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  • Writer's pictureCatherine C. Heywood

Chasing Anna Kelly

Why write an epic about Ireland when you spent a year living in Scotland and studying Scottish history? Here are some answers:

The first is that old writing rule—Write the story you wish to read. I love to read about history and politics and I need a great love story at the heart of it. If I wanted to read that story about Scotland, all I need do is pick up Outlander.

The second is that when I was twelve, my family hosted a girl from Northern Ireland for the summer. Our job, my parents told me and my four siblings, was to show her that in other parts of the world, than in Belfast at that time, Catholics and Protestants live in harmony. That blew my young mind, to think that that girl, also twelve, was growing up in the midst of battle lines drawn by religion I took for granted.

And the third is that there’s a gaping hole in my family history. It’s a privilege to have family history on both sides as well documented as mine. Except for one line—my Grandma Ann.

In 1916, a sixteen-year-old Irish girl named Anna Kelly walked into the New York Foundling Home and gave birth to my grandmother. She gave her her name and wrote 100% Irish on the birth certificate as if she were certifying a prime whiskey, then left her with the nuns to raise.

Luckily hers was a happy ending. At the age of two, she was sent to the Midwest on an orphan train and adopted by a nice couple in Pipestone, MN who had just lost their two-year-old little girl to the influenza epidemic. Unlike many of the orphans sent to the Midwest who were nothing more than labor, Max and Pearl Menzel just wanted a little girl to love.

Over the years, when I asked my grandma why she never wanted to look for her parents, she would always reply that Max and Pearl were her parents, that she didn’t need to know anything more. I wish I felt the same.

I must have always been curious who Anna Kelly was. As a teenager in art class, we were asked to paint a portrait and the girl who materialized on the canvas was, I realized after the fact, who I imagined Anna Kelly to be. Then, the summer I wrote the first draft of this story, that long-discarded art project reappeared to me in a dream, alongside the muse photograph I had for my main character on my story board. One a painting, one a photograph, but it was the very same picture, the hair color and style, the dress, EVERYTHING. I woke up in a cold sweat. This ancestor, lurking in my subconscious, was coming alive on the page.

In the last year of her life, I had the great privilege of spending nearly every day with my Grandma Ann. Technically I was “looking after her” for my mom and her sisters and their peace-of-mind. But, really, we looked after each other. What I came to know of her was that she was classy and stylish. She loved men—thought them hapless, but loved them—and was a keen flirt. She told wonderful stories that made me laugh ‘til my cheeks ran with tears. We talked about so much history through her lens. (She found out she was pregnant with my mom the day Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.) She loved her evening “bumps,” taught me how to mix one properly, and was always asking if it was too early for propriety. She loved being Catholic and I think she loved being Irish (voting for John Kennedy was the one and only time she voted differently than her husbands—and it gave her a secret thrill). But never once did she mention Anna Kelly.

Still, that sixteen-year-old girl did a brave thing and gave us a great gift. She may have left that infant girl with no family on the day she was born, but eighty-eight years later, that girl was surrounded by family, on the phone, in the room, holding her hand, when she died.

So, yeah, I wish I knew who Anna Kelly was. She must have really been something. Because her daughter, Ann Kelly Menzel Kompelien Buysse, was a radiant lady.

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