. Every child worked — in the house, barn, fields and yard. Even the youngest girls had a job to do, from gathering eggs (being pecked by the hens), to harvesting crops, and milking cows. The youngest daughter, Eleanor, picked two hundred bushel of potatoes one year before she was old enough to go to school. The farm was self-sufficient with whole milk as a cash producer and items such as crackers, tea and coffee being purchased in town.

The Sullivan farm was a center for family gatherings in summer; community gatherings at maple sugar time, when they would tap over two hundred trees for 'wax-on-snow' or 'sugar-on-snow' as it was sometimes called; and a center for business, as the milk factory that gathered and weighed the milk from all the farms around was located on the Sullivan land.

Religion, as mentioned earlier, and faith in God was central to their lives. All the children were baptized, received First Communion, Confirmation, and were married in the Church. Religious truths were taught in the home with the local priest a frequent visitor for dinner. The rosary was an evening family activity during the month of May while some of the children would drop off to sleep from a long, hard day's work.

Religion deeply affected their view of death. Deaths occurred at home with family kneeling around the bed, reciting the rosary and prayers for the dying. Wakes were held at home with all night vigils at the bier. Children were taught to be soft in their speech lest they rouse the dying person and interfere with the transition to eternity.

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©2008 Elizabeth Bernier for

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