In Memoriam Delia Kennedy Shea
SEPTEMBER 19, 1924 – SEPTEMBER 5, 2013
My mother, Delia Kennedy, was born on September 19, 1924, in Kilfillig, Mountbellew – a small village of six houses, 30 miles from Galway City. She had three brothers and two sisters whom she stayed in touch with throughout her life. Her parents were known as kind and gentle people who were strong and resilient.
When she was 23, Delia immigrated to Ticonderoga, New York with her sister May. Their departure from Ireland had been delayed because of World War II. I once asked Delia if she was bored while she was waiting to get her visa. She looked at me like I was crazy.
“Mary, on a farm back then there was so much work to be done we were never bored.” Then she sighed. Hard times were always at the back of Delia’s mind – even when things were going well.
Delia and May (who was a big part of Delia’s life until she passed away in 1981) came to live with an aunt and uncle in Ticonderoga, a small town of 5,000 people 240 miles from New York City.
The relatives were kind and there was no shortage of jobs – the sisters worked at the local hospital, and the Utica sheet factory, and did night and weekend babysitting – but Ticonderoga wasn’t New York, and that’s where Delia and May wanted to be.
As luck would have it, a woman May babysat for, offered her a full time position in Manhattan. May said she’d take the job if she could bring her sister. “Bring your sister and we’ll find something for her as well,” came the answer.
Delia became a live-in nanny to Barbara Tuchman’s two children. (Mrs. Tuchman was a famous author and historian). The Tuchmans were very nice to her. So nice that in the summer when the family went on vacation, Delia went with them. Mr. Tuchman would drive Delia to church, wait for her outside and drive her home again.
But kind as the Tuchmans were, Delia found living-in confining. She got herself a job at the Barbizon Plaza Hotel on Central Park South (the first music-art residence in the U.S.) Throughout their lives Delia and May had a great fondness for the hotel and the many friends they met there.
Delia didn’t know how to break the news to the Tuchmans that she was leaving, so she left in the dead of night without telling them.
Once they were settled in New York, the sisters did all the things that Irish singles did back then – Gaelic Park on Sundays for the games, and the Jaeger House for dances. Their lives mirrored the song, “When New York was Irish.” It was a time when boys and girls from Galway and Mayo, and all over Ireland, came out to stay and take on a new life in America. (There was no pining for the old country for Delia, who took to America with gusto and always said she loved New York City.)
Soon, Delia met Dan Shea from Cahirciveen, Co. Kerry. They married in 1954, had four children – myself, Anne, Pat and Tom – and lived on 97th Street in Manhattan.
We all have very fond memories of that time in the city with Delia and Dan.
We remember the weekly trip to the A&P with Delia, pulling the cart home and bringing all the groceries up four flights of stairs; the yearly trip to 14th Street to get the Easter outfits (for some reason in our house, Easter was bigger than Christmas); the yearly trip to 116th Street for the Christmas presents. The picnics in Central Park — and the Sunday afternoon trips to the bar that Dad owned.
Ours was a happy house. We never had a baby sitter and Delia was always at the door to greet us when we returned home from school.
After I moved to San Francisco, Delia’s house was always a place for me, my husband Tom, and our children, Neil, Jenny and Julie, to come home to.
Delia had a great capacity for friendship, and made many friends throughout her life – Nancy Foye, Bridie Downing, Kitty O’Dea, Margaret Houghton, Mary Nolan, Bridie Stundon and Mary Raftery. I could go on with names, but suffice it to say 71 E. 97th Street was a building with 24 apartments, 20 of which were Irish occupied.
After 15 wonderful years we left 97th Street and moved to Woodside, Queens. (Dan bought his first bar in 1961 and owned, over the course of his life, nine bars – eight in Queens). Delia got a part-time job working for John, a fabric supplier. She stayed there for 15 years and retired at 65. John did not want her to leave.
Delia began to travel – mainly trips with the Franciscans to various religious shrines. She most notably went to Jerusalem. We all have strong memories of this trip because she came back laden with T-shirts emblazoned with either “Jerusalem” or a Star of David. They were cheap.
Nowadays, there’s a big push on about recycling. Delia was ahead of the curve. We almost never bought it, so we didn’t need to recycle it. If we did buy something, it was always reused – including wax paper and aluminum foil.
While thrifty, Delia was extremely generous with her time. She washed and ironed my sister Anne’s nursing uniforms for years. She made many a family dinner. She enjoyed having her grandchildren for sleepovers. There was nothing Delia liked better than sitting on a park bench. Minding her grandkids gave her the opportunity to do just that.
Though she was industrious, Delia always rushed through housework. We used to joke that her motto was “Hurry up so we can sit down and do nothing.”
Six years ago, Delia began to develop Alzheimer’s, which grew progressively worse. Our brother Pat became her caretaker, and Delia was able to stay in her own home. While Pat was the linchpin, it takes a village. Delia’s village included her son Tom, his wife Cathy, and their now grown children, Shanna, Kristie, Veronica and Daniel; and Anne, her husband Sean Flynn and their boys, Sean, Brendan and Brian. And in her last year, a wonderful caregiver, Lorelei Fitzgerald.
Anne was always only a phone call away and she stopped by to see mother several times a week. Sean Flynn was always there for any handyman duties. The Flynn boys were always available for rides and visits. Tom Shea, even though he lived over 60 miles away, came once a week. Cathy and the girls and Danny helped tremendously with Delia and Dan (who passed away last February at age 90), lightening the load on Pat. And Lorelei was there every weekday to give a hand.
Delia was much loved, and the environment that her family created for her in her final years gave testament to that. She was a perfect mother and that is not an exaggeration. She was a woman of strong character who had a great capacity for giving of herself; everything good in life we have learned from her.
We will miss her always.
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Peter Garland says
Barbara Tuchman is a very famous American historian. I hope your relative left her a note! I’m sure she did.
Thanks for a very-well-written and beautiful memoir.
I’m an Irish immigrant and am writing a memoir about an American teacher I had, Irish-American – a genius!
Best wishes, tagus dut.