herald

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Gran's great romance crossed time and an ocean

'CHRISTINA wasn't the type to look back, her attitude was more 'I'm here now, so I'm going to make the best of it'," says Anne Jove of her grandmother, who took the SMS Baltic from Cobh when she was little more than a slip of a girl at age 16 in 1929 to start a new life in New York.

"She got a job as a nanny and maid for a family in Manhattan but she hated it because the children were spoiled brats and she only got four hours off on a Sunday.

"Then with her sister Kit, who went to America with her, she got a job waitressing at a self-serve restaurant, Schraff's Automat," Anne says of her Irish granny, who hailed from Maryrath in Co Westmeath and who went on to raise her six children, one boy and five girls, in the Bronx.

Anne is the daughter of Christina's youngest child, Geraldine. "My grandmother's home in the Bronx was filled with pictures of Ireland and with Waterford Crystal on the shelves, and she had two Sacred Heart of Jesus pictures on the wall in her living room which had those bleeding hearts and which used to scare me as a child," she says.

Anne (23) is doing a masters in medieval history in Trinity and has helped organise a new exhibition about the Irish in America called Your Huddled Masses, and which is on display in The Little Museum of Dublin at No 15 St Stephen's Green. Anne, who lives with her mum Geraldine, a retired nurse, and dad Julius, a lawyer, in Fairfield in Connecticut, says Paddy's Day is her favourite 'holiday' of the year.

"When I was little I wore my grandad's tricolour scarf around my neck watching the parade go down what's known as The Green Mile in New York."

She did Irish dancing for four years growing up, and recently attended a 'Gathering' for her granny Christina's family, the Foxes in Co Offaly.

She has put together An Emigrant Love Story as part of the exhibition at The Little Museum, which tells of the romance between her granny, Christina Fox, and her grandad, Michael Gaffney, who hailed from Cross Keys, Co Cavan and whose ship fare to the States was paid for by his cousin Patrick Cooke. Michael got a job mixing cement when he first arrived safely on the shores of America.

He was the fifth of 12 children and immediately began sending home money to his parents and siblings.

"We have ledgers in which we can see him listing down his groceries and the prices of everything he was buying so it seems there was a lot of maths calculation going on in his first years in the States. And yet he managed to regularly send money home and we have receipts showing him sending $398 back in his first few years, which would have been a considerable amount in 1930," Anne says.

The exhibition includes a photo of Michael looking handsome, well-polished and in a good suit and looking fairly prosperous. "They would have had studio photos taken after their arrival in America to send home to their families to show them how well they were doing," Anne says.

There were a couple of detours along the way to saying 'I do' at the altar in New York in 1943. Christina first struck up a romance with an Irish man she met on a ship going home for a visit in 1939, but he died of appendicitis. A mass card for him was found in her belongings when she passed away in 2000.

 

Letter

Michael was chased by a woman in his youth and who wrote him a love letter in which she described a weekend away with her friends and during which she had spent all her time thinking about him.

"She laid it on quite thick about how fond of him she was," Anne says of her grandfather's romance. "It seems at the time he felt he didn't have enough money to marry her yet he kept the love letter which was found when he died. So she meant enough to him for him not to throw the letter out."

Cupid's arrow finally struck for Christina and Michael when they met through Christina's sister Beatrice, who was also living in New York. By this stage Christina had moved up in the world and, along with her sister Kit, was running a beauty parlour called Violet's.

"Their sister Ann had emigrated to the States before them and she was a hairdresser and manicurist. When Christina and Kit were waitressing she offered to help them out by getting them trained in hair and nails and they went to work in a place called Violet's which was owned by a Polish woman," Anne says.

"They took it over when the original owner left and Kit in particular took to what was known back then as the 'beauty parlour'. She was thrilled to send home a photo of herself with waved hair and wearing lipstick and looking pretty glamorous. Her mother, though, reacted in horror when she saw Kit was using hair-dye and wore red lipstick," she laughs.

Michael had found himself a maintenance job in Seton Hospital, Manhattan, and had begun working on heating systems and boilers. He later studied to become a licensed engineer and raised his six children while maintaining heating systems in hospitals around New York City.

Anne feels her grandparents got their American dream. Their six children were well educated and moved up the professional ladder.

Anne wears a medal of the Virgin Mary around her neck which originally belonged to her grandmother, Christina.

"I'm an only child and for a while Christina lived with us and we became very close, and I wear her medal to keep her close to me."

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