That's my cousin, Gerry Cooney, on the cover of Time magazine in June 1982, standing beside Sylvester Stallone, a.k.a. Rocky Balboa. 

Cooney was a popular contender for the world heavyweight boxing championship that year. 

Gerry Cooney and Sylvester Stallone on the cover of Time magazine

Gerry Cooney, left, appeared on a June 1982 edition of Time magazine with actor Sylvester Stallone. (Time)

He lost the fight to Larry Holmes, but went 13 rounds before his trainer pulled him out of the ring. Cooney earned $10 million.

My famous cousin was supposed to have come to Newfoundland for the first time this month, to learn more about his father's — and my mother's — childhood. Unfortunately, a scheduling conflict has called off the visit, but there's still hope Cooney may reschedule before the year is out.

Our shared family history may explain why he was able to endure all that pummelling, and why he's spent so much time since then, helping people battered by addiction and family violence.

Gerry Cooney grew up on Long Island, near New York City, where my uncle helped to build bridges and skyscrapers.

Placentia Mayor Bill Hogan asked for my cousin's phone number a few months ago, to fulfill his dream of meeting the area's famous grandson before retiring from municipal politics in October.

Mayor Hogan had no idea he was opening a troubled family history that's been closed for more than half a century. 

Much to say

There's not a lot to show Gerry Cooney while he planned to be here, but there is a lot to say.

All physical traces of our grandparents' lives disappeared in 1941 to make way for a U.S. naval base at Argentia. Seven hundred people were relocated. The large Cooney house in Marquise, with its two staircases, was torn down.

But not without a fight.

Mike Cooney's full six-foot-five-inch frame, wielding an axe, must have been pretty menacing to the men who tried to enforce the expropriation. When he finally conceded, he received a larger compensation cheque than the other homeowners. 

The Americans have since left Argentia, but the whole landscape of our parents' childhood has been bulldozed down, and paved over.

The landscape inside the Cooney home had changed as well. Our grandmother, Theresa, left her husband seven years before the expropriation, taking three of their seven children with her. (The four eldest, including Gerry's father, Arthur, were already gone.)

A tough choice

Mike Cooney must have been a hard man if my grandmother found a life of poverty in St. John's during the depression era, the "dirty 30s", more desirable than staying with him.

Eileen Houlihan, the author of Uprooted! The Argentia Story, once told me my grandmother had "escaped," that Mike Cooney's fondness for alcohol made him violent. My grandmother tried to leave before, apparently. This time she left in such a hurry that she left behind all mementos of the family, and they haven't been seen since.

My mother was only 10 when she found herself, her twin sister and little Jenny placed on the train at Cooney's Crossing (two rail lines met near the family home), suckers in their mouths to keep them from crying.

Gravestone of Michael Cooney

Michael Cooney's gravestone in Placentia. (Courtesy of Anita O'Keefe)

Today, the only remnants of our grandparents' lives in Placentia are the house Mike Cooney bought after he relocated, and his rather substantial gravestone.

That gravestone.

When Anita O'Keefe at Placentia's cultural affairs department sent me this picture of it, I was amazed. I thought it would be overgrown with neglect.

My mother, the only Cooney child who stayed in Newfoundland, never showed the slightest interest in visiting her father's grave.

The size and grandeur of the gravestone epitomizes so much of what I heard about our grandfather, and what I've learned about men like him. They strive for high stature in their communities, as a way of masking their abusive behaviour at home.

My mother had a recurring nightmare. In it, she is being chased by a man in a hooded cloak, along a dark stretch of Empire Avenue. She didn't say it was her father, but I knew it was him — the villain in her sad, interrupted childhood.

Sharing notes

Gerry and I have compared notes about how our parents were impacted by all this. My mother suffered bouts of mental illness, his father drank too much.

Gerry Cooney and Larry Holmes boxing match 1982

Gerry Cooney fought Larry Holmes in June 1982, in what was the richest title fight of its time. (Associated Press)

No surprise then that Gerry uses his celebrity appeal to educate others about addiction and domestic violence.

Gerry's father died before seeing the fight of his son's career. He died when Gerry was only 17.

I saw the fight with Larry Holmes, under pretty unique circumstances.

I was on assignment for CBC Television, reporting on the U.S. Coast Guard inquiry into the Ocean Ranger disaster. The inquiry was being held in New Orleans. The night of the fight, I was seated beside a U.S. admiral at the city's Superdome — a celebrity in my own right as Gerry Cooney's first cousin.

There he was, larger than life on the stadium's giant screen, taking blow after blow, firing off some pretty powerful left hooks of his own. The Cooneys are tough, I decided.

My grandmother was tough. She triumphed after her escape, thanks to the help of a powerful St. John's woman named Lady Julia Horwood. Horwood was the widow of a former Newfoundland chief justice, and lived in a beautiful three-storey house on Church Hill.

Lady Horwood not only hired my grandmother as a housekeeper, she invited her to move in with her three daughters. After she died, Lady Horwood, who was childless, left my grandmother the fully furnished house. Nanny Cooney ran it as a boarding house until she died in her 80s.

Strong enough to fight back

So, the Cooney story is pretty epic, complete with a villain, a heroine, and a boxing superhero.

Gerry Cooney volunteer work

Gerry Cooney has spent much of his post-boxing career working with others. (Courtesy of Marie Wadden)

It's also a common story of intergenerational trauma; the term used to describe the effects of abuse on subsequent generations.

Gerry's visit will motivate me to visit my grandfather's grave now.

Maybe it's time to forgive the villain.

Maybe a bit more digging into the family history will explain why Michael Cooney behaved the way he did.

Is it linked to the tragic death of his own grandparents who drowned when their wood-laden sleigh went through the ice at Shag Pond?

Tragedy is no excuse for abuse.

But it can make the victims stronger. Strong enough to fight back.

So I'm sending out the following challenge to local florists: Can anyone make a bouquet for my grandfather's headstone, in the shape of boxing gloves?

Marie Wadden is CBC Radio's network producer in St. John's. She began working on an historical fiction account of her grandmother Cooney's life when she was the Brigus Landfall Trust writer-in-residence in 2010.