By Audrey Nance
“We come from a long line of wild women,” my Nana told me as she dished us up some chicken salad in the kitchen of her little pink house in Omaha. I’d heard this phrase a thousand times before growing up. It was an old saying in my family, one each generation seemed to take a little more pride in than the last.
I’d come to visit my “Grand Old Irish Nana,” as my mother calls her, the matriarch of our little clan, to learn more about those wild women that came before us and how they built our family through history into who we are today. Old photos, newspaper clippings and letters already lay strewn across the dining room table as we took our plates and took our seats. It looked like Nana had gotten a head start on our trip down memory lane while I was making the drive from Lincoln. But I wanted to start at the beginning.
“How did we get here?” I asked.
The first generation came to America from Ireland in the late 1800s. Nana’s mother, Anne O’Halloran, was a wealthy Irish noblewoman from County Clare. She was well-known for her beautiful ornate carriage, drawn by six powerful white horses, which she traveled in everywhere she went. She loved her coach and the many other luxuries her prestigious position afforded her. But she was a wild woman at heart, perhaps the first of many in our family, and in a bizarre twist of fate, it turned out that she loved her coachman more than anything else.
An unholy union
She eloped with her carriage driver, an impoverished man named Michael Welsh from Tipperary, and her family was furious. Feeling that Anne had disgraced their good name by marrying below her status, her parents disowned her. So the unlikely pair of newlyweds were forced to flee from Ireland to America to escape the social backlash. Anne’s daughter, my Nana’s mother, used to tell my Nana that whenever Anne’s temper flared with Michael she used to bitterly remind him, “If I had stayed in Ireland I’d still have me own coach and six!”
Nana’s father was also the child of Irish immigrants, George Cruise and Mary McGary. He was the youngest boy of 11 children, affectionately called Little Johnnie by his mother. George Cruise was an explorer and self-made man of some local renown. He was born on St. Patrick’s Day in County Roscommon, Ireland, in 1837, where he lived for the first 20 years of his life before taking off for Australia to find his fortune. There, he worked for 15 years as a sheep rancher and gold prospector amassing a great wealth of both currency and experience. He explored much of the untamed Australian wilds alone and was perhaps one of the first White men on the continent to do so. At his funeral (the largest one Adams County, Iowa, had ever seen according to the local newspaper) his closest lifelong friend, Reverend McDermott, said of his adventurous nature:
“Mr. Cruise had a life of varied experiences, many of them sounding as fairy tales.”
Eventually George’s mother grew restless with his bachelor lifestyle and urged him to marry. She selected a bride for him back in Roscommon, a school teacher named Mary McGary. The oldest of 12 children, Mary was petite and her family was very poor. But as a teacher she was educated and literate, which was an unusual and desirable trait for a woman at that time. For his part, George did as all good Irishman must do and obeyed his mother’s orders. He paid Mary’s family $5,000 for the privilege of her hand then whisked her away across the ocean to a plot of farmland in Iowa to begin their new lives.
Hell hath no fury
In this new life and land, Mary had 11 children, most of which she raised alone. When her oldest son grew into a young man, he struck out on his own and purchased a ranch in Imperial, Nebraska, where George would frequently steal off to in order to avoid having to help Mary with the children and chores at home. Mary was not shy in voicing her irritation with her husband’s avoidance of his family responsibilities. She wrote to him often with such passive-aggressive quips as:
July 8th, 1905
Dear Husband, I had a letter from Aunt Ellen yesterday. She wants me to come to Chicago to visit her. I will write her and tell her I will visit her when my old man will accompany me. Not till then. I suppose that will be never. I was very lonesome after you went, but that is nothing for me. I hope you will try and take care of yourself and do not work to hurt yourself. If God spares you perhaps we might live a few years together yet. We are well here at present, if you should care to know.
I was feeling pretty well now, too, after getting to know the women who came before me. We looked through the old photos, read through the old newspaper clippings, and scraped the last of the chicken salad from our plates. My Nana asked me about my new dog, my friends and my classes at school. I told her about my journalism capstone class: the Nebraska Mosaic, where I’ll be writing stories covering refugee communities in Lincoln.
These stories will in some ways be very different from my own, but also in some ways they may be more similar than we even realize. We talked about the opportunities and challenges of such a topic, and how interesting and exciting it will be get to know people with such a diverse range of cultures and languages.
“Wow, Audrey. You’ll be talking to people with experiences like I couldn’t even imagine. That is really wild,” my Nana said.
“You know what they say,” I reminded her, “I come from a long line of wild women.”