At the start of April, some of my aunts and uncles mentioned to my Grandmother, Mary Sheahan, that her birthday was coming up, reminding her that her birthday is April 10.
“Oh,” she said as casually as if she were discussing the bus schedule. “I’m not going to make that.”
She passed away less than a week shy of her 95th birthday. Her death was not a shock, and we were as prepared, at least bureaucratically, as a family can be.
My Grandmother was born Mary Fogarty in 1924 in Roscrea, Tipperary, in what was then the Irish Free State. There were only 48 United States at that time, and Calvin Coolidge was President. Prohibition would last another nine years in America.
Her father had been in the British Army, enlisting in the early 20th century when all of Ireland was under British control. He had spent time in India and had fought in the First World War, including the fierce Battle of the Marne. When he came to the U.S. he worked as a janitor and had fought for the right to organize a union, winning a court battle to form a union. This sense of right and wrong, and fighting for your principles is one that runs strongly in our family to this day.
My Grandmother married my grandfather, John Sheahan, in 1948 and their first child was born in 1949. At one family barbecue, her oldest son, my uncle Tim, pointed out to her that his birthday was exactly nine months and one day past her wedding date. She giggled and, noticing me observing this conversation, instructed me not to comment. Tim smiled and said, “It was Bear Mountain,” referring to where my grandparents had honeymooned.
I doubt I will ever know anyone who embodies unconditional love and the joy of living the way my grandmother did. Her world centered around her family and with seven children, nine grandchildren and four great grandchildren, she had a lot of love to share and names to keep straight. Hers was always the voice of kindness and love, and her generosity of spirit never waned. Whether it was caring for my Grandfather through decades of debilitating health problems or facing her own mortality years later, she was always an example of great strength. It was she who went about my Grandfather’s wake comforting others who were weeping, even though it was her moment to mourn more than anyone’s. We would have easily forgiven her a moment or two of self pity, having lost a husband, a daughter, and son-in-law along the way and dealing with difficult health issues in her final years. But she was a rock of strength, sustained by a strong religious faith and a dedication to her family that went beyond what anyone could ever ask.
My Grandmother’s life was her family, and she showed us that the greatest joys are often the ones of simply being present and investing time and care into the lives of the people around you. Her power stretched far beyond her blood relatives and her wake and funeral saw visitors from every part of her life, including people she had worked with decades ago or knew her as a neighbor for only the last few years.
If there is any available measure of the amount of love my Grandmother brought into the world, it was reflected in the care and hard work her own children did during her final months and years. My Father and aunts and uncles worked around the clock taking care of her and navigating through our Byzantine and often inept healthcare system. When her final course was set, relatives flew to New York from all over the country to be with my Grandmother at the end.
When my Grandmother passed, our family became a team effort yet again. My Aunt Patty’s house became a central gathering place, my cousins gave readings at the funeral or served alongside me as pallbearers. My Aunt Peggy arranged for the Ridgefield Chorale to sing at church and they did beautifully. My Father delivered a beautiful eulogy that left not a dry eye in the house and had both humor and inspiration.
One thing that my older relatives taught me is that the work you have to do during a wake and funeral is helpful, in that it keeps your mind occupied on something else other than the loss of your loved one. I was honored to be a pall bearer, and focused on making sure things went smoothly at what is the most heart-wrenching part of the funeral.
In the years after my Grandfather died, my Grandmother described a dream she had. She sees my Grandfather, appearing as he had when younger, dressed sharply in a suit and hat. He strides through the lobby of a building and gets into an elevator. She goes to follow him in but he puts his hand up, signaling this was not her time. The elevator doors close and the car begins its climb without her. I hope this dream replayed again for my Grandmother, and she joins my Grandfather on the elevator this time. The doors now close on the rest of us.
We are without our matriarch, but she has left us with loving instructions in the way of her example. If we live our lives with a fraction of the love, dignity and grace that Mary Sheahan had, we will have earned our rest.
This past weekend saw the passing of The Countess, who had been my cat for more than 14 years. She was found on the street by a friend on Harlem and spent her life living in Inwood and Queens. She spent her entire 14 years as a resident of the five boroughs. I would contend that she represented New York City better than any living creature and was the most New York cat in all of New York.
I was unemployed and looking for work in early 2002 and spent a good bit of time playing music with my friend Christian, who at the time lived on West 135th Street in Manhattan. His roommate found a small kitten underneath a car and brought it home. When they had to vacate the apartment, Christian asked if I could take the cat. I had been considering getting a cat anyway, so I was happy to have a pet, the first of my very own.
I named her The Countess for Countess Constance Markievicz, an Irish revolutionary. An uncompromising and rebellious fighter for Irish freedom, she is believed to have fired some of the first shots of the 1916 Easter Rising. Spared the firing squad because of her gender, she told her jailers, “I wish you had the decency to shoot me.”
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the name would be perfect for my cat. The Countess was violent and uncompromising in every respect. She was a calico—a cat that is multicolored and splotchy in appearance. All calicos are female and are also known for not being very social or friendly. They typically only bond with one person. For The Countess, that was me and no one else.
While I always saw my cat behaving indifferently towards most of my guests, she became an outright terror for friends and neighbors that agreed to feed her while I was traveling. One Christmas while visiting family in California, a neighbor called to tell me she was afraid to go into my apartment again because my cat attacked her. Others were able to feed her but not allowed near her litter box. I sometimes wore unpleasant scars myself. I once tried to picker her up only have her curl into a ball around my arm and sink her claws into my forearm. I didn’t notice until later that I was bleeding through my shirt as I waited for a bus.
I took a certain pride in the fact that The Countess was mean and cold towards most of the world. That made her more exclusively mine and made me one of the elite few who was worthy of the cat’s love and affection. She was sit with me and purr when I pet her. She showed me great affection and would sometimes leave dead mice for me as tribute. A dead mouse once sat on the floor of my apartment for several hours, mistaken for one of her cat toys.
Some of my friends and family came to have at least a gainful coexistence with the cat. She warmed to some of them but not others. Sadly, she never became friendly with my children, and m two older kids were justifiably afraid of her.
It was hard to make the call when it was time for her to go, but my cat’s health took a steep turn for the worse after many vet visits to aid her declining health. The Countess, who once prowled my apartment striking fear into the hearts of even hardened combat veterans and experienced cat owners, was no longer able to stand or walk on her own. I thought she had more time and that things were on the path to improvement, but it was not to be.
I went to a 24-hour veterinary clinic with The Countess and came home with an empty cat carrier. The cluttered apartment I share with my wife and three kids feels a bit empty. Every time I got into our kitchen I see where the cat’s food bowl used to be and I’m reminded of her loss.
The Countess was the most senior family member of my own choosing in my life. She was mean and a terror to most but she was mine and I loved her. RIP Countess.
My father is one of seven children born and raised in the Bronx. Growing up with many aunts and uncles is great. Aunts and uncles are adults who are not your parents and so they are automatically cool and interesting from the time you are a kid. Being taken to see ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ off-Broadway by my uncle Tim remains one of my happiest childhood memories.
Our family lost my aunt Liz this past week. She suffered a massive stroke one morning and never regained consciousness. She was only 55.
We are lucky to come from a very creative family. My family is saturated with musicians, writers, actors and lots of people for whom creativity is second nature.
Liz loved to sing and had a beautiful singing voice. One of my earliest memory of my Aunt Liz is going to see her play music. This was back when my grandparents and several of my aunts still lived in The Bronx. There was a street fair of some kind going on. There were rides and games, and music. Liz sang and she was great. I remember watching her sing and thinking how cool it was that a relative of mine was so loud and awesome out here in front of all these people.
Years later, she was driving me to the train after a family visit and she popped a CD of a recent recording of her singing into the car stereo. She hadn’t lost a thing in the 20+ intervening years. It was a comfort knowing that whatever else was going on in our lives, contending with the routine hassles of raising families, paying bills, staying employed, we remained true to the creativity in our blood.
Liz dealt with a lot of the usual unpleasant crap that abounds in the modern age: divorce, being a working single mother, unemployment, underemployment, illness and the like. But through it all I never remember going to a family gathering where I couldn’t share a laugh with her at some point.
She and my other aunts made a habit of playing Scrabble together whenever they could. Years ago at a family party I joined them and since I was new to the game, asked for leniency in how we judged words. Liz noted that “Fffft!” was not a word. We all had a good laugh at that, and since then whenever I play Scrabble, Words with Friends or any similar word game, I can’t help but think of Lizzy’s admonition that “Fffft!” is not a word.
Liz never lost the joy of singing and making music. A few years ago, Liz’s band, Coyote, got back together for a reunion. They played in The Bronx and the show was packed. It was wall-to-wall people and my wife and I managed to scrap our way through the crowd to be close to the stage area. Before Coyote played, Liz and my Uncle Danny (who plays guitar) did a short set. It was great to see them play together again. I remember being a very young child watching them sing and play guitar at a family party. Coyote was true to form and seeing my aunt play to a packed crowd made for another great family memory.
The news of her death was a shock. Lizzy’s passing came suddenly and too soon. There were seven brothers and sisters my father’s side of the family and now there are six. Six: the number seems obscene now, unfair.
But where my family has been unlucky it has also been strong. Liz’s daughter, my cousin Kerry, is a rock. I hope I can raise my daughters as well so that they love me as much Kerry loved her mother. And if they are half as strong as my cousin, they will be set for life.
My awesome Grandmother should not have had to bury a daughter, but her resolve to comfort others in the midst of her grief proves we are made from stern stuff.
If my family has any official spokesman or representative, I’m glad it is my father. He has been the one to most eloquently voice our grief and our pride both this time and years ago when we lost my Grandfather.
My Dad recounted his happiness in seeing my aunt sing in the Bronx at the street fair and described her contagious laughter, generous spirit and her incredibly tenacious nature. When Liz caught a pickpocket trying to steal something from her bag on the subway, the police had to pry her fingers from the would-be thief’s arm.
Seeing my father and cousin speak about my departed aunt was as proud a moment as it was sad. In the midst of this tremendous loss, I was reminded of how lucky I am to have had an aunt like Liz but also how lucky I am to come from a family that produces such people.
And true to form, the last thing my father heard from my aunt was a joke that he declined to repeat in church. But anyone who asked outside of church was granted the wish of hearing it. I heard it at the restaurant later where we all gathered for lunch. It was topical and funny, and completely in line with the good humor of Aunt Liz.
No family gathering will feel the same without Lizzy’s laughter, but her passing has served as a reminder of what a great family we have.
Years ago, when I worked as an immigration inspector at JFK Airport, I would sometimes encounter celebrities that would come through my line. The first one I remembered was Joan Collins. People I mentioned this too asked me if I remembered what her actual birth date was from looking at her passport, but I didn’t pay it much mind. She was very well dressed and seemed very polite and proper.
Among the other celebrities I has pass through my line were Sting, Geoffrey Rush, George Clinton, Sally Jesse Rafael and Brian Cox. I also met the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, who were very nice. When I told Graham “Suggs” McPherson, singer of the band Madness, that I liked his music, he replied, “You have a good memory.”
But by far and away the best celebrity encounter I had at JFK Airport was the actor Geoffrey Holder.
Working at JFK Airport was actually a big drag. Things changed a lot after the September 11 attacks, so I can’t attest to what the job is like today. But the pre-September 11 era was a miserable place where inspectors often worked seven days straight and could be held for mandatory overtime with no notice given.
I was so unhappy working at JFK that I lived in a state of near permanent miserable anger. Any sign of other people’s happiness made me immediately angry and resentful.
I was coming to tend of my day at the old T.W.A. terminal, thinking that the most recent flight was done processing and I could prepare to go home. I was still in my booth when I noticed people from the airline wheeling a passenger in a wheelchair directly towards my booth. The passenger was singing.
‘What kind of horrible freak are they bringing me,’ I thought to myself—indeed, my resentment of all things happy even extended to the elderly and disabled.
The airline escort wheeled the passenger into my booth and he put his paperwork on my counter. He was a green card holder from Trinidad and once I saw his name I knew exactly who he was: Geoffrey Holder.
Geoffrey Holder spent most of his long entertainment career on stage as a dancer, actor and director. He was one of the lead actors in the first all-black production of ‘Waiting for Godot,’ a choreographer for the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Company, a Tony-Award winning costume designer and successful painter. He was the bodyguard Punjab in the 1982 version of ‘Annie’ and may be best known for 7-Up commercials he made in the 1980s. He was characterized by his height (he was six-foot-six) and his deep, Caribbean voice.
Geoffrey Holder was also one of the best James Bond villains in history, playing Baron Semedi in the 1973 Bond film ‘Live and Let Die.’ Being a Bond villain counts as movie royalty in my book.
“Are you the actor?” I asked him.
“Well it’s very nice to meet you. I’ve very much enjoyed your work.”
“Thank you. And thank you for paying my rent,” he said, and then let out a big and sincere booming laugh that I couldn’t help but share with him.
Our business together was finished quickly. I stamped his documents and handed them back to him or the airline employee who was escorting him. He thanked me, said, “God bless you.” And then was on his way. It was an encounter that changed my mood and brightened my whole day, and is one of the fondest memories I have of working at the airport.
Geoffrey Holder passed away recently from complications attributed to pneumonia. He was 84 years old. He was remembered for his many contributions to the stage and screen; Broadway theaters dimmed their lights in his memory.
New York is packed with celebrities, and the cool thing to do is pretend to not notice them and then tell all your friends about seeing them later. I had many New York celebrity sightings before and since, but Geoffrey Holder will always be my favorite and best.
In June of 2000 I went to see Penn & Teller on stage at the Beacon Theater in New York. Being a big Penn & Teller fan, I bought tickets as soon as I could and got a really good seat for the show. When I was there, I was impressed that I was one row in front of Al Goldstein, editor of SCREW magazine and one of the people in my mind who embodied New York City better than anyone else.
Goldstein was dressed in cutoff jean shorts, hiking boots, and a red, white and blue sequined jacket. He had gorgeous woman on his arm that looked to be a 20-year-old porn star.
Years later I made a flier for the punk band I play in that featured Al with his middle finger extended, which was how he was often photographed. I emailed him a copy of the flier and he emailed me back saying it was wonderful. That made my day.
Goldstein was one of New York City’s great public personalities, one of the outspoken people who come to represent New York and its spirit. Much in the same way Ed Koch came to represent New York among the celebrated and in polite society, Al Goldstein represented the city’s gritty edge and its always sarcastic and sometimes obscene sense of humor. He was an overweight, cigar-chomping loudmouth who ranted against New York’s many annoyances as vehemently as he skewered the Philistines from both the left and the right. At the same time he never lost his sense of humor about himself.
We recently lost Al Goldstein. He died on Dec. 19 in a hospital and probably not under a pile of naked women like he would have preferred.
Growing up in New York, I would often see Goldstein on talk shows and news segments when he was often called upon to defend pornography. When I moved back to New York I was happy I could see his show Midnight Blue on cable access television. Al Goldstein was a ubiquitous advocate of enjoying sex for its own sake and being unashamed of it. He was overbearing and bombastic, but his case just made plain sense and went like this: Wanting to have sex is a very natural thing that has kept the human race going for millions of years, why be ashamed of it or think it is bad? I’m a man, why shouldn’t I enjoy looking at pictures of naked women? Pictures of vaginas in my magazine aren’t bad because vaginas aren’t bad. Fuck you if you don’t like it.
Do you enjoy looking at tits in magazines or on the Internet? Thank Al Goldstein. He had been fighting for the right to publish his magazine before it was cool. Those days are mostly behind us in America. Except for rare cases that continue to be egregious and terrifying for free speech, porn is everywhere now and the government can’t stop it. But our access to porn today is because of the efforts made by Goldstein decades ago, often at great personal risk. It’s hard to believe in these days of celebrated promiscuity that people could actually be threatened with jail for publishing naked pictures in magazines. Goldstein was one of the first to do battle for those freedoms and he did it years before more celebrated personalities like Larry Flynt.
Lawsuits and bad business decisions left him homeless and destitute. Penn Jillette, recognizing the debt Americans owe to Goldstein, often helped him financially. Later in life he did express regret for some of his excesses. He was estranged from some of his family. He admitted to his faults and realized his mistakes, but never wavered from the blunt personality that made him essential.
Al Goldstein embodied New York City not because he published pornography, but because he fought for his right to do it and lived a life that was bold and unapologetic.