This is a guest post and love story written by my sister-in-law, Diane Burns Brads. She and my brother, Charlie, will have been married 49 years this June. They’ve been a couple for as long as I can remember…here is her contribution to the month of love…
My great-uncle Walter Roberts was born in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky on June 10, 1888 in the area of Little Bullskin Creek,Clay County. He was one of thirteen children, not all of whom survived. The family lived by a creek and he enjoyed playing with his brothers in the fields, skipping rocks in the water and fishing. He worked the farm with his father and brothers until he got the wanderlust and decided to join the Army. After one calm enlistment period, he joined up again and this time saw action in WWI. He returned to his mountain home after the war but something had happened. Unexpectedly, he had fallen in love.
Walter is the last boy on the right.
Walter’s sweetheart was Mary Agnes Flanagan, who was born December 25, 1889 in the area of Springfield, Massachusetts. He had met Mary at a dance when he returned from Europe and the Great War. Mary’s father had immigrated to the USA from Ireland with his family when he was a young child. He started out as a child laborer working in mills in Chicopee, Massachusetts but his story was that of the classic American dream. Mr. Flanagan was listed as the president of a brewery in the 1910 census, the Springfield Brewery. Mary was counted in the census that year but she was not at home. She was an art student in Switzerland. She attended a convent school, where she sharpened her artistic skills and learned French. She toured Europe and no doubt worshiped in elaborate, historic cathedrals. She viewed masterpieces of art in great museums and even attended a World’s Fair.
I know about these stories because I knew Aunt Mary. I was a schoolgirl and she was an elderly widow, living alone. We both lived in the same small town and I frequently stopped by to see her on my walk home from school. I was enthralled by her stories of living in a family of 9 brothers and no sisters. I was thrilled when she showed me her sketchbooks and her writing exercises in French. I could barely imagine her leaving her family and going to school in Europe. At some point as I grew older, I realized that now she lived in one side of a small double home and that the only fancy things that I saw were figurines in a china cabinet.
I know nothing of the courtship of Walter and Mary after they met but they married in April 1920 in Springfield, Massachusetts. As luck would have it, the home in which Mary lived at the time of her marriage is still standing in downtown Springfield, surrounded by modern office buildings. It is a large home of great beauty. I can picture the interior with lovely woodwork, lace curtains, fine art and an elegant staircase. Her status as the only daughter was no doubt privileged. She would have had the most stylish of clothing, hats and jewelry. Mary’s family was devoutly Catholic and worshiped at the stately St. Michael’s, a large and historic church.
What could have drawn these two together? In contrast to Mary’s lovely home in the city, Walter grew up in a log cabin on a creek. If he went to church, it would have been Baptist, and the building would have been a humble log one with wooden benches for seats, oil lamps for light and a country preacher spreading the Word. Other than his service in the Army, all that Walter knew was farming. He, like Mary, had traveled to Europe, but as a soldier in a grim war. She traveled as an elite child of wealth.
Nevertheless they married, against the wishes of Mary’s brothers. Mary and Walter were both about 30 years old and could make their own decisions. Her father could not object as he was deceased, but the citizens of Springfield must have wondered about the disturbance at St. Michael’s Cemetery when he turned over in his grave.
The newlyweds suffered a sorrow in their first year of marriage as they lost their first daughter on the day of her birth. They were living in Dayton, Ohio, away from all family. In the following years they were blessed with 2 healthy daughters.In the 1930 and 1940 census records, they are shown as living in Preble County, Ohio and Walter was a poultry farmer.
I will close by repeating the tale that Aunt Mary told me personally about the young family’s first and only trip to visit Walter’s parents. The trip was about 3 years into their marriage with their first baby daughter. They took the train as far as they could, from Dayton to possibly London,Ky. Then they traveled by wagon, presumably pulled by mules, on rutted “roads” , at best, and miry and muddy, at worst. When they arrived at Walter’s home place, Mary told me that her mother-in-law was chewing tobacco and spitting it off of the porch. Culture shock was a mild description.
Since I knew Aunt Mary as a child, I could only have a child’s perspective. Other family members have told me that Aunt Mary was an unhappy person. I can see that her plunge from wealth to being a farmer’s wife could have been very difficult. She probably knew nothing about cooking, keeping house, and doing laundry as her family of birth had servants. Their baby daughter who visited Kentucky had an accident as a young child and suffered brain damage that rendered her ineducable in that day and age. The parents and younger sister cared for her at home. I hope that the love that drew Mary and Walter together sustained them through their marriage. In her later years, Mary seemed to be very lonely. I hope that my visits brought as much pleasure to her as they did to me. Those visits allowed me to know about an unusual love.