The wake was held at Clavin’s Funeral Home on Fourth Avenue and 78th Street in Brooklyn, and there were things that were not right everywhere. For one, Agnes Leddy’s coat was hanging on a rack in the back of the room with a brown paper bag full of her clothes, like she had just stepped into the funeral parlor before them and hung it there. There was also the wig. Some awful thing that they had put on her because her head was shaved. Aggie went hysterical when she saw it, and the manager called the cosmetologist back in to fix it.
“Don’t touch her,” Aggie shrieked when the woman approached the coffin. “She’s been through enough.”
They had arrived there before everyone else. Agnes’ five children. John, 18, Aggie, 17, Jimmy, 16, Eddie, 13, and Mary, 12. Aunt Anna Ronaldson, Agnes’ sister, had gotten them all dressed in black. Hair washed, suits ironed, new dresses pressed. Her husband Joe and six of their nine kids came from Staten Island. The other sisters and their families were there, Frances who lived in Queens, Dolly who was down from Connecticut. Eddie and Mary’s eighth and sixth grade classes left school midday to be there, in uniform, with the nuns. Their friends and their friends’ parents came. Slowly the room filled with people in black, there for them and there for Agnes, mother of five, sister to four, widow to one.
Between nodding to the guests and minding their children, the sisters talked in low tones. What would they do about the kids? Frances had eleven of her own already, and Anna had nine. Dolly lived all the way in Connecticut and she only had three, but her two boys were disabled and she worked full time. And there was Anna Gilhuley, the paternal aunt, her son was already grown, but her husband wanted his peace and they had his elderly mother living with them. Nobody could take all five, even if they’d wanted to. And what’s more, they were right in the middle of the school year.
The Leddys lived down at the tip of Brooklyn, at the nub called Bay Ridge, where the avenues ended along a high ridge, from which the land descended down into flat park and wide bay. The Verrazano bridge pinned their shore to Staten Island across the way, its suspension cables holding the road between the shores like great, shining asymptotes; ocean liners and freighters steaming below.
The house was on Marine Avenue, two blocks from the water. It was a small, flat-roofed house, brick with some art-deco detailing, windows with shutters. A skinny driveway separated it from the twin house beside it, and together number 208 and 210 huddled between two big apartment buildings. There was a little square of a front yard with tangle of ivy, a wide stoop, and a gate that the youngest girl Mary loved to swing back and forth on.
They rented out the top floor and lived on the first. There were two bedrooms: the boys had the big room in the back and the girls had the smaller room closer to the kitchen. Agnes slept on a pull-out love seat in the living room, whose window looked out onto the street. Every morning she would fold it back up and go about her day—setting out the little piles of money for each kid’s commute or lunch, washing and ironing the school uniforms and handkerchiefs, keeping the kitchen stocked, making lunch for Eddie and Mary when they walked home for the noon hour, getting dinner ready for when the younger boys were home from sports practice and Aggie and John were back from high school.
When the symptoms started to reappear, she began to slow down. She got a little unsteady on her feet. There was something funny with her foot; it dragged. And she was drained of energy. She might have felt how she had the first time, eight years earlier, when she knew before the doctors knew that she had a brain tumor. It might have been the same way she felt before they’d gone in and cut it out and given her a second chance.
But when John, the oldest, graduated high school, she was there. He had won the New York State Regents Award, which got him a full college scholarship. Agnes couldn’t have been more proud—she’d felt faint with excitement when she’d opened the envelope and read the words—her John, the scholar. She had her oldest daughter Aggie use her charge account at A&S in downtown Brooklyn to find her a dress for graduation. It was yellow with little flowers and she wore it as she proudly watched her oldest walk across the stage.
Her health kept sinking though. Eventually she stopped folding up the love seat in the morning. She’d stay lying down and before Aggie left for school she would drag the phone from the dining room into the living room, pulling at the cord so that it would reach. Agnes would stay there as the kids left for school, and when they’d come home she would sit in the kitchen and talk her daughter through how to make the meals: Set the pieces of chicken on the pan, peel and cut the onions, toss them on top, sprinkle a little paprika and salt, stick it in the oven.
She had appointments at Saint Vincent’s in Manhattan where she had gone to nursing school and where she’d had the tumor removed last time. The doctors thought maybe it was her carotid artery and they wanted to operate to clear it out. They scheduled her for surgery in late fall of 1965.
Agnes took a walk outside with John one day, before she went in for that surgery, leaning onto him for support. A neighbor stopped and asked what was wrong.
“It’s neurological,” she said, and nothing more, as the neighbor looked at her, puzzled.
“I don’t want him to know I’m not a natural blonde”
Agnes was the most beautiful of the four sisters. Or at least she was the one who stood out because she was the blonde. Blonde and very sweet. Never could see a bad thing about a person. “They must not have been thinking right that day,” she’d say when she heard someone had done something awful.
When her boys, John and Jimmy would go at it, fist-fighting in the house, denting the walls, she’d call her brother-in-law Joe—“I know they’re just being boys, but can you come by and talk to them?” She felt that they needed a male influence. Their father was dead.
They had loved each other so much, she and her husband John. Why is it always the happy couples that these things happen to? Agnes had thought aloud to Aggie—why do the couples who hate each other get to grow old together? She loved her husband, and he loved her, treated her like a queen, his Aggie.
When she got sick the first time in 1957, they’d shaved her head for the operation. When her hair started to grow back she called her sister Anna to come over during the day. She needed her help, it was urgent. She had to dye her hair—it was growing back in dark—“I don’t want him to know I’m not a natural blonde!”
John died on Father’s Day, 1959. He was sitting in the kitchen that morning, reading the newspaper in his white tee-shirt. Mary had been on his lap after breakfast. It was Sunday, relaxed. And all of a sudden, he dropped out of life. His heart gave out. They were hysterical, all of them.
After that, it was just Agnes and her children. She constructed her life around them. Left the house less. Was always making sure they had enough. Would get six pork chops and then eat hers slowly enough to give most of it to whichever one of them was still hungry at the end of the meal. John never thought much about it until the day he saw her nurses’ association newsletter on the table. He scanned over the updates from her classmates until he found his mother’s name. What she wrote changed how he saw her: “Since my husband died two years ago, my life has been devoted to caring for my five children.”
“What are youse guys doing?”
The kids stayed in their home after she went to the hospital. She’d gone in for the neck surgery in late fall, and then come back out. But she had to live at Anna’s then and slept in the bed with her sister while she tried to recover. But she didn’t, and they found the tumor, amassed beneath her skull, beneath her blonde hair.
Agnes was in the hospital at Christmastime. Jimmy went out and got them a tree. It was a huge ugly mass of a tree. A monstrosity. He rigged it up in the living room, using wire to attach it to two walls like their dad used to do, to keep it from being knocked over by one of the kids. Jimmy was good with stuff like that, even if in a previous year he’d also gone around the block taking down the neighbors’ Christmas lights while they were sleeping.
They were all home on Christmas Eve, John, Aggie, Jimmy, Eddie and Mary, when Aunt Anna called.
“What are youse guys doing?” she said into the phone to Aggie, who’d picked up. “You left your mother all alone on Christmas Eve? How come none of you are over there?”
Aggie didn’t know. They were all planning to go tomorrow. She’d gotten her mother a soft, blue sweater. And she, Aggie, was going over there all the time after school, running down the steps of Saint Joseph’s Commercial at the end of the day and taking the subway out of Brooklyn and over to Saint Vincent’s to spend a couple hours holding Mommy’s hand and reporting about what was going on at home and school before going back home to Bay Ridge. She’d even had her boyfriend Mike stop there on their way to his military ball so that she could show her mother her hair and dress. But for whatever reason, they didn’t think to go on Christmas Eve.
Mostly they got along. John was the head of the house by virtue of being the oldest. A freshman at Manhattan College. He took three trains over two hours each day from the 95th Street stop in Bay Ridge, up through Brooklyn, under the river into Manhattan, over to the West Side, up all the way to Riverdale. So he wasn’t there that much. He did the big Friday night grocery shopping at Key Food, knew where everything in that store was, but he felt his main job was to keep Jimmy in line. He worried about Jimmy bullying Eddie. And he’d fight him when he needed to. Fists up, jabbing at each other while Aggie screamed for them to stop.
For Mary the problem was being home alone. It seemed to happen all the time. It wasn’t at night, but it was those hours after-school when Eddie and Jimmy were out playing sports and Aggie was getting out later, because she was in high school, and John was commuting back from Riverdale. Mary would walk home from Saint Patrick’s past the delis and the candy store and Vinny the butcher’s, through the gate and up the stoop to let herself in. She’d sit in the living room, doing her homework or reading. The back of the house near the basement door scared her when she was there alone. She stayed up front near the window, hoping no one would knock.
Jimmy had sports to play to keep him busy after school. Eddie was busy, too. After school he’d come home and change and go right back out. He didn’t play football that fall like Jimmy, but he’d be out with the boys in the neighborhood, riding bikes or playing roller hockey, or doing his paper route delivering a Catholic weekly after school on Fridays.
Aggie was the one who kept the house running. She didn’t think much about it. She just did it. Her mother had taught her how to write a check to pay the bills, and between John’s big grocery trips, she’d shop at the deli where they were always running out to get milk. Aggie would haul their dirty clothes downstairs and wash them. Instead of bringing them to dry on the clotheslines in the back like her mother would have done, she’d slap them over the lines that crisscrossed the basement where they’d dry stiff as cardboard. Aunt Anna Gilhuley, their father’s sister, would have her son Tom drive over and pick up their ironing. She’d send their uniforms back over to them neatly pressed on hangers. Sometimes she’d have Tom drop off a stew they could eat for a few nights too.
“Nobody’s going to school today.”
The brain surgery was in February. They all knew when it was about to happen. Across the bridge in Staten Island, Uncle Joe had his kids kneeling in the living room and praying the rosary for Aunt Agnes. The older ones, Leddys and Ronaldsons, remembered the last time she’d had surgery. Aggie was sure it would be like last time, when she’d gotten better.
When it was over, John went in to Saint Vincent’s to visit her. As he walked into the main entrance, past the blur of patients and nurses and doctors, he saw his brother Jimmy leaving. They looked at each other as they passed and said nothing. Jimmy was pale and shaking.
When John went into the room, he understood. There she was. Propped up on her pillows, bandaged head, blue eyes staring up at the ceiling. Catatonic. She didn’t look at him or say anything, or move at all.
When Jimmy got home that day he told Aggie that he couldn’t go back again. She’d never seen him so shaken. But she thought Mommy would get better and come home. Eddie and Mary thought so too. They didn’t think about the other option. It wasn’t even brought up until Aunt Anna was there in the room before school shaking Aggie awake, with Uncle Joe there too waking Jimmy and John. They sat them down in the living room and told them. It had happened in the middle of the night.
From the living room, they heard Eddie come flying out of his bedroom down the hall shouting, “Where is everybody, how come nobody woke me up? I’m gonna be late for school.” He went into the girls’ room to see if Mary was up.
Agnes walked back through the dining room to find him in her room with Mary. “Nobody’s going to school today,” she said. “Mommy died.”
She had to say the same to Loretta, her best friend who always came to pick her up on their way to school. Aggie stood in the doorway, in her pajamas, and told her, crying. Loretta hugged her, and she went back inside.
There were things that needed to be done. Aunt Anna told them to pull out the black clothes they had. She assessed who needed something new. She saw they had no shampoo in the house and gave Mary money to go down to the store to buy some. She and Aggie went to A&S to get the girls black dresses.
Uncle Joe had John call the stockbroker. They needed to sell Agnes’ utilities stocks before the probate courts froze her assets. On the phone, the broker asked John how his mom was doing. “She’s not doing good at all,” John said. “I’m sorry to hear that,” the broker said, and he made the sale. That would be their money to live on.
“They will survive without you.”
After the wake and the funeral at Saint Patrick’s and the burial out in Long Island, they went back home. The routines stayed the same. The piles of money still appeared on the counter each morning, Aggie had been doing that for some time now. Eddie and Mary still came home for lunch to an empty house. They ate baloney or liverwurst sandwiches and watched Donna Reed before walking back the three blocks to Saint Patrick’s Academy. At dinnertime Aggie was still cooking for them, copying what her mother did, keeping it simple. Hot dogs, spaghetti, hamburgers, meatloaf that half the time came out like a rock. The boys would complain and Mary would stick up for her. But mostly, they got along. They were alone, but they weren’t abandoned. Joe and Anna were still just a call away.
What was different was that they were orphans now. Things used to be bracketed by the fact that Mommy was alive, even if she wasn’t there. Now when the boys would fist-fight or Eddie dropped a bottle of Nivea and needed to be bandaged up after the shattered glass ripped a slice down his leg, or they were throwing shoes out the window at the wailing cats in the backyard, it was just them. There was no one who was on her way home to be with them. There wasn’t a plan of what would happen next, and they didn’t really talk about it.
At school Mary felt like there was spotlight on her. Everyone was careful and kind, sympathetic. They all knew she had no mother. A classmate’s mother had even offered to Aunt Anna to take Mary in. It was so nice, Mary thought, it wasn’t even someone she knew well. But she knew they had family and something would be worked out. They were just finishing the school year, and they wouldn’t be home alone forever.
Eddie worried about them being split up. He wondered where they would go next.
He tried to keep up his routine as much as possible, sports and homework. Right before his mother’s surgery, he’d gotten the results of his high school placement test—he’d gotten into everywhere they’d wanted him to. But maybe none of that mattered if they weren’t staying in Brooklyn.
Aggie had her boyfriend Mike, and she would have dinner with his family every Friday night. He was her security, her support. But she knew she was her siblings’. That spring, her class had a mandatory school retreat. When they announced it in class, she immediately knew she couldn’t go—how would everybody get on if she wasn’t there for a whole weekend? After class she went down to the principal’s office to be excused. “Absolutely not,” was the principal’s reply, “They will survive without you.” Aggie was enraged.
John thought that they could go on forever like that, them just living on Marine Avenue and going about their routines. It all seemed to go smoothly, the five of them there together. It had been gradual anyway, he thought; they learned how to fend for themselves as their mother was pulled away over the course of months.
One weekend day he was walking in the backyard with Uncle Joe. It was a concrete yard, with the wooden garage where they kept their bicycles. Joe was asking him how things were going in the house, what they wanted to do next. “We want to keep the house,” John said. “We don’t want to sell it.” He was sure on this. Might be good to sell it and have you living with family, Uncle Joe had suggested. John was pretty sure they should keep the house.
“Well, think on it,” Uncle Joe said.
“It’ll be the life of me.”
Joe Ronaldson was the kind of man who saw the big picture. Maybe he wasn’t the best details guy, but he was creative and broad with his ideas—a fireman, the son of a bar-owner, with friends tucked into every corner of Brooklyn. Even before Aggie got sick, he was looking after her kids. Their father John had been his best friend before he’d even met Anna, and together they’d introduced John to her sister.
Joe was anxious about the situation. One weekend, he stopped by with his daughter, Joanne, who was Mary’s age. He’d noticed that some of the glass panes were broken on the front door window. He didn’t like that. As they drove back home over the Verrazano he talked to Joanne about those kids in a home all on their own. It was time enough to do something about it.
After Agnes’ death, the adults who surrounded the children staked out their opinions. Dolly, who lived in Connecticut, said she’d take the girls. She’d always wanted daughters and her one girl, Maureen, was the same age as Mary and they had always played together. Anna Gilhuley said she could take Mary and Eddie. Her son was already grown, but her husband wanted his peace in his home. Jimmy, who was a troublemaker, was too much for them, and certainly five kids were. Frances already had eleven and her husband was a cop and worked a night shift at the supermarket to meet ends, but they’d take in one or two. Anna said of course they would too.
Joe thought they were all crazy. “You want to break up these kids after all they’ve been through?” he asked his wife as they sat in their living room in Staten Island after dinner one night. He was incredulous. “They belong with us.”
“But Joe, that’s an awful lot of children,” said Anna.
“Anna, you’re home with nine now, well eight—Mary Ann’s married and Jody’s going off to school soon, so seven—what’s five more?” asked Joe. He stood up and started fixing her another Manhattan. “How could we pick two?”
“It’ll be the life of me,” Anna said. But eventually she agreed.
“Whatever you think you might want.”
On the morning of the move, Eddie, Mary and Jimmy were outside the little house that had been their home all their lives. The little house that their parents bought when they were newlyweds in 1946.
Jimmy was standing at the curb, with a cardboard box of his 45s next to him. He reached down into the box, took out a record and flung it, easy, like a Frisbee. It soared across the block, hurtling toward the brick apartment wall before arcing to the side and smashing on the street.
Eddie and Mary just watched as he reached down and pulled out another, and another, till the street was filled with tiny eruptions of shattering vinyl. Cars and people passed by, but he kept going and they kept watching, mesmerized.
Eventually Uncle Joe pulled up in a borrowed pick-up truck with a makeshift wooden railing around the sides. Aggie had been inside packing and she came out when he got there. She was horrified when she saw the thing, and watched, so upset, as Uncle Joe and his friend loaded up her desk and their bureaus, and the love seat Mommy used to sleep on onto the greasy, dirty truck.
They didn’t take all that much with them. Aunt Anna told Aggie to go through everything, and keep anything that she wanted to for herself. “You might be married in a few years,” she said. “Whatever you think you might want, pack it up good and put it in a box and we’ll keep it in the basement.” Aggie kept a couple of the crystal glasses that were in the small china closet. She took all the dresses and coats and blouses and skirts out of her mother’s closet and packed them into black garbage bags. Aunt Frances said she’d take all the clothes. Aggie kept the soft, blue sweater that she’d bought Mommy that past Christmas, and a single white knit winter glove with little flowers that she’d given her mother another year. Not to wear, just to have.
Everything else, well that would be cleared out when the house was sold.
They had all watched the Verrazano as it was built. First the two massive frames, rooted down into the earth and water on each side of the bay. Then the suspension cables sloping down, and finally the road, built from the center outward to the two shores. Work on the bridge started the year their father died, and seven years later it was taking them to their new home, where Uncle Joe had made a sign and hung it for their welcome. It read “The Roneddys.”
Simone McCarthy grew up in four states and on two islands in the New York area, but only moved to the city of her family’s origins this past year. Working on this story allowed her to reconnect with a past that she knew little about and with relatives that she’s seen too little of. @simonelmc