By Edward Achorn
Years ago, my sister, Nancy Engberg, an award-winning amateur photographer, took a fragile glass negative from my father’s hands and made a print from it.
The sepia-toned image that emerged offered a striking glimpse of a sunny day in 1922 on the front lawn of 80 Court Street, in Mansfield, Massachusetts. Four generations had gathered: Civil War veteran John F. Mead, wearing his uniform; his petite daughter, Josephine Mead Comey, better known as Josie; her daughter, Mabel Louise (Comey) Achorn; and her infant son, Robert Comey Achorn.
They are, respectively, my great great grandfather, my great grandmother, my grandmother and my father.
Baby experts I consulted estimate the infant is about five months old. That would make the photograph’s date late September or early October.
Though silent now, these four speak to me about the ceaseless flow of time, the hard struggle to make it in America, and the blessings that have endured.
“A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever,” Ecclesiastes 1:4 reminds us. Virtually no one is still living who knew three of these four people.
I wrote about John Mead recently. Born around 1836, he lost both his parents when he was “a mere boy,” according to his obituary, and grew up with an aunt. He was a working-class man, a mason who helped construct blocks of buildings in Boston and Cambridge. He married a woman named Cassie. On September 18, 1860, their daughter — the lady standing behind him here — was born.
On July 14, 1862, when that little girl was less than two years old, John enlisted to fight in the Civil War as a private in Company A of the 38th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, which organized at Camp Cameron in North Cambridge. In August he was promoted to full corporal. Then he served, in Louisiana, as First Lieutenant in Company C of the 89th Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry. That was at a time when Confederates executed white officers of such black regiments.
On June 13, 1912, the Bureau of Pensions of the U.S. Department of the Interior certified his right to receive a pension of $27 a month for his service in the Civil War. He probably needed it, because he moved in with his daughter and lived at the house in the picture, becoming “a familiar person on the streets of the town.” He died a few years after this photo, on August 18, 1926, at 90.
My father did not remember “Gramp Mead,” as his mother Mabel called him. But she told him about the veteran. “Lieut. Mead came home full of stories about the horrors of the war as well as the more human side — the Confederates and Yankees tossing smoking tobacco back across the lines at dusk,” my dad wrote in a booklet about the family.
Josie, the working man’s daughter, married a Harvard-educated man named Charlie Comey on June 20, 1883. He began a 50-year-career working for Comey & Co., a business founded by an uncle that made women’s straw hats. Hats were a vastly lucrative industry at the time, with “straw shops” all over New England and beyond. On Feb. 11, 1885, their daughter Mabel — my grandmother, here holding the baby — was born.
In 1888, Charlie and Josie built the big house — with three stories and 11 rooms — that partly appears in the background of this photo. But the good times could not last.
Changing fashion trends in America sent the hat business into a long, grim death spiral. Seven years after this photo, Charlie lost all of his savings in the stock market crash. His decades-old business, Comey & Co., went bust in the Great Depression.
“He was 73. He was out of work,” my father wrote. “He tried hard to support his wife and to keep his home, and he succeeded — not without struggle. He sold Reader’s Digest subscriptions door-to-door to earn pocket money. He sold Moxie: there were cases of it in the cellar.”
Yet my father’s memories of his grandparents are of a lovely couple, unbowed by life’s adversity. He wrote of Josie, the small, seemingly delicate woman standing in this photo: “Perhaps some would call her bird-like. I never saw her when she was not neatly and formally dressed, and always with a choker around her neck. Sometimes it was black; sometimes it was deep purple. It was always there. She smiled a lot, and spoke gently and evenly. In that era, she defined the word ‘lady.’”
She never collected a paycheck, but she worked intensely hard. “She cooked marvelous meals. She scrubbed and cleaned. … Clothes were hand-washed. There was no washing machine.” The maid’s room, once occupied, was empty in my father’s memory. Josie gardened. She did not own a car. To go to the store or church, she walked.
As for her husband, Charlie: He “had white hair and [a] bristling white mustache. When he went out, he always wore a suit with a vest and usually a stiff straw hat. He laughed easily and spoke in a cultivated manner. ‘Distinguished’ was the word that always came to me. He should have been beaten down by age or circumstance, but he always stepped out down Court Street with a firm stride and his head held high. And he tipped his hat to everyone he met. They were neighbors; they were friends.”
The two planned to spend their 50th wedding anniversary, in 1933, quietly at home. But according to the Mansfield News, they “were virtually besieged by well-wishing friends all day.” Lives well-lived.
Mabel, their daughter, my grandmother, attended high school in Mansfield, where she was able to study — and did study — French, Latin, Greek, German and Spanish. She went on to Mount Holyoke College, but had to leave after one year, no doubt because of the family’s growing financial problems. Her great granddaughter — my daughter Jean — managed to fulfill Mabel’s dream of graduating from that institution.
Mabel’s husband, my grandfather Ed Achorn, was able to work during the Great Depression, but they lived on the second floor of the small Achorn family house in Westborough, Massachusetts. There was little to spare. She died in 1942, when my father — the infant in the picture — was away attending Brown. Soon after that, he joined the Navy and served in the Pacific, eventually becoming a captain of a small vessel. He saw the famous American flag waving on Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima, after one of the most horrific battles of World War II. He came home, married my mother, had five children, and rose through the ranks from lowly bureau reporter to publisher of The Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
He took me to my first big-league ball game at Fenway Park in 1966. And soon thereafter, he gave me one of the greatest gifts imaginable: Bruce Catton’s three-volume centennial history of the Civil War. You may sense that influence in some of my books.
That, of course, is the speed walk through four generations. There are millions of American stories like theirs — of heartache, struggle, sacrifice, service, and gratitude to be living in this blessed country of ours.
(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)