I am slowly emerging from the initial period of mourning and trying to re-enter the world. My father and my concern for my mother continue to fill almost all the spaces of my brain and heart. But Jewish tradition encourages one to return to a regular routine—to work, to school, to ordinary life—once the initial period of mourning is over. So I am going to try. And that means returning to my family history work and to my blog. It also means picking up where I left off in reading the blogs I follow.
For today, let me just share a bit more biographical information about my father. I described his personality and interests a bit in my last post, but I’d like to tell a little more about his life, especially his early life. Next time I will return to the Goldsmiths, my father’s cousins through his maternal great-grandmother Eva Goldschmidt Katzenstein.
My father was born on November 15, 1926, in Philadelphia, to Eva Schoenthal and John Nusbaum Cohen. He was named John Nusbaum Cohen, Junior, which is an unusual thing to do in Ashkenazi Jewish families where the tradition is to name a child for a deceased relative. But that break with tradition was consistent with the assimilation of his family. Although my father was confirmed in a Reform Jewish temple, his family was not religious or traditional in any way.
When he was just a young boy, both of his parents became ill and were unable to care for him. His father had multiple sclerosis and eventually was institutionalized; my father had no memory of him walking unassisted. His mother suffered a breakdown and also was hospitalized and then cared for by her parents. My father and his sister Eva were taken care of by their paternal grandmother Eva Seligman Cohen, whose kindness and generosity I’ve written about before.
My father was an excellent student; he also loved music and art. One of his favorite childhood memories was playing the role of Buttercup in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore when he was at an all-boys summer camp. He often sang his parts from that show to us when we were children. He also enjoyed summer trips to Atlantic City with his grandmother and sister.
Just weeks before his thirteenth birthday, his beloved grandmother died in Philadelphia. The doctor who came to attend to her at home had to tell my father and aunt that their grandmother had died. There was no one obvious to take care of the two children, and for quite a while they were shuttled back and forth among various cousins for a week or so at a time. Eventually their mother was healthy enough to come back and take care of them.
My father graduated from high school and started college, but on February 14, 1945, when he was eighteen, he was drafted into the US Navy to serve during World War II. He was based in Chicago and then in Newport News, Virginia, doing intelligence work, until he was honorably discharged on August 1, 1946. He returned to Philadelphia and to Temple University to continue his education, but later transferred to Columbia University’s School of Architecture to complete his degree. He was encouraged and inspired by his uncle, Harold Schoenthal, to pursue a career in architecture, a decision he never regretted.
During the summer of 1950 when he was still a student at Columbia, my father worked as a waiter at Camp Log Tavern, a resort in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. One weekend he spotted a young red-headed woman across the room and said to a fellow waiter, “That’s the girl I am going to marry.” Although she was more interested in another waiter during her stay, my father asked her for her number before she departed. She gave him the wrong number and a shortened version of her last name, which was Goldschlager. According to family lore, he searched the Bronx phone book until he found her. She was so impressed that she agreed to go out with him, and after that, they became inseparable.
They were married one year later on September 9, 1951. I came along eleven months later, just two months after my father’s graduation from Columbia.
In the years that followed, my parents had two more children, moved to the suburbs, and lived a good life. Theirs was a true love match, and they adored each other through 67 years of marriage. Yes, there were hard times and harsh words at times, but I never once doubted that they were devoted to each other.
My father worked first for an architectural firm in New York City, commuting with all the other fathers. But not many years later he left the firm and established his own practice, a practice he maintained into his 90s, working with people and developers on houses, office buildings, additions, and other work.
Although my father had a hard childhood, his adult life was happy and fulfilling. He loved his family, and he loved his work. He was active in his local community, working as a volunteer fireman and as a member of the planning board. When he died at age 92 on February 16, 2019, he was a well-loved and much respected member of his community and an adored husband, father, grandfather, uncle, and great-grandfather. His was truly a life well lived.