If You Build It They Will Come

Our first house was far, far away from my family in New Jersey. It was all the way across the Hudson River—61 miles away from the center of the universe.

Dad took a new job working for a company in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and for a while, he carpooled with three other employees.  When the commute became too tiresome, we began looking for a house. We tried so hard to stay in New Jersey, but we just could not find a house we could afford. So I left my job at Bell Laboratories, where as you all know, I invented the cell phone. The group had to continue without me and I found a new job working at IBM.

We moved into that house in the autumn of 1980, and that is where Dad built his first deck a year or two later. The house had a walk-out basement, so the deck was about 8-10 feet from the ground. He did most of the work himself, and his friend Dave Clark from Vermont helped with some of the heavy lifting.

I put a lot of trust in Dad’s word that it was a solid deck. That is all I had, because he did not get a building permit until years later, so the structure was not officially certified by the town. I had so much faith in that deck that during the summer of 1983, we had a party and invited my family to our house for a barbeque.

This party was not just my siblings, but also my aunts, uncles, cousins, and their children. Even in 1983, which was before all of you were born, my family was still quite large. I love my relatives, so this was not my way of eliminating them in one fell swoop. Like in the movie, Field of Dreams, “if you build it they will come,” Dad built it and they came. I was so happy that so many of them took that long journey across the river to our party.

Breaking our tradition of never taking photographs of family gatherings, this time we broke out the cameras. There are only a few, but I was able to find them. You will see Grandpa but not Grandma, and Uncle Tony but not Aunt Marian. I don’t recall who else is missing. Thirty-two years ago we had this party. A lot has happened since then. I hope you enjoy trying to identify the faces.

Family Party-1983-3 - on deck                  Family Party-1983

kids in family room               Family Party-1983 in the kitchen



Our Other Thanksgiving

Dad and I have been trying to figure out when we began to celebrate the other Thanksgiving and who initiated it. What we do recall is that it evolved from a conversation with a few of Dad’s friends  about how much we all enjoyed Thanksgiving, but since it is typically a family holiday, we would never be able to celebrate turkey day with our friends. But why couldn’t we just choose an earlier day in October or November and then gather with our friends and create a second Thanksgiving? Why not?

Thus began a new tradition.  Sometime between 1978 and 1980, we picked a date and a venue and doled out menu assignments. I believe the first celebration was at Steve and Donna’s apartment. You may not know, but Steve and Dad have been friends since third grade. That friendship has lasted as long as mine with Karen—55 years. That alone is cause for a celebration!

The original gathering was small. There were only six of us—Steve and Donna, Mickey and Ivonne, Dad and me. No children, just three old friends and their wives. I believe, though, that I was the odd person out since everyone but I grew up in Yonkers. But as you know, they are all great friends and I always felt like I was part of the gang rather than the new kid on the block.

We each contributed something from our own family traditions. I remember that the most unique dish was when Ivonne hosted dinner and we had a Cuban turkey, which much to Dad’s delight, meant a spiced turkey stuffed with peppers and onions.

Somewhere along the line, Dave married Barbara and they were added to this other Thanksgiving feast as were Billy and Robin. Each year, we alternated houses, and as the babies came, the number of seats at the table increased. I think, in the end, we had somewhere around twenty-ish.

When we moved to New Jersey, the dinners ended up at our house most of the time—over the river and through the woods to our house they came! Sadly, once we moved to the South, the dinners ended. As far as I know, no one continued the tradition. But for twenty-five years, we always had our special dinners.

We have kept in touch and have gotten together just a few times in New York. The last time was at Jamie’s wedding last year. I am sad to have seen this wonderfully special and unique tradition end. What is more amazing than the number of years we had these celebrations is the fact that among these five couples, there has not been a single divorce. That is so rare today. The only marriage not intact is because of death, not divorce.

Every year I think of those dinners. I miss them and cannot believe we did not take a single picture.


Penny Candy Stop

Dad and I were wandering around Mast General Store earlier this week. I was shuttling between the books and unique kitchen gadgets while Dad was downstairs—or so I thought. Suddenly, I heard his voice beckoning me to the toy corner. But it was not a toy that he wanted me to see. He had discovered the barrels of candy, many of which were from our childhood and yours.

Looking at the sweet treasures, I found myself remembering a certain little corner store down the street from my school called Martanciks. The big draw of that store was the candy, which we could buy for a penny.

I looked through the barrels at Mast General and saw they had the wax bottles of my youth. You’d bite off the top and spit it off, enabling you to drink in one of several multi-flavored “healthy” juices.  They were much too small to quench your thirst, but nevertheless fun to drink.

Another favorite was the pixy stix—straw shaped sticks containing delicious sweet and sour powder. Yum! Score another for Mast General.

Continuing down the aisle I found a barrel filled with Bonomo Turkish Taffy, which was a thin, VERY chewy candy sold in at least four flavors—vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, and banana. I was never a fan of that candy but I remember the commercial had a catchy tune. In today’s world of healthy eating and childhood obesity, I don’t think a candy commercial would work. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jpw64PkCJn8

Bazooka Bubble gum was both delicious to chew and entertaining as well. Not only could you blow great bubbles with the nugget-shaped gum, but it came wrapped in paper containing your fortune and a comic. How cool was that!

One of the most popular items were the waxed lips and mustaches, which were not as fun as the bubble gum, but their demand was high because they could be both chewed and used as a disguise.

Then I spied your favorites, most of which we got at the cider mill down the street from our New Jersey house. I think the three of you enjoyed going into the country store and carefully selecting one of your favorite candies more than drinking the freshly-made cider. I found Swedish fish, gummi bears, airheads, nerds, smarties, and warheads.

Do my discoveries bring back fond memories of our walks to the mill? Do you crave any of those candies, or have your candy preferences become more sophisticated? These days I smile when I remember stopping by Martanciks on my way home from school, but I have no interest in trying any of my old favorites. For me, there is just nothing like a package of plain M&M’s to put a smile on my face.



A Stone Brings Back a Memory

We awoke to a cold morning today, so rather than put on a light sweater or my fleecy sweatshirt, I grabbed my South Carolina winter coat—the black-zippered leather jacket I’ve had forever. When I stuck my hands in my pockets, I felt something which made me smile. It was not forgotten money, which is always so fun to find, but rather two small smooth stones from a grave. I was immediately transported back to London 2014–the trip Dad and I went on to honor a very distant who died many years before I was even born.

My thoughts first went to the man who gave me them to me—an Irishman named Ernie Sweeney. He called me “cousin” when I told him that Aunt Peggy had Sweeney relatives on her tree. I later learned that Ernie liked to collect stones as remembrances of places he visited. So he shared that tradition with me.

I remember walking into the hotel lobby with Dad and being approached by the man I had first reached out to during the summer of 2011, another  man from the Castlebar gang—Brian Hoban. Brian and I had exchanged emails ever since my initial contact and we recognized each other from our Facebook photos. Dad and I had no expectations about the trip, but we figured if the ceremony did not happen, we still were vacationing in a city we loved.

When Brian approached us and announced to the others in the hotel lobby that “Karen and Gene are here,” I felt relieved and confident we had not come in vain. The next few days were a whirlwind of activities, and the group from Castlebar were among the nicest people I ever met.

Our dinners were spent, of course, in Irish pubs. When someone learned we never had an Irish coffee, two glasses appeared at the table. We went on a train ride through the English countryside to the small town of Gillingham, which is where my cousin Louis Brennan lived over a hundred years ago. We toured the town which had a Louis Brennan “wall of honor,” visited the library where we saw an elaborate display dedicated to Louis, and had lunch with our new friends.

We didn’t know any of them before the trip, and they did not know us, yet they were so welcoming to us and made us feel like old friends. How I wish Aunt Marian was with us, because she was the original family historian, not me. Without her hard work and the family Bible which was given to me after her death, I may never have gone.

It should have been her, not me, standing up at that London church saying a prayer in honor of Louis and laying a wreath on his grave.  I can just imagine how thrilled she would have been to have met the Irish Prime minister. I can picture her chatting casually with him at lunch after the ceremony at the cemetery. She was always so at ease making small talk with just about anyone.

We learned that the traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal is bacon and cabbage, not corned beef and cabbage. We saw the dedication of a group of men and women who worked tirelessly to “right an 82-year wrong” by erecting a monument for one of the most famous leaves on our family tree. We witnessed the joyful celebration at Flannery’s Pub as everyone erupted in song after lunch just like in an old movie.

I have kept in touch with Brian and another wonderful resident of Castlebar named Ann. I hope to someday travel to Ireland to visit them, where Ernie told us in his wonderful Irish brogue, “We’ll roll out the red carpet for you.” After meeting them all, I believe they will, but a red carpet from them will need only be a hug and a shared meal. No wonder Grandma has always so proud of the Irish!

Gang from Castlebar- Gillingham, Kent, UK- March 2014
             Gang from Castlebar, Ireland in Gillingham, Kent, UK- March 2014



This Rather Than That

So much of what happens to us is all about timing and seemingly insignificant decisions. An employee of Morgan Stanley left her office on the 67th floor of the World Trade Center to have a cigarette just moments before the first plane hit the towers. So she lived. A man from New York escaped death in a Paris café because he was unable to get a reservation for dinner there that night.

Kelly may never have met Mark if the University of Miami Admissions had not lost her application, resulting in her decision to become a Gamecock rather than a Hurricane. If I stayed at Douglass College, I would not have been working at Allied Chemical on that January day in 1977 when Dad asked me out on that first date.

My grandmother came to America in 1913. If she had come 3 ½ years later, her inability to read and write may have prevented her from boarding the ship to America. Congress passed an immigration bill in 1917, which required immigrants to pass a literacy test as one requirement to coming here. Anyone over the age of sixteen who could not read 30-40 words in their own language failed the test. Baba would have failed. This test restricted people because of their intellect as a way of preventing undesirables from immigrating to this country.

In 1920, thousands of Russians were arrested—3000-10000 on a single day—because the Attorney General feared they were communist revolutionaries. Some were deported. Many were guilty of nothing other than having Russian accents. Those raids concentrated primarily on individuals who were not yet U.S citizens.

If my grandfather had not met a man at a restaurant in New York City in 1913, who offered him a job in Rockaway, NJ, would he have been living in the city, where more of the arrests occurred? (Is this why I have been unable to find Grandpa’s family in the 1920 census? Were they afraid of being deported? Did they hide when the census taker came to their home?)

Dad’s grandparents never intended to come to America and settle in New York. His father’s parents’ final destination was Boston, and Grandma Rita’s parents’ plan was to continue on to Cleveland. For some reason, their plans changed, so Rita Schindler was able to meet Sam Bobrow in New York — close enough for me to meet Dad  twenty-five years later in New Jersey.

If Jamie had not lost her job here in South Carolina because of state-wide budget cuts, would she ever have met Geoff in New Jersey? So many accidents and acts of timing brought all these people together and caused some people to live rather than die. It really is quite mind boggling when you think about it.

What’s Her Name?

As Kelly and Mark try to name “Jane Doe,” I thought I would offer them a solution in choosing their child’s name. (This may be a boring, yet fun post to consider.) Casey and Jamie can do the same if they wish, but problems will arise which I will explain later. While researching our Irish roots, I learned there were particular naming patterns used long ago which may help in choosing the first names of your children.

  • First born daughter named after mother’s mother
  • Second born daughter named after father’s mother
  • Third born daughter named after her mother
  • Fourth born daughter named after her mother’s oldest sister
  • Fifth born daughter named after her mother’s 2nd oldest sister
    or her father’s oldest sister
  • First born son named after his father’s father
  • Second born son named after his mother’s father
  • Third born son named after his father
  • Fourth born son named after his father’s oldest brother
  • Fifth born son named after his father’s 2nd oldest brother
    or his mother’s oldest brother

The choice of a middle name was not as rigid. Sometimes the parents waited until the child was confirmed and used that, while other times it was the maiden name of the grandmother or mother.

You will note that I made some corrections going back as far as my grandmother, so you will see what your names, your cousins, and those of my siblings should be.

My grandma (the oldest daughter) should be Julia, named after her mother’s mother—Julia Foy.

Aunt Marian (oldest daughter) should be Jemima, also named after her maternal grandmother—Jemima Blue. If she hated that name as much as her grandmother did, she could be called Mimi.

Your grandmother (2nd daughter) should be Mary, named after her father’s mother—Mary Keenoy.

I am the oldest daughter, so I should be named for my grandmother, now corrected to Julia.

Aunt Ar should be Efrosina and Aunt El should be Mary. Uncle Mart would be Vasily or Basil and Uncle Dave would be Daniel. I can imagine your uncle as a Dan, but Uncle Mart as Vasily would have had a completely different personality for sure!

Kelly should be Mary, Jamie would be Rita, and Casey as the 3rd daughter, would be named after me—Julia.

So Baby Jane Doe’s name, following the Irish naming pattern could be Julia. Bryce should have been Lester. I guess we could call an attorney to fix that mistake.

Problems will arise with your cousins. There will be three Mary’s, one Catherine and a Sally. That is when the use of nicknames becomes necessary. Rather than having three Mary’s around the Thanksgiving dinner table, we could have a Molly, Polly, Mattie, or a May. Incidentally, baby Julia could be referred to as Julie or Jill. It’s your call.

So as you decide how to name your daughter, be glad that the craziness of these naming patterns stopped in our family several generations ago. You can choose to follow them or not. I, for one, do not care as long as you don’t choose Hortense.


Movin’ and Groovin’

I cannot dance. Clearly the family dance gene skipped over me. It went to Carly.

Grandma and Grandpa loved to dance, which you should all know was a common bond between them when they first dated and continued as long as I can remember.

Both Grandma and Aunt Marian chose dance lessons over music when they were younger, and they were taught by their cousin Gertrude and her father, their Uncle Jim Downey. Their great uncle, Jack Blue, was the most famous member of their family other than their Irish-inventor cousin Louis Brennan.

Uncle Jack was a dance instructor who taught many famous actors and actresses how to dance back in the twenties through the forties and was the dance master/director for a famous Broadway singer/composer/dancer/playwright named George M. Cohan. (Maybe you know some of his songs: “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Yankee Doodle,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” or maybe you are all too young.) Uncle Jack, according to the family stories, was in Ripley’s Believe It or Not because of his talent as an instructor despite never taking a lesson himself.

Grandpa showed me a few of his moves, but when it came to “fast dances,” I was clueless until the “big date.” It was during college, and my friend Karen and I met some guys somewhere who took the two of us out on a date. The date was uneventful and clearly not very memorable. All that I remember was that the names of our dates were Ken and Irv, and we went to a bar not far from  campus.

While Karen and I never saw Ken and Irv again, that night in the bar is memorable to me because that was when I realized no talent or instruction was needed to get up and dance to a song with a fast beat. We were sitting in the bar when a song began to play. Ken, or was it Irv, grabbed my hand and led me to the dance floor. I had no choice but to dance because I would have looked ridiculous if I just stood there. So that was the day when I learned my dance moves, and that is why that night in a bar in New Brunswick is forever etched in my memory.