Thursday, July 4, 2013


On a previous post I tried to reconcile two different versions of how my four-year-old uncle, Andrew, may have died. One version came from my grandmother via my father, the other from a news story in the Brooklyn Eagle of April 23, 1903. Now my second cousin, Peggy Ghezzi, whose grandmother was Andrew's older sister, Anna, weighs in with a third version.

She writes, "My Mother told me that Andrew was playing cowboys and Indians. When one child aimed his toy gun at Andrew and said Bang- Bang you're dead, Andrew slumped to the ground. The other children thought he was playing but he never got up. My Mom was told by Grandmother Anna he had a heart attack."

Is there a way to reconcile this version with the other two?

It's a wonder to me how family history based on the memories of living people ever gets written, especially when the memories are based on someone else's memories.

I suspect Peggy's grandmother may be a more accurate source than my father, who wasn't even born at the time.

Saturday, June 29, 2013


Having eight children in the first 15 years of marriage can't be easy. It must be even harder when two of them die before they're five years old.

The first death came in 1893. Andrew, the fourth child and second son of my grandmother Anna Egan Kane, was born October 28 and died December 5, less than six weeks later. I don't know what he died of, only that he was very sick. According to my grandmother, the doctor prescribed some medicine, my grandfather went out to fill the prescription, got waylaid by a tavern, and didn't return for hours, too late to save his son. Whether medicine would have helped is hard to say, but certainly my grandmother blamed her husband for her baby's death.

During the next ten years, Anna gave birth to four more children, including, on December 9, 1998, another boy named Andrew. By April 23, 1903, she, her husband, and the children--Francis, aged 14; Mae, not quite 13; Letitia, 11; Anna, not quite 9; Thomas, just turned 6; Andrew, 4; and baby Elizabeth, less than two months old--were living at 36 Marion Street in the Stuyvesant Heights section of a Brooklyn neighborhood now called Bedford-Stuyvesant, or Bed-Stuy.

Large families were common in my grandmother's Irish-Catholic neighborhood. This 1900 photograph from the Brooklyn Library's collection shows an unknown family on Herkimer Street, near my grandparents' home.
 That morning, the two youngest boys went out to play on the street. Thomas, who was pulling his younger brother in a wagon, ran so fast the wagon toppled over. Andrew was flung into the street and killed. This at least was what my grandmother later told my father, who hadn't yet been born when these events occurred.

It's not how the story is told in that day's edition of the Brooklyn Eagle. A BOY OF 4 PLAYING HORSE DROPS DEAD ON STREET, the 4/23/03, page 2 headline reads. According to the report, Andrew

and two other youngsters about his age were playing horse up and down the street. Little Andrew was the driver and in the make believe of it all his horses took fright and ran away. The little driver went after them, for they were running off with the wagon and he didn't want to see his property lost. He ran down the street as fast as his little legs could carry him.

Something peculiar here, heralded by the vagueness of "the make believe of it all." Why did the "horses" take fright? How did Andrew get from inside the (unmentioned) wagon he was presumably "driving"? And why were the two boys, who must have been Thomas and a friend, running off with it?

The sentimentality of the next paragraph adds to the strangeness:

Pedestrians stopped to smile and watch the runaway teams, men took time to look out of the window from their work to watch the youngsters at play and wish them an unexpressed God's blessing. But just as they looked out, seeing little Andrew, bubbling over with laughter at the great sport, they saw him fall to the street all in a lump. Naturally that gave the runaways a big advantage, but the little driver didn't scramble to his feet and start ahead again. Instead, he lay on the sidewalk, just as he had fallen.

In other words, Andrew didn't fall from the wagon, as my grandmother said, but while running down the street.

The Eagle says a newsstand vendor near the Utica Avenue el station picked Andrew up and rushed him down Fulton Street to the nearest drugstore, where the druggist injected a shot of morphine in a futile attempt to revive him. Someone else ran to fetch a docter, who pronounced Andrew dead, "before his body ever struck the sidewalk." His heart must have failed, Dr. Hussey said, although he admitted that heart failure was a rare cause of death for a child.

How to explain the discrepancies between the Eagle's account and my grandmother's? The reporter must have obtained his information from those smiling pedestrians and the men "looking out the window from their work." My grandmother may have received additional information from other witnesses, neighbors of hers, perhaps, as well as what she could extract from Thomas, who must have been one frightened little boy.

I also wonder whether Dr. Hussey's diagnosis was correct. Heart failure, or sudden cardiac arrest, though common in adults, is exceeding rare in someone Andrew's age. Or did he suffer a traumatic brain injury, a much more common cause of death in small children? Patients don't necessarily die immediately. They may seem fine for a while until bleeding inside the brain causes swelling leading to death.

If this is what happened to Andrew, it would help explain the discrepancies between the two accounts. I suspect the truth can be found by combining them. It's likely that Thomas and his friend were tearing down the street so recklessly that the wagon careened into something forcefully enough to fling Andrew into the street. Frightened by what had happened, the two boys fled. Unaware he'd suffered a traumatic head injury, Andrew picked himself up and chased after them. Then, as he was running,  the damage to his brain kicked in and he fell to the ground and died. The men watching either didn't see him fall first from the wagon or, more likely, were covering up for the older boys.

According to the Eagle, my grandfather, tears streaming from his eyes, blamed his son's death on overexertion from "racing and romping." Andrew's heart, he said, "called upon to do more work than ever before, couldn't stand the extra pressure required of it and broke," adding that his son had great endurance and "was unusually strong for his age." His one consolation must have been that, as far as we know, this was one child's death for which he was not responsible.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


Catherine Lendrum McKenna, left, and Catherine McKenna Kane
Catherine is my middle name and I am the granddaughter, daughter, mother, and grandmother of Catherines. Since we women lose our surnames in the tapestry of the generations, I think it's nice to have the repeating motif of a given name threading through.

This photograph was taken, possibly on Mother's Day, in the early 1940s. My grandmother would have been about 70 and my mother, the last of the eleven children she gave birth to, in her mid-20s.

Joan Catherine Kane, left, and Catherine McKenna Kane

In the photo to the right, probably taken at Easter of that year (my mother, you notice, is wearing the same hat) I am not quite two. We were living in East Flatbush then.

Joan Catherine Kane Nichols, left, and Catherine Nichols

Dazzled by the light. My oldest daughter and I the day of her college graduation, some 30 or so years ago.

The wheel turns. The last of the Catherines (so far). My oldest granddaughter and I, the day she received her MFA. Like the two Catherines is the first photo, one in her 70s and one mid-20s.
Emma Catherine Lazarus, left, and Joan Catherine Kane Nichols

Thursday, May 9, 2013


As I creep (vault seems more like it) toward the only deadline worthy of the name, it occurs to me there aren't many left in the family who can identify the faces of the people in old family photographs or can remember their stories. So I've started this thread to contribute what I know.

My facts may be wrong. Many stories were passed down to me from my father, who was his mother's youngest child and her willing listener, as I was his. Lots of room for mistakes there. So, please, anyone who can correct my facts, or has different versions of these stories, or different stories altogether, let me know.

This photograph, taken sometime in the 1930s, shows my grandmother, Anna Egan Kane, and my cousin Vera, her granddaughter. As far as I know, my grandmother had ten children, not necessarily in this order--Mae, Anna, Thomas, Francis, Leticia, Elizabeth, Charles, Joseph, and two Andrews, both of whom died young.

My grandfather wanted a son named Andrew, after his grandfather, an early Union organizer. When the first little Andrew died, he gave the name to the next boy, then when he died wanted to pass it on to the next, my father. "Oh no," said my grandmother. Not that she was superstitious, but there was no point tempting fate. "This child is mine. I'll name him." And so my father became Joseph, not Andrew 3.

Monday, October 24, 2011


When I was 13, I looked to girls of 16 for examples of what I did and didn't want to become. Now, in my 70s, I look to people who've survived successfully into the late 80s and beyond, people like the late Stanley Kunitz, who published his first book of poetry when he was 25, won the Pulitzer Prize at 54, was named Poet Laureate at 90, and continued writing and publishing until his death five years ago at 100. His early poems, although admired by critics, were too abstract to be popular. His style grew simpler as he aged and learned to write words, as one critic said, "that cat and dogs can understand."

In the poems of his late maturity, Kunitz aimed for "spareness and rigor and a world of compassion." He believed that to survive both as a person and a poet one must be able to tap into the richness of an entire life. "One doesn't live in the moment, one lives in the whole history of your being, from the moment you become conscious." Click here and here.

Kunitz loved writing poems and growing plants, two passions that endured into an enviable old age. Although he and his wife spent every summer in Provincetown on Cape Cod, a town I love and often visit, I never had the chance to meet or even see him. Nor did I ever see his beautiful terraced bayside garden or even know its exact location. His last book, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, partly makes up for this lack. It contains reminiscences and reflections on Kunitz's life, art, and garden; a selection of some of his best poems; and full-color photos of him at work among his plants. Body bent with age and arthritis, he looks like a benevolent garden gnome.

This fall I'm co-leading a poetry-writing workshop. Although many excellent poetry-writing manuals exist, I've suggested my students read The Wild Braid. In it, Kuniz says little or nothing about scansion, sonnet form, or the difference between simile and metaphor, but he says a lot about what a poem fundamentally is. As a bonus, he provides advice on horticulture. To Kunitz, writing a poem and growing a garden are pretty much alike. For example:

  • From its inception, Kunitz conceived of his terraced garden "as a poem in stanzas," each stanza, like each garden tier, having "its own life yet forming part of the whole." No single word or phrase in a poem, no single plant in a garden should call attention to itself. He didn't plant cannas, for example, because those tropical beauties were mere show-offs in the sandy soil and muted tones of Cape Cod. A garden, after all, is not only "an ornamental place, but a habitat and a civilization."
a show-off

  • A poem's words and phrases, like a garden's flowers and plants, form patterns within a harmonious whole. Recurring sounds and images knit a poem's disparate elements together, just as plants of varying colors, sizes, and shapes did in Kunitz's garden. The complementary blues of the thalictrum on one tier and the platycodon below linked the plants as words are linked by rhyme.
rhyming plants: thalictrum
  • Like a plant, a poem is alive and develops according to its own inner rules. He didn't try to preordain its form. "I try to give the poem its head. . . . I want the poem to grow out of its own materials, to develop organically." For this reason, "my method of writing a poem is to say it. The pitch and tempo and tonalities of a poem are elements of its organic life. A poem is as much a voice as it is a system of verbal signs."
  • Just as a flower is at its most beautiful just before it fully blooms, its secrets still folded inside it, so too a poem's energy comes from the secrets that remain folded within. Too much explanation muddies it. "So much of the power of a poem is in what it doesn't say as much as in what it does say."
Kunitz, whose mind shifted easily between the literal and metaphoric, called the dead end of the garden, "The Gate to Hell," picking up the latent metaphor in dead end to imagine the spot as a gate to the underworld. "After I started calling it that, it became that in my imagination, and then"--in an abrupt return from the literal to the metaphoric--"it became a burial spot. Our cat Celia is buried there." The inextricable bond between death and life is Kunitz's most pervasive poetic theme. Gardening, especially in spring, was for him like participating in some ritual celebration of death and resurrection. "I am never closer to the miraculous than when I am grubbing in the soil."

The connection between cultivating a garden, writing a poem, and living a life is beautifully summed up in this, one of my favorite Kunitz poems:

The Round
Light splashed this morning
on the shell-pink anemones
swaying on their tall stems;
down blue-spiked veronica
light flowed in rivulets
over the humps of the honeybees;
this morning I saw light kiss
the silk of the roses
in their second flowering,
my late bloomers
flushed with their brandy.
A curious gladness shook me.

So I have shut the doors of my house,
so I have trudged downstairs to my cell,
so I am sitting in semi-dark
hunched over my desk
with nothing for a view
to tempt me
but a bloated compost heap,
steamy old stinkpile,
under my window;
and I pick my notebook up
and I start to read aloud
the still-wet words I scribbled
on the blotted page:
"Light splashed. . ."

I can scarcely wait till tomorrow
when a new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day.
     from The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz. C.W. Norton, 2000.

Quotations from The Wild Braid:

“One of the great delights of poetry is that when you’re really functioning, you’re tapping the unconscious in a way that is distinct from the ordinary, the customary use of the mind in daily life. You’re somehow cracking the shell separating you from the unknown.” 

“The unconscious is very much akin to what, in other frameworks, I call wilderness. And it’s very much like the wilderness in that its beasts are not within our control.” 

“When I’m reading Hopkins aloud, I feel I am actually occupying his selfhood and speaking out of it, not simply reciting the words, but somehow merging into his bloodstream and nervous system.” 

“Every time we read a poem from the past we resurrect the poet, so that he or she is a presence just as much as anyone living and that’s miraculous in itself.” 

“Every artist I’ve know has been distinguished, almost from birth, by knowledge of that need to become a self, not just a living body.” 

A Tribute to Stanley Kunitz

Each baby born,
life's filter squeezes
to the dregs. Most drip
a dank and watery brew.

Now and then,
a sweet fragrance rises
from one
or two.
     by Joan Kane Nichols

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Young Adult Literature--YA, as we say in the lit biz--is a hot commodity nowadays. It's aimed at kids from about 12 to 20. Although most teenagers who read at all read regular adult books as well, it's nice to read books aimed at your age group, books that confront the interests and problems, joys and sorrows of your particular time of life.

Most so-called adult literature features 20-50-somethings mating and splitting up, striving for power and success, rearing children, having mid-life crises, enduring their misguided older relatives. Been there, done that. As an adult over 55, I enjoy literature that depicts the world I know, that dance with death that constitutes the final third of life.

Some appropriate candidates for the Old Adult, or OA, category jump to mind.

Old Adult Novel
Memento Mori. Muriel Spark was only 41 when she published this satiric jab at the elderly, which raises the question, does the author of an OA have to be old herself? I think it depends on the writer. If the depiction of old people rings true and lacks sentimental gush, I'm willing to accept a youngish author.

Old Adult Play

King Lear. "How sharpter than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child." A foolish old man and his three daughters. No one under fifty should read or see Shakespeare's greatest tragedy. Too grim. Too true. Too disheartening.

Old Adult Poem
"Sailing to Byzantium." William Butler Yeats was in his early 60s when he wrote the poem that begins:

     That is no country for old men. The young
     In one another's arms, birds in the trees
     --Those dying generations--at their song,
     The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
     Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
     Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
     Caught in that sensual music all neglect
     Monuments of unageing intellect.

You said it, brother.

Old Adult Short Story
I found John Barth's "Toga Party," with its wonderfully exuberant downbeat ending, in The Best American Short Stories, 2007, edited by Stephen King. King did an excellent job ferreting out good stories in all sorts of places. This, my favorite volume in the series, also contains Beverly Jensen's "Wake." It's hard not to like a story that begins, "Good God Almighty. We've lost the damned body."

Old Adult Nonfiction

 Reflection, journal, memoir. A trio of wonderful books by three wonderful women writers, all over 55 at the time of writing.

The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty by Carolyn G. Heilbrun
Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton
Coming Into the End Zone by Doris Grumbach

Listing these works has made me hungry to reread them and see if they're as good as I remember.

I plan to add more OAs to this list as I come across them. Please feel free to suggest some of your own favorites.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Not Marvell’s chariot, but these guys look inexorable. You won’t stop them!

Andrew Marvell’s  “To His Coy Mistress” is one of my favorite poems, especially the line, “For at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot drawing near.” Those wingbeats thrum louder in my ears everyday.

By the end of June, after six weeks work, I’d achieved my goal to abolish fear of the blank page and establish a daily writing habit. I now had an additional 25,000 words to join the hundreds of thousands of words, crammed into my paper and computer files—novels, stories, children’s books, et al. in various stages of completion/revision. Few have seen the light of day. Some of my feeble and sporadic attempts at getting published have succeeded. But too often I’ve given up on my babies before they’ve had a fair chance.

Time to drag the kids out of the drawer, wipe their noses, wash their faces, send them out to make their way in the world. Early in July Project: Publish Before I Perish began.

For the first two months, I decided, I’d go easy on myself. My goal would be to revise and publish, in one form or another, the 25,000 words I’d recently produced. (In the fall, I’d start on all the other stuff I’ve written over the years.) Dividing 25,000 words by 50 working days, 25 each for July and August, worked out to 500 words a day, about two double-spaced pages, which is what Kate Di Camillo’s working stint is.

This didn’t mean I’d end up with 100 publishable pages. Some of the 25,000 words were mere meandering, of no interest to anyone but myself. The rest would need a lot of cutting and tightening. I wasn’t sure how many publishable pages to aim for. Fifty seemed like setting the bar too low; 60 might be more realistic, roughly one a day.

The other question was what constituted publishing. For the summer at least, I decided I’d count posts to the blog, as well as submissions of the Millay proposal to agents and editors—a bit of a problem, perhaps, since it would mean completing the research and writing of two sample chapters, but I thought I could pull it off. Also among those 25,000 words was other stuff I might be able to turn into a query, story, or nonfiction article.

So, no more kidding around. Sixty pages, 15,000 words, sent out to the world by Labor Day. If I planned to be a professional writer—consistently published and paid—before those winged horses start trampling on my head, the time to start was NOW.