James Nicholas Keenan (1885-1989)
In 1964 my parents packed all of us six kids into a station wagon and set out cross-country for Los Altos California, where my father would be teaching for six months while on sabbatical from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Our first stop was in Broadalbin, New York, just outside of Saratoga Springs. There we visited Uncle Jim Keenan (the brother of my father’s mother). Jim by then was 80 years old, and his wife Jean was ill and never made an appearance during our visit. But Uncle Jim was lively and gracious and entertained us all with stories of bygone days. I’ll never forget when he told us that he remembered having seen his first motor car when he was around sixteen years old. He later took us out to the Saratoga Racetrack, where we watched the trotters getting conditioned for their upcoming races.
Jim had graduated from Cornell University in 1909 with a degree in Civil Engineering, married in 1910, and then eventually ended up working for Sanderson and Porter, an engineering company that specialized in building electrical power plants here and abroad. Jim moved around the country, taking up residence wherever his employment dictated. He eventually retired to Broadalbin, where his wife Jean had been raised, although her parents and her brother had all passed away even before she married Jim Keenan. Jean herself died in 1966, just a few years after we visited them.
I think that my father took a special interest in Uncle Jim because they had both gone to Cornell (my father was awarded his PHD there) and were both engineers. And my father also felt a responsibility for helping out the elders in his mother’s generation – part of the legacy that was handed to Fay children by their mother.
Uncle Jim eventually relocated permanently to Florida when the harsh northern winters became too much for him to handle. There he met and fell in love with a “younger” women named Esther. However he was to outlive Esther as well – something that brought tears to his eyes whenever he talked of it.
I had the great good fortune to visit Uncle Jim on the occasion of his 100th birthday on June 17, 1985. Below is a photo of four generations of Keenan/Fays enjoying the sun on the balcony of Uncle Jim’s condo in Florida.
Eventually Jim needed more help and care than he was able to access in Florida and my father moved him to a nursing home in Weston, Ma., just a few minutes from where he lived. For the next four years Uncle Jim could enjoy visits from his extended family. He passed away in August of 1989 at the age of 104 years old.
In March of 1990 my father penned the following letter to Mrs. Matthews, a niece of Jim’s wife, Jean Crouse.
Dear Mrs. Matthews,
We have just returned from India, and found your wonderful letter about your memories of Uncle Jim.We had been away from Weston most of the time since he died in August, and despite all those distractions we still miss him.
He lived nearby, so that it was not difficult to visit with him, and to bring along a few grandchildren now and then. No matter what your age, he welcomed you like a long lost friend. For someone who had no children, he was remarkably interested in them and knew how to amuse them and joke with them. While his interest in politics had waned, he loved to talk about his early life in Brooklyn, his time at Cornell and his early engineering experiences. I would show him magazine articles about bridge construction, which would set off many reminiscences. He was not only the oldest guest at the Westonian, but the best liked because of his graciousness and sense of humor.
We always celebrated his birthday in June, usually with a patio party to which most of our children and grandchildren came. He wasn’t very mobile, but with the help of my strong sons we were able to get him to our house and back without incident. Until a year ago he felt well enough to come to Thanksgiving dinner , a rather boisterous affair with at least a dozen below the age of seven, and managed very well (but was glad to get back to the tranquility of his apartment).
I think he was grateful in his last years that he was able to take care of himself and was reasonably mobile. After his fall and hip operation his strength declined quite rapidly, and I think he sensed that life as an invalid in a nursing home would not be tolerable. Yet he never complained during his sickness, and was able to find something to joke about right up to the end of his life.
Uncle Jim was my mother’s older brother. Because he lived away from New York during my early years, I saw him only occasionally when he would return to visit my aunt, his older sister (my mother died when I was young). He and Jean visited us once when we lived in Hamilton, and I saw him once or twice when they lived in New York. On our way to California in 1964 we stopped to visit them in Broadalbin, but by that time Jean was quite ill. He took us all out to dinner in Saratoga, and showed us the racetrack. He was a wonderful host….
Uncle Jim was blessed with good health all his years. Except for a bad back the last two decades, he was very resiliant and had great reserves of power. When my aunt died, about fifteen years ago, he came up from Florida by train, sitting up all night, and then to the end of Long Island to the funeral. That night he stayed up very late talking to my sons, having been on the road for at least forty-eight hours. I’ll be fortunate to have his vigor when I hit seventy.
In his will, Uncle Jim expressed the desire not to have a conventional funeral service but to be cremated. He said that he would like his ashes to be buried in the same grave in Broadalbin as your Aunt Jean…..I know he loved Broadalbin ever since he worked on his surveying problem there during his years at Cornell, and it seems appropriate that he should rest there.
Uncle Jim mentioned you and your family from time to time in his last years – they were fond memories. His long term memory was good, and it gave him much pleasure to retell stories of his past. He was an outstanding example, to us, our children and grandchildren, of what it means to be a caring human being.
Mary Loretto Keenan Mulvaney (1884 – 1976)
Now let us honor…
A woman set so deeply in devotion
That three times blasted to the root
Still she grew green and poured strength out.
Still she stood fair, providing the cool shade,
Compassion, the thousand leaves of mercy,
The cherished green hope.
Still like a tree she stood,
And natural, sweetly serving…
For her - all love, all praise,
All honor, as for trees
In the hot summer days.
May Sarton “Song”
Aunt Retta As I Knew Her
by Martha Johnston Young
Mary Loretto Keenan, known as Retta, was a Victorian woman, born in 1884, who exerted a singular beneficent presence in my life and in Fay/Keenan family history. She and her husband, Jim Mulvaney, moored the family together in two striking ways. For one, after her sister Margaret Fay’s untimely death in 1932 at age 38, Retta and Jim provided stability and love to their motherless nieces and nephews – Margaret Fay (known as Jimmie, then age 15), Barbara Fay (age 13), Bill Fay (also known as Bunty, age 12), Jay Fay (8), and Mary Fay (6). Secondly, Retta and Jim created a family haven in Southold, NY at the far east end of Long Island, where the family stayed rooted and came together for 60 years.
Retta was a slim, resolute, Irish woman with dignified bearing and poise. She was cheerful, articulate, and kind. She carried herself with beautiful ramrod-straight posture. She wore lovely, simple dresses she sewed herself, usually with a necklace and her white hair in a neat bun. She had the singular calm and inner stillness of a deeply spiritual person. She was a mystic in her own utterly Irish Catholic way. In her presence, one felt completely accepted. Even my Johnston cousins thought of Retta as everyone’s good luck supporter. In my childhood, she was always quietly there in her undaunted, centered way. Retta told me that she had always had a temper and fought hard to keep it in check. When I was in high school, I realized Retta was a sharply opinionated person who kept her personal criticisms of others utterly to herself out of a powerful love for her family.
I knew my great aunt Retta well. She was a singular figure in my childhood. She was 64 when I was born in 1948. For 24 years, she lived with my family during the cold months when she wasn’t in Southold. My mother, her niece Barbara Fay Johnston, made a home for Retta in our house, first in Port Washington, NY and later in Oyster Bay, NY, where Retta always had a room of her own. Each year, Retta stayed with us a longer stretch as she went blind from late diagnosed glaucoma and deaf during her 70s and 80s.
Although I knew her when she was elderly, behind her serene poise and charm was a remarkable woman with a rich history. As a young woman in her early 20’s she broke convention and set off by tramp steamer for a 3 months trip through Europe with another young woman. Before marrying Jim Mulvaney, she taught immigrant children on the Lower East Side of New York for 10 years to help support her parents and siblings. She dealt with her sorrow that she didn’t have children. Later, she was accidentally blinded in one eye by a branch as she and Jim walked through trees in Southold. She loved art, art museums and music, and, like her sister Margaret Keenan Fay, she loved nature, especially birds and plants.
Retta and Jim Mulvaney’s Southold, Long Island farmhouse was part of all my childhood summers. The two of them created a delightful haven in that big house on North Road. They purchased the house about 1922 and, as noted, it was an anchor of the family life for the next six decades. The house was big, unpretentious, and comfortable. The center of the living space was the dining room with a big round mahogany dining table with lions’ feet legs (later at Jay Fay’s, then my house). The parlor was rarely used except for musical evenings where the adults played piano, recorder, or sang Retta the oldies of her day. It was also used for bridge games after dinner. When I first went to Southold as an infant, Keenans and Fays had been going there for 30+ years. Aunt Retta was utterly comfortable with guests and the household seemed to run smoothly no matter how many people were there.
It was a plain old farmhouse with 5 bedrooms, 2 baths, and a big kitchen with a slate sink and an old oak ice box converted to electric. Across the North Road, they owned a stretch of private beach with a shack they’d built to change in and store fishing gear. The Southold house had a wraparound porch on 3 sides with many green rocking chairs, bordered with copious blue hydrangeas and climbing pink floribunda roses on a trellis. On the east side of the house there were huge shady linden trees whose branches touched the ground. There was nothing to do but swim, fish, sail, read, play the old player piano, talk, take walks, play cards, mess around in boats, and catch blue crabs and fiddlers in the creek. Aunt Retta served simple food, often fresh-caught fish and vegetables from the garden. She wasn’t a great cook, but everyone pitched in. Aunt Retta had a remarkably unfussy approach to houseguests, family or not. She graciously pointed you to one of the 5 bedrooms and then you were free to do whatever you wanted. The bedding and towels were old and frayed. The bedrooms each had different, flowery Victorian wall paper above white bead board. The closets were full of old fishing gear and ancient hangers. Retta slept in every morning until 9 AM. The only rule I remember was that we had to wait until noon to play the piano.
The barn/garage held Uncle Jim’s work bench with tools and a lovely oily smell. There always seemed to be an outboard motor set up in a barrel for repair. Up a ladder nailed to a wall was a room crammed with mysterious treasures, including a medical case full of glass tubes and wires once touted for healing.
The property reached from the wide pebbly beach on Long Island Sound, south across the North Road to include the house and garage , then south again across the wide field to Hashamomuck Pond on the bay side.
When I was born in 1948, Aunt Retta, 64, and Uncle Jim Mulvaney, 70, lived full-time in Southold, having moved out of their Brooklyn Heights apartment when Jim retired. But he got cancer and died in February 1952 when I was 3. Soon after, about fall 1953, Retta began a routine she kept for years. She would spend May till September in Southold while Jimmie Fay and George McFadden were there, then move in with my family during the colder months when George returned to teaching. She lived in my parents’ home until she died at 92 in 1976, spending less and less time in Southold, until the Southold house was sold.
Aunt Retta had the still core of a deeply spiritual person. She spent every late afternoon sitting quietly in a chair in her room saying the rosary. In winter she would often sit in the dark praying until I called her to dinner. She called this practice, “telling her beads.” I think she emptied her mind and said the repetitive prayers for an hour or so and emerged refreshed, quiet, and grounded. I don’t know how to describe the stillness of a deeply spiritual person, but you sense it when you encounter it. In this, she was like her niece, Margaret “Jimmie” McFadden (maiden name: Fay), also a deeply spiritual person.
Retta loved walking and walked daily, no matter the season, even after she was quite blind. She read widely and avidly, listening to books on big heavy records for the blind for several hours a day. She loved her family fiercely and wept openly each time one of her family drove out of her Southold driveway after a visit. She always had a white handkerchief tucked into her sleeve which she would wave in a little wafting motion as we drove away.
Here are random facts about Aunt Retta. She loved art and art museums and went every chance she got, a love she passed on to generations of Johnston/Youngs. She liked to walk across the street to the Southold beach in the afternoon and sit in her dress under an umbrella shooting pebbles out of her hand. She was a first-rate seamstress. She sewed all her own clothes and most of the Fay kids clothes, including prom dresses and “the boys” first adult dress suits modeled after ones from the finest Manhattan department stores. She loved overripe bananas. She had a wealth of old family sayings. If a female member of the group lounged around while others worked, she cheerfully said “Well, it’s a poor family that can’t afford one lady!” After dinner she urged my parents to leave her with the dishes, saying, “Now, you two go in the other room to sit and get reacquainted.” The closest she came to swearing was to hiss out, “Sugar!” If things needed to be done quickly, she’d have it done “in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.” If a chair or a shoe was uncomfortably tight, she’d say “It was built on a penitential last.” She called every cat Skeezix, an orphaned character from the Gasoline Alley comics. She sang a little Irish nonsense song to babies that I still can sing, “Toodley oodle oodle oodle oodle oodle oodley oo….”
In 1956, at age 72, Aunt Retta longed to go see her nephew Bunty (Bill Fay) in San Diego. It meant a long flight on a prop plane from NY and she was nearly blind. My mother, Barbara, had two-year old Kevin and almost one year old Matt. It was decided that I should go to San Diego with Aunt Retta for Christmas with Bunty and Carrie and their family. I was 8 years old.
On the flight out we were seated among the crew of the first National Geographic expedition to Antarctica. They had said goodbye to their families and were heading for training before their expedition. I sat next to the expedition cook who entertained me and Retta for most of the long, loud flight. Once in San Diego Retta concocted a scheme to see the Grand Canyon before her sight was completely gone. So, the two of us took a bus from San Diego to the Grand Canyon. Somewhere on the bus trip out, maybe Phoenix, we had an hour between buses. Walking across the train tracks to a diner she fell hard and cut her face. I was frightened and so was she. We needed each other and were both over our heads with responsibility. She set an example with her calm, reassuring bravery. We saw the Grand Canyon and then Retta hired a car to drive us to the North Rim which she was determined to see through her fading sight. Our bus trip back to Bunty and flight home were uneventful.
As a kid I had regular duties to help Retta. She had me write out her checks and guide her hand to the signature line so she could sign them. I wrote out envelopes and managed the stamps from about age 6. I changed the tiny batteries in her hearing aids, helped her order Books for the Blind records by reading the descriptions of the next month’s selections and filling out the order forms. She’d have me thread a fleet of needles at a time for her mending projects, even when she could hardly see.
Retta’s legacy to me is the idea of the gift and dignity of a woman’s efforts to love her family and hold them together. And also, she gave me the idea that we make what we can of our life. We do our best. If there’s a song that runs through my heart, it’s an Irish song that I learned from Retta. She taught me that we must work to be cheerful and pleasant, and that that effort counts for a great deal. She taught me that life will always get harder than you could envision, but we must help make life a little easier for others. Her life said Love your family and friends. Enjoy great art, reading, summer, hanging around with family. See the positive amidst the difficult.
A Selective Bio of Mary Loretto Keenan Mulvaney
By Martha Johnston Young
Mary Loretto Keenan, known as Retta, was the first child of her parents John Francis Keenan and Brigit Hanlon Keenan, born January 18, 1884. Over the next 15 years, her 4 siblings were born – Jim (less than a year after Retta on 1/17/85), Margaret (later Fay, 8 years later in 1893), Matthew in 1896, and Bill in 1899
She was named for Mary, our Lady of Loretto, whose remarkable story must have impressed her parents. Mary of Loretto is the focus of a Catholic litany to Mary often said after Benediction. Loretto, Italy is an Adriatic coastal town that has been a pilgrimage site for 7 centuries due to one of those jaw-dropping myths of Christianity. The story goes that when “infidels” overran the area where Mary’s childhood home was located in the Holy land, angels transported the entire rock home, stone by stone first to Croatia and then to Loretto, Italy. It is now surrounded by a 14th century cathedral where pilgrims to this day approach on their knees. (It’s also rumored that the Angeli family of the Loretto region moved the house: Angeli – a different kind of angel.)
Although Retta and her sister Margaret were 8 years apart in age, Margaret’s daughter Barbara Fay Johnston (my mother) says they were fast friends and kindred spirits. Sometimes during Margaret‘s childhood, Margaret got rheumatic fever that damaged her heart. In 1915, Retta’s brother Matt unexpectedly died at age 16 (Barbara says burst appendix). Matt’s body was laid out and waked in the family apartment in an old brownstone near the Brooklyn Navy yard and Pratt Institute. It’s hard to imagine the enormity of these tragedies that befell the Fay/Keenan family. The ties of family are evident in the fact that Brigit’s brother and sister lived with the Keenan family as Retta and her siblings grew up and speaks to the precarious financial situation that required the employment of several working adults to keep the family afloat.
Barbara Fay Johnston says that Retta, as the oldest child, expected she would teach after high school for a few years to help support her parents and siblings financially before she got married. She began teaching immigrant children on New York’s lower east side. She worked to help put the next child, her brother Jim Keenan, through Cornell University. The family expected when he graduated, he would come home for several years to support them financially. But after Jim Keenan’s Cornell graduation in May 1909, he announced that he wasn’t coming home but was getting married. Retta took it hard as she and Jim Mulvaney wanted to marry and had been waiting for Jim Keenan’s return. Ultimately, for 10 years as an adult, Retta taught and lived at home to help support the family.
About 1910, while Retta was living and working at home, she and a girlfriend went to Europe on a tramp steamer for the summer. I have to believe this was an unusual expedition for unaccompanied young women in 1910. I have Retta’s album of tiny photographs of their grand European tour, with Retta and her friend dressed in long skirts and hats of the day. Both wore their hair piled up like Gibson girls. Some of the time they seemed to be in the company of a priest. In Italy, Retta climbed Mount Vesuvius, carried part way up in a basket on a man’s back.
Barbara says that sometime about 1912, Retta’s mother, Brigit, came to Retta and said, “You and Jimmy Mulvaney have wanted to marry for years. Go ahead. We’ll be ok.” Retta was nearly 30 years old, whereas the average woman was married at 21 years old at that time. Retta and Jim Mulvaney married shortly after that. Jim Mulvaney was a naval welder who did lightering and tug boat repair. He was the oldest of 7 kids and his mother was an old friend of Brigit Keenan. He was a cheerful, even-tempered, generous man. Jim Mulvaney, with a fourth-grade education, was bright, hard-working, and enterprising. He eventually opened his own small welding business on NY harbor.
Eventually Jim and Retta settled in a lovely, small Brooklyn Heights apartment with a wonderful view of NY harbor at 63 Columbia Heights, Brooklyn. Jim Mulvaney amused his nieces and nephews by identifying the ships in the harbor by name and knew the cargos and destinations of each vessel. In 1922 or so, Jim and Retta had bought the Southold house and Retta and Margaret spent summers there while Jim Mulvaney and Bill Fay drove out after work for weekends.
During summers, the Fay kids went out to Southold, where they lived a happy, comfortable life with their more prosperous, middle-class aunt and uncle. They were out of school from April and through November, to the irritation of school administrators. But every weekday morning they took daily school lessons from their teacher aunt and mother on the front porch or lawn in good weather. Each fall, they returned to school far ahead of their classmates in their lessons. My mother, Barbara, tells wonderful stories of happy days in Southold with hours at the beach and in boats. A highlight for Mom was plays the kids put on with costumes. In Southold they had many friends, including the Stowefski boys, the Donlons, Mr. Slecktman, the Barrys, the Griffins. Barbara says the neighborhood boys formed baseball teams and played all summer long, but the girls usually weren’t allowed to join them.
I try to imagine the months before Retta’s sister, Margaret Ann Keenan, died at age 38. Margaret’s heart had been damaged by rheumatic fever and the adults must have known what was coming. Margaret’s daughter, Barbara Fay Johnston, describes the afternoon of her mother’s funeral. Aunt Retta gave the 5 children the task of collecting roses and rose petals from the funeral wreaths. Mom believes this was Retta’s attempt to keep the kids occupied on a day they were bereft. Retta dried the rose petals and saved them in Margaret’s sugar jar that Retta kept until she died. It then went to Jimmie, to Barbara, and to me. I have a sense of the wrenching loss the children suffered knowing my now 101-year-old mother has always referred to Margaret as “Mommy“ as if the loss was frozen in time. I hope you all have a chance to read the letter Margaret wrote before she died to her eldest daughter, Jimmie, exhorting her to keep the family together.
Later, Retta’s youngest brother Will returned home after college and helped support his parents until his late 20s. As adults, both Jim Keenan and Will Keenan worked for the HH Robertson Company, a big civil engineering firm. Robertson’s CEO was JH Young, my husband Jay Young’s grandfather and namesake.
After their mother Margaret died, weekends when they were in Brooklyn during the school year, the Fay kids spent Saturdays with their Aunt Retta. She took them to art museums, or matinees of concerts, movies, and plays where they sat in the cheap seats. Every Sunday, the Fay family had dinner with Retta and Jim. Because the apartment had a tiny, closet-sized kitchen, Retta often brought in the meal from local providers, including a pail of ice cream. The apartment was furnished with mahogany and walnut furniture bought at a place near Borough Hall, Brooklyn on Fulton Street, furniture now still in use by 3rd and 4th generation relatives.
At some point, the oldest Fay girl, Margaret “Jimmie” developed rheumatic fever like her mother before her. By the early 1940s, she was often bed ridden. It must have been a great worry for the family that history might repeat itself.
Later, Retta’s brother Will moved to Georgia and became a supporter of white supremacist ideology. In the early 1960s, Will sent Retta screeds about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. Aunt Retta and my mother were vocal in their outrage. I remember as a teenager reading an abhorrent, shocking KKK brochure he’d sent to Retta about MLK. I’d never before read anything remotely like it. I read it with fear and horror. Great Uncle Will visited once, out of the blue, to see Retta at my parents’ house in the 1960s. I was briefly introduced to a tall and lanky man with a heavy Southern accent who looked like Jim Keenan.
I find myself wondering if the importance of telling Aunt Retta’s story is to remind our widening family that we value taking care of each other as best we can. Retta and Jim seemed to know instinctively how to care for their extended family. As Bunty wrote in a 2003 letter to his nephew David Fay, Retta and Jim were “two indomitable spirits with generous hearts.”
The stressors were relentless for a while – the death of Margaret Fay in the depth of the Depression; the grief of Bill Fay and his children; Bill’s persistent joblessness and struggles with alcohol; foreclosure on the Brooklyn house for which Jim and Retta had provided the down payment (per Barbara Johnston); financial hardship; Jimmie’s illness; and World War II. Throughout it all, Retta was a backbone of loyalty and goodness. Bill and Margaret Fay’s kids pressed on and took care of each other. Jimmie (Margaret) and Barbara played their own part in making the closeness the family needed. Later Bunty Fay worked to help his sisters through college. Perhaps it is good that families talk about how they value pulling together and that they have valued this for generations. These days, we have so little of a tribe. Through the generations, we each are a guardian of this flame and can try to live up to the example of others like Retta to care for each other. We stand on the memory of those special people who keep the ties strong and have done so in the past. We are beneficiaries of the distant effects of great acts of kindness.
Dear readers: This history is my recollections and an amalgam of family stories I believe to be true. If readers know I have misremembered facts, please let me know so I can correct things. I have taken ideas I like from a number of sources, family and otherwise. To my cousin, Mark Fay, my heartfelt gratitude and great indebtedness for his remarkable work gathering the family history. With thanks and love to all, Martha Johnston Young.