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Solving A Family Mystery With Journalist And Musician Joe McHugh

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Joe McHugh

It was 2009 when journalist and writer Joe McHugh set out to find Helen, an African American woman who helped to keep his family together after tragedy threatened to tear them apart. His journey is detailed in his book “Coins in the Ashes: A Family Story of Grief, Gratitude, and Grace.” McHugh spoke with Essential Pittsburgh’s Paul Guggenheimer about the quest to find Helen, as well as what inspired him to search for her in the first place.

 
“Coins in the Ashes” begins with McHugh’s father a World War II veteran returning home to Aspinwall. His began his post war life by starting a family and working in the family woolen business.  In 1951, his father contracted polio and died.
 
A second tragedy struck soon after when McHugh’s mother, who was six months pregnant, at the time of his father’s death, gave birth to a son who only lived for two days.
 
“The world really fell in on the McHughs at that point,” McHugh said of the experience.
 
Devastated, McHugh’s mother would retreat to her room to read for long periods of time. In her place rose Helen, one of the McHugh family’s hired help.
 
“These women did everything,” McHugh said. “A major part of what they did was raise the children too.”
For many years Helen over saw McHugh’s childhood, bathing him, feeding him and singing to him, among other tasks. 
 
“Helen did everything,” McHugh said.
 
 
However, it was not to last. When McHugh was five years old, Helen left his family.
 
McHugh made the decision to discover what became of Helen after hearing a lecture on sad brain syndrome. The lecture detailed how children will develop chronic depression at a young age if their parent should become melancholic, as McHugh’s mother had. It resulted in McHugh having an epiphany.
 
“It was like this light, I mean I just knew I’m not that person, cause of Helen,” McHugh said.
 
McHugh reached out to members of his family, asking if they knew anything about Helen. Unfortunately, McHugh’s family only seemed to know about Helen’s first name and that she did not live in Pittsburgh.
 
A breakthrough came when a cousin discovered letters McHugh’s mother had written to her sister. One of these letters revealed that Helen’s family lived in Brunswick, Maryland. McHugh traveled to Brunswick, where he eventually met up with Helen’s daughter-in-law who worked for McHugh’s family and was volunteering at the local museum.  
 
“You could have knocked me over with a feather,” said McHugh of finding Helen’s family.  “They welcomed me as if they had known me all my life.”
 

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.