With great admiration, or apologies as the case may be, many thanks to George Newnes for the inspiration of this title page.
How in the world did I get interested in genealogy? Well, it started early, and it had a lot to do with dinosaurs.
Shaking the Tree
One Sunday morning when I was about six years old, I remember my mother telling me that Grandma (Martha Lehman) was coming to visit us. We didn’t get the chance to see her very often, she lived in Brooklyn and we lived in Queens (considered the ends of the earth) not an easy trip for a person in their mid seventies. But this day was special because she was coming and I was thrilled about it.
“Dennis!” I said. “Grandma is coming to see us today!” He just coldly dismissed me in a way only an older and worldlier sibling could. “She’s not your real Grandma you know” “What do you mean?” I asked. “She’s not our real grandmother we just call her that.” OK don’t panic, I’ll get to the bottom of this. Ask Mom and she will set everything straight. “Well, she said, your father’s parents became very ill and died when he was about your age. My mother is with Jesus and my Father lives in Ireland. Your father and your uncles grew up in a home for children”. “A house like ours?” “Well, sort of. You see, lot’s of children lost their parents during those days, and since they had nobody to take care of them, they went to live in a home with other children”. I was crushed. My relationship with this kindly lady was now in doubt, and it would have to be reassessed. And what about my real grandparents?
Sundays were family days and if there was one day in the whole week when we could depend on structure that was the day. The day would begin with the 9 o’clock Children’s Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church. I learned to spell perpetual before I entered the first grade and it was one of the longest words I had ever seen. It was the only word I knew that had more letters than my last name, something I barely learned to spell only a short time before that. By the time we returned from church, my mother would be in the kitchen with a pitcher full of pancake batter ready to pour what seemed to me as an endless supply of pancakes on to an old relic of a stove with a built in griddle. The time in between breakfast and afternoon dinner was punctuated by homework and catechism studies. “Who made us?” “God made us”. “Who is God?” “God is the supreme being that made heaven and earth and all things visible and invisible”. “Why did God make us?” “God made us so that we might know him and love him”. Life was good and Sundays were special.
Just before noon, my father would appear dressed in his Sunday best, ready for the seven-block walk to church. The 12:15 mass was last chance for those who wanted to avoid mortal sin and a weeklong guilt trip which I thought was much worse that the initial infraction. A gray pinstripe double vested suit, wide stripe tie (my bother Dennis called them chest protectors) with suspenders and a hat reminiscent of those worn by Eliot Ness and Frank Nitti in “The Untouchables”. No doubt about it, he was a snappy dresser. But his era had come and gone and we didn’t have the heart to tell him.
More than any other room in the house, the kitchen was our family place. Not just because it was where we had our meals, but also because it was the place we were a family. Even in the most difficult of times. All manner of people would drop by and congregate there, and it remains one of my fondest memories. Sometime around two or three in the afternoon my mother would set the kitchen table and the family would gather for supper. A ham, pot roast, or my favorite, leg of lamb, along with the customary potatoes and various vegetables would be our feast and serve as leftovers during the week. My mother was so creative and could do things with simple gravy that would make Mario Batali envious. My father would serve in the official capacity of potato masher. Not that he stood that much taller over the stove than my mother, but always seemed to have a way with potatoes. No matter what, he would make them conform. He was Borg and resistance was futile.
“Bless us O lord and these thy gifts which we are about to receive through the bounty of Christ our lord. Amen”
“Good bread good meat, good lord let’s eat” my mother would repeat the unofficial grace. I was told it was one of my Uncle Bill’s snappy one-liners and it became part of our family’s folklore. “Who was Uncle Bill Mom? Why do we always have to eat potatoes?” “Because your Irish, and they’re good for you,” she would always say. “Your Uncle Bill died when you were just a baby. “But we always have potatoes. They’re coming out of my ears”. A slight backhand to the cheek and I knew the complaint department was closed. I wasn’t about to completely give up though; I had way too many questions. “Is he the guy whose name is on that picture of Jesus that hangs in my room?” “Yes, that’s him. He was your father’s oldest brother.” You mean like Uncle Joe and Uncle Arthur” I asked. “You used to call him Uncle Arthid” Dennis said with a chuckle. Always picking on me. “Yes”, replied my mother “and Uncle Paul too”. Wait a minute I thought to myself; I don’t remember Uncle Paul in my list of God Blesses before bed. “Who is Uncle Paul, how come I never saw him? Did he die too?” “Yes I’m afraid he did. He was just a baby.” This is all very strange I thought. All the uncles and aunts I knew were old. In just one day I find out that I have a grandma who’s not really my grandma, and uncle that’s known for his funny one-liners, and a baby uncle both of whom are dead. Not to mention learning about a God made everything, including invisible things. Whatever those invisible things were. Strange.
My father was an authority on all things visible and invisible. I was intrigued with dinosaurs. What child of six isn’t? They lived a long time ago, they’re older than grandmas, and except for an occasional dinosaur that comes up from the ocean and destroys Tokyo, they’re all dead. “Dad, have you heard of the brontosaurus he’s as big as a house.” “ I know all about him, and his brothers too”, he said. (Now even the dinosaurs have brothers. Strange). “Have you heard of the Buchabopfolous and the Bifobopolous?” I never heard of those (sounds like Greek to me). My brother Dennis is chuckling and Ed's eyes are rolling skyward. “Eat your Brussels sprouts” repeated my mother. What’s so funny I thought? Today, thanks to my father’s expertise in all things scientific, I’ve learned that there are several new species of dinosaurs. Is there no end to his wisdom?
In the world of vegetables the Brussels sprout is most evil of all edible greens. Little cabbages that bear no resemblance whatsoever in taste to their larger cousins. I would gladly subject myself to a solid diet of potatoes for a month than ask my tonsils perform the gruesome task of passing one Brussels sprout to my digestive tract. Not just one mind you, but six on my plate. “You’ll stay here after dinner till you eat them”. “Dad, what were your mother and father like? What were their names?” There was silence, and the demeanor changed. “Your grandfather was named Christopher and your grandmother was Catherine O’Donnell. She had a different last name before she married your grandfather.” My mother answered. “Where did you live Dad?” “Do you ever stop talking?” my father replied. “You were vaccinated with a phonograph needle. (Once upon a time music was recorded on wax disks called records, which required a needle in order to produce sound. In biblical terms, the phonograph begat the reel-to-reel tape, which begat the eight track, which begat the cassette, which begat the CD, which produced a little bastard called the IPOD). My father moved the conversation in a new direction and I knew that his childhood was off limits. I decided I would wait until everyone left the table and I would play a game called bartering questions for Brussels sprouts. Sometimes the need to know can overcome almost any obstacle. It’s possible my mother was also playing the game. And she was as skilled a gamesman as ever I knew one. My questions were answered, and those evil greens disappeared without so much of a thought for my tonsils.
That night as I knelt at my bedside reciting my prayers I ended in the usual manner, asking god to remember those dear to me.
…God bless Mom and Dad, Edward and Dennis, Uncle Arthur, Aunt Anne, Auntie Mary, Uncle Joe,
Aunt Esther, Uncle Clyde and Aunt Peggy and Grandma.
...And God bless Uncle Bill, the one who has his name on your picture, and baby Uncle Paul.
“Mom, is it ok to still call Grandma, Grandma?” “Sure it is” “Good” I replied, “I really like her. And she’s the only Grandma I know. I don’t think my real Grandma would mind.” “Good night Mom” “Good night and God bless.”
And God bless Grandpa Christopher and Grandma Catherine O’Donnell.
Cathy Sullivan - January 1 2006
I was older than seven, as best I can remember. It was early in the year, which would have made it 1954. The previous
Christmas, Ed and I had been given brand new bicycles. His was a 26-inch, mine a 24; a fact I somewhat resented. We were pretty
much the same size at that point in our lives and to be relegated to a smaller vehicle was embarrassing. Leave alone the fact that neither
one of us had mastered the two-wheeler as yet.
It was one of the first bearable days of Spring where the weather starts to break and the buds start appearing on every growing
plant, bush and tree. Exciting to a boy who hasn't seen that many changes of season. I knew that the dawn of another warm season
would bring more adventures, more new frontiers to explore and greater independence from my family. We were big on independence.
These were the days when Mom took care of the house and Dad went to work every day. Between them, they provided the base from
which we could spring. And, we were encouraged to spring whenever possible, to explore our world.
The bike awaited these days in the garage. I got a lock and chain from a distant cousin, Eddie McHugh. He was at the other end
of life, having completed high school and headed off to college. He had no further need of that hardware, so it was passed to me.
The lock was made by Fraim and the serial number was 30578. Funny how some things stick with you. The bike was blue and had
a worthy amount of pin striping on it. It featured the a New Departure braking system, which required one to backpedal and apply
pressure against the pedals to stop. I never did figure out what the name had to do with stopping. Probably nothing directly.
Mom had taken over from Dad and had given Ed some lessons. He was well on his way to being able to handle himself on the
sidewalk, but had not ventured into the street. Mom had run behind me a few times, holding onto the seat and supplementing what
balance I could muster. Ed and I joked at Dad's crash into the first available tree, when he was going to show him how bike-riding was
done. It was one of those seminal experiences; where we found out there were holes in his experiences. he had never learned to drive
either, owing to a life spent at sea and the ample public transportation in New York.
Today was the day. The weather was right, all the people who might have put the kibosh on my plan were otherwise occupied
and the bike stood ready. I mounted the seat and rested one leg on the wall of the driveway. There was just enough of a curb there
for me to hold the vehicle back. When all seemed ready, I launched myself at the street, some 25 feet away. This was an urban side
street in a residential neighborhood. There was traffic at intervals, but plenty of clear space for the big gamble. Since I could not see
the street at launch, there was nothing to guarantee that a car was not rushing toward me at that moment.
I got my first lesson in making a left turn after only one complete traverse of the street and one crash. On the second try, I made
the turn and was on my way down 121st Street. That was a long block, but it literally flew by that day. I got the right turn onto
Linden Boulevard without too much wobbling and was out in heavier traffic. Another turn at 120th Street put me back in where I could
take up the whole road. And it turned out, I needed it. By this time, my legs were tiring and I was beginning to THINK about what I
was doing, instead of just letting it flow naturally. I was excited beyond belief, but also becoming mindful of having broken the cardinal
rule. No one knew where I was, much less about my triumph. Time to turn around; but first to cross 111th Avenue!
The Avenue was a major route for this section of town. Several years later, it was repaved and we were treated to auto racing
at our doorstep. however, at this time the road was straight and the traffic was pretty frequent. I managed to find a hole through both
lanes of traffic and rode on up 120th Street. This was the edge of my known world. Although I was only two blocks away from home
and had been up this street before, I had never done so alone. I was, however, sufficiently removed from oversight to try a stylistic
variation or two. Stopping seemed a good candidate, so I reviewed my training on the subject. There was Dad's example, which didn't
seem worthy of limitation. Remembering the laughter and razzing he took was enough to put that option out of the way. Beyond that
was uncharted territory. I knew the brake was there, but had never used it. I did a little elementary physics and determined that if I bled
off some of my speed by not pedaling, I could probably survive a sudden stop.
Now, in those days, bumpers were just that. Not Styrofoam and plastic which would crush and distort in a five mile-per-hour
crash, but solid structures, covered with the best chrome the Soviet Union could sell us. That's right, folks; in the middle of the
Cold War and the Nuclear Age, ninety-nine percent of the chrome used to festoon those Capitalists Cruisers came from the
Soviet Union! But I digress. I aimed right for the healthiest of those babies I could find. It happened to be the rear bumper on a '49
Studebaker. The stop was cushioned by the compression from a full-size balloon tire and my foot. Although I came perilously close
to being thrown over the handlebars, I considered it a good landing. No marks on the bumper, nor any on things mine.
I turned the bike around and had it headed for home. I used the bumper to launch out into the traffic lane again and regained
my balance. It was wonderful to be sailing again down the street and headed for home. Although I knew the trip would be over soon,
the natural disappointment in this was tempered by the fact that I would be able to tell those near and dear about having been on the
adventure of a lifetime. It would have to be worth it. Moreover, I was way ahead of Ed by soloing in the street! Wouldn't that be a
piece of news worth delivering.
I learned that, once I was back on the Avenue, even a slight rise meant that it was much more difficult to pedal and maintain speed.
That last block took all the reserve energy I had and, as I rounded the last turn, I began eagerly looking for another stopping spot.
Dr. Wallace's Buick was parked beside his office. It was off limits. We were in awe of the Doctor, even though he was not our family
physician. We were taught to be respectful and to give him and his wife, also a physician, a wide berth. No, it simply wouldn't do to use
the Doctor's property in such a way.
On the other hand, there in front of me, and just the other side of the driveway was Mr. Panetta's Oldsmobile. The bumper was
every bit as big and strong as the Buick I'd passed up and it curled over at the top, providing a sort of step to rest one's foot on, once
I came to rest. This time, I took the full momentum on my left leg, and let the bike come up parallel to the right side of the car. I hoped
no one would notice the small scratch the front axle made when it contacted the paint. But I was stopped and my adventure was over.
I put the bike back in the garage and locked it once again. No telling what intruders would make off with my magic carpet. As I
walked up to the house, I rehearsed the story over and over, trying to achieve the right mixture of nonchalance and bravado. I opened
the back door and looked up the basement steps. There was Mom in her chair in the kitchen, the one she occupied unless we were all
seated for dinner. We were one chair short and she used a stool as her perch for dinner. Guess what, Mom I led.
Dennis Sullivan - Febrary 21, 2006
Family History - Tim O'Brien
Family history will repeat, look through your history, you're
sure to meet
Someone a walkin' much the same pathway as you
It's just family history, like it or not you're passin' through
Family bible, dates and names, faces in pictures look much the same
Like you're runnin' in circles, until you don't know where it ends
Can't know where you're goin' until you know just where you've been
What's with my uncle, I want to know, we never see him whenever we go
To some family reunion, no one dares to say his name
It's against the rules in our secret family history game
Family history, need to learn, lest old troubles will return
Come back and haunt you, you'll hear them rattle their chain
You'd better break it, it might just drag you down again
Family history seems like fate, but you can break it, it's not too late
To ask a few questions, it's time to face up to your fear
Because it lies there waitin', it's comin' back again next year
In Memory 9/11/2011
Subject: "We the people......."
Date: Wed, 26 Sep 2001
Ever since September 11th, so many thoughts have been going through all of our heads. They run the gauntlet of emotions. Since I can't sleep, I figured I'd write a little bit of how I feel. If you like it, pass it on to someone else. And if you don't like it, move to commie China. Just kidding.
"Those guys tried to kill my best friend two weeks ago. I count my lucky stars he got out of Tower Two before that second plane turned his former office building into a mass grave. Many Americans have at least some connection, however separated, to someone involved with this disaster. Some are stories of survival or a twist of fate that spared a precious life. Sadly, far too many other tales do not have a happy ending.
We live in a country where we have many freedoms, and many opportunities to improve our lives. Other citizens around the world do not all share these luxuries. We can freely speak out against what we feel is unjust, even if our opinion is an unpopular one, with little fear of being arrested or worse. But, how much do we appreciate this? If our right to choose our profession, our spouse, our religion, our very right to LIVE freely was taken away, how would we feel? Would we be willing to defend these rights? What about our very own right to exist? I hope so. I truly believe any person would. It's a shame that so many people didn't even have a fighting chance to save their own lives, let alone a set of beliefs that they so surely cherished. But WE do, and our beliefs and our LIVES are being threatened.
In the face of such a challenge will we, each individual American, stand up
for ourselves and our very way of life? For America as a whole, and for all it
represents? Or will we expect someone else to protect us? It is far too easy to
think that some other person that we don't even know will fight our battles
against a foe that most certainly scares any normal person. But who is that
other person? Who are "We the people of the United States...."? It's not someone
else, it's all of us. America is not just a set of geographical boarders.
America is the people, "we the people", of a great land. WE are the very
lifeblood of this country, and it lives and dies with us. If we don't stand up
to protect it, who will?"