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 the wife and I attended a co-ed baby shower for my friend and spiritual advisor Rabbi Jay Levitz and his wife Sarah. We were in Oceanside, Long Island, New York, a short drive outside the city for us, as we live in Eastern Queens. As we talked with Jay, the conversation turned to what constitutes the “bridge and tunnel crowd.”
We all agreed that the term was more of a cultural construct than a geographic one, though we acknowledge that the two go hand in hand in many ways. Where I live now in Queens is not a trendy area at all and is too far from any of the celebrated night life to become popular among the moneyed classes or the upwardly mobile youth any time soon. That is actually a blessing. We happen to have decent access to public transportation, though getting into Manhattan always involves at least one bus and one train. My commute to work is at least one bus and two subways, and it is terrible, subject at all times to the fickle whims of the increasingly incompetent MTA.
The “bridge and tunnel” term may have been initially meant to denote people coming from outside of New York City—especially from New Jersey, considered by many to be a cultural leper colony filled with only guidos and hill people. But my current settings would qualify me as a bridge and tunnel crowd person when I venture into Manhattan for cultural events.
Manhattan was once the undisputed epicenter of New York City’s cultural life. Now that cultural life is much more diffuse and spread through the outer boroughs, most prominently in Brooklyn. New movie theaters, restaurants and music venues are more likely to be opening in Brooklyn or Queens today than in Manhattan. Accordingly, real estate prices in the outer boroughs are still going through the roof.
This shift has made use of the term “Bridge and Tunnel” a bit outdated, but the cultural chasm between whose who perceive themselves as cultured city residents and the people who travel to the city only on the weekends to party is not gone. Someone who takes the Long Island Rail Road from Mineola to see a concert in Brooklyn is considered part of the bridge and tunnel crowd, though they did not use a bridge or tunnel (yes, I understand that the LIRR in Brooklyn does use subway tunnels and uses overpasses on its way to the city; shut up).
And these social demarcations between what is city and what is not stretch to the outer boroughs as well. I mentioned that I drove to Long Island to attend a baby shower this weekend, but as I live in Queens, I already live on Long Island. When New Yorkers talk about “Long Island” they don’t mean the Island itself but Nassau and Suffolk Counties, the parts of the Island that lie outside of the border of New York City.
I could never justify the expense of living in a more trendy or celebrated area of Manhattan. I had a chance to move to the Upper East Side one time. I looked at an apartment in Yorkville and realized that I would be doubling my rent and would still not be able to fit the modest furniture from my small studio in Ozone Park, Queens into the new place. It wasn’t worth the money. I could have said I lived on the Upper East Side, but I’d be living like a hobbit.
So while proximity to Manhattan is become less and less of a cultural touchstone to judge a neighborhood, I propose a new measure of the value of where you live: proximity to live Shakespeare.
A good measure of the value of any place to live is how far away you are from some free Shakespeare. When I lived in Inwood in uptown Manhattan, it had yet to become a trendy place to live and people hadn’t heard of it. But I lived across the street from Inwood Hill Park which had free Shakespeare plays every summer. Score.
I can’t easily walk to free Shakespeare like that, but I am a very short trip from more than one of the venues of the free Shakespeare in the Park in Queens.
Some will argue that this Shakespeare standard is an unfair way to judge where you live, but I don’t think so. I don’t want my children to live in a world where they can’t easily see some free Shakespeare every summer. I’ll be dragging their soggy asses to Two Gentlemen of Verona this season; I won’t need a bridge or tunnel to get there.
This past weekend the wife and I packed our two baby girls into their car seats and drove upstate (upstate defined as north of the Bronx/Westchester border) to celebrate the 90th birthday of my Grandmother, Mary Sheahan.
They don’t make New Yorkers like Mary Sheahan anymore. My Grandmother immigrated from Ireland and went through Ellis Island as a child in 1925. She grew up in the Mott Haven section of The Bronx. She raised seven children in The Bronx and is a grandmother to nine and a great grandmother to three. My Grandmother remained in The Bronx as long as possible and then stayed a little longer. She has never been far from the city and still visits frequently. Her last child left the five boroughs only a few years ago (after living in the city more than 60 years) and she has two grandchildren living here now.
No person I have ever met represents unconditional love and the joy of living and loving family like my grandmother. You would be hard pressed to meet a better person in all of the world. Go ahead and try. You might find someone you think is pretty good but they won’t hold a candle to my grandmother. If you think you’ve got someone who can compare in kindness and sweetness I’m sure you’ll find something terrible if you dig a little deeper, like they torture cats in their spare time or something.
My grandmother is so sweet she even gives homes to insane dogs, like her current pet, Misty, a friendly but mentally ill and hyperactive beast who would be put into Kung Pao form in no time if it were up to anyone else other than Grandma. I don’t know how she manages to walk that crazy animal at age 90 but she manages somehow. I always make a point to walk that damn dog when I visit her so she’ll have at least a few hours of freedom from it.
But that’s one of the minor points about my grandmother’s excellence. Having her as my Grandma has been a great privilege. In my younger years, especially when I was a teenager, I was a jaded and angry person who hated the world. Even today I find it hard not to consider much of the world and the people in it loathsome. But no one can keep that disposition for long in the presence of my grandmother. Even in my angriest and most obnoxious teenage years when I thought it might be cool to murder my parents and live the life of an itinerant assassin for hire, I could never find it in my black heart to think a mean thought about my grandmother.
My grandmother’s wit is sharp as ever and she stays active. She can still drive and she walks under her own power, and I still try and promote the idea that she secretly runs a criminal empire and is just successful at not getting caught. It would be fun to learn that my Grandma has strangled mobsters with piano wire and brained drug lords with shovels.
It was great to introduce my own daughters to my grandmother and to take photos of her with her kids, most of her grandkids and all of her great grandkids. Grandma was happy as ever to have so many of her family in one place at one time. Her children and grandchildren now live all over the country. Family flew in from as far away as Georgia and Wisconsin to celebrate Mary Sheahan’s 90th birthday.
I am exceptionally lucky to have the family I have. And my family is exceptionally fortunate to have Mary Sheahan as its matriarch.