THE PRICE OF PROGRESS
(Adapted from the book Working-Class Hero)
When Jim was orphaned at a tender age, he was separated from a younger sister, Anna, and a still younger brother, Dick. After his travels, and when his life began to gain some stability, he reestablished his connection with the two, and he continued regular communication with them for a number of years. For several years after his return to New York in 1936, there was frequent socialization between the families.
Since childhood, Jim had seen much of the world, and had attained a modestly successful livelihood in the construction business. Anna and Dick had remained in New York City and had worked hard for whatever livelihood the city offered to people of high-school education, or less.
Before his untimely death from pneumonia in 1937, Dick’s final employment was operating a change booth in a subway station, where he dispensed the nickels needed for the entry turnstiles. Anna had married Joseph Mangan and had given birth to three children: Eileen, Cornelia (whom Jim called “Toots”), and Francis. Not long after Francis was born, about 1924, Anna was widowed. Nevertheless, she continued to make a good home for her youngsters, partly by Joseph’s provisions and partly by dint of hard labor, primarily as a seamstress.
As this story unfolds, it presents a hard lesson and a warning: When such differences in experiences and livelihoods exist among siblings, enormous stress is put on the relationships between them.
In 1927, Jim gave his son the middle name Richard, honoring Dick. Dick responded over the next two or three years with lavish – though somewhat impractical – gifts for the child. One of these was a professional-grade snare drum. Another was an ornate wooden sleigh.
The first sign of a stressed relationship appeared sometime around 1930, when Dick visited Jim in Wheeling. The visit seemed to go well, but Jim learned later that Dick’s report to Anna had been that Jim had hit it rich and was flaunting his wealth, “putting on the dog.” Dick noted particularly that dinner was served on elegant glassware rather than on ordinary china. He didn’t seem to realize that the Depression Glassware in question had been collected by Jim’s brother-in-law in return for purchases of gasoline.
When Jim, Anna, and Dick socialized in the late 1930s, it became evident that Anna and Dick had built up a resentment toward Jim, and a propensity to put him down whenever possible. Jim saw this as an understandable bit of jealousy over his worldwide adventures and his achievement of a very modest financial success. What he never mentioned, however, was probably dominant in their feelings toward him: Intellectually and culturally, he had left their world.
When Jimmy, Jim’s son, visited his cousin Francis, Anna began to reveal her attitude by criticizing how his mother had groomed and dressed him. She changed his hairstyle, moving the part from left to middle, and plastered it all down with Brilliantine. She changed much of his wardrobe with items that Francis had outgrown.
Jim and Anna exchanged visits from 1936 until 1940. By late 1939, Jim’s close friends the Rosenbergs were living in the area, and Anna met them. She invited them as well as Jim and family for Thanksgiving dinner. Her put-downs of Jim had been increasing over the years. They reached a peak on this occasion, when she placed Rosy (Russell Rosenberg) instead of her brother at the head of the table, and asked Rosy to say grace. Jim pondered her obvious feelings toward him, and by late 1940 decided not to contact her again. Before he might reconsider, the war intervened and brought great turmoil in his life, and the two families completely lost track of one another. They never met or communicated again.
The following photos show possibly the last meeting of Jim and Anna, in January 1940. Also shown are Jim’s wife, Edith (center of sofa), and Alice Rosenberg (far right).
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The reader of this blog may have realized by now that Jim was my father, and I was his son “Jimmy.” I will turn now to my own experience with this situation since 1940. It has been an emotional roller-coaster ride, gaining momentum even within the past year and in recent days.
When Jim and Anna parted ways, I lost two cousins, “Toots” and Francis, whom I loved and greatly enjoyed. Actually, Toots did keep up a bit of correspondence with me for the next couple of years, sending foreign postage stamps for my collection. This ended after she sent me her wedding announcement in 1942.
Beyond that, I remained a loyal son, and I never took steps to overcome Jim’s dictum that the relationship had ended. It required a new generation to take those steps. In late 2012, my son Jasper launched an effort to find the missing cousins. He did indeed find “Toots” under her married name, Cornelia Mangan Farrell, in Philadelphia. They had a brief exchange, which naturally but unfortunately involved her mother’s maiden name. Such names are now a frequent password to a person’s financial assets. Fearing a scam, Cornelia asked Jasper to state his case in a letter. He did so, but she never answered.
As the publication of my recent book, Working-Class Hero, approached, I believed that I finally had something to offer Cornelia. Something to convince her that Jasper was no scam artist. Something to give her the history of a branch of the family that she had once loved. However, one problem vexed me for many days: That book dealt with the rift between Jim and Anna, and made statements about Anna that Cornelia might find offensive.
Finally, a couple of days after the book was published, I was inspired by a strategy by which I might present the book to Cornelia, while also seeking her understanding and forgiveness for the offensive statements. For some hours, I was in a glorious mood, anticipating a reconnection with this long-lost cousin. But Jasper had a hunch, he acted on it, and he presented me with Cornelia’s obituary, dated May 2013. Thus ended the roller-coaster ride, in a crash.