Martin Miller: On Grief and Abandonment

A tear for Martin Miller and all who grieve and feel abandoned, pencil sketch by Wendy Harty, February 2021

I recall a story about a young father of four on a bus. The children were disturbing an elderly lady, who finally in exasperation called out to him to control his children! The man looked up with tears in his eyes, and apologized saying he just taken the children to visit their mother who was dying in the hospital. The woman immediately apologized to him and changed her attitude. In my room hangs a sign that states, “Never criticize your neighbor until you have walked a mile in their moccasins.” And I have to admit, when I first read the line about Michael Miller, giving his uncle great grief, I thought, you rotter, you were handed a silver spoon, what went wrong?

Garrett Miller’s oldest son, Martin Miller was born in 1768 in Courtmatix, Ireland, in October. Less than two years old his mother Catherine Switzer Miller died. Garrett Miller buried his wife and 2 infant daughters, and left his two sons, Martin and Michael, with relatives. Garrett, along with two brothers Peter and Jacob Miller made a tedious, sea voyage to the shores of America, looking for a better life. Garrett Miller married his sister’s cousin, Elizabeth Switzer, and began farming in Camden Valley, New York, just before the Revolutionary War. He joined the loyalists in Canada, fought his way with General Burgoyne down the Hudson River Valley and at Bennington, Vermont was wounded, captured, imprisioned for over a year and escaped. The family were in a refugee camp at Sorel, Quebec. The British had purchased the seigneurie of Sorel during the War for military strategic reasons. It was here in the military hospital Garrett was hospitalized. The conditions in a tent in the cold and harsh winters weren’t ideal. After two years, Britain gave them tools and seed and Garrett and Elizabeth Miller with children Martin, Michael, Rebecca, and Peter began building up a new farm at Three Rivers, Quebec, which in a court case they lost everything! I imagine these were tough circumstances to roll through and family offered a solution to help.

Jacob Miller, Garrett’s brother, came from Ireland, settled at New York and had business there before the Revolutionary War. He was relocated to Halifax, Nova Scotia where he had docks, a military life and ships. He also engaged in rope making and ship building at the time of the war 1812. At the intersection of Morris and Water Streets he built four houses. He purchased land and built at waters edge Miller’s Wharf. On the east end of the city he owned a large tract of land. Jacob traded with the West Indies, exporting lumber. He was generous with his hospitality. He fitted out some privateer ships to prey on American vessels and became immensely rich. His son, Garrett, married the daughter of the Governor of the Province.

Uncle Jacob, knowing his brother Garrett had fallen on hard times, offered his home to his nephew, Martin. As a young lad, he would come to live with the family. Martin only gave him trouble. Uncle Jacob had a family of six, his oldest a namesake for his brother named Garrett, the same age as cousin Martin and five girls, Nancy, Betsy, Margaret, Mary and Abigail. It was a fine house on the wharf of Halifax and must have been lively with all those cousins, Young Martin became unsettled, and Uncle Jacob thought if he joined the military, it might give the boy some structure. Martin Miller deserted three times and his uncle paid them to take him back, paying for pardons by his intercession to his army contacts. Finally Uncle Jacob exhausted his patience and kindness. Martin Miller ran away to the States.

So, why after thinking badly of Martin, did I change my mind. I considered the topic of grief. Who taught you, my readers/ listeners about grief? For me the answer was my sister. To grieve someone has to die. My sister died after a horse accident, brain injured, she was removed from life support. I knew nothing of grief, the shock, disbelief or numbness I experienced. The next summer was hotter than hades. Ice cream cones would melt into gloopy messes before they could be eaten. We had no air conditioning. I had an undiagnosed chronic disease, made worse by the heat, 2 boys aged six and three, in my third trimester of a pregnancy and offered my home to a grieving child. I remember being near total exhaustion that summer. If I did not cope with my grief how could I have helped that child? Forty years later I start many conversations with should have, could have, would have. But back then I hadn’t read the five stages of grief and there were no psychiatrist or mental health experts. As I look back, no one could have taught me about grief, it is a personal experience to work through or bury and repress. And this is why I’m cutting Martin Miller some slack by looking at my own grief response.

Martin Miller was born in the month of May, 1768. His sister’s Katherine and Mary Anne died in April the year he was born. His brother Michael was born the next October. The boys were seventeen months apart. Catherine, his mother died two months after giving birth. His father, Garrett’s grief must have been immense. He joined his brother’s, Peter and Jacob looking for a better life. In that process he left the two boys in the care of relatives at Courtmatrix, Ireland. I imagine a young Martin crying for his mother, feeling abandoned by his father as he watched the ship carry him away. Then I jump forward to Martin being a a teenager, aged sixteen. The Garrett and Elizabeth Miller family had just lost all. Their home and livelihood in a court case had stripped them of a farm they’d built for over ten years was sold. I doubt Martin was very accepting of the decision to go live with Uncle Jacob. It was another major change in his life and once again upended his feelings of abandonment and loss. Emotionally numb, pain and anger for his companions, the Uncle hoping to help, placed him in the military. Martin promptly acted out. His Uncle with great patience got him pardoned and taken back, not once, but three times.

Writing Martin’s story, I had some weighty emotions. What I know now is grief is a process and comes in stages. While my sister’s death was a foreign concept and a new experience, I’ve gone from unacquainted to grief to grieving other losses, still as hard but in a healthier way. That summer I neglected my grieving and made it difficult to cope. I will, I can and I have cut Martin Miller some slack and in doing so will also be kind to myself.

Unfortunately, Martin Miller, just disappears. I cannot find him on any census, in any grave. I am drawn back into Garrett Miller’s life, for he also must have grieved his oldest son’s disappearance, and doing the dance in his head of I would have, I could have, I should have. Grief is the response to loss. It is emotional suffering, overwhelming sometimes in its sadness. Be patient with yourself, until you get to that last stage of grief which is acceptance.

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