Uncle Cal's Dishes,
by David Sapp

When she was thirteen, when she knew little of the breadth of the world while living down the long narrow lane of her father’s farm with ten brothers and sisters, my grandmother, Louise, received a letter from Uncle Cal, her mother’s brother:

May 21, 1928
Memorial Halls, Old State House
Boston, Mass.

Dear Niece,

I am writing you your first letter in the old boston State house. I want you to keep it. It was Built in 1713—It is full of old relicks & is of great interest, but a person neads to study American history to appreciate all the old things that are here Boston is an old city. and a very hard place to find your way I have been here more than two weeks. I want you to keep this letter. So you can say you got your first letter written from this Historical Place sent by air mail. The latest mail service.

As ever your Uncle,
Calvin C. Hildebrand

Uncle Cal penned the correspondence on Bostonian Society stationery, the envelope like the paper embossed with the association’s seal and attached was a stamp with an illustration of an aeroplane, Lindbergh’s Sprit of St. Louis. It cost ten cents, nearly an hour’s wage back then. Grandma cherished the memento for many years and stowed it in an ancient steamer trunk in the spare room upstairs along with fading photographs and baptismal certificates of dead and forgotten relatives. Somehow the letter passed on to me and I pick it up now and then.

One of my earliest memories of my grandparents’ tired old farmhouse was the dishes on Grandma’s table. Ringing white wells, the plates’ lips were a wide band of bright canary—a thinner circle of cobalt blue around the rims. A stately calligraphic letter “S” was stamped in and interrupted the yellow. I thought, how fancy, how extravagant to have plates monogrammed with the initial of the family name. As my grandparents were far from wealthy, I concluded that all families must have monogrammed place-settings.

Many simple meals of ham, beef and noodles, green beans, shelly beans, lima beans, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes and gravy, and pie and pie and pie traversed these plates on holidays and for Sunday dinners—for perpetual aunts, uncles, and gangly, scrawny cousins who often just happened to stop by. Years later I learned that “S” was for “Statler,” not our surname. Uncle Cal worked on the staff at the Statler Hotel in Boston. At one time these dishes served rich and influential patrons in white-tie tuxedos and luxurious gowns. No one was quite sure of his position there. Speculation ranged from doorman to bellhop to busboy to waiter to maître d’. Concierge? Did Uncle Cal make hushed arrangements for men in sharp suits and wide-brimmed fedoras, or gently and discreetly escort a crying flapper through the kitchen? Was he the man to direct you to the best jazz and speakeasies? When new china was purchased, the staff were given the outdated and discarded sets. Even through the Depression, Uncle Cal sent gifts to his poor Ohio relatives: for the kids, left over from conventions, beanie hats and pens shaped like pickles with promotions printed on the sides; and lavish burgundy drapes resized and cut for home and as stage curtains and costumes for Grange Hall plays. Seventy years later, cousin Eusella still hangs on to the crate marked “red drapes,” cherishing it like a priceless medieval reliquary.

He was a bachelor with a staunch backward Baptist upbringing and rumored to be a gay man, but this was not discussed as to be openly homosexual at that time was a dangerous undertaking. He traveled and worked in the city out of necessity—to escape the stifling rural drudgery of Knox County and to find a place where he could live at least somewhat authentically. But no one back home seemed to know of Uncle Cal’s life. Where did he sleep? Who did he love? Was he happy? Did he catch a Red Sox game at Fenway now and then?

I wish there were photographs of his arrivals. To get mail from Uncle Cal was a magical occasion—the outside finding its way to the farm. I imagine the entire family, Louise, my grandfather Ray, and their six children gathered around a package just from Boston. Maybe the mailman sounded his horn and as curious as the rest stuck around for the unpacking. All that’s left of Uncle Cal is his letter and a black and white snapshot of him, portly, balding, gray around the edges, and glasses as thick as pop bottles—among his aged siblings and their spouses in a cramped bedroom with flowered wallpaper. He’s laughing beside Mary Bertha, his sister, my great-grandmother, the only one to visit him in Boston, but his expression seems to convey that without a wife he still didn’t quite fit. It occurs to me that with no children, Uncle Cal simply wanted to be remembered. I will endeavor to do so, for a least a little while until, inevitably, my image begins to fade like his.

David Sapp, writer, artist, and professor, lives along the southern shore of Lake Erie in North America. A Pushcart nominee, he was awarded Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Grants for poetry and the visual arts. His poetry and prose appear widely in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. His publications include articles in the Journal of Creative Behavior, chapbooks Close to Home and Two Buddha, a novel Flying Over Erie, and a book of poems and drawings titled Drawing Nirvana.

Jeremiah's Beach
by Joy Riggs

Anne parks the rental car in the crowded lot, and we saunter toward the ocean, past an ice cream truck, letting our heartbeats slow after the 75-minute drive through the mountains and around the bay on narrow, curvy roads. It’s a sunny day in early August. The stiff breeze from the North Atlantic makes me grateful for my light jacket. According to my phone, it’s 63 degrees Fahrenheit. Since we are in Ireland, I should be thinking in Celsius, but sadly, those metric system lessons in third grade never stuck.

Anne sports sunglasses and an emerald green wool hat she bought two days ago at a cute shop in Dingle town, and she has a swimsuit on under her clothes. I’m wearing a Guinness ball cap and no sunglasses, and my swimsuit is in a bag inside the car, just in case. I squint at the patches of bright blue sky, which peek out through low-hanging puffs of white and gray clouds, as we follow a paved path and descend half a dozen concrete steps to the expanse of sand beyond.

The view stops us in our tracks. Although we are first cousins born three months apart, and not identical twins, we gasp in unison. “Wow.”

“It’s gorgeous. Gorgeous!” Anne exclaims.

A rush of pleasure engulfs my body, like a wave hitting the shore. It’s like I’m immersed in a panoramic movie—like those Circle-Vision 360º movies at Epcot in Disney World—except it’s real. To our left, facing south, the white-gold sand beach, or strand, stretches for seven miles (I know this because I’d looked it up during my pre-trip research). Where the beach meets the water at the horizon, purple mountains rise into the clouds, and the line of mountains extends from the south to the west; these mountains, which we drove through, are located on the Dingle Peninsula, our home base for most of this week. To our right, or facing north, modest one- and two-story buildings nestle between ocean and the green slope of the Kerry head peninsula. If I look closely, I can make out the gray stone ruins of a castle we passed on the way to the parking lot. This castle only dates back to 1812, but it was built on the site of a previous castle that was raided by pirates in the 1700s. Ghosts supposedly haunt the newer structure, which was set on fire in 1921 during the Irish War of Independence, and now houses both a private residence and a public 9-hole golf course.

“Should we walk down the beach a ways?” Anne asks.

“Yes, let’s.”

The tide is out, and we veer south and west, toward the water’s edge. I step around small shells, clumps of seaweed, and worm-like markings in the sand; a sign we later spot near the parking lot explains that the markings are worm casts—heaps of soil excreted by worms that burrow underground.

We also step around a white circular blob the size of a Frisbee; this giant alien eyeball is my first-ever sighting of a jellyfish in the wild, a reminder that danger often lurks amid beauty in this land of my ancestors.

Anne and I pass families on holiday, people with dogs, kids flying a kite and making a sandcastle. There are no matching chaise lounges here, no servers bringing drinks with umbrellas in them. Ballyheigue is not that kind of beach.

Anne remembers being here once before, as a child, with her four older brothers, her dad, and her mom, Mary (who was my mom’s oldest sibling). This was in the early 1970s, when Anne’s dad was stationed overseas; her main memory of the experience is seeing a dead shark that had washed up on the beach. But this is my first trip to the birthplace of my Irish great-grandfather, Jeremiah Falvey.

A dark-haired woman in her 20s, wearing a bikini, strides past us, her skin wet from her dip in the ocean.

“How is the water?” Anne asks.

The woman smiles. “The water is actually warm; it’s the air that makes it seem cold.”

Back in Minnesota, Anne is fairly introverted, as am I, but since we arrived in Ireland she’s been chatting up locals like a politician seeking votes. I find it endearing that she’s enthusiastically embracing her Irish roots, even though she’s only Irish on her mom’s side. I have the same Irish genes Anne has, from our shared grandfather (plus a smidge from our shared grandmother); according to my DNA test, I am—to borrow a phrase from superstar performing artist Lizzo—35 percent that Irish lass.

Anne turns to me. “I’m going to go back to the car and get a towel. Do you need anything?”

Thinking of the jellyfish, and the air temperature, I shake my head. “No thanks, I’m good. I’ll wait here.”

While Anne is gone, with my iPhone, I attempt to capture the visual parfait of colors before me: a horizontal layer of gold sand streaked with reddish-brown seaweed, topped by white surf, blue-green water, purple mountains, blue-gray sky, finished with a dollop of marshmallow clouds.

I will post the photos later on Facebook for my 82-year-old mom, who never had the chance to meet her paternal grandfather or visit this town where he was born, 158 years ago – a town he left at age 19, for greater opportunities in the United States.

“How could he leave this beautiful place?” Anne asks when she rejoins me near the water and strips off her layers.

I consider what I know of Jeremiah: he immigrated in 1888 to the south side of Chicago. He took a job as a laborer and met and married Mary Therese Costello, who immigrated from the nearby seaside town of Ballybunion, just 15 and a half miles—or 25 kilometers, for the metric fans—north of where we are standing. Anne and I had been there the day before, visiting a handful of our Irish cousins.

“Things must have felt pretty desperate,” I say.

Before our trip to Ireland, Anne read several books and watched numerous movies about Ireland. I didn’t do the historical research Anne did, but I did know what I had never learned as a kid: a million Irish didn’t have to die in the potato famine; local farmers produced other crops, but under British rule, the government continued to export large quantities of food out of the country.

My family research has not yet yielded clues about Jeremiah’s specific reasons for leaving, which was 30 years after the Great Famine. I knew it wasn’t easy for them in Chicago, either. Mary T. worked as a maid, cleaning houses along Lake Michigan. Their first two children died as infants. They had five more children in quick succession, all boys; my grandfather was No. 4. Jeremiah opened a bar that became successful, but because his wife had “trouble with the drink,” as my Irish cousins would say, the family left the city first for a farm in rural Iowa, and then for one in rural Minnesota, before settling in St. Paul.

Jeremiah died a year before my mom was born. Mary T. lived for several more years, but because she and my grandmother—her daughter-in-law—didn’t get along, my mom has no memories of time spent with her Irish grandmother.

In a photo taken a few years before Jeremiah’s death, he has a jovial grin and a sparkle in his eyes; he looks like he would have been fun to know. His wife, Mary T., on the other hand, a stocky, unsmiling woman with a gray bun in her hair, looks like she’s been through some things.

I take off my socks and hiking shoes, roll my jeans up to below my knees, and walk toward the waves. The sand feels both firm and soft; it will surely do wonders to smooth the rough skin on my feet, which have been logging more than 13,000 steps a day since we arrived in the Emerald Isle.

Anne ventures into the water, farther down the beach. I let the waves lap at my toes, breathe in the briny air, and stare out at an ocean view that likely resembles what Jeremiah would have seen as a boy; how many times did he think of his childhood home, once he’d moved to Chicago, or later, when he moved to Minnesota with his wife and five sons? What do our bodies retain of the molecules of our homeland?

When Anne finishes her brief swim, we FaceTime with my mom. Minnesota is seven hours behind us, and Mom is still in bed, but I want her to know I’m thinking about her; today is the birthday of my older sister Michele, who died of SIDS when she was six months old. Mom will turn 83 next month; her father died when she was only 13, and her mother has been gone for more than 30 years. She has outlived all three of her siblings, including Mary.

Mom almost died when she gave birth to me; she underwent surgery and chemotherapy for ovarian cancer at age 56, when I was pregnant with my first child; and a year and a half ago, she had a lumpectomy and radiation for breast cancer. I marvel at her resilience. Despite all she’s lost, she has kept her sparkle, and her ability to laugh through her tears.

The older I get, the more I appreciate my own tendency to find humor in the darkest of situations. How else does one cope? “It’s because we’re Irish,” Mom says.

On the walk back to the car, I carry four souvenirs in my coat pocket: a creamy white, scalloped shell with a purple stripe, and three smooth stones the size of almonds—one black, one white, and one golden yellow. They are all for my mom, a gift from Jeremiah’s beach.

Joy Riggs is the author of the nonfiction book Crackerjack Bands and Hometown Boosters: The Story of a Minnesota Music Man (Nodin Press 2019). Her essays have appeared in publications including Hippocampus, The Manifest-Station, HerStry, and the Star Tribune. She lives and writes in Northfield, Minnesota, and you can read more of her work at joyriggs.com.

Digging Up My Roots
by Katie Stapleton


Growing up, I loved social studies classes, next to English of course—especially when we got to American History and learned about early American settlers (the Mayflower) and early presidents. Never in my wildest dreams would I imagine I was related to some of them.

Three years ago, my older sister was talking about our family history because our niece was doing a genealogy report. She mentioned in passing that we were related to a family who came over the Mayflower.

She continued, “He even signed something called the Mayflower Compact.” “What are the names?” I asked her. I could drop names too. “John Alden and Priscilla Mullins,” she said. That is the first time I heard the name of my 10th great-grandparents who started me on a journey of digging up my roots. Go ahead: Google John Alden and Priscilla Mullins. I’ll wait.

Thanks to the amazing team of family researchers at Ancestry.com, I found that John and Priscilla’s daughter, Ruth Bass, had a daughter, Hannah, who married Joseph Adams Jr. who was the FATHER of PRESIDENT JOHN ADAMS, who was the of FATHER of JOHN QUINCY ADAMS…TWO PRESIDENTS! Also, I found out that a relative, Margaret Stevenson was convicted as WITCHED in SALEM. Where was this when I was reading The Crucible in school (or maybe The Scarlet Letter)? Lucky for my dear 9th great-grandmother, Margaret, she has a memorial bench in Salem (nice!) and was officially exonerated on October 31, 2001. This was only on my mom’s side—I was on a roll!

Last summer, I visited a cemetery behind a church where my dad grew up. My husband joked that I must be related to 90% of people in there. True fact. Kills, Geises, Youngpeters, Hempflings, Rahrig, Kimmett, and Karl to drop more names. I am still digging into my dad’s side of the family—trying to see what kind of historical facts I can find.

Shovel drop…For now.