It has been said that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” This particular picture turned out to be worth 83,740 words.
I took this photo five years ago after a genealogist friend discovered information about my husband’s great-great-grandmother Ellen. She was born in County Tipperary and possibly made her way to America in 1843 with her husband and children. It isn’t known what might have caused Ellen to leave Ireland. Being the inquisitive person I am, I frequently found myself guessing what the motivation might have been for my husband’s ancestors to uproot from Ireland pre-Potato Famine.
My husband and I went to Iowa to do further research on his family, and we discovered the single gravestone in the photo in a tiny, neglected cemetery on the edge of a field. The stone belonged to an Ellen Ryan born around the same time as my husband’s great-great-grandmother. Her gravestone is resting about a half mile from a church cemetery filled with upright gravestones that belong to my husband’s ancestors. One account in my husband’s family history states that Ellen’s gravestone was found abandoned in a nearby ditch sometime in the past twenty years and was compassionately deposited in its present location in the ghost graveyard by an unknown person.
Even though the adage about pictures being worth a thousand words means that multiple things can be conveyed by a single image, and words aren’t required, when I saw that abandoned gravestone, my creative mind required a written story. My husband and I spoke with several people who might be able to tell us something about Ellen’s gravestone. But nobody could provide answers. Nobody in the family knows for sure if this gravestone belongs to my husband’s ancestor or where the bones of Ellen Ryan might be.
So all I could do was stare at the photo I took and wish it would tell me something about how Ellen’s gravestone landed where it did. Something unexpected happened when I took the pieces of information that my genealogist friend had given to me about my husband’s family and placed them on the photo. Ellen Egan emerged, and she told me a story about why she wanted to leave Ireland. It wasn’t my husband’s great-great-grandmother that I heard. But because I was such an attentive listener, Ellen Egan kept speaking to me, and When Life Was Still came into existence. And 83,740 words later, I finally felt I had the story about Ellen that I had been looking for.
© 2020 by Julie Ryan. All rights reserved
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