Thanksgiving in a Pandemic

I’ve been in a bit of a funk the last week or so. It’s COVID, it’s politics, it’s the weather. November is  hard for me. I hate when the trees lose their leaves, the grass turns brown, the sky turns gray, the temperature drops.

So I am going to take the advice of an old friend and list the top ten things that fill me with gratitude—in no particular order. I find when I focus on the things for which I am grateful, it makes me feel better. So here goes.

  1. I am thankful for my husband and my children and my grandchildren. They are the rocks in my life, the ones who get me from spot to spot, no matter how roiling is the water beneath our feet.
  2. I am thankful for my parents. My father is gone, and my mother is struggling. But they were a constant source of love and support in my life, and I hold all the memories close to my heart.
  3. I am thankful for the rest of my family, including all the cousins I’ve found on this genealogy journey. They all remind me how connected we all are—all humans—regardless of where we grew up or when or how.
  4. I am thankful for my three cats, whose ability to live in the moment and to provide constant companionship, affection, and comfort has been so very important during the last nine months.
  5. I am thankful for my friends—my friends from high school, from college, from law school, and from the community where I have lived since 1983. So many times in the last nine months I have turned to my friends—by Zoom, text, telephone, email. They have made me laugh, they have given me perspective, they have given me strength. I hope I’ve done the same for them.
  6. I am thankful for the genealogy village—those who read my blog, those who help me with my research and with translations, those in the Facebook groups who comment and help answer my questions. Family history research has been one way I’ve escaped from the anxiety of the pandemic. It has given me focus and a distraction and continues to keep my brain working.
  7. I am thankful for the good fortune I have to live in a comfortable house in a wonderful community of neighbors. In the course of our daily walks we’ve gotten to know our neighbors and their dogs and feel so fortunate to live where we live.
  8. I am thankful that I don’t have to worry about where my next meal will come from or whether I will be able to get adequate medical care or whether I will be harassed or injured because of my race. In a time when so much feels dangerous, I’ve learned more than ever to appreciate just how privileged I am.
  9. I am thankful for the beautiful world we live in. We’ve taken walks and hikes in places we never knew about before and in places that we’ve always loved—the beach and the woods, the mountains and the lakes. I learned early on that getting into a quiet place surrounded by nature was often the best thing to do to find solace and calm the noise in my head.
  10. I am thankful for science and for doctors and nurses and all the frontline workers in hospitals and grocery stores and elsewhere who are putting their lives on the line to do everything possible to keep us safe.

That’s my top ten. There are probably hundreds if not thousands more. What are yours?

Happy Thanksgiving!

Blogging in a Pandemic, Part IV: It’s Getting Too Real

I’ve written a series of posts over the last five or six weeks to record the experience of living through the pandemic, trying to find some good news among all the darkness. Writing them has been therapeutic for me, and from the responses I’ve gotten, I know that they’ve resonated for others. I am, however, finding it harder and harder to find the light in the darkness. But I am trying.

The last two weeks have made it harder because the virus has come to my community with a vengeance. Many people have died, including the mother of one of my dear friends and the sister of another friend. Our local nursing homes have been ravaged, including 21 deaths in the Jewish Nursing Home near us. Other friends have had loved ones become ill with the virus. I live in dread of hearing that my mother or someone in her memory care facility is infected. My anxiety level has increased to the point that most of the things I was finding helpful—long walks, yoga, Zoom sessions—are becoming less effective.

And the rush of some to resume “normal life” even though it means risking more lives, including their own, is infuriating, as are the actions of those who are putting political ambition and money above the health and well-being of people.

But I know we are among the very fortunate ones. We have a safe home, resources to pay for what we need, food in the house and delivery services bringing more as needed, and, so far, our health. We have the support network of our children, our relatives, our friends, and our community. We have each other. I am always mindful of that.

My three cats are a real source of comfort; they are oblivious to what’s going on outside, and they only care that we are here to feed them and to pet them. They cuddle up next to me day and night and give me some peace.

And little things make me smile. Our neighbors drawing hearts on all the driveways and leaving painted stones on all the doorsteps and paper flowers taped to our windows.

The discovery of more places to walk where we can avoid close contact with people and enjoy the quiet of nature continues to be soothing.

The weekly Shabbat Shalom zooms with family are a needed break from the constant talk of COVID19. Who cannot smile when a five-year-old wants to play Twenty Questions by Zoom?

This week my younger daughter was celebrated by her friends on what would have been Marathon Monday with cards and posters and a bottle of champagne. I can’t tell you how much that meant to her and to us.

There is so much love out there, and the best of human nature can outshine the darkness of illness, death, and the suffering of so many.

One small example from my genealogical activities. While all this has been going on, I’ve connected with a few more cousins who found me through my blog. I think people stuck at home are turning to family history for consolation and also are uncovering photographs and letters that were buried in boxes or trunks in their attics and basements.

One of these cousins sent me scans of some photographs of my Benedict cousins, including this terribly torn photograph of Hannah Goldsmith Benedict, the first cousin of my great-grandfather Isadore Schoenthal:

I was thrilled to receive this photograph—a definite moment of joy. But heartbroken that Hannah’s photo was so damaged. Could it be repaired, I wondered?

I posted it in the Free Photo Restoration group on Facebook, and when I woke up the next morning, three group members had posted repaired versions. Aren’t they amazing?

These people obviously spent a great deal of time fixing this photograph and asked for nothing in return. I was overwhelmed with gratitude. It made me smile, and it reminded me once again that most people are kind and good and generous and loving.

I need to keep all these reminders in front of me as things outside get scarier and scarier.

Passover During A Pandemic

Every year for as far back as I can remember, my family has gathered for Passover. In my childhood, we had seders at my aunt and uncle’s house with my cousins Jody and Jeff. Then we all started doing a second seder together at our house. Every year, no matter what else was happening, we had seders. They were wild and chaotic and so much fun. Passover was my favorite holiday and was my first introduction to Jewish culture, history, and religion.

Once I married, the tradition shifted, but nevertheless, every year we had seders, one with my family at my parents’ house, one with my husband’s family either in New Jersey or the Bronx or later in Newton. They were all wild and chaotic and a great deal of fun.

Then we had grandchildren, and we began hosting one of the seders at our house, relieving my mother of the burdens of preparing the seder. We love hosting the seder, although the craziness beforehand and during makes me appreciate what all those who had hosted in the past were experiencing. Trying to convert our house to Passover dishes and pots and pans while also cooking some food ahead of time, renting tables and table cloths to accommodate the crowd, and then attempting to participate in the seder while also warming and serving food was a logistical challenge.

Passover 2019

But seeing my family gathered together around our table made it all more than worthwhile.

My dad and Remy, Passover 2016

Harvey and Nate

So here we were, facing Passover during the social distancing brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. How were we going to celebrate without being together? Would this be the first year ever in my memory that I would not be going to a seder? The thought saddened me, as I know it did for Jews all over the world.

Fortunately, my nine-year-old grandson Nate presented us with a challenge and an idea. Could we do a virtual seder using Zoom, the platform his school was using for remote learning? We spent some time learning how to use Zoom and thinking of how we could do this.

We scanned the Haggadah my family has used forever (The Haggadah for the American Family—mostly in English and accessible to all) and figured out who would read which parts. We added back in the handwashing we usually overlook. Nate and Remy practiced the four questions. Then we distributed a PDF of the scanned Haggadah to all who would be attending with their parts designated in the margins. As a final touch, Nate filmed himself doing an introduction and explanation of how things would work, and I emailed it all to everyone along with a Zoom invitation.

Nevertheless, the day of the first seder, I was feeling a bit blue. Sure, I had a lot less work to do, but that made me feel a bit at loose ends. Was it really Passover? I set the table for two with our seder plate filled with the usual ingredients, our cups for Elijah and for Miriam, our matzah holder, and salt water for the parsley.  It looked empty. We even put on nicer clothes than what we’ve been wearing since self-quarantining to make the day feel special. And then we waited for our guests to arrive in the Zoom waiting room.

Our seder table 2020 (before the seder plate was filled)

And they all showed up on time, ready to go. After chatting a bit and saying hello, our grandson Remy, only five, asked if we could have a virtual group hug. Can you imagine how happy that made me? We all reached out our arms to each other. What an amazing insight for a five-year-old—to recognize that we all needed that embrace, even if it was only across the internet.

I asked if everyone had a seder plate, and sure enough, everyone had made the effort to put together as best they could a plate with charoset (or an apple), moror, an egg, a shankbone (or a plastic sheep), and parsley or some other green. It was so uplifting, seeing that everyone had made the effort to make this a real Passover. Here are a few examples; you can see the creativity involved.

In fact, my younger daughter Maddy went all out and made chicken soup and matzoh balls, something she had never cooked before, and it looked amazing. My older daughter Rebecca made homemade macaroons. Everyone cared enough to do whatever they could to honor our holiday and our traditions. Suddenly it felt like this was really Passover.

Once we started the seder, it was almost as if we were all in the same room. Nate and my husband shared the responsibilities of being the leader, an honor Nate had certainly earned by virtue of his efforts and creativity in getting the seder organized. We went through our Haggadah as we usually do, adding a few extra comments appropriate to the situation—talking about the need for handwashing, adding an eleventh plague for COVID19, and recognizing the current meaning of the lesson that the wise child is the one who works for the benefit of all humankind, not just for him or herself.

Nate and Remy did a beautiful reading of the four questions, first in English and then in Hebrew. Then I read something our rabbi had written, describing how this Passover is different from all other Passovers and making us all think about our gratitude to those on the front lines of this pandemic—the medical personnel, those working at grocery stores and drug stores, the delivery people, the police and fire and other emergency personnel. Her words also gave us hope that as with our ancestors in ancient times, we would pull through and get out of this contemporary time of captivity.

And then we shared our dinners together, gefilte fish, soup, or whatever we each had prepared for that evening. Nate and Remy searched for the afikomen in their own home, and we sang for Elijah, but didn’t let anyone else inside. We pulled out whatever we had for dessert, and then we said good night.

Of course, it wasn’t the same as being together. Zoom makes it hard to have individual conversations or any real extended conversations that aren’t interrupted by the chatter of everyone else. And there are no hugs and kisses to say hello and goodbye.  But we had celebrated Passover. We had been together. We had remembered our own family traditions as well as the traditions of Jews everywhere around the world and throughout all time. We had had a seder.

Next year we hope we will be together in one space. But maybe this year’s seder will be the one we will always remember best. Because we all cared enough to make it real, to feel the connection to each other, and to appreciate what our traditions have taught us about hope and freedom and gratitude.

Blogging in a Pandemic, Part II

As we enter our third or really our fourth week of social distancing, self-quarantine, or whatever else you want to call it (no closer than six feet from anyone but each other, washing our hands religiously, no restaurants, no stores except when we can’t get delivery of groceries, and so on), I have to say that this week things suddenly seem much harder and much sadder. But we are still fortunately feeling fine despite having flown twice in March, and we feel very, very relieved, and are so grateful to be home.

And we also feel very grateful that so far our families are also okay and our friends. I almost am afraid to write that for fear of tempting the corona gods. But I know that magical thinking is just superstition. We all just have to keep staying apart, staying safe, and staying home. The anxiety sometimes feels unbearable, but my mantra has always been and continues to be—one day at a time.

We’ve taken some wonderful walks in places nearby, a few of which we’d never been to before. And we’ve taken many walks in our neighborhood, chatting with neighbors from at least six feet apart, and feeling a sense of community and warmth that can be overlooked when we all just drive in and out of our garages.

I’ve cleared out a drawer filled with expired medicines and other products, organized our “junk” drawer, and discovered dust in places you cannot imagine. Every day I try to think of at least one small project to accomplish, even if it is simply remembering to mail a check.

I’ve also started to accept that I will never do some of the things the internet keeps throwing at us: free courses online, free tours of museums and national parks, free videos of exercise classes, and so on. I just can’t focus long enough to do those things. Fortunately, doing genealogy in shorter spurts than usual and writing my blog still provide me with a way to escape from the pandemic pandemonium.

Now we are preparing for a Zoom seder. The planning has given me an opportunity to work with my nine-year-old grandson on that project. In fact, we’ve had more contact with our kids and grandsons during these weeks than we usually do, though not in person. I am reading the wonderful book Hatchet by Gary Paulsen with the older grandson and playing chess online with the younger one. And we’ve had Zoom cocktail hours with friends and with family. So it’s not all bad.

What really prompted me to write this particular post was one of those little benefits I’ve gotten from people spending all this time at home. My brother, who also has been spending more time at home than usual (but who is still working since he is a doctor), was going through a box of papers and photographs that had been my father’s and discovered this photograph.

I know this is not great quality (and my brother’s scan of it does not help). But I am so excited by this photograph. Let me explain why.

This is a photograph of my father as a baby being held by his father with my aunt sitting on her father’s left. My father had written the ages in the margins, and although he had not written the names, it was easy to deduce the identities from the relative ages and the facial characteristics using other photographs of my grandfather, of my aunt as a young child, and even of my father as a baby.

Eva Schoenthal and John Cohen, Sr. 1923

My aunt Eva Hilda Cohen and my grandmother Eva Schoenthal Cohen, c. 1925

My grandmother and my father, c. 1927

But what made this so special is that I had never seen a photograph of my grandfather with his children. All the photographs I had of him were either of him alone or with my grandmother. So seeing this photograph was really touching. Look at how he is looking at his son. There is such joy and love on his face.

It was especially touching because I knew that my father had had very few years living with his father before my grandfather became disabled from multiple sclerosis and was ultimately institutionalized for the rest of his life.  He died long before I was born, and for most of my life I knew almost nothing about him. I didn’t ask when I was young because my father seemed to be reluctant to talk about him. I didn’t know if that was out of sadness or anger or indifference. But I didn’t want to upset him either way.

One of the gifts of doing genealogy and talking to my father in the five or six years before he died in February 2019 was that he finally did talk a bit about his father. And in doing so, I realized that even though he had not spent many years living with his father, my father had loved him. His reluctance to talk about him was due to pain and sadness, not anger or indifference.

The fact that my father saved this photograph and hid it away in a box we never saw before is telling. This must have been a photograph he cherished, something special that he didn’t want mixed in with the hundreds of other photographs he had taken over the years of vacations and friends and family. I am so glad that my brother discovered it and that he shared it with me. It gave me new insights into my father and his father.

Have you discovered any wonderful photographs or other treasures while staying at home? Have you always planned to label and/or scan your family photographs? Maybe now is a good time.

Blogging During A Pandemic

Ordinarily on Tuesday mornings I post about my genealogy research. I have such a post ready for today, but decided that I needed or wanted to write about the present, not the past, today. Often when I am researching a relative from the past, I wonder how they coped, what they felt, what they thought during some personal or public crisis—during wars, the Holocaust, the Depression, the flu epidemic of 1918, and so on. Today I thought I would share with my future descendants answers to those questions for me and my family regarding the current pandemic.

First, let me say that so far everyone in my immediate family has been symptom free. We may be infected, but we have no way of knowing at this moment. My grandsons, my daughters, our son-in-law, my husband, and I are fine. So far. And our extended famiy members and our friends are also fine. So far. Most importantly, my vulnerable 89 year old mother is safely locked down in her wonderful and loving assisted living facility. It’s terrible that I cannot visit her, but it’s also the smart and ethical thing to do. And we have all been able to Skype with her—which she seems to love. As long as she knows we are here and thinking of her and have not just walked away, I can sleep at night knowing she is safe. So far.

Of course, all those “so fars” are what makes much of this so nerve-racking. No matter how strictly we stay isolated away from others and how often we wash our hands, no one is suggesting for a minute that we won’t all end up getting the virus. All they are saying is that doing these things will slow down the progress of the spread so that doctors and nurses and hospitals will be more able to handle the flood of cases. So am I anxiety-free? Hardly. Is anyone?

On the positive side, I am just so proud and impressed by my daughters. Our younger daughter has had a terrible week in so many ways. She’s been training for the Boston Marathon for months, only to have it postponed until September. She was supposed to go to Florida for five days. That trip was canceled. And yesterday she learned that because all the restaurants in Massachusetts have been ordered to close, she will be out of work until they can re-open. Yes, each of these disappointments upset her, but with her usual optimism and strength, she has quickly rebounded and found the positive. She noted that running in September means she can celebrate her birthday when we are all in Boston to watch her cross the finish line. She has been surrounded by love and support from her incredible network of friends and her family and feels so grateful to them all. And when confronted by the reality of losing income for some unknown period of time, she remarked with her characteristic wit, “Well, with all the restaurants, bars, and stores closed, I will be spending a lot less money anyway.”

There have been lots of disappointments. My grandsons were looking forward to a trip to St Martin with their parents. Canceled. Grandparents Day at their school. Canceled. A performance by our older grandson. Canceled. But they also have taken these disappointments in stride—upset, but accepting the wisdom of those decisions. Our son-in-law celebrated his birthday this week—no fancy dinner out, no celebration with friends. But he found joy in being home with his family, sharing a homemade cake. If you look closely at each disappointment and how we respond, you will find that love and gratitude will quickly help you forget that disappointment.

Our older daughter has taken on the role of being our protector. Weeks ago before we were getting any really clear guidance from the government, she was warning us that we should not go to Florida in March as we had planned. She begged, pleaded with us, not to go. But we, being the stubborn teenagers in this scenario, pooh-poohed her concerns. After all, we consulted four doctors (yes, really. Four different doctors.), and all told us we shouldn’t cancel the trip, that we would be fine. Our daughter was apoplectic. The night before we left (yes, we did go), I couldn’t sleep. I knew she was right. But we went.

We practiced as much self-isolation as we could.  We didn’t see people. We walked, and we sat on the beach. We didn’t eat in restaurants unless there was outdoor dining. But after four days of anxiety, we decided it was just too much. There were rumors that all domestic flights would be canceled. So we left. We came home. Our daughter had been right all along.

I don’t want to make this political, except to say that I wish that my two daughters were in charge of our government. Where is the compassion, the honesty, the directness, the sense of hope tempered by the sense of urgency and wisdom that we all have needed since January when the first news of the viral spread in China was published?

So now we are home.  We are trying not to panic. We are not hoarding toilet paper or food or water. We have what we need. So far.  We are staying in touch with our family and our friends. We are grateful for modern technology, which allows us to see each others’ faces, hear their voices, read their words.  We are reaching out to others, and others are reaching out to us. That part feels good.

But the physical isolation is hard. How I wish I could hug and kiss my daughters and my grandsons. And my mother. I am worried about them all, and I am worried about my friends. And yes, I am worried about my husband and me. I know the worst is yet to come. And no, I am not ready for it. But we have no choice.

Stay home, everyone. Be wise. Be compassionate. Do the ethical thing, and keep away from others as much as and as best you can. Find love and gratitude even in these dark days.

 

 

 

Holiday Wishes

I will be taking a short break from blogging until early 2020. So let me wish all of my family, friends, and loyal readers a wonderful holiday season. Whether you celebrate Hanukkah, or Christmas, or Kwanzaa, or all of them, or something else, or nothing at all, we all need ways to find light and hope in the darkest time of the year, a year that for many of us has been a dark year. I will not miss 2019. May 2020 bring light, love, and hope around the world and to all of you.

On that note, I will once again share one of my favorite quotations.

 

 

 

November 15, 2019

Today would have been my father’s 93rd birthday. Tomorrow it will be nine months since he died on February 16, 2019. Nine months is a long time—long enough for a human baby to gestate and be ready for life outside the womb. And yet it is just a flash in a life that lasted over 92 years.

These nine months have been the hardest of my life—dealing with not only losing my father, but watching my mother decline as well. Life without my father has been just too hard for her to bear.

So today I’d like to dedicate my blog to them both, two people whose love for each other was the key to almost all of their happiness, two beautiful young people who grew to be loving parents, adoring grandparents and great-grandparents and aunt and uncle, and loyal and caring friends to people in their community and elsewhere.

Florence and John Cohen 1951

Happy Passover and Happy Easter

This year the lunar calendar has aligned Passover and Easter perfectly.  The first seder takes place on the evening of Good Friday, so this weekend Jews and Christians (except Eastern Orthodox Christians) will all be celebrating an important holiday. At least in my part of the world, it is also spring. My lawn is green, the daffodils are blooming, and there are buds on the trees about to burst into flower. It should be a joyous time. After all, Passover celebrates the liberation of the Jews from slavery, and Easter celebrates the resurrection of Christ. I hope that for all who celebrate (and for those who don’t) this weekend brings lots of joy.

For me, this year Passover is tinged with sadness. This is the first year my father will not be with us. It’s just two months since he died, but somehow it feels so much longer. So for today’s post, I want to ponder Passovers past and my father’s role in them.

When we first celebrated Passover, it was at my Aunt Elaine’s house. Her husband, my Uncle Phil, had grown up in a more traditional home than my mother and her sister or than my father. Uncle Phil could read Hebrew, and he knew the traditional songs and the blessings. So, of course, he led the seder. We used the Haggadah for the American Family—almost all in English, except for the blessings, the four questions, and some other passages. It was perfect for our assimilated, non-affiliated, non-religious family.  I was enchanted by the whole experience. It was my first and for the longest time only exposure to Judaism, and I loved the story, the music, the rituals, and, of course, searching for the afikomen.

Uncle Phil and Aunt Elaine

After the first couple of years, my mother must have decided that she also wanted to have seders at our home, and so we began to have one seder at my aunt and uncle’s house and one at our house. At our house, my father took over the leader’s role (with my uncle helping on all the Hebrew and the songs). Given that my father was not at all religious, it was perhaps an uncomfortable role for him to assume, but he certainly wasn’t going to let another man lead the seder in his house. If he was uncomfortable, he certainly did not show it. He always did a great job, and I can still hear his voice, reading the English text, admonishing us to be quiet and listen, and then giving up and moving on to the next page.

When my aunt and uncle moved to Florida, my father was all on his own as the leader. By then I was an adult and married with children, and we did one seder with my husband’s family, one with mine. My husband’s family’s seders were far more traditional and educational, but also always warm and filled with love. The seders at my parents’ house continued to be somewhat chaotic—too many people talking, too many people getting up and down, chasing the children, helping with the food and the dishes. My father continued to lead the seder, and we all read from the Haggadah and said the blessings and sang the songs. Our children read the four questions.  And in the midst of all the noise and chaos, the seders continued to be cherished by us all.

Then I became a grandmother. And we wanted our grandchildren to experience Passover at our home. Now my grandsons read the four questions. Now my husband and I hide the afikomen. And now my husband leads the seder.

Passover, 2016.

My father graciously moved out of the leader’s chair. I wonder whether that was hard for him—recognizing that another generation was taking over and that his time as the leader after over fifty years in that role was over. If so, he never showed it. He seemed to relish the opportunity to watch over the younger generations without having to worry about keeping the seder rolling along.

My dad, Passover 2016

This year there will be a missing chair at the table, a missing voice adding to the chaos, a missing mouth to feed. That missing chair, that missing voice, that missing mouth will be noticed and felt by us all. When we open the door for Elijah and wait for him to sip the wine, I will be watching for my father instead. Not, of course, literally. I don’t believe in ghosts. But I know that his spirit will be there inside each and every one of us as we hear, once again, the words of the Haggadah.

 

A Life Well Lived

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.

Eva and John Cohen, Jr. (my father and his sister)

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.

In the Navy

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.

My father and my grandmother at his college graduation in 1952

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.

 

 

My Father

With much love and sadness, I share that my father passed away this weekend after 92 years of a life well lived. He was a man of great intellect, incredible curiosity, a passion for art, architecture, and music, and a lifelong commitment to progressive values—peace, justice, and human rights. He loved cats and dogs and the beaches of Cape Cod. But above all else, he was a man who passionately loved his family, especially my mother, whom he adored for 67 years of marriage.

Those of you who follow my blog may have seen the occasional comments my dad left on the blog. He was a devoted reader of the blog and supportive of and fascinated in the family history I was uncovering. He also was a constant source of information about his family and, most importantly, the inspiration for all the research I have done about all my paternal lines (which is probably 80-90% of what I’ve done since I have had much more luck finding information about my father’s side than my mother’s side). I will miss him deeply and will undoubtedly share more about him as time goes on.

For now I am taking a short break from blogging, but I will return soon because I know he would have wanted me to continue telling the stories of his many relatives.

Here are just a few photos.

My father at 9 months old

John Nusbaum Cohen, Jr.

In the Navy

Florence and John Cohen 1951

My father with Nate June 2010