Decades ago, when Sean was a baby, my mother came to visit and I took advantage of her presence to tape an interview about her childhood. I wanted to save some of her stories. Now, of course, I wish I'd made more than one tape. But at least there's the one.
I was born at 51 Jane Street in New York. In Greenwich Village. On the day I was born, my mother sent me out to be baptized. I’m sure she thought that I would never survive. She didn’t want me to survive. But anyway I did.
How much did I weigh? I have no idea. All I know is I was born that day and they sent me out. And we did move away when I was about four.
We lived in what they call a railroad flat. The parlor was in the front part, and then there was a bedroom – there were two bedrooms – and then a big kitchen, that was humongous, and over to the right, there was a bathroom, at the bottom of it. There was one of those little things that you went up two steps. And there was there was the old, pull-chain type toilet. This was an addition to the house, with a very short bathtub.
Next door to us lived the person we called Aunt Lily. We met her mother, who was quite old at the time. Aunt Lily was very kind to me. I would go over and visit her. During the time we lived in that place, my brother got scarlet fever, because my father had decided he would strip the wallpaper down. He took off something like fifteen coats of wallpaper, so you can imagine how old that place was! After Bill got scarlet fever, I did too.
Scarlet fever at that time was something that everyone was quarantined against. My father was working in a produce market in New York, and he was not allowed to come and see us. He couldn’t stay at home. During that period, he just couldn’t stay away from us. He would climb up on the fire escape and come in the house and go out the same way so that no one would know that he had come in the apartment.
I don’t know where he was staying, but he was staying with some friends of his. But he would come through Aunt Lily’s place, which was right next door to ours. Her mother’s name was Beckner, I remember that.
The only remembrance I have of Mrs. Beckner was that she was always sick. Now Aunt Lily was young and I can still see her as a little blonde in a dress of the Twenties.
She had the pointed skirt – you know, the hemline was uneven. At the time her husband was still her boyfriend. She used to call him her “hot tomato.” I called him a hot tomato too. I always loved her because she allowed me to do the dishes, the ones that didn’t break. Child that I was.
During the time that my father would come up the fire escape to see us, she would bring us balloons and anything she thought would be really nice. She was working in a factory and she would spend her lunch money to buy us stuff. For the rest of my life, I had a very deep affection for her.
I can still remember when they would come and decorate the Christmas tree. They would go in the living room and the tree would be put up. The living room would only be used for special occasions. Christmas time was something very special because everybody would come, and they would decorate the tree. And, as my mother used to say, my father was more loaded than the tree was. Those who were capable of it would go off to midnight Mass, and the rest would sit around and finish decorating the tree and drinking of the Big Cheer.
I never told them that I knew that there was no such a thing as Santa Claus. Because when they knew that you knew there was no Santa Claus, you didn’t get as many presents. So we would watch from this little inner place, and we looked in there and we would see them decorating the tree and we would laugh. Then we would see them coming out and we all would go back to our beds and pretend that we were sleeping. So I think that at an early age I knew that there was no such a thing as Santa Claus.
Saint Patrick’s day used to be really a tremendous celebration. All of these people in this particular area of New York, Greenwich Village, would go off and celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day. This guy would come in and he’d sing:
It was the same old shillelagh
That me father brought from Ireland.
And he would land on the stove and they would drag him off again!
He wore a hat that his father had brought from Ireland. A derby. They celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day in a really tremendous fashion.
I can remember being put in a high chair – I must have been very young at the time because I can remember being stuck in this high chair – and being given fresh sliced peaches. I hated fresh sliced peaches, and I can’t remember how many years I hated fresh sliced peaches after that. But I could not stand those damned things. Here these peaches were sitting there and they thought I was going to sit there until I ate them. But then one nice little worm came up and he crawled up and he put his little head out and I screamed. And when I screamed they came out and I pointed at the worm. And when I pointed at the worm, they said I didn’t have to eat the peaches anymore. So I kind of felt I really triumphed.
My father was an alcoholic. Of course I didn’t know what an alcoholic was then. I didn’t realize that my mother was too. But she was also. She was. Because you’ve got to figure what happened, you know, when she died . . . she was an alcoholic.
But he would go to any wake. When I was four years old, I wouldn’t know. He probably went to the wakes. All the Irish people went to the wakes. But when he would go to a wake and I would remember I think was from about the time when I was about five and we lived on Hibbard Avenue. They would bring him home . . . The Irish didn’t figure they’d gone to a wake unless they were very drunk . . . So they would bring him home. I don’t know how many times they brought him home stiff as a board. I really didn’t know what an alcoholic was. But I feel, as you look back, he was an alcoholic.
Did I meet any of my grandparents? I met my Grandmother and Grandfather Wilkinson. The O’Brien grandparents were dead. My Grandfather O’Brien, he died I think before I was born. I think he died in about 1915. When he died, he left quite an estate. He was quite rich. You know, me and my poverty, I figured this was kind of hard to believe, but when I read his will I realized he was. Each of his sons – he had five – received I think two thousand dollars, plus an interest in the real estate that he had. He owned blocks of real estate in Fall River.
He was born in Fall River. The money had come from his father. How he got it, I have no idea. Each of the kids got a stake in what my Mom said was three thousand dollars. My mother bought a diamond ring of a carat and a quarter. She paid five hundred dollars for it, and the rest she gambled away. Because Mom was a gambler.
When he died . . . My mother was a rather unusual person. The news came of his death, and she wore white kid shoes – now at that time you wore black! – and she went up to the wake in white kid shoes. My father would not have this. The day of the funeral he called up someone who had a bootery to get some black shoes for her. And she almost cussed him because she said the shoes didn’t fit her. But she did get the black shoes. And she sprained her ankle which, knowing my mother, I think she did deliberately. She fell down the stairs deliberately.
Grandfather O’Brien must have been a really nice person, a soft-spoken person, and a nice person, because as I know my mother she did not like people that were not of her immediately family. In fact she didn’t even like her immediate family very much. But she said he was a very nice person and she liked him.
When we lived in Hibbard Avenue, I was about well out of preschool. In fact we moved from New York when I was four. My mother didn’t believe in taking care of kids so she skittered me off to kindergarten. At that time you were supposed to be five to get into kindergarten, but I wasn’t five. Well, I got there and I was a quick learner, I knew all the songs and probably as I am today, I can’t carry a tune and the teacher was glad to get rid of me! The priest told me if I could carry one note it would be a miracle. At the end of that semester, by the time I was five, I was in first grade.
I still can’t sing.
So when we were in Hibbard Avenue, my brother came down with measles. The night before, we had liver. Bill was getting sick and he threw up after eating that. To this day, I can’t stand liver.
He was out of school and they put the little sign in New York at that time – QUARANTINED. The house was quarantined. He got over the measles and I came down with it. Now, since he had had the measles, he could go to school. Well, he got outside the door and he slipped and fell. I remember I was kind of angry at him. But he thought it was fair because I got to be in kindergarten and he was in first grade. I got his time off with that.
Oh, Bill was really great! I loved him. Very tender. He was kind of like my protector. We fought like a cat and a dog. My mother told Barbie, his wife, that we never fought. She said, “Is it true that the two of you never fought?”
“We never fought?! Ohhhhhh, no! We never fought!” We had really, really great fights. We would run through the house, hitting each other and screaming and yelling. Enjoying it tremendously.
But no one else could come between us, because we were very, very close. At one time one fellow said to him, “I’ll give you some arsenic and you put it in your sister’s coffee.”
Bill looked at him and said, “My sister doesn’t drink coffee and you just say anything like that again and I’ll kill you!” They were both scouts at the time. He showed him the back door. Because we were really very close.
Bill was an extremely good swimmer, a very good long-distance swimmer. One time when we were in high school we were down at Rockaway and the lifeguards there said the undertow was so bad that no one could swim. They were pulling everybody in. No one could swim beyond the ropes. They told him that he couldn’t swim something like five miles. And he took on the bet. His friends put grease on him so that he could swim and he swam.
I was standing there and I was watching this guy swimming beyond the rope and I looked at the particular style that the guy was swimming in and I said, “That’s my brother!”
This woman who was a friend of my mother’s said, “It can’t be. Can it?”
And I said, “Yes.” Then we found out that this guy had bet the lifeguard he could swim five miles. People were walking along the beach, following him.
So we walked up about five blocks, and this woman said, “Are you sure it’s your brother?”
I said, “That’s my brother.” I had never seen anyone who had a stroke like my brother had, just the way he pulled his hand over his arm and went down. We followed on down and watched and after ten blocks – I knew it was him – and I started watching, all of these were his friends on the beach.
My mother was very angry afterwards, when she found out that I knew about this. We followed to make sure that he was okay. He swam the distance that the lifeguards could not swim, and I think he was still in high school. He was really a terrific swimmer.
At that time it was a terrific amount of money that had been bet on him that he had gotten.
Bill used to work over at an umbrella and beach chair commission. They got fifty cents for a beach chair and thirty-five cents for an umbrella, something like that. He taught me how to swim at Rockaway. I’m not a good swimmer like he was but I at least can survive a little bit. But boy could he swim. He was good at that.
I was born in Greenwich Village and raised in Brooklyn and Queens. I should say Queens and then Brooklyn. Queens when I was in grade school because we went to P. S. 71.
P. S. 71! My mother had the pass for the train. She could go there, my brother would be in trouble and she would go and talk to the principal. She used to pull me out. Amelia O’Brien was a bad name to go after William O’Brien.
William O’Brien was very smart. William O’Brien was skipped because they didn’t want to deal with him. Then one year he was held back so we kind of got caught up there. He got out of one class and I went into it. We were six months apart. I’d come in, and the teacher would say, “Amelia O’Brien? Amelia O’Brien! Who is Amelia O’Brien?”
I’d say, “Here.”
“Are you related to William O’Brien?”
“Yeah. That’s my brother.”
“This is your seat right here!”
And I’d be right under the teacher’s nose for a long time, until they found out that I was not a trouble maker.
I was so scared. Isn’t that a terrible kind of thing?
So I followed him. But I decided finally I had had enough of following William O’Brien through grade school, and I was going to go into something else. Strange. I didn’t know what domestic science was. But he couldn’t take domestic science because that was cooking! It was for girls. So I went into Washington Irving in New York City and he was in Grover Cleveland. And I tried to cook.
Anyway, I learned to follow a recipe. I learned a lot about nutrition, really a terrific amount, which helped me when I went to college. It was a good experience. One thing shapes your life and the rest follows. So my little old domestic science course meant I didn’t have to follow Bill. I didn’t have to be pulled down to the principal’s offer and be told, “Why didn’t your brother do this?” I didn’t know why my brother didn’t do that.
But he was my protector. Really.
We fought. We had great times fighting. Like when he said to Bobby, “We had some good times fighting,” and my mother said, “My son and daughter never fought.”
Bobbie said to me, “Did you fight with your brother?”
I said, “Boy, we had some of the best fights in the world!” We really did.
The man who taught me to write poetry? Ohhhhh. That was when we lived I think at 152nd Avenue. He was a watchman. My mother decided she was going to buy this place. I was still in grade school. We still went to P. S. 71 because the principal was staying there. And this old watchman used to sit there and he would write poetry. So he talked to me a lot and I thought, well, you know, this is kind of a nice person, and I would talk to him. He told me, “Write poetry,” and he would show me what he had written. And I would write poetry and I would show it to him. And he’d say, “Oh, that’s really good. Write some more.” I had a whole notebook full of poetry before he left, because all the houses had been sold or rented.
This was the place that across the road from us there was no development.
That man had given me the chance to express myself. It gave me a confidence in writing. I knew the components of English – verbs, adverbs, that was it. Well, not fully adverbs. I never heard of a gerund, not until I got into college. My English teacher told me he hoped I could write, because if I were dependent on what I knew about grammar . . . (laughs) This was in college, and I passed the course, so I figured I could write.
In fact I used to upset him by my essays and my themes and all.
This place that you had asked me about before, Michael, was the one where down below there was a florist and he used to throw out bulbs and plants and stuff like this after the holidays. I would go over and and I would pick them up and I would plant them in the backyard. We had a beautiful backyard because my father had taught me to love flowers. It was all of the things that we had gotten from this florist.
I don’t know how old I was when I was there but I know I hadn’t graduated from grade school. It was the time when if we had money and we took the trolley it would take us half an hour to get to Metropolitan Avenue. Then it would be time going down to school. It was a half an hour either way, whether we took the trolley from our house to Metropolitan Avenue or the trolley from Metropolitan Avenue down. We couldn’t afford both. So we used to skate a lot. I skated all over New York. I was a pretty good skater. My ankles were pretty well developed from having skated so much. In fact, when I got to college one fellow looked at me and said, “Boy, you have thick ankles.” It was from skating. I was a little bit insulted. He was lucky he didn’t get clobbered.
But we skated a lot around there. I can remember at that time there was no such a thing as going trick or treating at Halloween. We used to have Halloween parties, and we’d go around trying to scare people. All the girls would put sheets on. They were going to scare everybody. But I was a scaredy-cat. The fellows decided they would scare us. The first one that grabbed me, I screamed and ran home. There was going to be a party at somebody’s house, but I was too afraid to go to it. I just stayed home.
At that time we used to do little tricks, like there was a couple who both of them worked and they had all these dogs that went back and forth in a runway. We took the doorknob and we tied it from one doorknob to the other, and when they tried to go to work the next day they couldn’t get out! They tried one door and then the other door, but the doorknobs were tied. So finally the guy climbed out a window.
But he had a good nature and he thought that was pretty funny.
Instead of trick or treating, we went out Thanksgiving begging. We were Thanksgiving beggars. We dressed up in rags and would go from door to door. People would give us fruit or money. That was really fun. We thought that was really a good thing.
The other thing that we used to do was on May Day, the first of May, we used to dress up and we’d have a party afterwards. We’d go out dressed up as almost anything, maybe a dancer or a witch or whatever and go to the main walk, parade around the neighborhood, and then go to a party. That was the May Walk.
My mother never made gin in the bathtub. She made beer. Her friends made the gin. We made beer – I say “we” because we were all involved in it. We also made wine. That’s during Prohibition. You went out and you bought the hops and you bought the malt and the yeast and everything and you got back and you . . . we had these vats that you’d put the stuff in. It was a going thing. This was when we were living on 62nd Avenue, where the florist was.
She didn’t literally make it in the bathtub. Figuratively. In New York City, they used to make it in the bathtub. But, see, we had these wash tubs that were in our kitchen – where you washed the clothes? Well, we didn’t wash the clothes. We made wine and beer in there.
My mother had a little stamper, where you put the caps on the bottle. No bottle was ever thrown out! If you saw a bottle in the road, you picked it up and you brought it home, because that could be used for beer. It could also be used for wine. It could be used for root beer. Sarsaparilla, we weren’t desperate for.
The root beer was made with – I can’t remember too well – I think it was yeast and extract.
Beer was made in the sink along with the other stuff. We used a scoop and we would pour it in the bottles. We had a real thing going. Someone would fill the bottles. Another one would cap it. Another one would take it downstairs and lay it on its side. So we always had a lot of beer, root beer, and wine.
There was a woman in my neighborhood named Mrs. Corkin. She was a duck, that woman. My mother had taken a bath . . . We never had warm water in our house. We had to heat it with a gas coil. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that. I would have to say they were pretty dominant. Something that would be about two feet tall and maybe about two feet in diameter and down below it would be a gas burner. When you wanted to heat water, you would light the gas burner and you would heat the water until it got hot. You kept feeling along the tube . . .
My mother was deathly afraid of gas. Because a lot of times, gas would be leaking. It was dangerous. I think we lived with gas ever since I was born because in New York City the gas burners that were in the walls . . . and that was how they lighted the place, by gas.
At that time we had the water coil. I think until I was married, I never had running hot water. That was a luxury. It was always there. You could have the hot water when you needed it.
So my mother took a bath and then she went out. Well, you’d have to know my mother to understand this. She went out. She came back and she was very sick. My father was working the night shift. He worked to the early hours of the morning and he’d be back for breakfast. He’d have his dinner at breakfast time.
Someone had to stay with my mother. So this woman was staying with my mother. And she was a little funny thing. Short and fat. So my father is giving her beer, because she loved beer. Loved it. It was during Prohibition time and we made the beer. So anyway, my father’s sitting there, and he’s given her a couple of beers, and now she’s feeling happy, and he says to her, “You know, I always tell Mabel –” alias Mae, Mary, Annie May, anything you want – “I always tell her she should never take a bath in the wintertime. Never. It’s really bad for her. She should only take a few baths a year.”
“You know, Mr. O’Brien, sure and you’re right. I only take two baths myself a year. I take one in the spring and one in the fall. I never take one after that. Because you never can tell which it’s going to be.”
Anyway, he gives her some more beer. He’s paying her in beer for taking care of my mother. They get to talking, and he says, “Hey. Have you ever had a turkey?”
It was getting close to Thanksgiving time and she says, “I never had a turkey in me life.”
He says, “Then you should have a turkey sometimes, you know, it would be really good. This is really a delicious bird. I just brought one home. We’re going to have it for Thanksgiving.”
She says, “You know, Mr. O’Brien, I’ve never even seen a turkey in me life. I’ve heard about these things, but never had one.”
“Listen, you should go and get a turkey. It’s really delicious.”
Well, he gave her a few more beers. Now she goes down to the meat market and the guy says to her, “What would you like?”
She threw out her arms wide and said, “I’d like to have a turkey – the biiiiiggggest turkey you’ve got!” and fell flat on her back.
Now she was with a little kid. But the butcher comes around the counter and he pulls her up onto her feet. “And what did you want?”
She says, “I want the biiiiiggggest turkey you’ve got!” and fell flat on her back again.
Next morning she woke up and saw the turkey sitting on her table. “What the hell is that?!”
The little girl said to her, “You said to the butcher, you wanted the biggest turkey he had and that’s what he gave to you.”
“Oh! That’s a turkey?”
So she came down to us. “How do you cook a turkey?”
That was the first time that family ever had a turkey in their lives.
There’s a similar incident that happened when Shieh-ya’s mother came to our house the second time. The first time, she brought Richard. And of course Richard spoke nothing but Chinese at that time. But now the second time she comes . . . We had three or four days of bacon and eggs for breakfast. Then she said to Shieh-ya, “How old is she?” and Shieh-ya told her.
Oh, the light went on! Oh! Oh! She was the elder one!
The next morning she got up and she figured she could take over because she was the elder. In the Chinese culture, you know, that’s very important. So that morning I woke up and thought, “Boy, what a terrible smell – what the hell is that?”
She was out there and she had taken the turkey leg and going like this – poom! poom! poom! – and the turkey was being flipped on the pan. She was using my good Revere frying pan as a wok and frying it. She ate that for breakfast. Okay. That was one day.
The next day she had the other turkey leg.
The third day, which was the last day she was here, she cooked a little chicken. I mean, what I consider a prize chicken. A little thing that’s about a pound and a half. She cooked that in water with salt and pepper, and she had that for breakfast.
She goes back to Taiwan and she tells her husband what a great place Virginia is – because in Virginia you had these little chickens and these huge chickens. She told him what she had done, and he told her that she was very rude, that you do not take over somebodyelse’s kitchen.
She tried to teach me Chinese. She tried to teach me what a refrigerator was. What a lightbulb was. The only thing I learned was one word. Pei. Cheap.
Back to my brother. Bill was big. Well over six feet. I don’t know how far over six feet, but he was over six feet and he was also broad. Boy, did he love kids! I think he loved every single one of you. I remember when he brought up some candy one time and I can’t remember if it was you or Mary who was still small and still in the high chair – It must have been you. He brought up candy for Patty and a smaller one for you. He gave it to you and you just loved that box so much. He wanted to show you that you could open it. And you bit into it. Finally you found out that there was candy inside, something sweet . . . ! You didn’t want to give up the box, but when you found out that there was candy inside you really loved it.
He loved kids. He really, really was great.
Neither Bill nor your father wanted really to go to war. When things were sort of shaping up – we knew that there would be war any minute – Bill thought he would rather go to war with his friends than with strangers. So he joined up with I forget what the regiment was. It was some reserve unit. After Pearl Harbor, his was one of the first units that was called up. He was sent off to the Pacific, by way of avoiding all the Japanese convoys. I think it took them about six weeks to get over there. But he went immediately after Pearl Harbor. He was in New Guinea, the Philippine invasion, all that little bit. Finally I think it was in Australia that he went to OCS. He had worked himself up from private to staff sergeant. He became a second lieutenant when he went to OCS and he eventually became a captain.
He did not enjoy the war one bit. He received a purple heart. He was in on the invasion of Japan. He told me that MacArthur was there. MacArthur was rowed up to the shore and when he found out that the photographers were there and the reporters were there, he had them row him out to knee depth so that he could get out of the boat and be seen wading in on the invasion of Japan. That was the second invasion that he participated in.
Bill said that the people that had gone in on that invasion had no ammunition whatsoever. If the Japanese people had decided that they would revoke the terms that they had agreed upon, they could have killed every last one of them off. Because no one had any live ammunition going in.
So he was there – this is very interesting – he was there in the huts that they had. They had the point system. The unit that had the most points came home first. He should have come home pretty soon because he was in on the war almost from the beginning.
Then they decided they needed these people who had experience, and they were going to keep them there. Well, that night when that was announced that those who expected they were going to be coming home were being kept there, the fellas grabbed all of the beer that was around and got drunk. They really smashed things up. And one of the fellows said, “Look. I can push my hand right through that glass, and nothing will happen to me.” This big guy smashed his hand through the glass and ended up in the hospital.
Another one pulled out a gun, and my brother said, “Oh, you wouldn’t do that!” and walked right up to him and took the gun away. Later, he said, “If I was sober, I would never have done that.”
Evidently they really had quite a time. They got all of the beer that they could have that night and they got drunk. The next day they were walking out and they were drinking the beer that was left. They didn’t have any openers so they just smashed the tops of the beer bottles off to drink it. They drank the beer and took the bottle and threw it! Almost smashed a colonel in the head.
So they figured that these guys needed something. And they were sent home. That’s the only way that Bill got home. He got home not too much before your father did. I think it would probably be about August or September.
Johnnie wasn’t a radio operator. He was radar. He was stationed in England at Andrews Air Force Base. This is a strange thing, but I would know when he was in danger. I knew when he was flying. I don’t know why, but I knew. He wasn’t supposed to be flying, but he did go over on the bombing runs.
I don’t know why. He was in the radio tower. But it was a bad time. I would hate to see another war.
That’s why I’m really very pro peace. I’d do almost anything I could to promote it.
It’s like Glenn said. Reagan and the head of the Russians, he would trust neither one of them. The American people or the Russian people he would trust. That’s how I feel. If it’s person to person . . . If I’m going say to you, “You’re going to have to go to war, if we have this war,” you don’t want to go. But if I say, “Your friend down the street might have to go to war, but you’ll be safe . . .”
Reagan’s son is a dancer! He’s not going to go to war, right?
Your father was the Commander of the American Legion 1001 Post in Scotia. Do you remember he used to take you when he gave special talks there? I mean like Memorial Day and Decoration Day, he would give the talks. Quite a few of them. He was also president of the association that held the club. The 1001 club was held by an organization and he was president of that. He was Chairman of the Joint Council of Veterans. He was very active in that.
I think he was very pro-peace, because he sure didn’t want to fight. I think he would have liked to have not gone into the Army. And as I look . . . now I have grandsons, I sure would hate to see it again.
I think a lot of times that war stirs up the economy. I heard one person say we needed a war to get us on our feet. Yeah, we needed World War Two because the economy was so bad we needed something to pick it up. Sure.
During the Depression I was in high school. Well, it started in grade school. But when I was in high school I saw an awful lot of it. I went to high school at Fourteenth Street in Urban Heights. Which was very close to Union Square. And because of the Depression, a lot of what people called soap box orators – actually they were soap box orators because at that time soap bars were packed in wooden crates – these people would take the wooden crates and they would stand on them and start talking against the government, against this, against that, in Union Square. And if they got two or three people to listen to them, then they just orated more. They just kept going and going and going.
It was a bad time because people, you know, when they didn’t have any money and they were really down on their luck, they would go and rent a room. Maybe fifty cents. Go up to that room. And jump out the window. More than once we’d be told not to go out a certain door in our high school. That would be the time when someone had committed suicide on the street that fronted on our high school.
My father was never out of work for very long. He was at one time. It was around Christmas time. He had a lot of friends in the market, so it was a very short period of time.
Aunt Billie was good to me as a girl. My mother didn’t particularly like me. Maybe my father did. My father was really special. But Aunt Billie always stood up for me. I asked her one time why she did, and she said, “Because you were the underdog,” and she said, “I always believed in standing up for the underdog.”
I used to go over to my grandmother’s house on weekends, and Aunt Billie would take me different places. Aunt Billie taught me many things that helped me other times later in life. She taught me not to bite my nails, to begin with. I loved to bite my nails because I get very nervous. She taught me how to act in certain circumstances. She would take me to places that I would not be able to go to. We used to go to the botanical gardens and the museums. I learned a lot going with her. She’d take me for walks. She taught me to keep my white gloves clean, that was very important at that time. And she introduced me to a lot of people that were very nice. And I think when I was with her I was not so afraid. I used to be very scared as a child. I was afraid of people. I used to cry when adults spoke to me. But not when I was with her because I felt she kind of protected me. And she was good to me, she gave me presents, things that she thought I might like as a child. Not presents that my mother thought I should have. That was important. Because my mother would say, “When she asks what you want for Christmas, say you want a pair of shoes.” But Aunt Billie would say to me, “What do you really want?” Then she’d give me what I really wanted. She’d buy me the shoes too, but she’d give me what I really wanted.
My mother would send me over there and my grandmother would say, “Why didn’t your mother call?” and I would say, “My mother says I should tell you that she was sick.” So she could pick it up that my mother wasn’t sick, but that I’d been told to say that.
Aunt Billie was understanding in many ways. She had a grade-school education. My mother had a high-school education. My mother was the first one in her family to graduate from high school. But she didn’t value education. It wasn’t important for a girl, you understand. But she was the first one to graduate from high school.
Aunt Billie went out, which I think was really funny . . . She had an interview for a lawyer’s office. The lawyer dictated for her and she copied all these notes down and she tried to transcribe them. But she didn’t know what he was talking about. So she would take the page and stuff it in her pocket, and by noontime she knew she couldn’t do any of this. She went out of there and she just didn’t come back. And her father said to her, “No Wilkinson ever did a thing like that!”
The next job she got was down on Wall Street, and she stayed there until she retired. She became secretary to the boss – probably secretary – and when he died she became secretary to another one. She really made quite a bit of money. Not particularly as a secretary but because of the investments she was able to make. Because of what she knew about them.
I think that part of the stocks that she had gotten were personal gifts from the boss. The sapphire bracelet which she has deeded to me in her will was given to her in that way.
She lived in Tudor City and Tudor City opened up on the East River. She was about a block and a half away at most from the UN Building, a very good section. What they call the Stock District in New York. She enjoyed herself. I think she’s traveled to most of the places where she could go. She went to the Norwegian countries, and she went to France and Germany. I think the only place she hasn’t gone to is Russia.
Aunt Billie was all confused about the Captain Briggs situation, so I think I’ll straighten that one out. There was Mosa Briggs, who I think was her aunt. She was one of the Briggs girls. Her uncle was the captain of the Mary Celeste. Three of the Wilkinsons were married to the Briggs. Three sisters married three brothers, something like that. And Lissa, she was unmarried. So actually this captain was not a direct relative. She thought he was, but she was all confused on that.
Grandfather Wilkinson’s mother and father lived in New Bedford. They had this farm, a very old house which evidently had been built by the family many years before. I don’t know whether this belonged to the Spooners, the O’Briens, or who, but this was where that family lived. His mother had lived there and when she died, he sold off the furniture from the house. At one time he had a little book – and I had seen this – and it said, “Spool bag, so much money.” All of these antiques were sold very, very cheaply, and he had a record of how much everything was sold for.
It was my Grandfather Wilkinson’s side that you can trace back to the Mayflower, Thomas Hook, and also to William Gifford of Salem, Massachusetts. Up through the Tabor line and Lewis Gifford. It’s a direct link.
This is a story my mother would tell: Her grandmother used to make molasses cookies that were supposed to be really something delicious. She would make so many molasses cookies, and she kept baking them. Every week she would bake more. But you couldn’t eat the fresh ones! You had to eat the ones from the week before, and the week before, and the week before that! You had to eat the old ones first. No one ever had the nice, fresh molasses cookies.
That was my mother’s grandfather. My grandfather’s mother. Her half sister was the Mandy that Aunt Billie was named after. Boy, Aunt Billie would die if she knew anybody knew her name. I was the only one who knew that her name was Sophie Amanda. She changed her name to Alvira. But we called her Billie.
Amanda is now a respectable name like Amelia is. But Mandy – Mandy was evidently a character. My great-great grandmother was married a second time. The second time she got married, she married a sea captain. When she married the sea captain she had at least two more children, that I know of. These were half-sisters to my grandmother. They were ducks. They were disreputable. Mandy was the one who loved to go to Coney Island. She thought Coney Island was the end of the world, the most beautiful thing in the world. She would look around and no one was looking, so she would lift up her skirt and pull a flask out of her hip and take a swig and put it back again.
She had been married to someone who evidently was from a really great old New England family. I don’t know whatever happened, but she died in a poorhouse. The other one, Ellen, she was buried under the name of Neagus; but she was not a Neagus, I don’t think she was ever married. She did have a son, and when he was buried, he changed her gravestone to Chase. That was her maiden name. She was buried under the name of Neagus, which is a good old New England name. I don’t know whether she was trying to get back after the guy who was the father of the child or not. But her son switched it back. On the birth records, it said, “Name of father unknown.”
That was the reason my mother didn’t want me to pry into the family of Baers, because she figured I’d “dig up all that stuff,” she said, “when it wasn’t necessary.”
We never could find out quite which member of the family came from Ireland with a price on his head. I had heard this as a child. I think I was probably about ten. I know we lived on Fresh Pond Avenue at the time. We moved so much I can’t figure out how old I was at any given point. But I had heard my two uncles who came to talk to my father about the settlement of his estate, which was really bad. They were talking about this uncle who had a price on his head. He was a member of the IRA.
The only thing I can figure out is it must have been my uncle Mike Powers. From the time, it must have been that he was in on the purported invasion of Quebec, when they tried to take over Canada, so they could trade it for Ireland. Unless it was Uncle Mike, I don’t know who it was. But it was all hush-hush, and my mother swore there was nothing to it! Until she was in the hospital just before she died, and then she started talking about it. But she didn’t say which one it was.
Mary was there at the time. Boy, all these years my mother tried to keep it quiet. But who cared, except for the family? Because I’m sure the English wouldn’t pay for the paper at that point.
I think we’re radicals, you know. Born radicals. I think Michael was involved in those student protests. I remember when he called me up and said, “I wasn’t arrested, Mom!”
I can remember going to high school and seeing the men selling apples and pencils to support themselves. I knew of men who left their families so their families could go on welfare and could eat. I can still see people whose possessions were thrown out on the street, sitting there with all these things around them, because they couldn’t pay the rent. They had to stay there, because if they didn’t someone would steal from them. It was a very disturbing time. It really was.
People would go down to Washington and live in cardboard shacks – Hooverville, they called it – to demonstrate against poverty, having no food or anything. It was a time when the farmers had so much food, they couldn’t transport the food. They couldn’t pay for it. It rotted in the fields. People who had fuel couldn’t transport the fuel. It just stayed there. People were starving and others had too much they couldn’t do anything with.
It was a lousy time. I had a friend, Aunt Lily, I think I mentioned her before, who lived next to us on Jane Street. She had a sister Margaret. Lily was married to Neil. Neil was homely. I think if you look at the pictures of our wedding, you’ll see a guy holding a door, who has a scar on his face. That’s Neil. He looks ominous, but he was really a nice person. Margaret and her husband had two children. I don’t remember what the boy’s name was, but the girl was such a sweet little person! She got infantile paralysis and she was put in braces. It was the only way that they could hold her together. Well, eventually the braces pulled her down. The whole interior of her collapsed, and she died.
She had another child. This little kid was a very, very sweet child. But they had no money. She would take her over to New York to a hospital there, and it was a nickel for carfare each way. And that was a sacrifice for that woman. Boy, they really didn’t have the money. There were many times that she would be holding that child and all of these people would be sitting on the subway and no one would even give her a seat. There was no feeling, you know? The child eventually died. But I think that that woman sacrificed everything she had to give that child what it needed in the way of nutrition. Fruit juice and stuff like that. She used to take that baby carriage, when she wasn’t pushing it – the only way she could transport the child was in the baby carriage, even though she was too big for it – she would take that and push it down to welfare and she would bring back the stuff she got from welfare. Her sister Lily and she would divide what they had between them. Lily’s husband was working and supporting the two families, and splitting the stuff they got from welfare. That’s the way the two families survived.
It was a sad time, really a sad time. We lived next door to a man who was a taxi driver. And, boy, some times that guy couldn’t make a nickel. He had about four little kids. They wore their coats all winter long because they couldn’t afford any heat in that apartment. I had friends who couldn’t go to high school because they didn’t have the money to pay the fare. I had some who walked twenty-five blocks each way to go to high school. That’s really wanting to get an education. Especially if you don’t have anything to eat in the meantime. The Depression was for the pits.
I kind of figured that my Grandfather O’Brien was quite well off. It came to me as a shock when I went down to Fall River and I looked at the blocks of buildings that he owned. Boy, I figured, somebody really did something. My mother said that my Uncle Timmy was a thief. Maybe he was, I don’t know. But whatever happened, they lost all the property.My Uncle Johnny and I think the other one was Jimmy were the ones that should have complained, because my father should have been after Timmy. My father was left as the executor of the will, but he left it up to Uncle Timmy. My mother said that he was a thief and that he had stolen all the money, but what happened I have no idea.
I think we each make our own life. We’re only accountable to ourselves. I still feel that no matter how much money my mother had, she would still have spent it the way she did. I don’t think it would have made much difference to her either.
My mother was a card player. When I was a kid, right through high school, we had to play pinochle. I got to the point where I swore that if I ever got out of that house, I would never play pinochle again. Do you know that I have never played pinochle since? If anyone asks me if I know how to play it, I say, “No! I forgot it years ago.” Because we played pinochle Friday night, Saturday night right through Sunday morning until she said we could go to bed. When she’d had enough, we could go to bed. Then we started in Sunday afternoon, right through Sunday night. Pinochle. I hated the game!
She played with my grandfather. Boy, my grandfather knew that she had that little ten that she was holding to take that last trick. She would hold it and hold, and every time he’d get that last trick from her he would just: “Ha ha ha ha ha ha!” He thought it was really cute. He was a little ahead of her.
He was very tall. Not too much hair when I knew him, because he was old at that point. Never showed affection. However, he really had a deep affection for me. I knew he did. The first time I was really away from home any time was when I went off to college. I came back for my first vacation and I was waiting for him. He wasn’t there. He was out walking the dog. When he came back . . my aunt was there, my grandmother was there . . . I ran down the hall and I threw my arms around him and I said, “Hello, Gramps!”
Ohhhh. My grandmother and my aunt froze. No one ever called him Gramps. No one ever threw their arms around him. They stood there, just expecting him to really nail me. And he put his arm around me and said, “Hello, Millie.” He accepted my hug and my kiss. I really felt afterward when I realized what I had done, that I had really breached . . . He didn’t believe in kissing. It spread germs. He did have four children, though. I wonder how he managed that!
I went to college at the end of the Depression. The only reason I was able to go was because my brother did not want to go and my mother did not really believe that I could make it. She thought, “Ha ha! She’s going to apply to Cornell and she’s going to get nailed down, and then I’ve got her under my thumb.”
I applied and when I accepted, my mother was so shocked. I’m sure that she was now committed, because she’d told my brother, “Yes, she can go.” Bill had not passed the Regents, so he could not have gone into college.
I went to college, and everything was different after that.