My grandfather’s Irish legacy

Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy

My Granny always said that her father told her that he’d give her a dollar if her hair ever turned black but it never did. Her hair color was brunette but there were also reddish highlights within that shade. By the time I knew her, she called her hair color “salt and pepper” but I know exactly what her hair color once was because I have her braid.

Tucked within the cedar chest that belonged to Granny lies a braid that is more than three feet long. As a young woman and working telephone operator, she was one of the last to have her long hair cut short in the 1920’s. When she went to get her hair bobbed, they began by cutting off the braid, which she kept and I now have. My daughters’ hair is close to Granny’s color but Granny’s hair and mine are not a match. 

My blue eyes come from her husband, Otto Sontheimer, or so Granny told me. They are a darker shade than most blue eyes. I am the combination of a large genetic pool but my hair marks my Irish heritage.

As a child, I was somewhat obsessed with who I looked like. It’s harder to recognize familiar features in a little girl. I didn’t realize until years passed that I resembled Granny and that my dad noticed that I looked something like his Aunt Bess, who he’d known as a mature woman.  Aunt Sophie, her sister, agreed. I have seen photos of little girl Bess and they’re close how I looked as a small girl, right down to the cheeky expression.

Although my mother and her grandmother both had red hair, my hair was never the same shade as theirs. It was darker and different, what some might call reddish-brown, others auburn.  Another great-aunt, the third of the Sontheimer sisters of their generation, Ada, also had red hair but she died long before I was born so I have no idea if our colors were similar.

However, at the age of sixteen, I found a lock of my late maternal grandfather’s hair folded into a square of paper. When I carefully removed it, it looked familiar and in impulse, I placed that lock of hair on mine. It matched exactly, so much that I almost lost his hair in mine. I knew then that I’d inherited Irish hair from Pat Neely, my grandfather.

He died at the age of 43 in the 1940’s so I never knew him. I did know both his sister and his mother, my Grandmammy, who I met once on a very special trip. Maybe the hair was what made my great-grandmother recognize me for hers, for her son’s baby. She claimed me on that visit and I have never forgotten her.

As I mark St. Patrick’s Day this week, my focus will be on the Irish portion of my varied heritage. Although mine has grayed with age, something Pat Neely never had a chance to experience, I am proud that I have his hair, one small symbol of my Irish ancestry.

-Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy is an author, writer, journalist, and former editor. She lives and writes in Neosho, MO where she sometimes dreams of Ireland.