Archive for the ‘Family Stories’ Category

A year ago today my father, Frank Joseph Breen, Sr., passed away from complications of a stroke. He’d been in either the hospital or a home since late April, with no sign of improvement and no real hope of recovery. He couldn’t walk, couldn’t move his left side, and didn’t speak well. He had no control of his bathroom functions, which was a source of great pain and embarrassment to him, yet he’d discuss it loudly and profanely with his family and with the medical staff. He became more disoriented as the weeks wore on and suffered dementia toward the end. He had just turned 77 years old on June 14.

My brother and his family had arrived from St. Louis on Thursday for what we knew would be a farewell visit with Dad, although we had no idea how long Dad might hang on. On Saturday morning, the home called to say Dad was being moved to the hospital because of problems with breathing. By 7 a.m., the ICU nurse contacted me about permission to perform some function that would help his respiration. Dad had told us for years never to prolong any suffering, and he had a “do not resuscitate” order. I confirmed that we didn’t want anything done beyond making Dad comfortable. The nurse suggested his family should come.

Every time my brother visited from St. Louis, Dad always tried to get all four of his children together, preferably with the grandkids as well. It was hard to accomplish. My brother who lives locally has an erratic work schedule, I usually wasn’t available for the big King’s Island hoopla that Dad wanted to throw every time, Diamondqueen had things with her own kids to schedule. It was one of those little gifts of life, and a minor miracle, that all four of Dad’s children were at his bedside when he died.  We entered his room in the ICU expecting to be there all of the day and possibly all night or longer; but Dad was gone before noon. I tried to tell him that we were there and rubbed his shoulder sometimes, the way he’d asked me to recently and even going back to childhood. I always had strong hands and a “feel” for giving massages. We watched the various numbers on the screen go up and down while he lay there silently. Finally the numbers plummeted and we couldn’t see his chest move at all. The nurse came in to confirm that he was gone.

It was a relief. He was so miserable from the effects of the stroke. The evening when the stroke had taken him down, he was supposed to have gone out to dinner with several neighbors who were his friends. He was extremely active over the years, even after he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and had a couple visits a year to the hospital to be checked out for abnormal bleeding.

I was glad he was free and out of misery. I was especially happy that his children had been there to see him off. I admit I was relieved that he’d died naturally and I’d never had to kill him, which had seemed a possibility many times during the years when he was violently intoxicated, especially during my teen years when the psychological abuse was so damaging. At the same time, I wasn’t sure until he’d lost all his capacity to move and get around that he wouldn’t kill someone himself, either out of anger or because of drunk driving, although he’d been dry since the late 1980s. There was always an electrical charge of danger about my father, christened The Mad Monk by his co-workers at the Cincinnati Water Works. That he died in such a peaceful fashion was a blessing for everyone–and for him most of all.


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Tombstone of John Alonzo Applegate

My maternal grandfather, John Alonzo Applegate, died on June 20, 1978. He was a harness horse driver and had just finished second in back-to-back races at the old Latonia racetrack, now Turfway Park. Although the racetrack is thoroughbred-only now, for a long time Latonia Trots had a summer standardbred meet. (Funny they don’t mention that in their online history.)

Grandpa was turning the horse around to come back and “salute the judge” when he fell off the sulky. Medical people said he was dead of a massive heart attack before he hit the racetrack. We know a lot of eye-witness details because my father happened to be at the racetrack that night and saw everything.

My grandparents were divorced at the time, and Grandpa’s common-law wife made the funeral arrangements, choosing to have Grandpa buried in Hamilton, Ohio, where they were living, in the Greenwood Cemetery. I was there the day they laid Grandpa to rest, and visited again over the Memorial Day weekend in 1980. I hadn’t been back to the site since then, although of course I’ve been to Hamilton many times over ensuing years.

My mother had never been back at all. When we were discussing with Diamondqueen and the Hooligans what to do outside on such a gorgeous, warm day, Mom asked if we could go up to visit Grandpa’s grave. “Maybe for the last time,” she told us. “It took me 31 years to get up here again.”

Mom had directions, but it still took us a while to track down Grandpa’s grave. I snapped the photo below of Mom and the two Hooligans – great-grandchildren he never knew, and to them he’s just a vague story and a man in a photo riding a horse-driven sulky. (Diamondqueen herself was only eight years old when Grandpa died.)

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S.Hooligan, Mom, and J.Hooligan at Grave

It’s hard to tell in the photo at left, but the Butler County Fairgrounds is in the background. In fact, over Mom’s right shoulder is one of the barns and the roof of the old grandstand. One thing I remember about Grandpa’s burial is looking over there and seeing the fairgrounds, and thinking how appropriate it was that horse barns and a racetrack were within view of his grave. It also made me sad – I’d spent many years as a child watching Grandpa race at that track. I have memories going back to when I was five years old playing down in the well of an old dry fountain on the fairgrounds while Mom sat above on a lawn chair; and of gathering thrown-down betting tickets along the fence during the long waits for Grandpa’s races. I once shouted at him during the pre-race parade from that grandstand; Mom and Grandma shushed me, but they laughed when we saw Grandpa grin. He’d heard me!

I wish Grandpa wasn’t up there by himself in that cemetery; there are no other family members buried there. Then again, the situation was awkward and relations were strained by that time. And when he was absorbed in his horses, he always seemed kind of isolated from the rest of us anyhow.

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This page of the altered photo album I made for Mother’s Day 2007 features my great-great-grandmother Emily (Creager) Conover. She was married to William Henry Conover, son of James Conover, Civil War prisoner and possible victim of the Sultana explosion.

I thought of Emily Conover over the Memorial Day weekend. I think of her every Memorial Day because hers was one of the graves we always visited when I was a child.

Sometime in May (maybe it was on our holiday for the Ascension  — it always seemed to be on a weekday, but we weren’t out of school for the summer until early June), we’d have an outing to Warren County to visit the Morrow and Maineville cemeteries. These held the graves of Grandma’s and Great-Grandma’s people, including Great-Grandma’s mother, Emily Conover.

We usually had a picnic lunch somewhere (often at a roadside park near the bridge over Fosters; the park no longer exists). The party consisted of my mother, Grandma, Great-Grandma, me, and my brothers (Diamondqueen wasn’t to come for several years yet). On each of these outings, Great-Grandma told the story of her mother’s death and funeral.

The story she passed down was that her mother was very pregnant. The piano teacher had arrived for a home lesson, and Emily Conover didn’t want to be seen. So, the way Great-Grandma put it, she “climbed” out of a window and fell. Mom and I have wondered about that over the years. Maybe it was one of those very tall windows that open almost like a door. We can’t imagine a pregnant woman climbing out of a window, especially one who considered it inappropriate simply to be viewed by the piano teacher.

Whatever the case, Emily fell. She lost the baby and died herself. Great-Grandma said they buried her with the baby in her arms. I used to gaze at Emily’s grave feeling sad and a little haunted. It was a terrible, tragic story. A few years ago I found a death record for Emily Conover, and she did indeed die in childbirth. Whether a fall out a window was the cause wasn’t indicated.

Either going into or leaving Maineville, Great-Grandma would point out where her house had been at the time her mother died. We’d see a long avenue lined with trees leading to a two-story brick house. Great-Grandma was very young when her mother died, but one of her memories was of that long driveway being lined with carriages on the day of the funeral.

Maineville isn’t far from Loveland, so it’s easy to drop in on Maineville Cemetery. We have quite a few ancestors in the old section (more, in fact, than we realized when I was a kid, thanks to genealogical research). In the new section nearby, my stepfather is buried, and my mother will lie there one day as well (a LONG time from now, I hope). She thinks about Emily Conover, too, and says she likes the idea of her grave being within sight of Emily’s — that woman buried with her child in her arms, recalled by her elderly daughter, who lived so many more decades than her mother.

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This page of the altered photo album I made for Mother’s Day 2006 is devoted to my great-grandmother, Lillian Illie (or Illi) Applegate. She married my great-grandfather, John Black Applegate, son of Emily Jane Reddick Applegate.

Great-Grandma (or Grandma-Up-Dayton, as she was known long after she’d moved from the Dayton area), was also my godmother. I have only vague memories of her physically because she married a Native American and moved to Oklahoma when I was little. However, we always heard from her at the holidays. She and her husband had a trading post kind of store in Pawnee, and one Christmas she sent a whole treasure trove of the things they sold at the store: mocassins for the men, tom-toms with stretched rubber heads, wooden “tomahawks” tied with dyed feathers, and who knows what else. I must have been about four; I don’t remember a lot, but I do recall the delightful hubbub when the gift package arrived, and everyone’s amusement at the geehaws that were unpacked. I can still hear the muffled thump of that tom-tom.

Great-Grandma was the terrific baker who made the “inspirational chocolate pie.” Recently while doing some genealogical digging, I found the census record that showed her and her siblings in Cincinnati’s House of Refuge in the early 1900s. I’ve often wondered how she got from Cincinnati to the wilds of Brown County, Ohio, and how she met my great-grandfather. In many of our photos of her as a younger woman, she looks as she does in that picture above: thin and cheerful, unbowed by what must have been a difficult life. By the time I knew her, she hadn’t been an Applegate for decades and she had a round, apple dumpling face like a grandmother out of a Norman Rockwell painting. It was especially startling to see that face in a program she sent from Oklahoma back in the 60s. It was a photo of tribal mothers of World War II veterans, and there in the back row of those dark Native American women floats Great-Grandma’s sugar cookie face. I guess she always had a talent for belonging.

Speaking of photos, in the original version of the one I used for the altered page above, Great-Grandma is standing at a wash tub, her hands clasping a washboard. I cloned out the washboard and filled the tub with flowers when I digitally altered the photo. I thought it was the least she deserved in honor of Mother’s Day.  

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This page of the altered photo album I made for Mother’s Day last year is dedicated to Minerva Alice (Hutchinson) Mount. She’s my great-great-grandmother. Her son, George Dale Mount, married Helen Conover, and their daughter was my Grandma Martha (Mom’s mother).

I never knew much about Alice Mount (as she was known about the time the photo above was taken). Grandma Martha talked very fondly of her, though. Grandma said her grandmother made wonderful baked goods and canned goods; she’d often have something delicious waiting for her on her way home from school. Grandma said Alice Mount reminded her of Mom with her cooking and  baking.

Grandma quoted Alice Mount in only one instance: She said she’d go to see her grandmother, and Alice Mount would peer over her glasses at her and say quietly, “Is that a new dress? Did your mother make it? Hmmm…”

I learned far more about Minerva Alice Hutchinson Mount when I began to do some genealogical work a few years ago. Indeed, she must have been quite a baker — she supported herself with her own bake shop, at least for awhile, in Morrow, Ohio. She also took care of her elderly parents near the end of their lives when they were quite ill. Her mother, Margaret Doughman Hutchinson, and her father, Joseph Hutchinson, Jr., lived either with her or near her in downtown Morrow. I have copies of the military records for Joseph Hutchinson, Jr., a Civil War veteran, which show Minerva Alice applying for increased pensions to help her care for her father, whose eyesight had been ruined by disease during the war.

Alice’s husband, Frank Mount, abandoned her at some point, but this resourceful woman carried on. Her life couldn’t have been easy. But I know from a trusted source that she was a kind and loving grandma, much loved in return. If I had learned nothing else about her, that would have been enough.

NOTE: My mother has her own Mother’s Day tribute posted at Lillian’s Cupboard, including the original photos of some of the women featured in the altered photo album.

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With Mother’s Day this Sunday, I’ve been thinking of not only my own mother, but of the wonderful women going back generations in my family. One reason I know about those women is because both Mom and her mother, Grandma Martha, always told great stories, whether about their own pasts or about the female family members who came before.

One of Mom’s stories stuck with me because I was so impressed with her mother’s resourcefulness. Mom’s paternal grandmother was known as Grandma-Up-Dayton because she lived above Dayton, Ohio — in a community called Vandalia. Grandma-Up-Dayton lived in a rather rustic home with an outhouse and an iron wood-burning stove. She turned out unbelievable breads, pies, and other goodies on that stove, which my mother recalls with fondness and admiration.

It was a long drive from the southernmost border of Ohio to north of Dayton. Something that happened on one of those return trips was the foundation for that story of Mom’s that impressed me so. It involved a flat tire, a pie, a car key, and the talents and resourcefulness of mothers:


When I see chocolate pie I think of
a pie I never tasted, the one
my mother likes to tell about
from her childhood: She’d traveled
with her parents and sister to visit
Grandma-Up-Dayton, a remarkable
cook who baked glorious creations
in a wood-burning stove. When the
Applegates motored up from Cincinnati,
Grandma-Up-Dayton packed the car
with culinary plunder for the return trip.

On the way home that evening, their car
had a blowout. It was past dinnertime
and the girls needed something to eat.
While Grandpa wrestled with the flat,
Grandma took a chocolate pie
from Grandma-Up-Dayton’s stash of goodies.
There was no knife, so Grandma
used a car key to slice the pie. My mother
remembers how good that pie tasted,
they were so tired and hungry,
with so far yet to go.

When I see chocolate pie, I think
of this story and those three —
of Grandma-Up-Dayton, blessed
with cheerful generosity
and baking prowess; of Grandma,
blessed for life with calm resourcefulness;
and of my mother, blessed with a talent
for keeping the past alive
and for helping me understand
the kind of women I come from.

(c)2006 by Nancy Breen; “A Chocolate Pie” first appeared in Best of 2006: The 69th Annual Ohio Poetry Day Contest Awards

UPDATE: My mother has written a special blog post telling all about Grandma-Up-Dayton, her unusual house in the country, and her baking — not to mention the full story of the car key and the chocolate pie. Go to Lillian’s Cupboard for nostalgic details, period photos, and even a chocolate pie recipe!


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Everyone knows about the sinking of the Titanic on April 14, 1912, in which 1,517 lost their lives. Few have even heard of the steamship Sultana, which went down in the Mississippi River on April 27, 1865; the tragedy cost about 1,700 lives.

I’d never heard of the Sultana disaster until a brief mention of it in Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary. Even in its brevity, it was horrifying: The victims were primarily Union soldiers recently released from Southern prisoner camps. To think that they’d already gone through so much, from battle to the terrible prisons, only to be killed en route to their homes, and in such a agonizing way — it was heartbreaking and seemed so grossly unfair.

Later, as I dabbled in genealogy, I learned I might have a link to the Sultana. It took me completely by surprise.

My great-great-great-grandfather, James Conover, enlisted in the 175th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry in October of 1864. In November, he was one of several members of the 175th captured near Columbia, Tennessee; he was sent to Cahaba (or Cahawba) Prison in Albama. Here, according to his military records, James Conover died in February, 1865.

There’s conflicting information, though, regarding whether James Conover might actually have died in the Sultana disaster. One book I read on the event listed his name as one of the victims. The problem is, record-keeping was unreliable regarding what happened at the prison AND regarding prisoners who were loaded onto the Sultana. (One reason so many died was because far too many passengers were crowded onboard.) I’ve read other articles that say some bodies were dug up from the Cahaba Prison cemetery, but when they were being moved, there was another boat accident and some of the bodies floated away and were never recovered. So that makes definitive research even harder. There’s a wonderful Conover genealogical site, and it combines the data for James Conover’s death, stating he died February 17, 1865 — but seven miles north of Memphis aboard the Sultana. So it’s a difficult mystery to unravel.

I doubt I’ll ever know what happened for sure to my great-great-great-grandfather. My instinct is that he probably did die in Cahaba Prison; but no doubt many of his comrades, including friends from his home area in Brown County, Ohio, perished in the Sultana tragedy.

None of this was ever passed down through family oral history, which is curious to me. Grandma Martha loved to tell family stories; if she’d known anything about her great-grandfather, she would have shared it. I’ve always been interested in the Civil War, and I didn’t know until I started doing some research that I even had ancestors who had fought. (I have several.)

In Bloom Rose Cemetery in Brown Country, where a lot of my maternal ancestors are buried, there’s a white pillar near the front gate. I’d never read the names on that pillar in all the years I’d visited there with Grandma Martha, but out of genealogical curiosity I finally did one day. It turns out that pillar is a monument to those local soldiers who never returned from the war. One of the names on that pillar is James Conover. (The wife he left behind, who died in June of that same year, is buried nearby.) It’s only one of the things I’ve discovered about my mother’s family that I wish I could tell Grandma now. She would have been fascinated.

There’s another less personal connection to the steamship Sultana that I never knew until recent years. The Sultana was actually built in Cincinnati. A few years ago an historial marker was erected near Sawyer Point in the vicinity of the Cincinnatus statue (if I’m remembering correctly).

If you’re interested in learning about a maritime disaster that cost even more lives than the sinking of the Titanic, sites like this one have lots of information about the Sultana.




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