The Shipwreck: The Two John Kelleys, Part 7

Start from the beginning here or go back to Part 6.

In the 1880 census, I found Amelia Beardsley, daughter of Patrick and Tamer’s daughter, Amelia, living with her aunt Celia Kelley Collins. I know from a death record that Mother Amelia died in 1870 or 1871, but I wondered where her father, Homer Beardsley, was.

I don’t think it was uncommon for single fathers to place their children with family members at that time, especially when Homer’s occupation as a seaman is considered. His job required weeks, if not months, away at sea. I figured he was away during the 1880 census. Census searches after 1880 did not come up with any hits, so I googled him and found this:

Ships and Men of the Great Lakes

That is an excerpt of a list of people who were lost in shipwrecks mentioned in a book called Ships and Men of the Great Lakes. Homer Beardsley is also mentioned in another index of a book, Lake Superior’s Shipwreck Coast. Both indices say that Captain Beardsley died as a result of the wreck of the W. W. Arnold on 1 or 15 November 1869 off the coast of Two-Hearted River, Michigan. Following is an excerpt from the Traverse City Record-Eagle about Harborless, a book of poetry by Cindy Hunter Morgan.

Perhaps the strangest wreck was that of the wooden schooner W.W. Arnold in 1869. The ship met with a winter storm on Lake Superior only hours after departure from port and vanished.

One month later, a mail carrier whose route followed the shore reported he’d found a ship beached near the W.W. Arnold’s planned route, prompting men from the Masonic Order to search for the captain’s body.

They arrived to find the beach littered with debris. They found scraps of clothing and canvas, but were too late to recover the bodies before they decomposed.

And here is a newspaper clipping of the losses (although the site on which I found it gives no source):

Screen Shot 2018-08-17 at 9.52.15 AM.png

What a terrible way to go: listed as “ten in number” next to the monetary values of the vessel and its cargo.

Disclaimer: This may not be Amelia’s Homer Beardsley. There very well could have been more than one sailor named Homer Beardsley on ships in the Great Lakes. I have not been able to find a crew roster for the W. W. Arnold or an obituary for Homer Beardsley, despite looking in Google Newspaper Archive,, and But it seems reasonable that it is him, doesn’t it?

Amanda Kelly household 1870 census

The fact that keeps niggling at me is in Part 4 of this series Mother Amelia and Tamar are listed on the July 1870 census, even though I have death records stating that Mother Amelia died in childbirth in April 1870, and Tamar died of rheumatism in May 1870, making this census record virtually impossible. With the revelation of Homer’s possible death in November 1869, I now have 3 possible ghosts on this page.

Sources for this post can be found here. Read the next part.

Crossing a River

The first time I traveled to a different country I was a junior in high school. Friends had decided they’d rather take the train from Flint, Michigan, to Toronto, Canada, than rent formal wear and a limo and go to prom and invited me to come with.

Being a geography nerd, I fantasized about the trip in the weeks before we left. The only Canadian I’d met before was my grandfather (but he’d been an apple-pie-eating American for decades by the time I came around) so my imagination went wild. I learned from an episode of the Brady Bunch that Hawaiians welcomed travelers with a garland of flowers. So I figured a similar ceremony would greet me when we crossed the border: mounties knighting me with hockey sticks, customs agents anointing me with maple syrup, a dexterous moose pinning a maple leaf brooch on my REM sweat shirt; that sort of thing. I was pretty disappointed when we crossed the St. Clair River and I didn’t even hear a cheer.


The greeting came after we stepped off the train. Hello, strange money. Hello, taxi drivers whipping down Yonge Street using the “wrong” lane. Bonjour French words burbling at the bottoms of signs. When we arrived at the subway station, a man standing on a milk crate was spouting off about the evils of America to anyone who would listen. The Greedy States of America, he’d said, lewdly rubbing his fingers and thumbs together. I pulled my jacket a little tighter as I walked with my friends past the train station pundit, through the crowded platform, and toward the first subway station I’d ever encountered. That was the moment I first realized I had transformed into a capital-F Foreigner. How I had become something so political and mysterious just by sitting on a train playing cards mystified me.

We struggled—my friends and I—to follow the instructions written on the subway fare machine even though they were in English. After a while, a man in a beret approached us: “I can see you are in need of some orientation.” He enunciated each word, then he explained in a very practiced way how to buy a ticket and board the right train.

After a short subway ride, we found our hotel and proceeded to ramble around the city for the next four days completely in awe at the cultural differences we saw. Those differences were, of course, minute—only impressive to a group of 17 year olds who had never known another way of life.

On Sunday we found ourselves stepping into a train on another smoky platform. I felt like I was boarding a spaceship to go home and tell my people all the wonders I’d seen.

Hensall railway station

I didn’t know it at the time, but my grandfather Nelson Harburn and his large family had made the same journey to Flint on a Grand Trunk train 70-odd years before me. The difference was that they had birdcages and trunks, hat boxes and linens with them. They were crossing the St. Clair River for good.

Up until the day they left, the boys in the family had worked in the fields around their house in Hensall, Ontario, to keep the farm going for the new owners. Meanwhile, the women packed up the house, emptied the cellar, and sold the furniture. I imagine they talked about their new lives in the city as they worked. When the family came together for dinner, the women asked the older brothers, who had visited Flint before, to tell them again about the car traffic, the groceries, the department stores.

George, the oldest Harburn sibling, and his new wife were waiting in a little white house for their arrival. Flint, at the time, was a burgeoning industrial hub thanks to the automobile industry. Factory managers practically hired men off the street. My great-grandfather William was probably the one who’d contacted General Motors. In 1919, the conservation legacy of nature lover Theodore Roosevelt still dominated, and the auto industry was in trouble over air pollution. William Harburn farmed and distributed flowers for a living. He or George negotiated a deal to start a farm across the river from the main factory to prove there was no environmental threat. In addition, the Harburns offered their flower inventory to the company’s many social events and landscaping needs. GM agreed, giving them land and a company house.

The new home had only three bedrooms, but the Harburns didn’t complain. They arrived in Flint excited all the same. Imagine 12 people—two married couples!—crammed into a house in the city. Imagine all of the cultural differences the family would have encountered all at once: Canadian to American, country to city, independent to corporate.

And the Harburns, relatively speaking, had it easy. They arrived with a house and a purpose. They spoke the language. They had the safety of their motherland waiting just across the river with open arms.

Click here to see a copy of the record immigration officials took the day my grandfather arrived in Flint.
All relevant sources can be found here.
A short biography of my grandfather can be found here.

A Ship Made of Grass and Dirt

foughtGrandpa tilled the fields out back with a hat on, the plow slicing through soil like a prow. He carried a pitchfork into the house to eat lunch. After he finished, he’d toss it on the table and say, “Well, I should get back in the water.” He fought pirates between church pews and soothed lions in the dark circus of the barn. For him, rest was a not-yet-smoked cigar in a pocket; faith was a dahlia bulb in a pot in March.

foughtGrandma dug the root cellar of our house herself. She told people she’d found a mammoth bone and dragged it to some bigwig in the city. I believed her. I believed her just as surely as I believed the Martian landscapes tucked between pages on her nightstand, or the dreams of her children tucked between clean sheets upstairs. She swallowed whole planets and then went outside to feed the pigs even when the icebox in the corner shook its head no.

foughtThey plotted their course together. No maps, no calipers—just using each other as their north star. They slept side-by-side each night on flypaper and still woke each morning to add rungs to their ladder. On Saturdays, they’d test its sturdiness by leaning it against the sky and they’d climb—Grandma’s bloomers would always show, but no matter. The people of the town would look up at them like astronomers, but call them boastful later. The pageantry, they’d say, was shameful.

foughtNow Grandma and Grandpa are the tin bathtub in the kitchen; they are comets drawn on paper; they are the sea air crackling around me as I tie my shoes.

For more of my poetry, click here.


Waiting for the bus, Osage slipped her hands into her pockets and found something. Cellophane crinkled as she pulled out four bright orange and yellow Jolly Ranchers. That was the third time this month.

Osage spotted her friend Jessica’s shock of purple hair in the fourth seat from the back of the bus, their usual. She heard bubble gum snapping as she walked between the seats. “I found more candy just now,” she said when she reached Jessica. Jessica looked up from her phone. Osage recognized the deep-voiced narrator of Candy Crush saying ‘Sweet.’

“You don’t think it’s me, do you?”

“Yeah. I think you totally woke up early, carried a ladder five blocks, and snuck into my bedroom window just to put some stupid candy in my pocket.”

“Ever hear of doors, smart ass?” Jessica’s phone cheered and whistled before she continued. “Have you checked your other jeans? Maybe whoever did it hid the candy before and you’re just finding it now.”

“I checked. Nothing. It gotta be Mom because she’s not letting Jimmy, my step-dad, sleep in the house anymore. No way it’s Camden. That would require him to acknowledge my presence.”

“Why don’t you just ask her?”

“I don’t know. Why doesn’t she just give me the candy?”

“True. She’s being pretty stalkery. Like how does she even know which jeans to put them in?”

“I lay my clothes out on my dresser at night.”

“You’re such a freak, Ozzie. No one sane does that.” Jessica’s attention shifted back to her phone. Osage watched a few purple locks of her friend’s hair come loose from behind an ear. They reminded her of the tentacles of a cartoon octopus.

“Shut up. My mom does it, too.”

“That just proves my point…is she any better?”

“Sort of.” Osage traced the seam on the edge of the vinyl seat with her finger. We’ll get through this, her mom had said between sips of beer, we’ve done this before.

A few summers ago, her mom and dad packed her and Camden up for a surprise trip. They acted weird on the drive down, being super nice to each other, like Mom asked permission before she changed the radio station, and Dad didn’t check his phone once while he was driving. Camden and Osage spent the car trip tossing looks across the back seat of the Blazer.

They stayed the night at a La Quinta outside Jeff City. Boys on the floor, girls in the bed. In the morning, her dad told them to put their swimming suits on before they got in the car. After another hour of driving, her dad pulled into a parking lot near a river. They walked down a pier that ended with a tin shed, brightly colored canoes nodding at them as they passed. A man with a long beard handed them four lime green life jackets and two oars, then pointed to a canoe the color of a pencil eraser. Her mom got in first, and Osage followed, then Camden and her dad. For some reason, the morning didn’t feel fun to Osage, it felt like doing chores.

After about ten minutes of half-steamed paddling, their father pivoted to face his family. “Do you kids know where you are?”

Camden shrugged his shoulders; Osage scanned the buildings. Her dad pointed to the shed they’d just walked past. “That’s the boat rental place I worked at in college.”

“This is the Osage River?” Osage dipped her fingers into her namesake; the cool water pushed against her fingers.

“Yeah, and that’s Camdenton,”  her mother finally said. “We wanted you guys to see how gorgeous it is here, how special.”

“This is where we started,” her dad said, using his oar to turn the canoe. “And this is where we want it to end. There’s no good way to put this: your mother and I have decided to break up.” Twelve gongs of a church bell announced the arrival of the afternoon.

“It’s going to be weird for a while.” The boat reeled as her father shifted his weight. “But we still care for each other. We just think we’ll be a stronger team apart. Right, Traci?”

Back in the bus, Osage thought of the last time she’d seen Jimmy at the house. He had offered to pack their lunches. He’d never done that before.

Osage pulled her own phone out of her backpack, clicked on Jimmy’s text thread, and typed, “Thx 4 the candy!”


Red oak leaves circled the edge of the parking lot just to the left of Ben’s head. He watched them swirl in mid-air like cardinals, zigzagging from hedge to fence to light post; all three seemed to be looking anywhere but at him. A few leaves finally gave in and fell face-up around him, but they didn’t say a word. The charity bins sat in silence nearby. Eventually he watched the whirling mass clamor over the hedge and scatter into the yards of the neighborhood beyond. The corner of the church across the pavement stood erect like a spine. Its broad, gray shoulders blocked his view of the busy city street. Only the wind acknowledged Ben, nudging his left side.

Through the bushes, Ben saw what looked like a long, thin earring swinging on a tree branch. The name of the thing escaped him. He also couldn’t think of any reason a tree would need jewelry, but there she was: her hair piled high like green meringue, her solemn face questioning his presence. A parking lot is a byway, not a point of destination, she said. Are you a hooligan? Only hooligans waste time in parking lots and only homeless people sleep in them. An alarm rose above the breeze…cicadas, that was the word. Maybe those cicadas had been sounding all along, he couldn’t remember. Panic shot up his spine: his thoughts were so slow. The cicadas’ drone rattled in his hips, his ribs, his head. The sun peeked out from behind a cloud, flashing light on the car keys about halfway between him and the church. A leaf landed on the key ring…no, that was a CVS card attached to the key chain. Those were his keys, but how did they get out of his pocket?

Hummingbird feeders, that was the name for the tree earrings.

He was aware of the car beside him and then of a sound, the smack of liquid hitting pavement. The hatchback door was raised, an iris dilated in surprise. In the back of the car, Ben knew, sat a box of donations: a few old blankets, a frisbee from Tybee Island, ice skates, some old leather belts. Up front on a clipboard in the passenger’s seat, his work ID waited for him. He could imagine his smile in the photograph on the plastic card, a relic of his days before the break-up. At the bottom, his name loomed in all-caps, his last name just barely fitting within the margins. Ben remembered flashing the card to the church office assistant before stepping into the class he taught.

He needed to call someone. In the space between the radio console and the stick shift lie his cell phone. Behind the cracked display and the over-designed icons— the stylized F in the blue square, the white envelope edged in red, the black mask on a yellow field— were pathways to his friends, his mother, and Philip, the guy he’d met a few weeks ago. His friends would ask questions, his mother would cry, but Philip was also a social worker. He would not be afraid of seeing people at their lowest, which means he would enter that church parking lot, observe the open trunk and the wandering keys and the blood on Ben’s shirt, and he would take over. No explanation needed.

But, no, they would have taken his phone. And his wallet. The muggers. His headache stomped and he retched again. Black loafers skimmed into Ben’s periphery. He looked up.

“Sir? You ok? Can you tell me what happened?”

Yes…no, something was in the way.

She reconstructed a smile, the kind flight attendants reserved for saying goodbye to passengers. “That’s ok. Can you nod for me so I know you understand?”

The woman was backlit, but Ben was still struck by the contour of her neck sliding past the collar of her uniform. Maybe he had misunderstood her smile. He tried to reach for her sleeve but his arms refused.

“Someone’s messed you up pretty bad,” she said, “and I think maybe you have a concussion, so I’m going to let you rest there. But I won’t leave until the ambulance comes, ok?”

What Matters

Lisa Burkhardt’s anger surfaced on her skin just like her frecklesslapdash and intense. She bragged she inherited her Irish temper from her mother and I believed it. When Mrs. Burkhardt took walks around the neighborhood without her usual thick ’80s makeup, I couldn’t tell mother and daughter apart. And Lisa could rant for hours using only swear words and the occasional “off” or “balls.” A neighborhood boy once teased me in front of her about being her boyfriend. She leveraged her lanky 14-year-old body to pin him against a tree and asked “Why? You jealous, little boy? Do you want me to give you a smooch?”

I worshipped her.

It helped that her green and black tri-level house peeked into our living room whenever my mom opened the drapes. But I didn’t need a reminder to visit her because I helped her with chores after school every day. I never knocked; Lisa said anyone willing to help clean her house was welcome. Together she and I scrubbed their already-spotless kitchen and bathrooms while blaring MTV.

Lisa wasn’t always angry and swearing, though. She liked to call the mop Boy George, as in “Grab Boy George out of the closet, will ya?” One time when I asked her why Boy George, she jabbed a finger at its shaggy locks and its mascara-thin black seam and said “Are you kidding? It looks just like him!” Then she dipped him in a bucket and sang over the sound of dripping water: Do you really want to hurt me? Do you really want to make me cry? On Monday afternoons when her mom worked late at the cable company, Lisa liked to take shots of Southern Comfort. She always offered me some and I always politely abstained, then lectured her on the perils of teen drinking. My words never stopped her, though. That’s pretty much how our friendship worked.


One morning before school around Halloween 1985, I watched an ambulance back into the Burkhardt’s driveway. Blue and red lights flashed but no siren blared. EMTs opened the van’s back door. I couldn’t see who they carried out on the stretcher, but after the ambulance pulled out of the driveway I watched as the orange leaves settled back down on my quiet street. I didn’t see Lisa that day or the next. The rumor around school was that her mom had died of a brain aneurism in the shower.

I waited exactly a week to climb the steps to Lisa’s front porch. The open-door policy felt revoked somehow, so I knocked until Lisa yelled for me to come in. As I passed the bathroom I noticed perfume misters and several cans of Aqua Net hair spray and the telltale pink of hair curlers jumbled on the counter. Lisa was sprawled on the floor of her room, dirty dishes fanning around her head like pets waiting for attention. Her eyes stayed closed.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Why? You didn’t do anything.”

“Do you want help with the bathroom?”

“No,” she huffed. The red in her eyes matched the red in her hair, and I found myself in a stare-down that didn’t break until she looked up at the ceiling. “Don’t you know that doesn’t matter anymore?”

I slouched back across the street soon after, feeling like I’d failed a test. Our street widened after that. Lisa found girlfriends in her grade and spent less time at home. Despite the constant gaze of her tri-level, I never visited her again. She entered high school; I followed quietly two years later. She said Hi to me in the hallways sometimes and drove me home once with a cigarette jammed in her mouth blasting Guns-N-Roses the whole way.

Twenty years later, she friend-requested me on Facebook. A private message popped up. Lisa asked how I was. I told her about my life in Chicago, about my partner.

—Does he treat you well? she typed.

—He does. He takes care of me when I’m sick. He sings to me when I’m sad.

—Good. That’s all that matters. 

The flashing green light in the IM window went solid gray and she unfriended me the next day.

The Flight Between Worlds

Two low-flying owls hurtled toward us, so white they glittered in the fog. We heard the susurrus of their wings before talons shattered our windshield. Stunned, all we could do was let them shuttle us— faster than lightning— into our next lives.

Car Folk

When I first started renting cars to drive back home, my parents and my brothers would scoff at the foreign ones. I quickly became the car rental agent’s worst nightmare because I would only rent during holidays—read in: the busiest times— and I would have to refuse the Jettas and Bugs they offered me. “I’m sorry, sir,” I’d say, “but could you please yank that nice family out of the Buick? You would not believe the amount of grief I will get if I drive this Camry into my parents’ driveway.” It was a pain, but it saved me from a lot of grief.

My parents and brothers are car folk, and judging by the recurrent theme in these old family photos, they weren’t the only ones in my family. Car folk are pretty common where I’m from. Flint, Michigan, is, after all, the birthplace of General Motors. Every adult I knew growing up was either a “shop rat” or had a job related to the auto industry. Shouting obscenities to the obvious outsiders driving Volkswagens and Subarus was an everyday occurrence. While watching TV once, I remember asking my mom why there wasn’t a cake of Lava soap and a stiff bristled brush next to Roseanne’s kitchen sink. Where did the Connors scrub the oil from their fingernails?

Looking back, it’s obvious that the auto industry was inherent to the economy, the culture, hell, even the religion of Flint, but I didn’t get it when I lived there. To me, cars were like washcloths— just things, identical but for color, that I used when I needed and then immediately forgot.

But I get it now— my ancestors’ desire to be photographed with their cars, my hometown’s fierce loyalty to an industry that took as much as it gave. These pictures of my grandfather, my grandmother, and my great-granduncle were taken at a time when cars were the newest things under the Sun. My family was still basking in the afterglow of the conveniences their automobiles afforded them. No more isolated farm lives for them. New possibilities were springing up like tulips as far as they could see.

Not only that, my relatives knew the people who made their sleek and shiny status symbols. They were family, friends, and neighbors. Cars weren’t just machines; they were products of the community.

My relatives were proud of their beautiful machines and what owning them meant. You can see it in my grandfather’s straight-backed posture as he sits on the hood, in my great-granduncle’s reach toward a fender as if it were his son’s shoulder, and in my grandmother’s cocked hip and tilted gaze.

Being carless in the city these past thirteen years has helped me appreciate them as my relatives did. I love the novelty of driving now. I appreciate having a trunk to put my groceries in when I have one, and the added bonus of being able to drive them home, too. I appreciate being able to have a conversation while traveling without worrying about the thirty sets of strangers’ ears that are listening. Carrying keys in my hand connects me to my family, my past. And now when I walk into the rental agency, I request the American car up front knowing the tremendous role my family and my hometown played in history.