ROOTS: PATERNAL

Years ago when the New York Daily News, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, printed a map of Ireland showing where families originated, I was delighted to see my surname on a little dot of land off the coast of County Down.  Both my parents’ forebears were Irish, but my father’s name, Copeland, was suspiciously British — not considered an advantage in some quarters. Later, I discovered the dot was Copeland Island — surely a sign that my family had an auspicious beginning — with its own private land mass. Then I considered the possibility that Copelands rowing over from the British Isles weren’t allowed to come any closer.

Now I know there are actually three small islands:  Big Copeland, Lighthouse Island, and Mew Island. Over a century ago, Lighthouse Island had a population of about 100 and a schoolmaster teaching 28 pupils.  Today, the islands are nature sanctuaries, and a ferry carries passengers to  Mew Island where a new lighthouse was built. My great grandfather, James, was born in northern Ireland . I haven’t found his family history yet, but hope to research it someday. And maybe take that ferry ride.

Ben and Mary Ann (Kelly) Copeland , my grandparents, were memorable enough for me. Ben’s father’s first wife died, leaving several children, and he married Matilda, who gave birth to Ben and his sister. When Ben’s mother died he, his sister and step-siblings were sent to an orphan asylum, coming home when my great grand-father married again — a titillating family story. A treasured photograph of  my great grandparents is shown above — one of my father’s sisters cut off the first wife’s picture, and attached one of  the second wife’s instead.

I heard Grandpa worked at a race track when young, and was impressed he’d  been a jockey — his height and build fit the profile.  He’d actually been a trainer and groomer, but did ride to exercise horses. Then in the 1910 census he was reported to be a marble cutter. Later, he owned  a convenience store in New York City and the family lived behind it, now including my father and his two younger sisters. WWI troops passing through were good customers, and Ben prospered. He sold candy, too, and to the envy of my friends, I boasted my grandfather had owned a candy store.

Mary Ann worked in a garment shop in the city when she was about 10 years old — hard for me to imagine as a fifth grader with only homework and light chores to interfere with play.  Grandma was a serious person most of her life, with a regular schedule for laundry, ironing, cleaning, polishing and even window washing — frightening me as she perched perilously on a sill two stories high. A favorite story was the one about my grandparents, in their courting days, winning a waltz contest.  I could picture Grandpa waltzing, but somehow it was a leap of faith to picture Mary Ann dancing at all, though she mellowed considerably in later life. Mary Ann, called Mamie, and Ben later bought a two-family house  in Queens, and until he sold the store my grandfather stayed at the shop, commuting home on weekends.

Maternal and paternal roots entwined soon after.  My mother’s brother, John, and his bride, Hortense, rented the first floor, and he told my mom the upstairs siblings missed the city and needed friends.  So my mother invited my dad and sisters to a party.  To thank her, my father took her to a Broadway play, the smash hit, “The Cat and the Canary.” It wasn’t just good manners. The rest is family history. They had a big disagreement and broke up for a year — my mother admitted she crossed the street to avoid him. They made up, but my dad lost most of his money in the 1929 stock market crash, postponing their wedding another year, thereby delaying my arrival till 1931. When I found out about this, I couldn’t help thinking I might have had an older sibling to take some pressure off me.  It was hard to keep setting a good example for my brother and sister.

After dinner at my grandparents’ house, it became the custom for me to take my little sister behind the portieres — long, red velvet room dividers — open them dramatically, and entertain the family with our improvised, free-style dances on a patch of wood floor. The laughter and applause were addictive, and may explain my life-long love of theatre, beginning with plays from “Jack and Jill” magazine performed in my garage, a big blanket serving as a curtain.  Of course, I cast, rehearsed, directed, and starred, as well as collected the nickel admission from neighbors sitting in the driveway.

My grandparents’ big, fluffy white dog, Laddie, was another attraction at my grandparents’ home. I’d  sneak off to pet the gentle animal, then swipe his soft, cotton bed liner.  I liked to smell it and hold it to my face as I sucked my thumb — which was verboten then. I’d been weaned early and pacifiers weren’t invented yet. In fact, my mother was advised to apply iodine to discourage the habit.  I was soon eventually discovered with the dog’s blanket and that was the end of that pleasure. But I sucked my thumb when I could till I went to school. Obviously, prohibition often results in the opposite desired effect.

Grandpa often came alone to our house in Queens, riding two buses to get there. He enjoyed minding me and my sister, giving our mom the afternoon off. I heard him tell her “That woman tried to pull the pants off me again to throw in the wash. I had to get out.” My sister and I would wait on the sidewalk to watch for him coming down the block, and called out joyfully when we saw him coming down the street with the bright balloons he always carried.  They usually popped in less than an hour, sometimes in a few minutes.  But he never stopped bringing them.

Grandpa Beatty and Grandpa Copeland became close friends and often enjoyed playing card games with other pals. But my dad’s father had a sudden fatal heart attack in his mid-sixties while walking Laddie one evening.  A neighbor saw him fall onto sidewalk shrubbery and ran to tell the family.  The bushes were bent in the shape of his body, and my grandmother and aunts were chilled  each time they passed the spot. He’d lived to see my brother born 10 months earlier, but it was generally acknowledged that he  doted on my three-year-old sister, Mary Beth, who had inherited his Mamie’s fine features and petite frame.

 

Grandma lived to be 90 — and as I said, softened over the years.  She disapproved of alcohol in general, but offered wine to company as she aged, though she never indulged.  She’d always been frugal, but kept a supply of quarters and gave one to each  grandchild each visit. My sister kept an overflowing jar of quarters on her bureau.  I didn’t need a jar since I took my shiny coin to the candy store the next day. We grew up to practice the same styles of money management.

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