I grew up surrounded by my father’s family, but at something of a distance. Looking back on it, I trace my parents’ incuriosity about these relatives – generally described as “Oh, he’s a cousin … somehow” – to my grandfather’s self-protective stance when he married into the sprawling Ayer family: he focused on his own friends (and a handful of his relatives) while maintaining a cool remove from his in-laws. (The one exception was his wife’s uncle, General George S. Patton Jr., a near neighbor and a man it was hard to ignore.)
So it was something of a surprise one summer’s day, out sailing with my father and a friend, for my father to point out a house overlooking the Atlantic Ocean as belonging to “our kooky cousin the Countess.” Even as a child, a keen reader of histories and romances, the word Countess – applied to a resident of Essex County, Massachusetts – piqued my interest; and I was still of an age where adult foibles (particularly those noticed by other grown-ups) were fascinating glimpses into adult life. Continue reading The better part of valor→
Many years ago, as a graduate student in English, I discovered, to my surprise, how fascinating it was to read the sermons of early Puritan American ministers as works of literature. I’ve since come to appreciate that in addition to their literary value, sermons also provide snapshots of the historical moments from which they emerge. The best ones have staying power long past their delivery, as both spiritual meditation and historical document. This was brought home for me recently as I was looking through the papers of Rabbi Albert Gordon housed in the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center’s archives. Continue reading Timeless and Timebound: High Holiday Sermons as Historical Documents→
As many of you may have concluded through your research or education, primary sources are incomparable when it comes to understanding events and information. They often hold truths about which we can otherwise merely speculate. It is a success when just a few pages of a primary source are discovered, so imagine my disbelief when I found myself leafing through boxes upon boxes of living history which make up the Francis de Marneffe Family Collection at NEHGS. Continue reading Francis de Marneffe Family Collection at NEHGS→
My second-ever Vita Brevis post featured the story of how my grandfather became a stationmaster for Pan Am’s flying boat operations in the South Pacific. On the morning of 8 December 1941 (on his side of the International Date Line), Papi oversaw the departure of a Pan Am Clipper flying boat from Noumea, New Calendonia, which would immediately thereafter enter aviation history by flying “the long way” back to New York over uncharted routes. At almost the exact same time (on the American side of the International Date Line), a young man named Joe Pease was at the dock of Pan Am’s Pearl Harbor facility, awaiting the arrival of another Clipper. Needless to say, Joe had the more exciting morning! Continue reading Stubborn facts→
I have a vivid memory as a boy of the time my mother’s father showed me a healed wound in his leg. While he was a decorated veteran of the Second World War, with the Purple Heart (among other medals) to show for it, this scar – deep enough for a child probe with a finger – came from a shooting accident when he was not much older than I. The idea that my grandfather had ever been an unruly boy – his childhood inconceivably remote in the early 1970s – fascinated me, and, anyway, boys love the squeamish and the gross: this evidence of time’s passage, long-healed, formed a Proustian memory, sending me back to a hot summer’s day and a moment’s connection with my beloved grandfather. Continue reading ‘Planting watermelon’→
Joseph Kenny was a soldier in the 169th infantry, 43rd Infantry Division, during the Second World War. He was born in 1910 in Rhode Island, one of the nine children of Michael and Catherine (Mangan) Kenny – both Irish immigrants. My great-uncle Joseph died on 11 August 1944 in the Philippine Islands.
He was stationed at Fort William McKinley. Although we don’t know much about how Joseph died in combat, we do know a lot about the after effects of his death from the telegrams and letters written by the Kenny family to the Army for more than a year – all trying to learn about Joseph’s last days on Earth. Continue reading Row on row→
Following up on Patty Vitale’s recent post on her Uncle Dominic’s war photography, I can offer another take: photos created by Private Richard Bowers Oliver (1913–1985) at Camp Wheeler near Macon, Georgia, during the Second World War.
Oliver seems to have been the camp’s official photographer, a member of the Public Relations Office. While much of his work covered the camp’s daily life, there were occasional celebrities to be seen, as when Cab Calloway (1907–1994) paid Camp Wheeler a visit. Continue reading Miniature works of art→
Last year, while going through boxes of old photos at my dad’s house, we came across a plastic bag containing hundreds of photos taken by my great-uncle Dominic Vitale during the Second World War. The photos were curled and disorganized, but on the backs of many of the photos Uncle Dom had written the names of his buddies who were in the photos, as well as dates, locations, and the names of their hometowns. I took the photos home with me, hoping to find a way to organize them electronically and eventually find relatives of his army buddies who would appreciate seeing them. Continue reading Dom Vitale’s war→
On the train from Washington D.C. to Boston this past summer, I sat next to an immigration lawyer by chance. Thanks to reading immigration case files all the time, I was proud that I could at least identify a few documents and steps in the immigration process he mentioned. I remember remarking how difficult it must be to understand the immigration process and navigate it successfully. Thinking about the encounter in hindsight, and after interning at the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center for a year, I realized that the immigration process being difficult, tedious, and full of unexpected challenges isn’t exactly new.
During the Second World War, the U.S. State Department was notorious for its role in impeding the immigration of refugees, particularly Jews. Reflecting fears about German spies, the Department issued a so-called “relatives rule,” which instructed U.S. consuls abroad to deny visas to any applicant with close relatives in Nazi-occupied territory. Continue reading An immigration obstacle course→
When Isaac Gordon and his two younger brothers – Aron and one whose name is unknown – left their village in Poland and fled from the Nazis into the woods, it must have felt like stepping into another world. Polish resistance to the Nazis was fierce during World War II, and the dense Polish forests would be the training grounds, staging areas, and headquarters for all types of partisan groups and underground fighters. Isaac, a cattle-dealer in his early thirties from Vilna (Vilnius), could hardly have felt prepared for the type of life that he and his brothers would be embarking upon when they joined the resistance movement. Continue reading Notes from the underground→