By Lorraine Gibney
Every person who has walked through the West Village understands that this place is unique. My family arrived in New York during the time of the Revolutionary War. Fortunately, much of our history during the 1800s was documented by my first cousin James Riordan Sr. Needless to say, the West Village has a very special place in my heart and soul, and its essence fills my spirit with excitement.
From the time I was barely able to walk or talk, I formed vivid memories of the numerous stories and antics of the Gibney and O’Brien clans. As a little girl, a daddy’s girl at that, I accompanied my father, Francis David Gibney, through the winding streets of the Village.
I never met my grandparents on either the Gibney or the O’Brien side; however, when I walk through the Village I am fully aware of my surroundings and how my father was molded by painful circumstances that occurred on streets and in alleys here.
My father told me that his mom, Jeanette O’Brien, was “not supposed to” give birth to him; doing so would kill her, as she had a severe case of diabetes. My grandmother gave birth, prematurely, to my father, Frankie, on August 13, 1936. My dad weighed three pounds and two ounces and had no eyelashes or fingernails. For several days, the Gibneys and O’Briens mourned Jennie’s death. My grandfather, Stanley Gibney, called a mortician and arranged a wake in the parlor of their Perry Street apartment. He was devastated by his wife’s death and the reality that he had nine children to feed and care for despite the tragedy.
In 1936, incubators were newly invented. Dr. Hyunga, a Greenwich Village physician, insisted on placing Francis in an incubator; however, Frankie’s sister Elizabeth refused—as many children placed in them had become blind. She fed Francis with an eye-dropper.
My father was rejected by his siblings; they felt he’d killed their mother. Of course, Frankie didn’t deliberately kill his mom; however, the blights of reality are harsh and sometimes cruel. Frankie was not only motherless, but also lived in Greenwich Village where, at the time, many people contracted tuberculosis. America, the land of opportunity, was a breeding ground for TB.
The poor residents of Manhattan (where so many buildings were infested with vermin) lived in squalor. The Gibney/O’Brien family was no exception. Elizabeth, the second oldest, left school to work. She did it to help her family with the finances, set on keeping her younger siblings together as a unit. The Gibney family were dirt-poor—so indigent that Francis had no crib; but Elizabeth (nicknamed Lilly) made a cradle from a dresser drawer with small blankets. When she was eighteen, Elizabeth began working at Bellevue Hospital.
Temporarily, the Gibney family became upwardly mobile; however, that was short-lived. Two years later, Stanley Gibney, while working as a mailman, was diagnosed with TB. Before he became aware of his condition, however, he transmitted the disease to his seventeen-year-old daughter Grace Cecilia.
Stanley went to Roosevelt Hospital in Staten Island to be treated. He asked his daughter Elizabeth to promise to give Gracie a decent funeral. To everyone’s surprise, Gracie and her boyfriend, John Cushman, were married in the hospital. Three months later Grace Cecilia died and was buried in her wedding dress at Saint John’s Cemetery. Stanley died several months after that and was buried in potter’s field. The Gibney children were without parents.