I am Beginning to Understand by Carol P. Christ

Elizabeth Kelly Inglis died in 1927 at age 62 from complications of a stroke. Secondary causes were malnutrition and exhaustion.

When I was a child, my father, though he was very close to his own parents and sister, spoke very little about his ancestors. I knew that both of his parents lost their fathers when they were small children. I was told that the Christs were German and the Inglises were Scottish and Irish. My grandmother Mary Inglis Christ was as Irish as the day is long. She prayed to the blessed Virgin and took me to church with her in the early mornings where she lit candles and whispered the rosary while fingering faceted lavender beads. She voted for Kennedy because he was Irish and Catholic—to the horror of my father and his father who had no use for the Democrats. My grandmother sometimes cried when she showed us photographs of her family, especially when she pointed to her sister Veronica, called Very. I sensed that my grandmother felt sad to have left her family in New York when she moved with her husband and children to California during the depression, but I was too young to understand fully. As far as I know, I never met any of the relatives from her side of the family, even when I moved to “back east.”

Recently I answered a message posted ten years ago on a family search website asking for information about a Mary Inglis who married a John Christ in New York. Through the wonders of the internet, I heard back the next day from my third cousin Hattie Murphy of New York who is almost exactly my age. We are related through our great-great-grandparents James Inglis, born in Scotland, and Anne Corliss, born in Ireland. Apparently they met and married in New York sometime before the birth of their first child in 1855. Their son James Inglis was my great-grandfather and their daughter Margaret was Hattie’s great-grandmother. Both married Irish.

Neither Hattie nor I have been able to find traces of our great-great-grandparents in Scotland or Ireland or indeed before the 1860 census in New York when they were already married with three children. There were several James Inglises (Ingalls, Ingles, Engels) born in Scotland in 1838, the year listed as his birth date on the census, two of them born to James and Isabella (Isobel), the names found on his death certificate. We have also failed to find Anne Corliss (Carlis, Carlos, Corlers) or her parents, James and Mary, in Ireland or the United States prior to her marriage.

While waiting for a packet of information to arrive from Hattie Murphy, I happened to watch an episode of Who Do You Think You Are UK that provided some clues as to why James Inglis emigrated from Scotland. If he was from a city, his father and grandfather could have been among the craftsmen such as weavers who lost their livelihoods to the factories. If he was born in the Lowlands, his father might have lost his job due to the mechanization of farming. If he was from the Highlands, his family’s fate may have been far worse. The first part of the 19th century was the time of the Highland “Clearances” when the farmers were driven off their lands in order to “make way” for large sheep farms. Whole hamlets were cleared in a single day, with families and animals being forced to walk toward uninhabited lands close to the sea with only what they could carry and no shelter from the wind and weather when they got to their destinations. The houses and the fields were torched, so that no one would be tempted to try to return. In 1846 when my great-great-grandfather would have been about eight, the potato famine reached Scotland, causing many bad situations to become worse.

Not even this prepared me for the feelings that would be evoked by the documents that arrived in the mail from my cousin Hattie. Included were copies of death certificates filled in by hand. On most of them there was a space where the doctor had written “tenement” and the number of families living together. Obviously, this space existed on the form because there was so much disease and death caused by poverty and overcrowding. The addresses were on the Lower East Side, the poorest area of New York at the time. When my great-grandmother Elizabeth Kelly Inglis lost her husband to pneumonia in 1906, she was left to raise four children on her own, my grandmother among them, with the help of her oldest son. At that time she had already lost her father who committed suicide in Ireland leaving the family destitute, emigrated from her homeland leaving family behind, lost a baby girl after four days and a second little girl at age three to diphtheria. She would lose Veronica, just grown up, in the flu epidemic of 1917. It is sometimes said that people didn’t suffer “in those days” at the loss of a child “like they do now.” But I don’t believe a word of it. My mother’s depression lasted for years after she lost a baby, and her sadness affected all of her children. Elizabeth Kelly Inglis probably did not have time to grieve any of her losses properly, but I am certain that the memories of her dead children haunted her.

I have lain awake several nights in a row thinking about the words “tenement,” “malnutrition,” and “exhaustion.” I begin to understand why my Dad never wanted to talk about his family. It was just too sad. He had every reason to be happy to have “melted into a pot” that did not include the daily realities described by those three words. My father wanted to protect me from the pain I am experiencing now by not telling me his grandmother’s story. Elizabeth Kelly Inglis swallowed her tears and went hungry to feed her children in crowded, disease-filled, airless tenements. Her daughter Mary, my grandmother, survived to cook us Irish stew and to show us family pictures while sitting on a brocade couch in a single family home in Daly City. I begin to understand what it took to get us there.

Carol P. Christ is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement.  She teaches online courses in the Women’s Spirituality program at CIIS. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.  One of her great joys is leading Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete through Ariadne Institute

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15 replies

  1. Just a small point re your interesting post: the problem of ‘absentee landlords’ was an Irish, not a Scottish one. The landlords who ‘cleared’ the Highlands were the Scottish Chieftens, (for example John Ross, Mcleod of Mcleod, Alexsander Ranaldson, and many others) looking for more profitable ways to farm their land. It is just becaus this was such a profound betrayal by the Chieftens of the people they were supposed to protect that the Clearances left such a bitter memory.


  2. You are right, I actually knew nothing about this until a few weeks ago when I heard about the Countess of Sutherland being one of the main persons involved on the David Mitchell “Who Do You Think You Are?” I assumed Sutherland was in England, but I stand corrected, it is in Scotland. I will see if I can change the blog as well.


  3. Thanks for your response. It is fascinating to trace back one’s family history, and the net is a fabulous reseach tool. And how can we honour the ancestors if we don’t know who they were?
    But your post is interesting to me at another level. Like you, I am of partly Irish descent, on my maternal grandmother’s side.My gx2 grandmother came from County Down, and her Irish Catholic faith survived emigration and was handed on to me through my grandmother. What I absorbed most deeply from that faith was a profound veneration for and love of the Virgin Mary. When I later rejected the Church (not least because of my outrage at its treatment of women) and, after a period of agnosticiam, begun to study Paganism, it was not difficult for me to accept Goddess spirituality.
    In other words, I think the evangelicals are right!!! Lots of Catholics do worship the Goddess, without ever realising it!
    In this light, it is interesting to note how easily Catholicism collapses into paganism in societies where Christian traditions are less deeply embedded than they might be elsewhere.
    I am among those who believe that Marian devotion is one of the ways the Goddess is re-emerging in the contemporary world, and I’m cerain that many Catholic women worship her in the name of Mary.
    I would be extremely interested to hear from other Goddess oriented women who have a Catholic background.

    Brightest Blessings June


  4. It is also true for me that my grandmother’s devotion to Mary made it part of my heritage to worship God as a woman. Then when I moved to Greece and discovered Mary or the Panagia embedded in the landscape i added another level to knowing that as I wrote in Rebirth of the Goddess, “the Goddess never died.” She continued to be worshipped in her sacred places with a new name. This is true all over Europe, in Ireland in the holy well traditions.


  5. This is excellent, both your original blog on how history is actually about real people and the previous comments and your replies. That’s what we forget when we’re reading history books–all those kings and queens were real, living people, all those serfs and peasants and farmers and shepherds and craftsmen were real people, too. They had lives. They had good days and a lot more bad days. At least the people along the bottom of the pyramid had lots more bad days. When I’m on a train or airplane and look out or down at cities, I always think, Those are real people down there with real lives. As I drive through Long Beach or Los Angeles, I look at people in other cars or walking on the sidewalks and think they’re real people, too. I wonder what their lives are like. That’s one reason I like to read historical fiction. Like your blog, it brings tiny bits of history to life. Thanks, Carol.


  6. Yes doing this research and watching Who Do You Think You Are? really is bringing history alive for me too. Also, in some way I think knowing how our ancestors suffered can expand our hearts and the range of our empathy. That is what it feels like is happening to me. Of course I live with people who know the suffering of their grandparents and great-grandparents in the “exchange” of populations between Greece and Turkey in 1922. For many of them the response is still to hate and fear “the Turks.” I think many of my Greek friends are still unreflectively acting out received trauma, as is all too common. So knowledge is what we make of it, I guess.


  7. This is amazing. I have many of the same experiences regarding my parents silence about our ancestors.I knew that we were Scotch-Irish, and French-German, but that was it. My Mother was a devoted Catholic, I went to Catholic school, and it was there that I developed my love for Mary and Mary Magdalene. I too rejected the church and for a time Mary, but after years of Pagan study and then getting my Master’s in Women’s Spirituality at CIIS, I have come full circle. Mary is just one of the many Goddesess who guide, bless and protect me on my journey.


  8. I have recently felt a great need to research my ancestry, especially on my mother’s side. I am blessed by a family history of long life; I know one set of my great-grandparents, one of whom is still alive, and all four of my grandparents, three of whom remain. But of all these people, I only know the name of a single parent of a single grandparent. Not only is it easy to imagine “History” as happening to imaginary figures that only abstractly might have been sort of sentient and trying to possibly figure life out just as we all are, but it is, unfortunately, easy to do that to our own ancestors, some of whom may still be around to talk to.

    It saddens me that I only took the care as a child to get to know one grandparent, my father’s father. Patriarchy at it’s finest. I am thankful that my oversight when younger can still be rectified now. At least I was able to find great meaning and inspiration from my grandfather’s story.

    Born child number six of twelve, a first-generation American, English was his second language. Grew up on a dairy farm and had to work every morning at 4am and then go to school barefoot. Ate one meal a day, dinner, which was always pasta with butter. Occasionally, they had potatoes or cheese. Joined the Air Force at 18, gained 30 pounds in basic by eating three meals a day for the first time in his life, slept in to 5am every morning. Went to college, became an engineer, and worked on space craft. Helped raise four children (I’m giving my grandmother credit here, she’s a formidable woman), and passed away before meeting his eighth and ninth grandchildren.

    It’s amazing how much we can learn from our families pasts. We can be so different from those people (I’ve certainly never milked a cow before) but we can connect on so many other levels. Even never meeting a person can glean insight. Imagining their lives pieced together by snippets of history… I often wonder what three generations from now will think of us, and based on what bits of “proof” they can find.


  9. I have always wanted to know about my own family history. I believe that doing research on family history can give us a greater insight to who we are as people.

    My mother was part of a closed adoption in 1960, so I would have no way to trace my family history on her side. My father, fortunately is not adopted, but both of my paternal grandparents disowned their families in their late teens. This can be rather frustrating trying to learn about hereditary diseases or personality traits that might have been past down. All I have to go on is my own mother, and my fathers small family.

    I do understand the importance that religion and the devotion to God can play in a family. My mother was raised a strict Christian, and was raised in the mindset to depend on and respect a man. While I don’t agree with this mindset, I do think that God cares about everyone equally, regardless of gender.


  10. what a lovely piece about your and all of our past. I know that your grandmother’s particular reality is still a ‘hopeful’ one for many of the people on this earth because she was able to pull her children out of poverty into a better life and I fear for all the people who are now sinking back into it all over Greece, Europe and the US!


  11. The blessed Mother loves all of her children. It is the Father who starts choosing some over others, starting with preferring boys, and ending with his being said to condemn some of his children to everlasting punishment in the fires of hell. As we know this is not a “male” characteristic, but a patterning of male behavior that begins with patriarchy and patriarchal inheritance through sons.


  12. Beautiful Post Carol, the quintessential American story. And a story, I think, most Americans tend to forget.

    Living in southern California, though not quite comparable to the tenement situation of which you speak, we often hear about Mexican families squished into smaller than small apartments, living similar lives to those of our ancestors and yet there is much judgement that goes along with this. Judgement about humans fighting to make it. Such a shame.

    Thanks for the article.


  13. Jennie you are so right. Maybe if more of us knew how our ancestors lived, we would be more empathetic. Our ancestors were judged in their time too: I don’t know if “Irish don’t apply” was ever posted in New York as it was in England, but the attitudes were there. Unfortunately people who get out of poverty sometimes end up judging the people now “below” them.


  14. Very poignant, Carol. Yes, there is so much suffering in the past generations, on
    which our lives of comfort are built.

    I feel for all the families who cannot “come up” in two or three generations
    because they are locked out of the opportunities that were there a few
    decades ago — like free community college, leading to transfers to a state
    university. Right now in broke California, there are huge waiting lists for
    basic courses because of the budget cuts. Vast numbers of people are simply
    locked out….


  15. You are so right Charlene, my grandparents were able to rise out of povery with hard work and no education. This is less and less possible. I was able to succeed as a woman because of education. When I went to college California state education was free and California state scholarships were plentiful. When I went to graduate school, fellowships were widely available in a way they are not today. I think it is fair to say I would not have gotten my education without support, both state and private. It saddens me to think that opportunities you and I took advantage of are not available today. We are putting far too much of our public resources into wars and the military industrial complex and also too many do not recognize that taxes need to be collected in order to fund educational systems we took for granted a generation ago.


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