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the search for toots. . .

Day #1

People often ask where I get the idea for a book and most times I can’t really say. This isn’t really the first day of this story, but rather the beginning---that was months ago when for some reason I’m still unable to fathom, I began to think about my great Aunt Annie, who our family called “Toots”. I began to think there was a real story in her life and I soon learned how much of a mystery that was.

Toots had lived with my grandmother—her sister—in Chicago, where we had also lived part of my growing up. She was very quiet and to my young mind, she was always in the background---someone who retreated to the attic shortly after we arrived for a visit. I now understand the reason for this retreat: there were eight of us kids and being in her seventies, she was likely overwhelmed by our activity. I don’t remember ever having had a personal conversation with her, but she always gave each of us a kiss on our arrival. Those were the days when we kissed on the lips and I vividly remember her lips as paper thin and squishy. She must have thought more of me than I ever did of her because she did leave me a savings bond in her will—an unexpected and much appreciated gift at a time I was considering grad school. Maybe remembering her now and sharing her story---because she was special--- will in some small way be paying her back for her kindness all those years ago.

The story I remembered hearing was that she had lost her husband and two sons in a fire. That was, and still is, an incredibly sad story, but I’ve since learned over these past months, that the story wasn’t true. She had somehow met and married a man from Nebraska who died at home of long-term heart problems. They were homesteaders. She did have two sons, but each died in their first year of life. After her husband died, their farm went into foreclosure and she lost everything to the tune of some $14,000---a big sum now, but it must have been incredible in 1935. Foreclosure on a farm was a very common occurrence in those times, I learned---the time of the “dust bowl”, my knowledge of which was centered on Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. There was so much I didn't know, and that led me to research that time period which covered such a vast area in the center of our country.

Some of Toots’ story I’ve gotten from my siblings and cousins---what they remembered; only a few remembered hearing of a fire. Spit-balling the timeline, I couldn’t find anything in the newspapers about a fire that might have killed her family. I turned to’t believe those TV ads! You have to be prepared to spend hours searching their records---lots of information, but it requires lots of time. Anyway…I eventually found her husband’s obituary, which provided a wealth of information, leading to other findings, leading to a decision to do this road trip—to Nebraska. I had to find out more about this woman who had the courage to come over from Ireland as a child of twelve---who worked as a servant in Chicago and married a man from Nebraska---how did that ever happen? And she became a homesteader.

Then what happened after? I had to get the feel of the places where Toots had lived. I had been to where she grew up in Ireland and I’d been to Chicago many times. Tomorrow is day #1 of my road trip to Nebraska and learning more of her story. My plan is to post several times a week on what I see and learn. You can find my posts on: my Facebook page: M.E. Roche; Instagram: author_meroche; and on my website: I hope you'll join me on the journey!

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