During 22-year-old Mary Catherine’s hour of crisis, one person could have shepherded her through the heartrending experience of losing a child before that child ever takes a breath.
If Mary Catherine survived.
It’s likely that Mary Catherine’s mother-in-law, Amy Pidgeon, rushed her to The Christ Hospital emergency room in Cincinnati during the last week of October 1945. Mary Catherine, eight months pregnant, probably suffered from severe headaches, high blood pressure, and alarming abdominal pain, symptoms of preeclampsia.
She lived with her in-laws for three years while her husband, Bud, shipped out with the Marine Corps. The day Mary Catherine arrived at The Christ Hospital and Amy sat by her bedside, Bud enjoyed shore leave in Karachi, in what is now Pakistan, unaware of the danger taking hold of not only his and Mary Catherine’s first child but Mary Catherine, too.
If Mary Catherine lost the child but pulled through with her own life, Amy would meet her on the other side of the tragedy.
Stern-faced with eyes like a burning pair of light blue flames, Amy was a woman steeled by 45 years of life among early 20th century oil fields and railroads. She never smiled in pictures. Ever.
And yet she adored her daughter-in-law in ways she probably didn’t love even her own son. The beautiful, tack-smart, chatty girl, a gifted storyteller like the rest of her upper middle class Irish-American family, moved in with Amy and her husband, Ben, in late 1942.
Amy joined Ben and Mary Catherine on a cross-country train ride during March 1945 to visit Bud in California while the Marine had a month-long shore leave. That’s when Mary Catherine became pregnant. That’s when their hopes appeared within reach.
Until eight months later. Amy’s moment of compassion arrived.
If Mary Catherine pulled through.
Beyond the Genealogy Chart
Our stories are populated by dozens, maybe even hundreds, of people whom we consider to be like supporting characters in a movie.
They may be distantly related to us. Or we may not be related at all. But they witnessed the events we long to understand, or they contributed to the fall out.
While they may occupy a secondary place in our tree and in our stories, they nonetheless shaped the people and the seminal moments of the main characters.
The great aunt who helped cover up a dark secret. The cousin whose crimes set others on a path of righteousness. The sibling of a great-great-grandfather who didn’t make the journey across the Atlantic, leaving an aching in the hearts of those who did.
Wouldn’t we give anything, at least as much, to interview the supporting case of our family history as much as we would for those we consider the major players?
They could reveal what we as family history investigators should value as much as discovering a digital birth certificate or a name on a Census record — context.
Context is king. Find among the records at Ancestry or FamilySearch a great-grandmother who lived as a young girl in a boarding house in some American city at the turn of the century. Look at the address. Find the history of that city, that neighborhood, to begin to see what she saw. Look at the other names who lived in the house with her. Someone there helped shape her life. Wouldn’t you like to know who and how?
Use your own heart, mind, and experience to connect with the names you find in the records. A little imagination, too. It’s okay. How else are you going to bring people long gone and events mostly forgotten back alive?
And in my imagination, I’ve asked many a question to my great-grandmother Amy Hogue Pidgeon because she, perhaps more than any other supporting character in my tree, saw or knew about almost everything.
Can You Tell Me What I Need to Know?
When I began to investigate what happened to my father — how his own father, Bud, could tear him away as an infant from his young birth mother in 1957 and what happened to that young mother afterwards — my mission took on dual purpose.
Find my father’s birth mother, Dorothy Lipp, who seemingly disappeared. And to understand the context of how it all happened.
That’s why I began to take great interest in Amy Hogue Pidgeon.
Amy, Bud’s mother, she took so many answers with her when she died in 1972. As I began to construct a timeline of events leading up to Bud’s cruel endeavor, which eventually led to Bud and Mary Catherine choosing to raise my father and not tell him the truth, I began to notice Amy’s presence in the margins.
After she became a widow in 1952, she lived with Bud and Mary Catherine during the mid-1950s when it all happened. Interviews with Mary Catherine’s siblings revealed an affection Amy felt for Mary Catherine, even while her approach to her son could charitably be called a relationship.
What would Amy’s life reveal to help me understand what happened leading up to my father’s abduction?
She was born in Kokomo, Indiana, during an otherwise lifeless Midwestern winter in 1900. The daughter of an oil driller and a housewife, she married Ben Pidgeon at the age of 16 and soon moved to Indianapolis with what I imagine to be aspirations of creating a family.
So one can imagine the joy when during the summer of 1917, Amy delivered a boy named William.
Three months later, William developed a condition that led to a dangerous level of malnutrition, often caused by untreated water. He died that September.
Ben and Amy tried again to have a child. She became pregnant in early 1918, but that November, she lost him during premature birth.
Two lost children in about a year’s time.
While years later Amy eventually brought a daughter and a son, Bud, into the world, I couldn’t help but wonder about the tragic memories she carried through life, and how that experience could be deployed when her pregnant daughter-in-law, Mary Catherine, in October 1945 took sick so close to her due date.
Mary Catherine nearly lost her life, but she pulled through. She lost her baby, however, a boy who never took a breath.
That calamity, in my opinion, set off a chain of events which eventually led to my father being raised in a family not quite his own. And Amy witnessed just about all of it.
Amy left no letters, no diary, no presence on any home movie, just a consistently stern countenance in every photograph in which she appears.
All I can do is imagine what it would be like to interview, to ask her what she saw, what she knew, what she did as events which led to the birth of my father and the mysterious way he found himself being raised by Mary Catherine.
Dave Pidgeon is a writer and photographer from Lancaster, Pa. He writes about fathers of the past and his own journey into fatherhood here at CausingDadmage.com. You can reach him at email@example.com