When we look back over the course of our lives, we might often think of times when we would like to have the opportunity for a ‘do over.’ Perhaps its a career or financial decision, or maybe a relationship choice that would be different with the benefit of hindsight. From a family history perspective, my wish is based on “if only” – if only I had spent more time talking to and appreciating family relatives who are no longer with us. Those who are starting out working on and researching a family history should ensure that they take the time to ‘interview’ elderly relatives who can share stories and experiences. If they are comfortable with the arrangement, record the conversations so you can later refer back to some of the details they shared.
While there are quite a few ancestors with whom I would like the opportunity to speak for help in solving family mysteries that I struggle with, I would particularly enjoy the chance to spend some more time with my maternal grandfather, John Graham O’Neill (pictured above left).
John Graham O’Neill was born on June 26, 1895 in Toronto, Ontario. His middle name was taken from his mother’s maiden name and it was also the name he commonly used. He was the eldest child and only son of William Emmett O’Neill and his wife Margaret Graham who also had two daughters – Kathleen, born in 1896 and Avila who was born in 1898. Graham married Ellen Gertrude Foley (who also was commonly called by her middle name) on June 23, 1926. Gertrude passed away in July 1962 and Graham passed away in December 1979.
Graham O’Neill, over the course of 84 years, saw the world into which he was born change more dramatically than arguably any other similar period in history. The light bulb and the distribution of electricity were still relatively new when he was born and, in his lifetime he saw the introduction and development of the automobile, air travel, two World Wars, the devastation of the Great Depression, movies, radio and then television become forms of entertainment, the suffrage and civil rights movements and, men walking on the moon.
In his lifetime, Graham worked as a grocer both in Toronto, Ontario and, during the Depression years, in Detroit, Michigan. He also was an on-air ‘personality’ on the CBC’s ‘Man Alive’ program and a published poet (“The Trees of Kew” that paid homage to Kew Beach in Toronto’s east end).
Although I did get to spend a lot of time with my grandfather, sharing our love of sports through the watching of televised hockey games and attending baseball games, it is one of his anecdotes that I remember most. In his retirement years, he had decided to attend some college classes that were offered free to ‘senior citizens.’ One of the courses he attended dealt with the history of the City of Toronto. During one class, the lecturer spoke about the Great Toronto Fire of 1904 that destroyed a large section of the downtown area. When the lecturer told the class that not a lot of details were available about the fire, Graham stood and explained where the different fire trucks had been located, the number of firefighters being used and the results of their efforts. When asked by the lecturer how he knew all of this, his answer was simple, “I was there.” If only I had a ‘do over.’