An Appreciation for the Past


Teghan knows one set of great-grandparents. She recognizes them, and she is familiar with their house. When she arrives there, she immediately seeks out a set of three small books that she has claimed as her own. If she does not find all three together- there will be screaming. I don’t know what exactly goes through her mind about why we go to this place, who these people are, or why we only see them on occasion. She doesn’t know that her great-grandparents are in Florida right now, or that they spend half the year there. I am not sure what memories are being created for her, but I know there is something there.

I was lucky enough to have known four of my great-grandparents. Our family spent every Sunday at my Great-Grandma Hill’s house, and she was a part of my life until after I was married. I wasn’t as close to my other great-grandparents, but I am now grateful for the opportunity to at least have memories of them. When I became interested in genealogy, those memories became more important, but they no longer defined my knowledge of them. At times it makes me sad that it took so long for me to know them the way I do now. 

One of the biggest memories I have of my Great-Grandma Sprague happened at a kitchen table on a holiday. She wasn’t great with children, and the conversations were few and far between. But for some reason, on this particular occasion, she wanted to talk to me about my freckles. She explained how she had freckles as a child- and hated them. She did everything she could to hide them. She told me I shouldn’t worry about it, though, because eventually her freckles disappeared. She was sure the same thing would happen for me.

I didn’t mind my freckles.

I wasn’t offended, but I suppose that could have given me some kind of a complex. She was just making small talk (I think). I mean, she may have been horrified by my freckles and assumed I was in constant distress over the deformity across my nose…..that’s also possible. I don’t even know why I remember this conversation, other than maybe I thought it was kind of weird.

The truth is, this woman did not have much impact on my world. She was an old lady who showed up at grandma and grandpa’s house on holidays, and then later lived with them when she got sick. I hugged her hello and goodbye, endured infrequent small talk, and visited her at her various residences over the years. She wasn’t a kid person, so she didn’t seem incredibly nice. Not mean- just indifferent. She died in 1988.

I’ve mentioned before about my interest in genealogy and how it started with my great-grandfather, Howard Sprague. Howard was her first husband, my grandpa’s father. He died of Tuberculosis in 1929. Putting together the missing pieces of his life revealed a lot about my great-grandmother, too. It made me like her more.

Mary Vera McVean was born in 1902, the second of three children. The family lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan- a city her grandfather had been instrumental in creating. Her father was a businessman, and they enjoyed an upper middle class lifestyle. When her mother (also) died of Tuberculosis in 1915, Mary was sent to live with relatives in a nearby suburb.

Mary with her brother, Elery, and mother, Deborah.

Mary with her brother, Elery, and mother, Deborah.


Mary and her father, Daniel.

Mary and her father, Daniel.

After high school, she became a telephone operator. In February of 1922, she married a musician and theater manager named Howard Sprague. Howard had also been a musician in the Navy Band during World War I under John Philip Sousa. He led the orchestra at the local theater (a crucial role since movies were still silent at this time). There was a great article in the paper about how Howard was able to bring The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to the small town of Nashville, Michigan at a discounted price. The premier was a big local event, happening just a few days before Howard and Mary’s wedding.

In November of 1922, Mary had her one and only child, Hugh (my grandfather).

Howard became sick in 1924. Mary lost her father in 1927 and her brother in 1928. Later that year, the family moved to El Paso, Texas for Howard’s health. Mary got a job working as an operator at The Hussmann Hotel, and Howard sought treatment at the William Beaumont Army Hospital. He died in August of 1929, leaving Mary and Hugh alone just before the onset of The Great Depression.

Mary and Hugh

Mary and Hugh

Mary sent Hugh to live with Howard’s parents in Michigan. She felt lucky to have a job. She moved in with a coworker and continued working in El Paso for a couple of years before returning to Michigan.  When she returned, she found work as an operator for the gas company. She married her second husband just before watching her only son go overseas to fight in World War II. This marriage ended in divorce. She later married John, who I remember, and remained happily married until his death in 1983.

She was extremely close to her sister Lucy throughout her life. Lucy was loved by her nephew and his family. She was good with children, although she never had any of her own. I have just one memory of Lucy, who died in 1980. We went to her house one day for some kind of a carnival when I was very young. I remember riding the ponies, and I remember waiting in her kitchen while everyone made sandwiches. She had Hellman’s mayonnaise, which I had never heard of (since we had Miracle Whip at home). Even now, my mind briefly references that moment in Lucy’s kitchen every time I see a jar of Hellman’s.

Lucy and Mary

Lucy and Mary

My great-grandmother had a full life, with more than a few dramatic twists and turns. She was smart and funny- things I never really got a chance to know about her while she was alive. I would like to ask her about the twenties and thirties. She and Howard seemed like a couple who had fun in their short years together. What were those years alone in El Paso like? My mom says she talked about those days with pride.

I love the histories I have compiled on our family. Thanks to my father-in-law, Teghan also has more documented family history than anyone I know. And yes, it makes me incredibly sad to think that these are things I may never even be able to share with her. But let’s face it. I do it for me, and there was never any guarantee that any child I had would care about it. Some people just aren’t interested. At least Teghan has a reason I can wrap my mind around.

If you have children who understand, genealogy is a great project for learning history. I wish I had known these things growing up. American history would have been so much more fascinating had I known then where my family fit into it. Most of my lines have been in America since the 1600’s. I had grandfathers in every war, and even a grandmother who was killed in Salem for being a witch. I have found biographies and journals describing details of amazing lives- coming to America in colonial times, risking everything to move into new unexplored territories, and losing half a family to illness.

Martin Headstone

Our world seems so different. Our struggles seem so small. Even reading letters my great-grandma wrote to her son during World War II, it was a world I cannot relate to. His uncle (Lucy’s husband) couldn’t even find a razor in the stores to send to him. There were few supplies back home, and she complains about the toilet paper. It’s all foreign to me. And I think, if this happened now- can you imagine the way people would react?

A little history knowledge is useful. It keeps things in perspective. It reminds us of how far we have come, and mistakes we have made. It is also ignored by the masses. So today I was thinking about our family history, and how glad I am that I learned about the life of my Great-Grandma Sprague. Otherwise, that memory about freckles would have been my story for her. That doesn’t seem fair. And I, of course, am always looking for ways to inject some of that history knowledge into Teghan’s world. It seems unlikely for the moment, but I am going to keep at it. If she ever cares, it will all be waiting for her.


5 thoughts on “An Appreciation for the Past

  1. James has such difficulty remembering people he doesn’t see a lot. My parents live far away so we don’t see them much. My father in law is an hour away so we frequent at Papa’s house. My husband is always working on the family genealogy he shares it with both of our kids. Charlotte is more willing to travel back through the generations. James… well he has difficulty remembering the names of the kids in his class who he sees everyday. I really need to hunker down and make him a family book. I have been thinking of doing this but just haven’t. Thank you for sharing and PEACE from the Laughter, Could be the Missing Piece mum.

    • Thank you! I highly recommend it. When I started searching for Howard, I didn’t even know his name was Howard. I not only know his life story now, but I found his sister’s son. He sent me some books that belonged to Howard, pictures I had never seen, and even Howard’s high school diploma from 1917. You find that a lot of what you heard growing up were only half-truths, and you find paper trails for everything. Sometimes you uncover scandals. It’s unbelievable what information is out there once you get into it. Good luck 🙂

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