- Da Capo Press
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- 6.36(w) x 9.36(h) x 1.11(d)
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I have a marker in my head of March 17, 1973. Everything in my memory is either before or after that date. After that date, my life was changed forever.
Rosie O'Donnell, July 1996
In the early 1970s, life was full of concerns, priorities and interests that seem both passe and irrelevant to life today. For example, globally, in mid-March 1973 representatives of the United States and 13 other key trading nations were meeting in Paris, France to discuss ways to counteract economic reverberations due to excess U.S. dollars abroad. Across the world, in Saigon, the Vietcong were accusing the U.S. of shipping war materials into South Vietnam, skirting the inspection procedures required by the cease-fire agreement. A few weeks later, after a decade of fighting in Vietnam, weary American troops would be withdrawn from the war-devastated area and the North Vietnamese would release the lastaccording to themAmerican prisoners of war.
Back in the United States in March 1973, Congress was proposing bans on meat exports to curb rising consumer prices. President Nixon's administration was urging Congress to sanction a $300 million loan guarantee to revive Amtrak, the nation's passenger train service, while the recently negotiated national railroad labor contract would provide a 10.7% wage and benefit increase for over 500,000 workers in 15 unions. Meanwhile, in the escalating Watergate scandal, the White House had just announced that the prior offer, by Acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray, to permit U.S. Senators to examine privately the crucial Watergate files was no longer an option.
In Connecticut, at this time, two self-proclaimed "unfrocked Byzantine Priests" were being charged in federal court of stealing valuable antique books, manuscripts and atlases from the Yale University Library which, for years, they'd been selling on the black market. In New York, the Big Apple's Mayor John V. Lindsay revealed that the city would fight a proposal that the state take over the city's off-track betting operation.
Saturday, March 17, 1973 was a rainy day on the eastern seaboard, punctuated by thunderstorms and, at times, very heavy winds. Nevertheless, in New York City, 800,000 hearty souls, undaunted by the adverse weather, gathered on the streets for the 311th annual St. Patrick's Day parade. The onlookers were ready to cheer the 120,000 marchersincluding members of 197 bands from seven stateswho were being led by this year's grand marshal, John W. Duffy. Less adventurous New Yorkers ducked out of the inclement weather to attend Radio City Music Hall's spectacular stage show ("Glory of Easter") and to enjoy the movie (the musical Tom Sawyer) on the Hall's giant screen. Other entertainment options included seeing Jack Lemmon onscreen in the drama Save the Tiger or the new chiller The Vault of Horror with Curt Jurgens. For children, several neighborhood cinemas were offering special matinees of Son of Lassie.
For those in the tri-state area who remained home that rainy day, television offered on-the-street coverage of the five-hour Irish parade. On the tube, marchers strode past the reviewing stand on the steps at Manhattan's St. Patrick's Cathedral where Cardinal Cooke, the special honorary grand marshal, stood under a black umbrella. Later that weekend day, TV viewers had a choice of such evening fare as the sitcom The Partridge Family and the detective drama Griff (with Lorne Greene) on ABC or the hospital show Emergency (with Robert Fuller and Julie London) followed by a network movie on NBC. However, most TV watchers tuned to the CBS-TV network with its unbeatable Saturday night programming lineup of All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show and The Carol Burnett Show.
Despite the festivities and holiday distractions offered on this March 17, one middle-class family in Commack, Long Island had no cause to celebrate 1973's Wearing of the Green, even though it was an Irish Catholic household and its head, Edward J. O'Donnell, was Irish-born. For this St. Patrick's day, 39-year-old O'Donnell, who designed cameras for spy satellites at the nearby Grumman airplane plant, lost his wife, Roseann, age 38. Grief-stricken Edward was inconsolable, as were his five children (Eddie Jr., Danny, Roseann, Maureen, Timmy) and his widowed mother-in-law, Kathryn Murtha, who lived with them.
Mrs. O'Donnell's death was neither sudden nor unexpected. Several months earlier, she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer of the liver and pancreas and, as the deadly disease took its painful final course, she had been repeatedly hospitalized. During this protracted ordeal, the numbed Mr. O'Donnell coped with his wife's fatal sickness mostly by not dealing with it, turning increasingly inward, and becoming emotionally inaccessible to his dazed family.
Taciturn Edward O'Donnell had reacted to his wife's plight by burying himself in work and relying on hard drink to ease his pain. Locked in his emotional shell, he could not bring himself to discuss his wife's negative prognosis with the children, even refusing to label her diagnosis as cancer. Thus, for the five young O'Donnellsranging in age from twelve (Eddie) to seven (Timmy)the months preceding their mother's death were bewildering on the surface and full of denial on a subconscious level. All of the kids suspected or inwardly knew their bedridden mother was seriously ill. However, they never fully comprehended or consciously accepted that the sickness which increasingly caused her to withdraw from everyday family life was linked to dreaded cancer.
For ten-year-old Roseann, the middle of the five O'Donnell children, her mother's vague ailment was exceedingly painful. Far more than her three brothers or 15-month-younger sister, Maureen, young Roseann was extremely close to her mom. They shared so many similar interests: the theater and movies, pop music and an adoration of Barbra Streisand. Most of all, this tomboyish girl had inherited her mother's sense of humor and a love of making people laugh.
As Mrs. O'Donnell grew increasingly immobilized, little Roseann did everything possible to take over her mom's household chores. When not attending fifth grade classes or helping out at home, this child tried her best to keep her ailing parent (and herself) diverted. Years later, she'd recall, "I refused to believe my mom was dying, I wanted to keep her laughing."
Even when Mrs. O'Donnell was hospitalized for her final, full-time period at Huntington Hospital in Huntington Station, the young Roseann and her siblings refused to acknowledge openly their mother's critical condition. Instead, they insisted to one another and to others that, of course, she would get better ... she just had to! Meanwhile, their daily routine now included visiting their failing mother at the medical facility some twenty miles away. The future star has remembered, "At the time, you weren't allowed to go in if you were under 12 so the nurses would sneak us up in the emergency-room elevator." This little "game" was one of the many ways in which the O'Donnell youths disguised the seriousness of the situation.
Then came the fateful March 17, 1973, four days before young Roseann's eleventh birthday. Her father broke his increasing silence with the family by announcing to the perplexed children that their mother had just died. Years later, O'Donnell would say, "My father told me, `Your mother passed away,' and I didn't know what that meant. And that was the end of the discussion." Even at this critical moment, Edward's extensive denial with his loved ones kept him from going into particulars about the funeral arrangements at the Clayton Funeral Home on Meadow Road in Kings Park, let alone acknowledging that his wife was a cancer victim.
Decades later, a still-traumatized O'Donnell would explain, "The family has been brought up to ignore the elephant standing on the kitchen table. For instance, when my mother died, I didn't even know what she died of until I was 16 [and a neighbor blurted out the truth to the unsuspecting teenager at a local bike-a-thon for the American Cancer Society]. They told us she died of hepatitis. Figuring we were little and wouldn't know what that meant. I looked it up. I was in fifth grade, and it said a disease you get through dirty needles. I remember thinking, in a 10-year-old's rationalization and justification, that it was from sewing."
Making the loss even more unreal to the children, the deeply brooding Edward decided that his offspring should not attend Mrs. O'Donnell's funeral at Christ the King Roman Catholic Church. Added to this, he immediately got rid of all his late wife's personal possessions. According to O'Donnell in 1996, "... there was sort of the removal of everything `her' from the house in some kind of tragically wrong 1970s version of grieving that my father partook in. There was nothing left. I only have two pictures of her and none of her things. No jewelry, nothing." (At one time O'Donnell proudly wore a ring that had belonged to her mom. However, it was stolen while she was on a ski holiday in 1990.)
Not having any kind of closure to her mom's passing, Roseann refused to accept that her mother was truly gone. "For a long time," as she told People magazine in 1992, "I didn't believe it. Patty Hearst had just been kidnapped, so I came up with a fantasy that that was what had happened to my mom too, and nobody was telling us [differently]." On other occasions, highly sensitive Roseann fantasized that her mother, perhaps, tired of bringing up five children, had run off to California, but one day would certainly return. For years thereafter, she found herself imagining that her mom was always theresomewhere ... somehowwatching over her. If the youngster played basketball, she would tell herself that her mother was in the stands watching.
These fabrications were intertwined with Roseann's idolization of her late mother. As she has explained it, "You know, when someone dies you make them a saint. I think what I remember of my mother is half fantasy. I never really thought of her as a grown-up, but as the Sainted Child Mommy who died." Another time, this bereft daughter would observe, "It's funny: When your mother dies before your adolescence, you have a child's image of your mom. In adolescence, you go through puberty, you rebel against your mom, you separate, and you come back, hopefully, in your late teens, early 20s, as friends. Well, if you never got to do that, you always idolize your mother, you know? The first time I ever thought of my mom as a full human being was when I held my son [in 1995]. And I realized that she felt all these things for me and for my siblings. And that she knew she was going to die and leave us, and what could that have been like for her? And that's when I started seeing her as a woman as opposed to a child's version of mommy."
It was awful enough for Roseann to lose one parent. However, in effect, she and her brothers and sister virtually also "lost" their dad, if not in body, then in spirit. According to the comedian in a 1996 US magazine interview: "It's very hard not to have a mom. Especially when you have a father who is incredibly grief-stricken, introverted, not expressive of his feelings and very traditionally Catholic who is struggling to get through in his own way, which meant not necessarily nurturing his children."
In short, Mr. O'Donnell, who was away during the workday, was hardly more visible once he returned to the house each night. To the kids, he seemed perpetually "away" in his own little world, unable or unwilling to exert a healing guidance to his devastated family. As one of the O'Donnells' former neighbors at the time recently told the media: "We heard he often left the kids to fend for themselves."
This unremitting, strained situation would have a profound effect on Roseann'sand her siblings'ongoing relationship with their dad. In fact, its scarring effect on her would still be raw thirty years later. Per O'Donnell, "My father is very distant and emotionally unavailable and I rarely speak to him. After my mother died, the five children fused together and became one functioning parent/children unit. We took turns being those roles for each other.... My father was from a different world and different school. He's very Irish and very unwilling to change.... That's too bad for him, perhaps. Not for me.... Everything I've gone through in my life brought me to where I am, and I don't really have regrets about it or about him. He has his own destiny and his own journey. He'll heal himself when he chooses to. Until then there's nothing I can do about it."
Expectedly, Mrs. O'Donnell's death created a wealth of changes for the early teen. As the future star once analyzed, "I was quite grief-stricken and inaccessible as most children are who suffer that kind of tragedy at that age." One of the O'Donnells' neighbors in Commack, Long Island remembers that back in 1973:
"Rosie was tiny, but she stepped right up to become the little homemaker.... She didn't just care for her older brothers and younger sister, but also her ailing grandmother`Nanna,' her mother's motherlived with the family. She had diabetes and went blind....Nanna became Rosie's responsibility, and she took care of her as well as the rest of the family.... She grew up fast. Before her mom died, everyone called Rosie by the nickname `Dolly.' Soon after her mother's death, I called Rosie `Dolly'and to my amazement this little girl drew herself up with great dignity and told me, `I think from now on I'd like to be called Roseann [which a decade later, when she became a professional stand-up comic, she would change to Rosie].... The family invited me to dinner one day. Rosie had organized the meal. And when it came time to clean up, she assigned the chores to her older brothersand they did what she told them without a murmur."
If 11-year-old Roseann seemed mature at home, the youngster was full of crippling emotional turmoil that churned within her for years. Sometimes her surface "adjustment" to the parental loss would crack and her unresolved trauma at dealing with her mother's death would be visible to the world at large. Decades later, one particularly vivid such illustration remains firmly planted in Roseann's mind: "Well, when I was in elementary school, everyone knew my mother died, because she was the president of the PTA. But then we went to junior high school, and no one knew. And on, like, the third day of school, I hadn't done my homework, and the teacher said,`Roseann? What's your mother's name? I'm calling your house.' And I didn't say anything. And there's 20 kids in the class, and seven of them knew about my mom because they were from my elementary school. And you hear this buzzing. Then the teacher said, `What's her name?' and I wouldn't answer. `What's her name?' And I ran out of school and hid in the woods until it got dark. All the teachers got together and had a meeting and talked about how you can't be this insensitive."
Some of these debilitating emotional reactions within Roseann might have been avoided or corrected if only she had had an adult with whom she felt comfortable to share her confusions and profound hurt. But, she did not. As a result, Roseann's weight was affected. "Mom got very thin before she died. I associate getting thin with getting sick and going away."Thus, after her mom's death, Roseann began stuffing herself. "Putting all that food inside me made me feel I was being filled up with love." It was not only Roseann who began to pack on the pounds: "... I noticed before my mother died, the pictures of my family, we were all fairly normal sized. And then a year after, there were some pictures, and we were all big. We were all, you know, trying to satiate ourselves, in ways that we were no longer nurtured, through food."
Likewise, Roseann's means of escape and survival became even more important to her. "I lived all my emotional reality through theater, movies and books. I come from an Irish Catholic family that suffered a tragedy where emotions weren't dealt with on any kind of real level."
Roseann's future handling of interpersonal relationships would be strongly affected: "To know the pain of being left makes it nearly impossible to do it to someone else. So with people I get involved with, it's usually foreverI keep them in my life."
And it increased her drive to succeed: "My mother died when she was in her ... [mid] 30s ... and I remember thinking as a young child, wow, she hadn't done all that she could have done, even at 10. And I was very driven to succeed in my own level at my own rate early in my life, because of my mother's death." Along the same lines, Roseann reasoned that if her mother had appeared in films and/or TV, she would have left something of herself behind for her loved ones and friends. It cemented Roseann's childhood whimand now growing desireto become a film and TV star. It gave her a goal and determination: "... I had to succeed before that [her mother's death] age so that if I died, I would have left something tangible."
In tandem with the drive to succeed, her mom's passing created an urgent desire within Roseann to achieve major fame. "When my mother died of cancer, I remember thinking that if Barbra Streisand had gone on The Tonight Show and asked everyone to donate ten dollars to find a cure for the disease, there would be one: Everyone loved her so much they'd get millions of dollars. I knew there was power involved in fame."
Finally, some observers have insisted that the virtual "loss" of her father as she was trying so hard to cope with her mother's death, bred in the future show business star an underlying mistrust of men in deeply emotional situations.
In the midst of all this turmoil, the bereaved youngster underwent yet another devastating experience. It occurred when she finally visited her mother's grave site at St. Charles Cemetery in nearby Farmingdale. If sheor othersthought the confrontation of her fantasies with this reality would make her mom's death more real and final for the girl, the visit hardly accomplished its purpose. Instead, it created more angst within the eleven-year-old, for when she reached the cemetery on Conklin Street in Farmingdale and walked up to her mother's grave in section 16 of the memorial park, she had a very strong reaction to the inscribed marker which read "Roseann O'Donnell ... Forever In Our Hearts." As O'Donnell has mentioned, in true understatement, "To see a tombstone with your name on it is very startling."
Given all that happened, it is little wonder that the Rosie O'Donnell of today admits, "I have a marker in my head of March 17, 1973. Everything in my memory is either before or after that date. After that date my life was changed forever."
For Roseann O'Donnell, the nice girl from Long Island who would make good, the journey from being an emotionally needy eleven-year-old in 1973 to the bright and witty multimedia darling of the late 1990s would be long and tough. It was a case of strong needs feeding a growing determination to make her brash presence felt in the worldespecially in the sphere of entertainment.
How this youngster developed into today's major star of TV, films, Broadway and the stand-up comedy circuit is a miracle tale. That she so successfully survived the many pitfalls of years on the road in the highly competitive and then male-dominated world of stand-up comedy is near magical in its unfolding. And how she evolved into the unconventional single mother of today makes Rosie O'Donnell's remarkable life story intriguingly real.
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