I had an old great-aunt. She was my grandfather’s sister. Her name was
Mary Jane Byrne
but we called her Jane Jane. When I first encountered her, in the 1950s, I was a little child and she was ancient—about 60.
She lived in New York and went to a local parish, St. Vincent Ferrer. When I was little she told me it was the pennies of immigrants that made that great church. I asked why they did that. She said, “To show love for God. And to show the Protestants we’re here, and we have real estate too.”
She came to America about 1915, an Irish immigrant girl of around 20 from a rocky little patch in the west of Ireland. She came by herself, landed at Ellis Island and went to Brooklyn like everyone else. She settled in a neighborhood near the old Navy Yard, where relatives put her up on the couch.
She dropped her bags and went straight to Manhattan, where the jobs were, and became a maid for a family on Park Avenue. She lived in a little room on the side. In time she became a ladies’ maid, learning to care for a wardrobe and jewelry and brush the lady’s hair. She respected her work and came to love the finer things. When they got thrown away she’d bring them home and we’d have them. I remember a cracked hairbrush, made from real tortoiseshell, with beige bristles.
On days off she’d visit us in Brooklyn, and later on Long Island, in Massapequa, where my family moved and I went to public school. She’d sleep on the couch in our living room. As is often true with immigrant families, ours was somewhat turbulent, but Jane Jane was peaceful and orderly. If we were together on a Sunday, she took me to Mass. I loved it. They had bells and candles and smoke and shadows and they sang. The church changed that a bit over the years, but we lost a lot when we lost the showbiz. Because, of course, it wasn’t only showbiz. To a child’s eyes, my eyes, it looked as if either you go to church because you’re nice or you go and it makes you nice but either way it’s good.
Jane Jane carried Mass cards and rosary beads—the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Blessed Mother, the saints. She’d put the cards on a mirror, hang the rosary beads on a bedstead. I look back and think, wherever she went she was creating an altar. To this day when I am in the home of newcomers to America, when I see cards, statues and Jesus candles, I think: I’m…