Catherine Ann Fanning was born on June 18, 1883, in the little town of Leighlinbridge in Cty. Carlow, Ireland. She left at 16 and came to New York City. She went immediately to work ten hours a day in the laundry of a large convalescent home in the East Bronx. It’s still there. If you use the Whitestone bridge to get to Long Island you’ll see it, the large red stone building, on your left as you approach the toll booths. It borders St. Raymond’s Cemetery.
I don’t know how many years she worked there. I do know that she worked in similar places until she was in her seventies, nearly, and began to lose her mind.
She was my father’s mother. She never went home.
Years later I was there, in the little town she left, with a cousin. We went to a low hill in a cemetery overlooking the river Barrow and the lovely plain beyond. He told me a few stories of my grandmother’s family and the conditions in which they lived. While he spoke, I remembered her own stories, of one meal a day, and that cold potatoes or oatmeal, on land her father farmed for someone far away. “It’s our own land once again,” my cousin said. Listening quietly I knew why my grandmother never went home.
Nothing was there.
Ella McGowan was born in New York City very near the same date as Catherine Fanning in a place that used to be called The Five Points. Her father had grown up there, and she spent her young years there. She married a fellow named Downs and bore him four children in the first years of the 20th Century, the Edwardian Age to some; a time of elegance and excess. Mr. Downs? He fell in love with long distance and left her and the kids in The Five Points, a place a slum dog millionaire would avoid.
She was my mother’s mother. She never went home, either. What use? It was demolished to make way for court houses and skyscrapers.
In their own way they were each as soft as kittens and as fierce as tigers. They both spent much of their day in prayer when I saw them on visits, or on longer stays at our very crowded apartment in Kingsbridge. I loved them both.
Ellen Frances MacAuliffe was my wife’s mother. Born in Ireland she left at 16, too, and came here. She had her own stories, about beatings and shootings in the street from the Black and Tans. But she never said a word about them, nor about her husband, who came home from two years in combat in Europe a wasted man, who abandoned her and her two children. She was a quiet, happy woman. Neither did my wife breathe a word, aside from the occasional, “When life gives you lemons…” kind of observation.
I loved them both.
There is a publication called Rolling Stone that appears regularly on the newsstands and is read by enough people to warrant the expectation of those who publish it that they can do it again, can feed themselves on its income. I wish they weren’t so full of hope. I had never read it until a day or so ago when I was interested enough to do it because my granddaughter , a journalism student, gave it what is called now a “shout out” for a story in it.
You have probably heard of the story. Desiring, I suppose, to place the story before the eyes of as many as possible, and to make the story’s point even more graphically, the cover of the issue was filled with the face of a doe eyed, soft faced young man. Framed with wavy black hair, the face could have been the subject of some Renaissance master, either in stone or oil; another David. The rest of the issue was mere filler to the young fellow’s story, the story of a cold blooded killer and the people who loved him, the story of a kid who had a difficult time not being “the best he could be”…and the people who knew him, helped him, befriended him and whom he betrayed. Some of these people, fellow students, were the ones who helped him by hiding the elements of his crime; accessories after the fact to bloody terrorism.
That was almost more disturbing to read about than the portrait the author painted of this fellow. In five or so pages, she detailed a life of woe and disappointment, frustration and discord, all endured while the young fellow and his family were well cared for by the state. He went to school, became a well liked athlete, earned the respect and fellowship of his peers, was a darling to his teachers. In the end, he was unsatisfied, though. So he became a terrorist.
Yesterday, while spending a quiet afternoon with some people I know who have had their own share of “bad times” I learned something. In the hospitals across Boston on the day that this nice young man and his brother set off their home made WMDs men and women with their own tough stories were picking nails and bits of metal from the shredded skin and burnt limbs of hundreds of victims of his bad mood.
There are other pictures to appear on Rolling Stone covers, and other stories to be written I suppose. And, well there’s really no sense in getting personal about this, but I can’t help wondering what in the world was so interesting about this kid killer’s life that required the time needed and the space devoted to telling it? You want to write about people whose lives were tough? Why not write about Nelson Mandela, Harriet Tubman or George Washington Carver? Why not tell the story of Elie Wiesel or Alexander Solzhenitsyn? Why not speak of Saints Josephine Bakitha, Kateri Tekakwitha or of Pierre Toussaint.
Instead we got five pages of “the rest of the story”, a depressing tale of disgruntled and ungrateful people blaming others for their failures and angrily biting the hands that fed them. Are we supposed to sympathize with them all, the killers and the fools, the complainers and the complacent?
Someone said that journalism’s purpose is to bring the truth to light. But what is the point in telling anyone the “truth” about losers, abettors and their mentors and friends? The only truth that matters here is that this young man is a killer and some of his friends are ignorant enough to think that helping a killer cover his horrible crime is a good thing to do. That was mentioned but was not covered by Rolling Stone. Why it wasn’t may be a story worth telling. It’s certain it won’t be told by Rolling Stone.
This story may have been an exercise in public relations, and badly done at that. It was certainly not truth, or journalism – however one conceives that thing.