My great-grandfather, Thomas Edward McMahon, was born on June 13, 1879 in Tara Township, Minnesota. Tom was the second child and eldest son of Francis and Catherine (McAndrew) McMahon. His father was a native of County Fermanagh and his mother was born in New York – her parents came from County Mayo.
His youngest daughter was my grandma, Agnes McMahon Regan. She loved her dad and shared her memories with me over the years. Grandma said her dad was like a big kid. He loved to play with his children and joke around, and enjoyed nothing more than sitting in his chair on a winter’s evening with the family as his wife, Mary Foley McMahon, read stories aloud to them all.
Tom wed Mary Foley on June 9, 1904 at St. Malachy Catholic Church in Clontarf, Minnesota. The couple grew up about a mile apart on farms in Tara Township. They had seven children – four girls and three boys.
Grandma said her dad was extremely good-natured and soft-spoken. She only remembered one occassion when he raised his voice at her. The family was at the table for dinner when my grandma (who was about four-years-old at the time) said to her dad, seated next to her, “Gimme the butter!”
Tom was startled by his daughter’s demand and replied, “Pardon me?”
Grandma said it again, this time louder, since he didn’t hear her, “GIMME THE BUTTER!”
Tom was taken aback. None of his children behaved so rudely, not even his spirited middle child, Rose. But he was especially surprised by the outburst from Agnes. Tom told her she could have the butter if she asked for it nicely.
Grandma thought about it for a moment and said, “Gimme the butter!”
Tom had heard enough. He stood up and ordered Agnes to leave the table immediately. Grandma stormed out of the kitchen and threw herself on the buggy outside. She cried like she had never cried before. A short time later, Tom came out to Grandma. He set her dinner on her lap and placed his arm around her shoulders. Grandma said she apologized profusely, and her dad just brushed the black curls from her forehead and comforted her, “There, now, that’s the girl. It’s alright…”
Grandma said she could tell her dad felt as bad about the situation as she did. The two of them sat on the buggy while Grandma finished her dinner. Grandma learned her lesson, and this was the first and last time Tom raised his voice.
According to my grandma, her dad was a true farmer. He loved everything about the process – preparing the soil, planting, growing crops, harvesting them, and sharing the fruits of his labor. Unfortunately, the 1910s and 1920s were tough on many farmers on the prairie of Western Minnesota. Tom tried to make a go of it several times. He sold the homestead and moved to rented land, farming until 1926 when he gave it up for the last time. The McMahon family moved to Minneapolis to begin life anew.
Tom worked in the pole yard (telephone poles) for several years before he retired. A neighbor let Tom use a plot of vacant land nearby. Tom grew “every vegetable known to man” on that piece of land. My grandma said he never seemed happier. Tom had a nifty little trade set up whereby he exchanged fresh produce for groceries at the local shop. Grandma admitted that her dad gave away a lot of produce to neighbors throughout the 1930s. She said everyone did what they could to help each other out during the Depression.
Tom McMahon died on May 6, 1937. His wife, Mary, went out that day with a friend. When she returned home, she found her husband of nearly thirty-three years slumped in his favorite chair. One thing that Mary always said was that no one should be alone when they die, and she felt terrible she was not home for Tom – she was always home.
Because my grandma shared her memories of her loved ones with me, these relatives I never had the privilege to meet came to life for me. This is how a great-grandfather who passed away thirty-five years before I was born can be one of my Irish American favorites. I feel like I knew him and now it is my job to keep his memory alive, for my grandma.