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.