Back in 1998, for a journal I was planning to put out, I started collecting fiction, essays and experiments that couldn’t find a publisher elsewhere. Because the journal consisted of work that didn’t fit in mainstream publishing, I decided to name the journal Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern.
My mother’s maiden name was McSweeney. She grew up in Milton, Massachusetts, one of five children, the daughter of an obstetrician, Daniel McSweeney, and his wife Adelaide Mary McSweeney.
Much later, my mother married John Eggers and they moved to suburban Chicago. When I was about eight, I started getting strange mail addressed to both me and my mother. These were usually notes written on pamphlets and other sorts of mail that required no postage. The messages were confusing, but generally seemed to be written by a man named Timothy McSweeney, who thought he was related to my mother, and who was hoping to visit soon. Sometimes Timothy would include train schedules and other plans. Sometimes they included drawings and diagrams. Usually the letters had a sense of urgency, as if after many years of searching for his relatives, he had found my mother and me, and wanted to reconnect as soon as possible.
I was intrigued by the letters so much that I kept them in a drawer in my room, wondering if Timothy was actually related to us. My mother dismissed the letters as those of a confused or disturbed man who she had never met. When a new letter would arrive, she would hand it to me, usually without reading it. I would pore over it for clues, and then would add it to the stack.
We didn’t know if he was real—if there was a real person named Timothy—but in any case the name Timothy McSweeney came to hold an aura of mystery. He was an enigma, a man looking for a home, producing writing that was cryptic and full of longing.
So many years later, when I was conceiving a name for this literary journal, the name Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern occurred to me. It made sense on many levels. I was able to honor my Irish side of the family and also allude to this mysterious man and the sense of possibility and even wonder he’d brought to our suburban home.
A few years after the quarterly began, we took on an intern named Ross McSweeney. Ross and I got to talking, and he mentioned that his family, too, was from Boston. I joked that we were probably related somehow, and he told me that he was the nephew of Timothy McSweeney. The real Timothy McSweeney.
Ross and I, with the help of Ross’s father David—Timothy’s brother— pieced it together. And this is probably what happened:
One day in Boston in 1943, my grandfather Daniel McSweeney delivered a baby. This baby was put up for adoption, and was adopted by another McSweeney family. He and David were raised in a loving family, and Timothy eventually went to the Massachusetts School of Art and later received an MFA from Rutgers University. After graduating, he taught studio art at Rutgers for a time.
But mental illness overtook him, and he struggled with alcoholism. He was hospitalized many times. Eventually he was put in the care of an institution for mental health, where he remained safe and received treatment. It was from this institution that he began to send letters. According to his brother David, he would search through city and state records, find names, and write to the people he found.
Presumably, he saw my grandfather’s name on his birth certificate and came to think Daniel McSweeney might have been his father, not simply the delivering obstetrician. And thus he sought out the children of Daniel McSweeney.
Ross, David and I figured all this out in 2000, and it was then that they informed me that Timothy was still alive. He had remained under doctors’ care all these years, and the McSweeney family visited him regularly.
Knowing that the journal bore the name of a real person who had endured years of struggle threw melancholy shadows over the enterprise. But the McSweeneys insisted that the use of the name was acceptable, even appropriate, given Timothy’s background as an artist and search for connection and meaning through the written word. Since 2000 we’ve implicitly dedicated all issues to the real Timothy.