Monday, October 25, 2010


Kathleen King McNicholl (born August 13, 1906 in Navan, Co. Meath, Ireland) was my Grandma, my mother's mother. I am a second-generation American because of her, and I am able to apply for an Irish passport as her granddaughter.

Her parents were John "Jack" King, an Irish football star in the late 19th century, and Agnes King. County Meath is called "The County of Kings," but she never mentioned the coincidence of her maiden name. She had one brother, John, and four sisters: Mary, Lizzie, Bridgie, Agnes, and Nellie (Ellen, but called "Ellie" in Ireland. Kathleen went to school until she was 12, and then had to work as a domestic servant away from her home in Johnstown (a village within Navan). On Sundays she walked 5 miles home to spend a few hours with her mother ("Granny" as we call her), and then walked back the 5 miles.

Kathleen did not speak often about history, but she did tell me about the May day in 1927 when she was 20. A group of people had gathered because Charles Lindbergh had flown across the Atlantic, and did not have to stop in Ireland. They all cheered as they saw The Spirit of St. Louis continue its flight, over to England and then landing in Paris finally.

The same year Kathleen went to work in London in the home of an aristocratic family. She worked in the kitchen, and served table She carefully laid out all the fine silver, and stood silently watching the family dine, keeping careful note about which piece of cutlery was used for what food, and how it was held by those long, fine fingers. Kathleen's oldest sister Mary had immigrated to America, to New York City, and she told Kathleen and her youngest sister Nellie that there were better opportunities to be had there. In October 1929 Kathleen (age 23) and Nellie (age 21) took an ocean liner across the Atlantic. The only story she ever shared was that while she and Nellie were dining one evening, there were two women who thought very highly of themselves sitting at the next table. When the waiter came to take these ladies dessert order, they proclaimed loudly, "We shall have the sweetbreads." The waiter asked them, "Are you sure about that, ladies?" Having grown up on a farm, Kathleen and Nellie knew that sweetbreads are the thymus (throat, gullet, or neck sweetbread) and the pancreas (heart, stomach, or belly sweetbread) of a calf or a lamb. However, since the "ladies" had been so highfalutin, Kathleen and Nellie did not offer any advice. The sisters suppressed their laughter when the ladies nearly retched when their dessert was presented.

Kathleen and Nellie arrived at Ellis Island just a week or so before The Stock market crashed. However, they had a home with Mary in Sunnyside, Queens. Kathleen easily got a job as a vegetable cook at Schraft's on West 38th Street. Schraft's was a restaurant chain where ladies who shopped then lunched. When Mary met an Irish farmer who asked her to marry him and return home to Mullingar, West Meath in 1930, Kathleen and Nellie still had one another. They also had suitors whom they had met at a dance held at their local parish. Nellie met Frank Corrigan, a long shoreman who hailed from County Fermanagh. Kathleen met an American, George McNicholl. George was one of the youngest of nine children born to Patrick and Theresa McNicholl, who had emigrated from Graystone, Co. Derry in the late 19th century. George, his sister Anne, and seven brothers all had grown up in the area of Manhattan known as Hell's Kitchen. He once told me that he and his brothers were the only ones in the neighborhood who didn't die or go to Sing Sing. George was a gentle soul, an autodidact who worked for Con Edison. He had purchased a home for his parents in Jackson Heights for five hundred dollars a few years before The Great Depression hit. George was captivated by the beautiful Kathleen, her good heart, and her strength of spirit. They wed on November 20, 1931.

Their first child Agnes was born--and died--on January 1, 1933. George could see how heartbroken his lovely wife was, and so he sent her home to her mother for the summer of 1933. When she returned, they conceived another daughter, Patricia, who was born in May 1934. Two years later they had their first and only son Freddy, and had purchased a home in Bayside Hills. Patricia and Freddy were joined in 1938 by a daughter, named Kathleen after her mother. Their last child Elizabeth was born on August 3, 1940.

The war years were tough in terms of rationing, but Kathleen was a great home economist, and a fantastic cook. While George often had to work the night shift at the Hell's Gate substation, she kept their children safe and well-fed. She attended Mass daily at St. Robert Bellarmine, just two blocks from their house. However, the walk became more difficult, and Kathleen was having trouble getting up and down the stairs to the second floor and the basement. A visit to a doctor in the early 1940's brought bad news: Kathleen had multiple sclerosis. While her ability to walk continued to decrease, her ingenuity for housework increased. Necessity being the mother of invention was not new to her.

George realized his wife needed another trip "home." In June 1950, when daughter Kathleen was still 11, and Elizabeth almost 10, he sent his wife and youngest children on another ocean voyage to Ireland (the children's fare was free since they were both under the age of 12). Kathleen had not seen her mother and the rest of her family in 19 years. She thoroughly enjoyed the summer, and her daughters stayed on Mary's farm in Mullingar while she was at home in Navan with her mother Agnes. This was the last time Kathleen ever saw her mother alive. I was almost three-years-old and sitting in Grandma's kitchen when she and my mother explained that Granny had died in 1965. I didn't understand what that meant, but I went and sat on Grandma’s lap, and hugged her, and soothed her.

We lived only a few blocks from my Grandma and Grandpa's home, and I was the second grandchild, but my cousin had moved to Hawaii with my Aunt Patricia and Uncle Jerry. We had Sunday dinner at their home, and my mother often brought me over to see Grandma, who rarely was able to leave the house. Grandma jiggled me on her knees, and taught me nursery rhymes:

Higglety, pigglety, my black hen,
She lays eggs for gentlemen.
Sometimes nine, and sometimes ten.
Higglety, pigglety, my black hen.

We watched Merv Griffin's television show "Jeopardy," hosted by Art Fleming, and Grandma was delighted that I was enraptured by the knowledge. I learned how to cook by sitting on a small stool next to her gas stove and oven. I learned how lovely laundry which has been hung in the fresh air smells by taking the clothes and linens in off the pulley line stretched across to the back of the yard to the back stoop. I would hand her the wooden clothes pins as she hung up the laundry, and I would accept them back and store them in the black metal milk box, no longer in use by the mid-1960's. I paid special attention to Grandma's proverbs, and, most especially, "Easy for you, difficult for me." She taught me resilience, fun, fortitude, and compassion.

My father and mother moved us to Manhasset in August 1972, but we still saw Grandma and Grandpa all the time for holidays and Sunday dinners. My mother Kathleen's heart broke in July 1979 when my father was transferred to Houston, Texas, and she had to leave her own mother. They spoke on the phone, but Grandpa's emphysema was getting worse. I went off to college in August 1980. Grandpa passed on February 28, 1981. My mother flew up from Texas, and spent the week after the funeral with her. I went to visit Grandma during spring break. She still kept a perfect house, and even roused me at 5:30 am to make sure that I had time to hang some clean curtains in the living room. "Can't I sleep a little longer, Grandma? The sun isn't even up!" "You get out of that bed now, and I'll go put on the kettle." She was a very strong, determined woman, and, while very loving, she didn't take any guff. Those curtains were hung by 5:50 am.

In 1986 I went on a four-month tour of Western Europe, and made sure to get her a calendar from Vatican City. I was kind of shocked at how little this meant to her. In October 1987 I went 'home" to Ireland for the first time. I made sure to bring back a copy of The Meath Chronicle for Grandma, and she treated it as if it were The Rosetta Stones. I fell in love with Ireland, and my cousins, and have visited there 17 times. In 1988 I bought a place for Grandma on The American Immigrant Wall of Honor at Ellis Island.

A few months later Grandma had to move into Ozanam, a Catholic nursing home in Bayside. She could no longer live independently because she couldn't make the stairs, and she was legally blind. I visited her as often as I could, but we ended up writing to one another. These letters brought us both joy, as she had been writing for years to her family in Ireland. I got to know my grandmother as a woman. When I was misdiagnosed with bipolar II disorder in 1994, Grandma's letters were full of empathy. She told me she too had suffered from depression, and sometimes still did. Ozanam could be very depressing, but my grandmother always dwelled on the fact that she had her mental faculties, the use of her hands, some sight and her hearing. (Okay, so she watched golf with the volume on full blast, and we had to repeat ourselves loudly, but she could still hear us.) Those hands were very large, and bore the scars of cooking and housekeeping accidents. They were incredibly strong too. She loved to hold my hand or my mother's when we visited, and we would leave with bruises. I began to call it "Grandma's death grip."

My father died in February 1991. Then in April 1991, nearly a year after having a massive stroke, and a lifetime of cardiac problems, Aunt Elizabeth died. One of the most heartbreaking images I carry in my head and heart is of Grandma patting Elizabeth's coffin at her Funeral Mass, as if she were comforting her little girl.

Grandma died nine years ago today at the age of 95 after spending 13 years at Ozanam. She left behind three children, eight grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. A year or two before she died, Grandma told my mother that "nobody wants to die." She was 92 then. She had tremendous faith and was very devout. I remember the priest saying, "She is in a place with no pain, and no judgment." One of the songs at Mass was "Be Not Afraid." Grandma rarely was, and when I hear the birdsong in the morning--which she taught me meant that there would not be rain that day--I say, "Hello Grandma. I love you."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Weathering The Storm

At 5:20 am this morning I began my morning routine.  I went to the kitchen, put the kettle on to boil, put a bag of Irish Breakfast tea in a large mug, poured myself a small glass of orange juice, then dried and put away the dishes from the dish draining rack.  As the tea steeped, I opened my prescription med bottles, and took my antidepressant and 1 milligram of Klonopin.  Then I walked over to the living room window with the tea, opened the window, and lit up my first cigarette of the day.  And I prayed.  My first prayer always is the same:  “Please God, let the fear and anxiety subside quickly.”
I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  It has been 17 years since I first began exhibiting symptoms.  In the autumn of 1993 I found myself unable to sleep because my dream life was filled with horrible imagery and narratives in which I constantly had to fight for my life.  I was anxious during my work day, but hid it rather well…or so I thought.  My mood was often sad, and I was prone to bursts of anger.  I thought this was connected to my high-stress job as an entertainment executive and a life which had little in it besides work. 
My job involved a lot of schmoozing—taking publishing executives and agents out to breakfast, lunch , cocktails in order to convince them that my clients should see the earliest draft of the next “hot” book, or a book which would be “just perfect” to adapt into a movie-of –the-week or a miniseries.  I had done the same socializing since November 1990 when I worked for a producer at Warner Bros., and I was good at it.  However, I then had to go home and read those manuscripts, get up early, go to the office, write up coverage (a synopsis of the book plus my opinion as to whether the book was suited for adaptation for the screen), hit the phone to see what the other members of the tribe of New York book scouts were drumming up, and try to get that next manuscript.  

In October 1993 I began drinking by myself after work, just a few glasses of wine to help me relax and unwind.  Since there is a history of alcoholism in my family, but mostly because the drinking made me feel worse, not better, I decided to see my internist Dr. C.  He listened with great concern, and said I needed to calm down and get rid of the stress in my life.  Dr. C wrote a prescription for Librium. 
Librium (Chloridazepoxide), according to Wikipedia, was” the first benzodiazepine to be synthesized in the mid 1950's. It was discovered by accident when in 1957 tests revealed that the compound had hypnotic, anxiolytic and muscle relaxant effects Chlordiazepoxide enabled the treatment of emotional disturbances without a loss of mental acuity or alertness. Chlordiazepoxide is indicated for the short term (2–4 weeks) treatment of anxiety which is severe and disabling or subjecting the person to unacceptable distress. It is also indicated as a treatment for the management of acute alcohol withdrawal syndrome.”

In 1979 before I took the SAT’s my trusted pediatrician Dr. Nicosia prescribed Valium so that I could relax and sleep before the big test.  (I only took one pill, and didn’t like how it made me feel.)  I trusted Dr. C, and knew he was prescribing Librium because that was what would help me get through this rough patch.  Then the rough patch transformed into very jagged territory which I could no longer navigate.  My therapist Jack was very concerned and, shortly before Christmas 1993, he asked me if he could place a call to a colleague, a psychophramacologist.  “What kind of doctor is that?” I asked Jack.  “He’s a psychiatrist who specializes in prescribing medications.”  I wasn’t improving, and my sadness permeated my waking and sleeping life.  So I made an appointment with this new type of doctor.  Dr. E interviewed me, listened to my answers and diagnosed me with clinical depression.  He prescribed Prozac—which was “the” antidepressant of choice in 1993—and Klonopin.  Within two weeks I recovered my good spirits, and even enjoyed a ten-day vacation in Los Angeles and Las Vegas in January 1994.  When I returned to Dr. E for a follow-up visit on February 14, 1994, I was eager to tell him how much better I felt.  Instead he gave me and my mother the very best of Valentine’s Day presents.  Dr. E told us that he had been wrong about his diagnosis.  My intelligence, my success, my high functioning level, my outgoing personality and my creativity clearly pointed to the fact that I had bipolar II disorder.  This, he explained, was a form of what formerly was labeled “manic-depression.”  He said, “While you do not exhibit full-blown mania, which is symptom of bipolar disorder, you do, in fact, have hypomania.”  Having pronounced my sentence, Dr. E took up his prescription pad  and began to write the pages which determined my daily existence for the next 14 years. 

Now it is 6:42 am and my heart has stopped pounding in my chest, and I don’t feel as shaky as I did an hour ago.  I can go through my day with my usual cheer, good humor, energy and optimism.  And hope.  While I still fight battles of great proportion in my dreams, I have mastered and reclaimed the territory of my life.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

I Can Go Home Again, Part I

I was my parent’s first and much-wanted child. They married in June 1960, and my mother thought something was wrong with her when she hadn’t conceived by the following year. I recently did the calculations, and realize that I was conceived on St. Patrick’s Day 1962, so it was the luck of the Irish! However, my mother wasn’t all that fortunate after all because she was ten days past her due date.

On Saturday night December 15th my father Danny, a CPA, was obligated to host a dinner for accountants at The Elks’ Lodge in Elmhurst, Queens. My mother was at home in their white brick house in Bayside Hills with her younger sister. Elizabeth, then 22, single and still living with my grandparents George and Kathleen (who were two streets down and two avenues over us) went home around 10:00 pm. My mother’s water broke around midnight, the first hour of Sunday, December 16th. Since my mother couldn’t reach my father at The Elks Lodge, she phoned her sister. Elizabeth rushed back over to make the drive St. Alban’s Naval Hospital. Since my mother was not having any contractions and I was in a frank breech position nearly every doctor on the maternity ward examined her, and they debated about how to proceed with this difficult delivery. My father finally had been contacted, and he rushed to the hospital. Elizabeth said he broke down in the waiting room and cried over the possibility of losing both his wife and child. Mommy suffered for over 24 hours before I was delivered by C-section at 12:32 a.m. on Monday, December 17th..

After her delivery ordeal and surgery, my mother was supposed to stay in the hospital for ten days. However, she was determined to make sure I would be home before Christmas. There was a blizzard that December 24th and so my father parked our ‘56 Chevy in the next-door neighbors' driveway to gain easy access to the side entrance of our house. Helen and Margarite were sisters, two maiden ladies born in the late 19th century.  Once inside, with my mother settled in bed, Daddy held me up to our kitchen window so the ladies could catch a glimpse of me from their own kitchen.  Mommy had been very thin to begin with and looked emaciated after her difficult delivery and surgery. Helen cooked up and then brought over a vat of rice pudding with the intention of fattening up my mother.  Mommy didn’t have the heart to tell Helen that she hated rice pudding. It didn’t matter as Daddy ate the entire pot himself. 

The weather improved over the next three weeks, and I was baptized at our parish church St. Robert Bellarmine where my parents were married, and my mother also had been baptized. My christening was on January 6, 1963, “Little Christmas,” the Feast of the Epiphany. My parents chose Aunt Elizabeth as my godmother and Uncle Jimmy, Daddy’s only and younger brother, as my godfather. I officially became part of the community, free of the guilt and punishment of original sin, and not a moment too soon.

My childhood in Bayside was exceedingly happy. Mommy enjoyed being a mother more than anything she ever could have imagined. She was fully engaged in raising her child, and documented every first with photos and entries in my baby book. During my first two years, Mommy bought me a new toy on the 17th of the month. I inherited her passion for reading, which I learned to do by 2-½. I was the apple of Daddy’s eye, and I relished his teasing me with nicknames like “Sarah Bernhardt“ and “Miss Know-it-All.” Like many father’s of Baby Boomer daughters, Daddy’s choice of lullaby to me was “Daddy’s Little Girl.” I came to love being awake at night because Daddy had insomnia, and I would get up to be with him, watching old movies on The Late Late Show.

When Grandpa retired from Con-Ed, he used to drop by our house every day using the ruse that he merely wanted to drop off The Daily News. My earliest memory is being ten-months-old and out for a walk in my baby carriage with Grandpa pushing me along. I still can see his blue eyes, which actually did twinkle, and the Fedora which he wore any time he left the house. This wasn’t merely for fashion’s sake but because he lost all of his hair after a bout of pleurisy as a young man. We frequently went to their home to see Grandma since, due to having multiple sclerosis, she mostly was housebound. Grandma had emigrated to New York from County Meath, Ireland in October 1929. She and Grandpa married in 1931, and they had five children, four girls and a boy (although their first child Agnes lived but one day, January 1, 1933). Grandma was an incredible cook and homemaker, and I spent many happy hours with her. I perched on a small stool next to the stove and watched her make meals. She had one drawer in the kitchen filled with jam jar lids and the white cardboard paper separating the teabags in the Tetley box. These were my treasures! We would go out to the back stoop, and I would hand Grandma the clothespins as she hung up the laundry to dry on the line. My Aunt Elizabeth didn’t marry until July 1965, and we mutually adored one another. She always got a kick out of my precociousness. There were so many things I loved about her--the easy way she laughed, her ladylike manners, the way her purse was organized and contained just the right stuff, like tissues, gum, and a comb. My fixation on the purse began quite early as I preferred to sleep in my crib with Mommy’s old black leather handbag instead of dolls or stuffed animals.

My parents’ closest friends were the Caulfields and the McKennas. Bill and Eileen Caulfield moved to 215th Street in November 1964 with their daughters Kari (one month older than me) and newborn Frani.  Soonafter Bill and Eileen were in a terrible car wreck, and so Nana, Eileen’s mother, came down from the Bronx to take care of the babies and their injured parents. Eileen’s sister Frances also came down to help. She liked the neighborhood so much that she and her husband Dick, their children Dick, Susan and Kett (who is 7 weeks older than me) moved in to the house diagonally across the street from ours. We were like one big extended Irish-Catholic clan. For seven years we were entwined intricately in one another’s lives. There were legendary all-night summer parties held in each of our different backyards. While I preferred to listen to the grown-ups tell stories and sing songs like "The Irish Soldier Boy," Kari and Kett liked mischief.  They would get their hands on cherry bombs any chance they could. Sometimes they dug holes in the front lawn and then chased me around, hoping I would trip. I did, and broke my coccyx (tailbone) at least three times. They always were sorry--they truly couldn’t help themselves--and we three were great pals. We attended one another’s First Communion parties, and the christenings of our younger siblings. All of us went on several family vacations in The Catskills, “The Irish Alps” as we called it. I felt loved, safe, and connected to my family, my parish, my neighbors and my friends.

The Sixties came to an end, and my father was hired away from the IRS by Exxon in 1971 after he frightened their Tax Department with his brilliance during an audit. By August 1972 he and my mother had saved enough money to purchase a home in Munsey Park, an incorporated village in Manhasset on the North Shore of Long Island. According to Wikipedia, Manhasset is a
hamlet (a census-designated place) and neighborhood in Nassau County, New York, on the North Shore of Long Island. As of the United States 2000 Census, the population was 8,362. Manhasset is a Native American term that translates to "the island neighborhood." In 2005, a Wall Street Journal article ranked Manhasset as the best town for raising a family in the New York metropolitan area. While we only moved 4.6 miles east of Bayside, Manhasset was a completely different hometown. {End Part I}