Our lives, in ways we can hardly comprehend, are shaped by choices made long before we reach this earth. So it was with me, beneficiary of a Scottish uncle who worked on the waterfront in Buffalo, a guy who quietly served as a surrogate father to an orphaned little girl.
A girl who grew up to become my mother.
Uncle Donald MacLeod. He was born in Scotland, raised to speak Scots Gaelic. He and his wife Annie, my mother’s sister, brought up their family in a little house on Abbotsford Place, near the old state hospital, which will always be Buffalo to me. It is where my uncle would stand in the living room, talking to my father, in a voice that was a rolling cascade of Scot inflection, humor and emphasis.
It was music. I savored the warmth my parents felt in that house, and it was only as a I grew older that I came to appreciate the larger story.
In a parallel way, by family name and almost exact point of origin, the tale is shared by Donald Trump.
Or it isn't, a ruling I will leave to you. Some observers are calling this Trump’s “immigration week.” He has been pulling back some of the harsh words on immigration that helped lift him to the Republican presidential nomination - but also alienated and frightened much of the American electorate.
For months, Trump described an America in peril. He called for building physical and emotional walls against dangerous outsiders. In Trump’s climactic speech at the Republican convention in Cleveland, he spoke of a direct threat against the United States, and he said “decades of record immigration have produced lower wages and higher unemployment for our citizens.”
As I listened, I thought of the copy of a ship’s manifest that hangs near our front door. A gift from a cousin, it records how a family named Innes traveled by steerage to North America in 1914, on a ship called the S.S. Scandinavian. Listed as “alien passengers” on the manifest, they left behind Buckie, a Scottish fishing community on the North Sea.
Their destination: Buffalo.
The parents were Alexander and Minnie Innes. They made the journey with four of their children, including 4-year-old Annie. Three more would be born in Buffalo.
The youngest, in 1922: My mother.
The family settled in a little East Side enclave of Scottish relatives. Yet whatever struggles caused my grandparents to leave Scotland only escalated in their new home. My grandfather, a machinist, was overwhelmed by alcoholism. He was gone from the house when my mother was so young that to her he was always a ghost, a wisp of memory. As for my grandmother, she died in 1924, when my mother was a toddler.
That meant a group of immigrant children, the eldest not even full adults, were essentially on their own in the New World. What happened became the core of family lore: My mother would often speak of how her sister Annie stepped in, as a teen, to hold the family together. She had the support of some older relatives: I especially remember the intense and fearsome Jonathan Murray, my great-uncle, a kilt-wearing captain of Buffalo’s Gordon Highlanders who’d lost an arm in an industrial accident.
But the guy who made the lasting difference was Donald MacLeod.
Annie married him when she was 20. He was a Scottish immigrant who had worked at factories along the Great Lakes, finally building a career at the American Ship Building Co. on Ganson Street in Buffalo – a point now of upscale renaissance, a place then of lakefront toil.
In marrying Annie, Donald essentially took on responsibility for the rest of the Innes clan - including my mother. She was not all that much older than Donald and Annie’s first-born children, who became more like siblings even as they called her “Aunt Jean.”
My mother had a distant touch of that Scottish music in her voice. Much later, she would sometimes sit at our kitchen table, with her coffee and cigarettes, and tell us of her childhood, fully aware of Uncle Donald’s choice. He was a working guy who would stop on his way home to play pinochle at the old Congress tavern, a ritual that would eventually include my father. On Friday nights, to appease Annie, he’d bring the family spaghetti from Santasiero’s.
He also loved the Buffalo Bisons. When he had no one else to join him at the old Offermann Stadium, he would take along my mother. Ollie Carnegie, a Bison slugger of the Great Depression, became her hero.
But I think her real hero was sitting next to her.
Because Donald MacLeod, an immigrant with few possessions in this world, took on the sorrows of an orphaned family, without complaint.
My father was raised in Father Baker’s orphanage, and we had no grandparents. Aunt Annie and Uncle Donald were as close as it would get. I remember my uncle’s humor, the rolling melody of his language. As for my aunt, throughout my childhood she’d send me birthday cards or write me letters, embracing the role she knew she alone could play. My mother spoke of her with a love I think she gave to no one else.
When Annie died, it was the only time – the only time – I ever saw my mother cry.
All of that was long ago. All of them are gone. Yet I was at a luncheon this year, seated with a friend who is a scholar in Gaelic history, and he asked if I had immigrant roots. I told him the story of the Innes children, of my Aunt Annie and Uncle Donald. Something in it sparked an interest from my friend that startled me, and he asked: Where was your uncle from?
The Isle of Lewis, I said.
His attention became electric. What part of the Isle of Lewis?
Stornaway, I told him.
He repeated, with emphasis: Your uncle was a Gaelic-speaking MacLeod, from the parish of Stornaway, on the Isle of Lewis?
Yes, I said, wondering at his curiosity.
Donald Trump’s mother, he said, had the same name and the same story.
I looked it up, and it was so. Mary Anne MacLeod left a Stornaway fishing family in 1929 for New York City. She would eventually marry a developer named Fred Trump, and their children included a son named Donald. Mary Pilon, in a piece in The New Yorker this summer about that lineage, noted how Trump often speaks with love of his mother – but rarely dwells on those origins.
The coincidence, the long shot chance, was overwhelming. Stunned, I contacted my cousin, Scott MacLeod, in California, a wonderful guy who researches such things.
He knew about it.
Scott is the grandson of Donald MacLeod, the Scottish immigrant who took in my orphaned mother as his own, the American story that helps define my heritage. Scott said MacLeod is a common name on the Isle of Lewis, population about 18,000. Certainly, it had a tight sense of community: Scott has a piece of writing, done in Gaelic by Donald MacLeod, in which he recalled how he'd seek out immigrants from that isle in any place he ever lived.
As for Scott, he had already looked hard at the family background of Donald Trump, the candidate whose mother shared my uncle’s name and place of birth, the candidate who's warned of the perils, the character flaws, intertwined with immigration.
To the best of Scott’s knowledge, in blood and destiny: There is no relation.
Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist for The Buffalo News. If you have your own tale of immigrant selflessness in your family, you can leave it here as a comment or email Kirst at firstname.lastname@example.org. He thanks Barbara MacLeod Clayton, of Orchard Park – a first cousin who is much more like an aunt – for confirming or providing many details about her parents for this piece, as well as the other grown sons and daughters of Annie and Donald: Murdo, Donald, Nancy, Margaret, Sheila and John.
Story topics: Sean Kirst