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."

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