At some point while at home in lockdown, I found in my closet a fading portfolio. Inside was everything I wrote as a child from illustrated stories to fledgling “novels” I’d forced my mom to dictate and type up. Among them was an unfinished story I didn’t write, though it was about the kind of stuff I wrote as a kid, a Depression-era period piece (lol at that statement). Who else was clever enough to have my graphic designer mom type it up & format it to look like a book on Quark Express? I soon realized it was not a period piece, but the start of a memoir. The author is the woman in these images, the woman I called “Nanny” whose real name was “Mickey” whose REAL name was “Rosemarie”. Still with me?
Mickey was born “on the first floor of a cold-water flat” and on her birth certificate was written Rosemarie Coffey, but her father decided to call her Mickey because she looked “like an Irish Mick” (it’s not offensive if you say it about your own). Her unusual name like a prophecy, nothing about her was ever by the book. A Shirley Temple of her family both in golden ringlets and optimistic glow, she played highly imaginative games on the stoop with the neighborhood children, put on talent shows, and hosted their own ‘World’s Fair’. She spent entire days at the movies and dreamt of being on the silver screen one day.
Voted “Wittiest” in high school, she was a magnet for friends—her older siblings often tagged along with her crowd. She adored her sister Grace. As young women, they prioritized travelling together over all the conventions of life that were expected of them. They’d work a job for three months, then quit to jet set. Mickey went to finishing school, dreamed of being a dancer, actress, world traveler, and lamented that she wasn’t tall enough to be a Rockette. When she worked at a bank, her boss was so impressed with her, he said the bank would pay for her tuition to study finance at Pace University in the evenings, a rare opportunity for a woman of her means. She replied immediately thanks, but she was already enrolled somewhere: the Mapuana School of Hawaiian Dance. To her mother’s relief, she did finally marry in her early thirties, finding her match in a man whose name was—it writes itself—“Jimmy Fantastic”.
One of Mickey’s quirks was her superstitiousness. When my mom told her I was due to be born on April thirteenth, she had the doctor change it. This is where my dedication to her began: I waited another week to clear the unlucky date. When my brother was diagnosed with autism as a toddler and my parents had their hands full with his care/appointments/three kids under three, Nanny took me under her wing. I spent many perfect and lovely days with her and my grandfather in their apartment. Play was a craft, and I was her apprentice. I’ll never forget the first laugh I ever got. I was playing a diner owner, and she and my grandfather were customers. They ordered oatmeal, to which I said, “We’re all out.” When they looked perplexed by my choice to withhold oatmeal that didn’t even (ever) exist and asked me where it went, three or four-year-old me replied, “My mother-in-law ate it.” She burst into laughter and kept re-recovering from that laugh all afternoon, sighing and wiping away laughter-induced tears. Of course I wasn’t trying to be funny; I was only living truthfully under imaginary circumstances and repeating a word I heard adults use. But I think that milestone—first line—meant more to Nanny than any.
She was desperate to get me into show business, but I was no obvious candidate. I was painfully shy outside of the safety of our living room repertory theatre. I all but clung to the wall in my dance classes while she watched hopefully through that wide observation window. But at home, I had full-fledged characters, funny voices, and bits. I leapt along to the Riverdance VHS tape, imitating Jean Butler’s ankle swivels and remarkably stoic face. And Nanny was always beaming, laughing, clapping—the only audience I needed—saying, Good show! Good show!
She showed me old movies, musicals, The Carol Burnett Show. She & Carol Burnett were born on the same day—and Nanny was as funny. We loved that Ms. Burnett was raised by her grandmother whom she also called Nanny, that the special ear-tug at the end of each show was to say hello to her. Nanny wrote to Carol to say how much we loved watching tapes of the show together. It’s hard to say who was more thrilled when Carol wrote back. Nanny loved celebrity. She adored Vivien Leigh, Frank Sinatra, had a portrait of JFK hanging in the apartment like many an Irish Catholic. She once got me a little doll with red curly hair and we decided, together, to name her Bernadette (after Ms. Peters). I was stunned when my first grade classmates hadn’t heard of these people. It never occurred to me that I was the odd one, being raised on ‘30s and ‘70s culture. We played jacks on the kitchen linoleum, had toast with butter and jam, and sat on her bed and played with her jewelry box. I asked her to tell the same stories every time about where she got each piece, each fabulous ring, each eccentric pin—my favorite was the scarecrow with the gold fringe. I could tell she loved repeating the stories as much I as I loved hearing them. It was like our rosary, the spoken ritual of it.
When we went for afternoon walks, she always had me step over the cracks in the sidewalk, and if we should encounter any ladders, not to walk under them…in the same way she felt strongly about no new shoes on the table, no plants inside the house, nothing painted green. Her word was gospel. And though I wouldn’t call myself superstitious now, I am rather stitious. She’d stop to talk to every single person we met, introducing me as Her Madelyn Rose. I straddled the sidewalk cracks while she chatted away with friends, strangers, shop-owners, local politicians, pharmacists. I was never bored; this was my chance to observe her. She loved people, wanted to know their stories. I was looking up at her, just as fascinated. She’d laugh and say in her lovely voice, Well howdoyelikethat? and we’d be off to the next scene, me mimicking the hip-swaying walk that she adopted in her model-training days.
She was the only grandparent I knew who dressed up with us kids for Halloween. And let me be absolutely clear about this: I don’t mean that safe hint of a costume that adults sometimes allow themselves: a pair of cat ears, a black and orange sweater, a witch hat if they’re daring. I don’t even mean something that went with any of our costumes. Nanny dressed headpiece-to-costume-shoed toe in her own full get-up. I distinctly remember a hand-sewn pilgrim fresh off the Mayflower costume, and a Queen of Hearts ensemble complete with a gown, red cloak, tiara, and heart-shaped magic wand. I should also mention that it’s only in hindsight that this makes me laugh or even gives me pause. There’s a kind of blinding magic to people who live so unapologetically, who manage to keep their playfulness beyond childhood.
Nanny was confident about most everything but had anxiety about doctors, placing all her trust in patron saints. She was devoted to so many and would tell you who could help with what ailment. But despite her faith and her daily walks, after a short period of not feeling well, she went to a doctor. She was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, given a number of months to live. She had a stroke which clouded her memory and softened her grief. I visited her in the hospital. We didn’t know each other. She told me a wild story about how she was a bag lady being chased through the Victorian streets of Ocean Grove—it was nonsensical, but cinematic. It was upsetting to the adults, but felt on brand to me! A hospital bed soon dwarfed the living room where we’d played pretend and slipped photos out of heavy albums for closer viewing. For several months, she was between worlds. Her lovely hair was gone, which she had always said with a wink was blonde by the bottle. Some of what she murmured made me think she was back in that cold-water flat in the ‘30s. She mentioned her father to me as if I knew him, gestured as if he was in the other room.
She died on this day—January thirteenth (God is witty too) fifteen years ago. Because I was eleven, I often wonder what fun we would have gotten up to as I grew up. I wished she would’ve seen me on stage and that we might’ve worked out a secret signal like Carol Burnett and her Nanny. She’d be ninety. Would we be crying at the end of Waterloo Bridge together or singing Rodgers & Hammerstein? Would we be writing something together or each other’s first readers?
I wonder too if my career choice was all her influence, if I would’ve been anything she wanted me to be. So much of me is rooted in those hours we spent together. I didn’t know, however, that she started to write a book and had the same urge to document that I’ve always had. At eleven, I thought our time together was cut short, so many blank pages left, like her book. I saved little things of hers and this rose from her funeral, hoping they’d hold some of her magic. Now I see our time as a perfect, closed chapter. My memories of Mickey are all surrounded in the warm, amber haze of childhood.👂🏻👌🏻
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