A long time back I mentioned that my father had two suitcases filled with photographs and letters that had belonged to his sister, my aunt, Eva Hilda Cohen. My aunt had died February 14, 2011, but my father had never gone through the suitcases and wasn’t eager to do so. Finally this past weekend he agreed to let my brother and me bring the suitcases down from their garage and go through their contents. I was hoping for some old photographs or letters about my ancestors, and I didn’t find much of that, but there was an amazing small world story that came out of those suitcases. (I will report on the other finds in later posts.)
First, a little bit about my Aunt Eva. She was born on January 13, 1924, the first child of my paternal grandparents, John Nusbaum Cohen, Sr. and Eva Schoenthal.
My father was born almost three years later. They were very close as children growing up together.
My father describes his sister as a strong-willed and rebellious child who became a strong-willed and rebellious teenager and adult. She also was a very intelligent woman with many interests. She graduated from Gratz High School in Philadelphia in 1941, where she apparently was known by the nickname “Ave,” and was described as follows in the yearbook: “To Gratz our “Ave” has given services of hours; in almost every field she has displayed her powers.” From the list of her activities, that inscription seems accurate: drama club, debate club, a cappella choir, and several others.
During World War II, she served in the United States Navy. She served from February 10, 1944 until February 10, 1946, and was stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas, for most of her second year of service. She wrote a letter to her mother in May, 1945, describing her trip by train from Philadelphia to Texas. I had to chuckle as I read it because it sounded so much like her, describing and naming every person that she met along the way. She clearly was a hit with the servicemen, frequently being invited to eat and drink and sit with them on that long train. That ability to befriend new people wherever she went was a skill she maintained throughout her life.
After the war, she completed her education at the University of Colorado at Boulder. There she also was active socially and academically.
After college she became engaged to be married to a man named Karl, but when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Karl broke it off, not wanting to care for someone he thought would be an invalid.
He sorely underestimated her. She never married, but her inner strength and her independence held in her good stead for the rest of her life even as her physical challenges became greater. She worked for the city of Philadelphia until retirement age, and she had a large circle of friends who were devoted to her. She traveled all over the world and was interested in many things and well-informed about current events. She remained devoted to my father, and he to her, her whole life.
Her collected photographs and letters reflected those priorities— the many letters she kept that she had received from my father over the years; lots of photographs of our family, extended and immediate; lots of pictures from her numerous trips and cruises. And many, many pictures of people who were her friends. The photographs were not at all organized by subject matter or date, so as I went through the photographs with my brother, I sorted them into piles—family, travel, friends. I wasn’t particularly interested in the last two categories, but I still looked at each photo, hoping to find some of my ancestors or distant cousins mixed in.
Then I found this photograph. It was a Christmas card with a family photograph, an item for the friends’ pile. But I looked at it more closely and thought one of the faces looked familiar. Then I looked at the family’s surname, and I got the chills. The face was in fact familiar.
The little boy in that photograph looked just like the young man who is now engaged to my daughter’s best friend Anna. I knew that her fiancé Mark was from Philadelphia, and it certainly was possible that my aunt could have known his family. But nevertheless—what were the odds? Mark’s parents are at least a generation younger than my aunt. How in the world would they have known her? It made no sense. I continued looking through the photographs, and I found five more pictures of Mark’s family, including his parents’ wedding photograph. Obviously, my aunt knew his family for a long, long time.
I took snapshots of the pictures of Mark’s family with my phone and sent them to Maddy and Anna, asking them if this was Mark’s family. Anna responded that indeed it was his family. Anna asked Mark what he knew about my aunt, if anything, and he did remember her and said that his father had been a lifeguard at the pool in her building and had met her there.
That made perfect sense to me. My aunt was an avid swimmer; being in the water gave her the mobility and comfort that she could not find out of the water because of her MS. As my father wrote in one of his letters to her, she swam in pools and oceans all over the world; she found it liberating. When she moved into The Philadelphian, one of the large apartment buildings in Philadelphia, one of the great benefits was that there was a pool in the building. It was there that she made many friends over the years, including Mark’s father and his family.
I still get the chills thinking about this. There I was sitting in my parents’ house, sorting through photographs mostly of strangers, and I found a photograph of someone who will now be marrying Anna. Anna, whom I’ve known since she was born and who has been my daughter Maddy’s best friend since they sat in the sandbox as one year olds at our child care cooperative in 1985. Anna, who was Maddy’s roommate in Boston for several years—until she met Mark. Mark, a delightful young man whom we met the first time a few years back when he was helping Maddy and Anna move from one apartment to another and sitting patiently outside the apartment, watching their stuff while they went to rent a truck. Mark, whose father befriended my aunt years before Mark was even born and who obviously stayed in touch with her over the years as his children grew to adulthood.
I am sure that my aunt would have been thrilled to know that her friend’s son was marrying her great-niece’s best friend. I am just sorry she is no longer around to hear the story. It’s the kind of story she would have loved.