My grandmother came over from Ireland as a young girl, was a devout Catholic and could easily tell a white lie. Winnie, as she was called by family and friends, married a quiet man, raised twin girls and had a secret crush on one of Hollywood’s tough guys.
Years ago I recorded an interview with my grandmother for a writing class I was taking. I found the cassette tape last summer while going through boxes in my basement. Not only was it wonderful to hear her voice again, it brought back many lovely memories. I was 27 then, and my grandmother was 94. The next year, she died.
For 90 minutes Winnie answered my questions in her pleasant tone and with self-deprecating humor. My grandmother told me stories about her life and discussed some of the hardships she faced. We touched on many subjects that afternoon in her kitchen — her loving Irish family, the joy she found in painting and playing bridge, her husband’s taxing illness, her unshakable faith in God.
After she passed, Winnie’s name continually came up during holiday dinners at my aunt’s house in West Hempstead. We would reminisce about all her funny antics and willful ways. (She always had a good clean joke ready for us in addition to her famous deviled eggs.) One of the highlights was when she went to James Cagney’s funeral Mass and was interviewed by a news reporter.
After listening to the tape again recently, I Googled my grandmother’s church in Forest Hills. A few churches popped up in the area, but the addresses didn’t look right. So I typed in “James Cagney funeral Mass.” A news video on YouTube about his funeral in 1986 popped up, and I clicked on it. It showed pallbearers carrying the actor’s coffin, among them Mikhail Baryshnikov. To my surprise, the next scene was my grandmother’s face with a caption that read “Winifred Sprague, Childhood Friend.” She was being interviewed by the TV reporter outside the church. With a straight face, my grandmother was telling the reporter how Cagney “was always such a regular guy … very earthy. No make-believe about anything … and everybody loved him.”
I was shocked to see my grandmother on a news video. As soon as my husband walked in the door, I told him that Winnie was on a YouTube video. More tech-savvy than me, he quickly sent the video to my sister and cousin. In the footage, the narrator says that Cagney chose to have his Mass at the church where he served as a young altar boy in the East Side neighborhood where he grew up. A photo of the church appeared, but it didn’t look like my grandmother’s church, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs. After text exchanges with my sister and cousin, I mentioned that I didn’t recognize the church in the video.
A few minutes later my cousin replied that the church my grandmother had gone to that day was actually St. Francis de Sales Church on 96th Street in Manhattan. For a minute I was taken aback. Then I remembered an old conversation at my aunt’s house when she said that her friend had seen my grandmother being interviewed on TV. When she was asked about it, Winnie replied that she had walked over to her church a few blocks away to attend James Cagney’s funeral. In actuality, it turned out that my 88-year-old grandmother had taken a cab from Forest Hills to the Upper East Side to pay her respects to a man she'd never met.
Over the years I thought I knew what captured my grandmother’s heart. She loved spending time with family and friends, telling jokes, and painting Vermont landscapes. But I never knew how she felt about James Cagney.
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