The other night Wendy and I were sitting on the couch watching television and working.
“When they market a movie as ‘inspirational’ it makes me not want to see it,” Wendy mused. “If Hollywood would make movies in which things don’t turn out the way you want and call it ‘inspirational’ then I might want to see it.”
I can think of a movie or two that fit the description of what m’love is talking about, but there are precious few. I get where she’s coming from. Life is regularly messy, and it is more often unfair. Things don’t always work out as we had hoped and planned, and at times the cards are stacked against us before life even begins by people whose decisions we did not control.
In 1998 I was given a great gift when a friend offered to fly me and some other guys to Dublin for a long “guys” weekend. Something awoke in my soul that weekend. Something that had lain dormant sprung to life and my life has never been quite the same. I had long been told by my mother that this little Dutch boy had Scotch-Irish genes, but I didn’t really know how or from whom. It turns out to be quite a story that began with a sixteen year old girl named Malinda Jane Helmick, known as Lenna.
The year was 1881 and Lenna’s father had died four years earlier. Her widowed mother had worked desperately to keep the family farm going. Older siblings had married and moved on. There was just Lenna and her younger sister, Maggie, left at home. Times were hard. Lenna’s mother surprised the teen one day, and it was not a pleasant surprise. She told Lenna that she had hired her out to a family who lived miles away on a farm near Melrose, Iowa. Feeling like an unwanted burden to her mother, Lenna was forced to move what seemed in impossibly long distance to be a servant on the farm of John and Elizabeth McCoy.
The McCoy farm was run by the aging John and his bachelor son, David Thomas McCoy who, at the time, was 34. There were four other sons and a daughter who had all grown and moved on. Lenna’s life with the McCoys was hard. She was up early to cook the family breakfast. She cooked and cleaned throughout the day. She emptied, daily, the family’s commodes and chamber pots. She cleaned up after the evening meal and wasn’t finished with her work until late each evening. Lenna was given one day off every two weeks, and a few hours each Sunday morning to attend church.
On top of the long hours and hard work, Lenna’s life was made miserable by Mrs. McCoy. Elizabeth McCoy was an angry, cantankerous woman, partially invalid, and impossible to please. Lenna had the daily burden of trying to make Mrs. McCoy comfortable and to wait on her hand and foot amidst her regular chores. If Mrs. McCoy was hot Lenna was asked to open all the windows in the house. A short time later Mrs. McCoy would be cold and Lenna would have to close the windows and heat up a water bottle to warm the woman back up.
Lenna’s days off and occasional breaks from work afforded her little pleasure. She was stuck on the farm with no transportation and no place to go. She spent her free time walking in the woods near the McCoy farm. It was during these walks that she began to meet with and enjoy conversation with the McCoy’s bachelor son, David, who was almost 20 years her senior. Over time the man pledged his love to Lenna, promising to marry her and, together, take over the family farm. He simply had to get his mother’s blessing, he said. That blessing would never come. Elizabeth McCoy hated Lenna, looked down on her, and would never allow her son to marry a lowly servant.
Life is messy, and it happened that after one of Lenna and David’s dates in the woods near the farm that Lenna became pregnant. She thought that this would force David to stand up to his mother and claim her has his bride, but instead Elizabeth McCoy flatly forbade her son from marrying Lenna and dismissed the teen from her service before she began to show. David promised to take care of Lenna and the baby, but he would not marry her over his mother’s objections.
Lenna had few options and begged her married sister, Lou, to take her in. Lou and her husband lived in the town of Tracy, Iowa. They took Lenna in out of “Christian charity” but she would no longer be considered a sister. Lenna would, in her fallen state, simply be a household servant relegated to waiting on her sister’s family just as she had waited on the McCoys. Fearing that the community would discover the truth, Lou and her husband forbade Lenna from being seen in public. When guests came to their house they demanded Lenna stay out of sight. It was in that home that Lenna gave birth to a son, and named him David, after his father.
Lenna continued to correspond with David McCoy and he continued to make promises. He pledged to marry her one day and make everything right. The promises, however, remained hollow. McCoy moved from Iowa to Nebraska, then to Missouri, and then back to Iowa. Lenna soon owned up to the realization of just how empty McCoy’s promises had always been and would always be. She met a local farmer of German descent named Jacob Miller Yeater and the two were married. Yeater understood Lenna’s circumstances and agreed to raise Lenna’s son as his own. No legal papers were filed. Lenna simply began to call her son Oscar William Yeater, and the boy grew up completely ignorant of the real story of his birth.
It was many years later that Will, now an adult and newly married, discovered his parents marriage certificate as he was going through some papers. He did the math and saw that they were married two years after his birth. Despite nagging misgivings about his true identity, Will chose to deny the dates as a simple typographical error. Years later it was his father, Jacob Yeater, in a temperamental rage because Will’s young wife rebuffed his sexual advances, who revealed to Will the scandalous story of his illegitimate birth.
Will would eventually meet and confront David McCoy about being his father. McCoy did not deny it, but told Will that he would never confess to it in public and he would never accept Will as his son. McCoy’s brothers, however, knowing the true story, showed kindness to the young man. When David McCoy passed away as a confirmed bachelor, he left his estate to two of his siblings. Will sued for his rightful share of the estate, publicly revealing that he had been the illegitimate son of David Thomas McCoy. The scandalous story was front page news in the Chariton, Iowa newspapers, and Will’s family was humiliated. In the end, the paternity was established when the court forced an aging Lenna Yeater to travel to Chariton from Missouri and confess the truth of her early transgressions in open court. The court awarded Will one half of the McCoy estate, then promptly took it away to cover unpaid child support to his estranged wife.
William Oscar Yeater was my great-grandfather. He had a rough life, and I have merely scratched the surface of the full tragedy in this post. Will was haunted by a past that seemed to resist any kind of redemption or reconciliation. Will was a broken man, and he made many foolish choices. He was not fondly remembered by family members. Stories about him were rare and always spoken in hushed, hurried words. Will’s wife, Daisy, struggled to love him well and suffered deeply from his many failings. She married him, twice. All that Will put her through would help to transform her into the hallowed martyr and matriarch she became to her many descendants.
I did not know this story until I was well into adulthood with children of my own. I was, perhaps, near the same age as Will when he discovered the truth about himself. I was given a great gift to visit Dublin and it was there my dormant Irish genes woke within me. When I returned home I began to investigate my Irish roots and my exploration led me to meet Lenna Helmick and her son, Will Yeater, the bastard son of an Irishman named David Thomas McCoy. I am the heir of illegitimate Irish genes. Somehow, that makes them feel legitimately more Irish.
Lenna Helmick’s Cinderella story did not have a happy ending, neither would her son’s. Life is regularly messy, and it is more often unfair. Things don’t always work out as we had hoped and planned, and at times the cards are stacked against us before life even begins by people whose decisions we did not control. Few of us get an ending that Hollywood would market as “inspirational.” That does not, however, make them bad stories. It does not mean that we cannot find inspiration in the midst of their tragedy. Joy is not always a natural by-product of circumstance. Sometimes joy emerges only from careful and deliberate consideration. That was Wendy’s point the other night on the couch. She was right, as she so often is. Wendy knows the truth of it.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day from the heir of illegitimate Irish genes.
I have a pipe dream of someday starting an Irish folk band. We will be “The Bastard Sons of McCoy.”
(Note for regular readers: I’ve been taking a little time off for spring break this week. Regular posts will resume next week)