Happy Birthday in Heaven to my grandmother, Ellen McCaffrey McGrath (“Nellen”), who was born on January 21, 1907. It’s hard to believe that this March will mark her 20th Anniversary in Heaven. Nellen is someone I think about every day. One of the reasons I do what I can for my family and my community is because I know a person can have an impact on other long after they are gone. It’s important to me to that I should have a legacy. Nellen’s legacy is the accomplishments of her grandchildren -- that would be me, and my brother, Uncle Michael. Nellen was a tough Irish-American educator (she was one of the first females to receive an Education Doctorate from NYU), a font of wisdom, a laugh fest, and the measure of all things elegant and graceful. And she would also go Balls to the Walls (please forgive the expression but there is no other more apt) if anyone messed with her family. I like to think that I have inherited some of her qualities but, of course, the Good Lord broke the mold when he made Nellen.
I should add that Nellen was not my actual grandmother, she was my Great Aunt. That is, my maternal grandfather’s sister. Both of my mother’s parents died before I got to know them. On my father’s side: his father died during World War II in the Philippines, and his mother did not come to live with us until I got older. In the meantime, Nellen, who did not have any biological children of her own, basically adopted us as her grandchildren. She came and got us almost every weekend and took us to her beautiful Victorian home in Cold Spring. It was a treasure trove, filled with working fireplaces, an Attic with treats and endless discoveries, a full working library and a grand, beautiful sloping staircase with burnished handrails that we loved to slide down. It was Shangri-La compared to our suburban home. She was also constantly adopting stray dogs off the street, which was an endless source of pleasure for us kids. Thus, by the time someone mentioned in passing conversation that Nellen was not our biological grandmother but our great aunt, it was simply irrelevant. We understood but didn’t care about the technicalities, she was our grandmother for all intents and purposes.
Some of my favorite memories were of going to her house on weekends with my brother when we were little. First, she would could us anything we wanted for Dinner, it was usually steak and eggs. We got to help in her big country kitchen. Then we would make tiny little cakes and frost them and take them to the big recliner couch where we would sit and feast and watch our favorite shows, from Donny and Marie to the All in the Family, to the Jeffersons and the Love Boat. Later on, there was Fantasy Island.
When I was at NYU, Nellen would write me letters on heavy, creamy embossed stationery, telling me about her adventures with the dogs and her charity work. I loved getting those letters in my mailcubby. Once a month or so, she would come into the City and we would go to Tavern on the Green, or a museum or a Broadway play. She was nowhere near as monied as the other NYU grandmothers but she was better educated, better spoken and never failed to show in her mink coat in the winter or her best Chanel suit in the nice weather. Nellen was a class act, all the way; however, if you messed with her grandkids, she wouldn’t hesitate to crack your skull with her cane. Literally.
Nellen had been a teacher, then a principal, then an assistant Superintendent at a school system in Harlem. She was one of the first commuters from Cold Spring, taking the train in every day. I love the photos of her and her sister, Margaret, also a teacher, during those days. They were so elegant, always dressed in heels, gloves, smart suits, pearls, and wide brimmed hats. They looked like movie stars, not school teachers. Nellen’s last job was as a principal in Harlem. She was permanently partially disabled during what were referred to as the “race riots” of the 1960’s. During the riots, her life was actually in danger. Her kids, as she called them, were constantly running into her classroom and forming a human shield to protect her. One day, the riots were very bad, and they formed a shield around her to try to move her out of the building to her car. They told her that if anyone saw a white adult, there could be danger. These were high school kids protecting her, mind you. A bottle rocket exploded next to her and she pushed the kids out of her way. The kids were fine, but pieces of glass lodged throughout Nellen’s leg and permanently disabled her knee despite several operations. She always walked with an incredibly elegant cane after that.
This was right around the time I was born. My mother was alone, with my father in the Navy shipside in Vietnam for years. Sensing a need, Nellen simply stepped up and became our grandmother, teaching my mother everything she needed to know about kids, although she technically never had any of her own.
Nellen did not appreciate anyone who took themselves too seriously and would cut them down with a witty remark and friendly smile without them even knowing it. It was from Nellen that I learned that words would be my tools, whether as a lawyer or as a writer. Nellen had so many great lessons, so many great sayings, I wish I could pass them all on to you. Among my very favorites, “Swing with me, Sister” (just go with the flow); “Enjoy the life you have, this is not a dress rehearsal;” “Life is uncertain, eat Dessert first;” “Never save your good china for a special occasion, every day is a special occasion;” “Education is more important than money; any fool can earn money, but an education is priceless;” “While your friends are out having fun, and you’re home studying, you’ll be the one to reap the benefits when you’re older and they’re struggling;” “Spend one night crying your eyes out, then put on some lipstick and get out there, no man is worth two night’s tears;” and of course, my Life’s Credo and my signature line: “Count Your Blessings!”
Remember to Count Your Blessings every day, and throughout the day. And, before you complain about the government, the weather, the (FILL IN THE BLANK), ask yourself, is this the Legacy I want to leave behind? Or do I want to be remembered as someone who dedicated themselves to their family and the community. I know that’s what Nellen’s legacy is. Happy Birthday in Heaven, Nellen, we love and miss you always! <3 Love, Julia and Michael, Lolo and Lola P.S. I wish you could have met Anthony and the boys, you would have loved them, but I know you’re looking down on us from Heaven