Mom and the Girls' Trip to Ireland - 2016

Beyond the Pale


Martha Wheelan

Martha Swift and her sister Agness

Martha (left) and Agnes Swift

Martha Swift was the thirteenth child born to John Connell Swift and Mary Cecily Rimmer (including three children who died in infancy.) She married John Henry Wheelan, and they were my grandparents.

I believe John C. and Mary Swift had unusually progressive views on education for their daughters, for they raised strong, educated and independent women who valued reading, writing and lifelong learning. Several of their daughters were employed, some as nurses or teachers, in an era when it was unusual to speak of any other "occupation" for a woman except in the home.

Like most of her sisters, Grandma Wheelan was a keeper of stories -- both in the form of oral retelling of stories to others and in writing things down. She and Grandpa Wheelan each kept a daily journal with brief remarks about the day's highlights. It was usually something simple, noting the day's weather, but sometimes it included mention of who had come to visit that day, a family anniversary or -- at least in one case, a detailed record of a community event. When Grandma was just a young girl, a man in her hometown of Washington, IA, developed an unthinkable invention -- a flying machine. He took it to the fairgrounds and invited the community to come watch as he took to the skies.

Grandma's journal entry for that occasion was filled with meticulous notes about the day -- that is, she named her school friends who came, described the dresses they wore, and wrote that a lot of people came to watch. At the end of about two pages of her handwritten recollections came one single mention of the flying machine: It did not fly. (Later, upon reading the account his mother had written, my Uncle Don quipped, "Well, she dispensed with future of aviation rather easily, didn't she?!")

Martha Veronica Swift

Martha Veronica Swift

A master collector of trivia, Grandma probably influenced my mother (who in turn influenced me) in the cultivated skill of keeping bits of information to use later. In today's world, she would be a meticulous researcher! She usually pasted clippings of "the good stuff" in a scrapbook made from a spiral notebook. The other pieces might have made their way into an envelope mailed to one of her children, or in a box of clippings that she intended to "make into a scrapbook someday when I break my leg." (Except, when that "someday" came, she broke her arm instead of her leg.) Still, a few spiral notebooks full of clippings survive, and looking through them, one can get an appreciation of Grandma's times and her passions. Alongside clippings telling of marriages of her grandchildren, prizes they won in 4-H projects, or handwritten notes of thanks for a kindness she performed are also clippings which show how much President Eisenhower aged while in office, the wonder of the moon landing, or the photo of the odd shape of a haystack resembling a shelter because of the way the cows had munched away at the edges and interior.

Grandma imbued her children with a love of the family ties and a joy in sharing the stories. For those who remember her, it may seem contradictory to think of Martha Wheelan as a keeper of the stories, for she was not a person who talked a lot. Rather, I recall her as someone who quietly enjoyed the stories, took pains to write letters to my mother, and passed along newspaper clippings or cartoons just for the joy of sharing something that amused her. And when something amused her, she might have a little smile start at the corner of her mouth and spread into a silent sparkle of mirth in her eyes. Neither she nor Grandpa were apt to emit a big "belly laugh." But this did not mean they lacked a sense of humor. In fact, their brand of humor is woven through many of the family stories told by my mother, brothers, sisters and cousins today. I credit Grandma Wheelan for teaching me that there is always a personal enjoyment to be found in the act of keeping and telling stories.

Other stuff and 2023 trip

This page was last edited on 09-Apr-2023

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