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Experts Agree: My Grandmother Is the Greatest

The name Mary Sheahan stands for selfless dedication to family.

New York is one of the few places where you can feel like a tourist in your own hometown. There are so many famous places here that one is rarely motivated to visit them. You live here. You’ll visit them eventually. Just this past week I visited Ellis Island for the first time.

Ellis Island began as a much smaller island called "Little Oyster Island" by the Dutch and later "Gibbet Island" when it was used to carry out executions by hanging. It got the name Ellis Island for Samuel Ellis, who owned the island at one point. The federal government began processing immigrants there in 1892. It closed Ellis Island in 1954 and the entire island fell into disrepair.

The states of New York and New Jersey fought over the claim to Ellis Island in court. While the original island was New York property, an old treaty between the states gave New Jersey the rights to parts of the island added by landfill, giving most of the current island to the Garden State. Over the last two centuries the island has more than tripled in size due to landfill being added to it. Rudolph Giuliani, who was New York’s mayor at the time, remarked that if his family knew they would be going to New Jersey, they would have opted to remain in Italy.

Ellis Island has less of the tacky tourist crap that covers Liberty Island. Half of Ellis Island is off limits to tourists and still sits dilapidated behind chain-link fences. In addition to being used as an immigration processing center, Ellis Island housed interned "enemy aliens" during the Second World War.

Whereas the Statue of Liberty is America’s great symbolic gateway for arriving immigrants, Ellis Island was the business end of the journey, where immigrants actually had to go to be allowed into the U.S. There are more than 600,000 names on the Wall of Honor on the island that lists immigrants who have passed through there. On panel #562 was the name I was looking for:

Mary Fogarty Sheahan.

My Grandmother, Mary Sheahan, immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland in 1925 and was processed on Ellis Island. Her father, Timothy Fogarty, had come to the U.S. months earlier to work and save money. Being only 11 months old when she got here, she has no memory of her admittance to America. She says that her mother’s descriptions of being processed on Ellis Island were very similar to what’s depicted in the ‘Godfather Part II.’

She grew up in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx. Six months before she graduated high school, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. She remembers all the boys from her neighborhood signing up for the Army or Navy by the following Monday, and remembers the name of the one neighbor who didn’t return from the war (Gerald Monaghan, who served in the infantry in Europe).

The name Mary Sheahan stands for selfless dedication to family. No matriarch is more generous with her time and energy. My Grandmother raised seven children in New York City beginning in the late 1940s and continuing well into the 1970s. She also dedicated enormous amounts of her time to her grandchildren. I remember her once babysitting my brother and me sometime in the early 1980s and cheering and laughing as James Garner rampaged over police roadblocks in a tank in the aptly named movie ‘Tank.’ She now spends as much time as she can with her sixth grandchild, Nicholas, who will turn three this year.

For many years she helped take care of my Grandfather, who was in poor health. Since he passed away several years ago, my family has made sure she’s been able to travel. She went back to Ireland three years ago for the first time since she was an infant. She found the house she was born in, met cousins she had never met before, and had a wonderful time with her sister, Aunt Lil. She visited the church where her parents were married and she was baptized and had a new headstone put on the grave of relatives buried there. She and her sister returned to the U.S. two days before September 11, 2001.

One of the most memorable things I remember anyone telling me after the September 11th attacks was my Grandmother telling me that she was glad my Grandfather was no longer with us to see that. My Grandfather loved New York and as an investigator for an insurance company he walked all over the city and knew its many neighborhoods. He took the family for long walks and loved to show people different parts of the city. One of his wishes for retirement was to take my Grandmother to the many interesting places he discovered in the city.

My Grandmother left the Bronx for suburban Westchester about 25 years ago. Her house has been the site of numerous Christmas parties, Thanksgiving dinners, and Easter egg hunts. Since I can remember she has always had a dog. I like to joke with her that beneath her kind and churchgoing exterior there is a hardened criminal, and that "Bloody" Mary Sheahan has a body count more gruesome than La Cosa Nostra’s.

In a few weeks, my family will gather at my Aunt Peggy’s house to celebrate my Grandmother’s 80th birthday. Family will come from several states and as far away as Wisconsin. My father, arguably our family’s best writer, wrote a poem to celebrate the occasion.

…Count from 1924

Can’t deny it anymore

Pick my jaw up off the floor

She’s 80!!!!!!…

While she’s looking forward to seeing family and friends, my Grandmother doesn’t think turning 80 is too big a deal on its own. "I don’t feel any different," she says. "I’m very lucky because I’m fairly healthy. I feel there’s a continuum and I’m just going to keep going. I don’t know how God is going to end it all."

This fall, my Grandmother and her sister Lil are traveling the world again, this time to Italy. I am not alone in hoping they can find a way into the Sistine Chapel should John Paul II pass on. "The smoke would never be white if we got in there," she told me.

Here’s hoping my Grandmother and Aunt Lil create the most mischief in the Catholic Church since the Great Schism.

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