Happy 4th of July!
Let me first note, transparent in my pedantry, the Declaration of Independence was actually approved on July 2, 1776. Nonetheless, it was dated July 4, 1776 and signed August 2, 1776.
Allow me next to relate I was physically born (at long-since-closed Metropolitan Hospital, then at 3rd and Spruce) roughly 1/5 of a mile (about 4½ city blocks) southeast of Independence Hall, where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were written.
And permit me to conclude with the fascinating coincidence that both the 2nd president of the United States, John Adams, and the 3rd president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, died on this day in 1826—50 years to the day from the day we designate as our official day of independence from England.
That is, I conclude these introductory paragraphs that way.
A few hours, I began to write a thread on Twitter. It opened thus:
1/ For July 4, I present my American story.
I was born in Philadelphia–where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States were written.
I was adopted in utero in the late summer of 1966. Both of my (legal) grandfathers were born outside the US.
The thread ties together the various elements of my background into a single, “American” story. Regular readers of this site will not be surprised, given a series of posts I have written (collected here) telling parts of this same story.
Moving right along:
2/ Morris Berger was born in what is now Poland in 1894 and came to the US when he was 4 years old. A Yiddish speaker, he became a successful business owner and Jewish community leader in West Philadelphia.
His son David Louis was my (legal) father.
He went the other direction.
Two things here (besides proudly observing I was given the Hebrew name Moshe ben David Leib in his honor).
One, the year of my (legal) paternal grandfather’s birth is incorrect. Twitter, however, lacks an edit function, so I could not correct this tweet once it was posted.
Two, there is some uncertainty as to when, exactly, Morris Berger (and three of his siblings) was born.
3/ Charming, gregarious and generous, “Lou” spiralled down after his iron-willed mother died in 1972. A gambling addiction cost him the business his father and uncle had built. He also lost his marriage–though he never lost me. He died, broke, from a heart attack at 46 in 1982.
David Louis “Lou” Berger died on June 30, 1982, meaning the 37th anniversary of his death was four days ago. By an egregious act of bad timing, June 30 is also the birthday of a close cousin. In fact, my mother and I spent the evening he died at a birthday party for this cousin. As we walked in the front door of our apartment after the celebration, the phone was ringing shrilly. My mother walked behind her white-and-chrome desk to answer it. It was her ex-husband’s—what is the adult form of “girlfriend?”—calling from her hospital bed to inform us of Lou’s sudden passing.
At the time, he was driving a cab for a living (quite happily, I hasten to add, because it gave me a freedom he had rarely known). He was headed to Little Pete’s diner (which closed in 2017) to meet some fellow cabbies for a meal, when he collapsed on the sidewalk in front of the Warwick Hotel (where my wife Nell and I stayed a few times early in our relationship). He was dead before he hit the ground from his third heart attack in 10 years.
Ignoring decades-old tears and moving on:
4/ Yisrael HaCohen was born in what is now Ukraine in 1904. He came to the United States when he was 7, speaking Yiddish. To join the Philadelphia Police Department in the 1930s, he changed his name to Samuel Kohn (sounded less Jewish) and changed his birthplace to Cleveland.
This story I have told before, so let us proceed:
5/ He served for nearly 20 years, rising to Detective. He ultimately retired to Atlantic City.
His daughter Elaine was my (legal) mother.
Serious reproductive health issues (and hysterectomy) led her only natural child (b. 1962) is “severely intellectually disabled.”
Again, one cannot edit a tweet—that should read, “led…to be.”
Because it is better to laugh than to cry, I sometimes tell the following “joke”: My mother had two miscarriages and a hysterectomy, and then I was born!
It was not until I became my sister’s sole legal guardian and began receiving her annual Life Enrichment Plans that I knew the extent of my mother’s reproductive miseries. Besides the two miscarriages—and a prolonged, painful labor resulting in her daughter being deprived of oxygen at critical moments during her birth process—Elaine Berger also had uterine cancer. Thus, the hysterectomy.
6/ I am my sister’s legal guardian. She lives in a facility run through private-public partnership; she is funded through supplemental Social Security income. Thank you, FDR.
Elaine took the opposite path from Lou. After her marriage ended in 1977, she worked a minimum wage job.
She actually took that job—cold-calling folks on behalf of the A-1 Carpet Cleaning Company—some time around October 1976, as her marriage was inexorably coming to an end.
And I must say this: the end of my (legal) parents’ marriage was about as amiable as such an event can be. As painful as it must have been (the night before they officially separated was the only time I saw my father cry), I will always be grateful to them for this civility.
Meanwhile, this is what I mean by “supplemental Social Security income.”
7/ Eventually, Elaine bought that business and, with some help from her own business-owning mother, made a good living for nearly 25 years.
But her reproductive issues returned, and she died from ovarian cancer, aged 66, in 2004.
Oh…her mother. Irene Gurmankin, later Goldman.
Yes, my (legal) maternal great-grandfather—or, at least, his four daughters—also Anglicized his name.
Three years after Elaine Berger began as a minimum-wage-earning telephone solicitor, the owner—a lovely man named (if memory serves) Schwartz—retired. My mother worked out a deal with the man who owned the actual carpet-cleaning machinery to run the business together. A few years after that, this other man retired (or something, my memory defies interrogation on these points), and Elaine Berger took over the A-1 Carpet Cleaning Company (a two-person operation—three when I pitched in, mostly by filing or placing leaflets on car windshields—to be sure) for good.
Here she is in 1988 running that business (same desk, different apartment) with her two children framed in the background:
8/ After divorcing Samuel Kohn in (I believe) 1964–a rarity in those days–she started a cosmetics and costume jewelry business. That business–and her own iron will and fierce work ethic–became fairly successful, allowing her to live comfortably until her death at 92 in 2007.
For some reason, Irene Kohn (she kept the surname) soon moved 60 or so miles west to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she set up shop at the newly-opened Host Farm. Because of her beauty and extroverted (if sometimes cruel—my relationship to her was complicated) charm, she quickly established herself as the unofficial hostess of the sprawling resort. This was a great boon to my cousins and me, who effectively had the run of the place (two pools, a game room, a gift shop, three great restaurants with employee discounts, endless hallways to explore, a superb daylong program called the Peppermint Parlor). Heck, I got to see my man Rupert Holmes perform in the Host Farm Cabaret (for free) in the summer of 1981!
She finally moved back to Philadelphia in 1984, though she never actually retired, running a mail-order business for loyal customers well into her 80s.
9/ Meanwhile, Morris Berger died, aged 61, in 1954 (correction, he was born in 1893–if only Twitter allowed editing), and Samuel Kohn died, aged 73, in 1978.
OK, that is my legal family, the only family (prior to marriage and parenthood) I have ever known.
I really wish I could have known my namesake—whose death was one of a series of blows to young Lou Berger, who was asked to shoulder more responsibility than he was prepared to. As for “Pop Pop Sam,” for all his “combative personality” and temper, he was a kind and loving grandfather, and I miss him still.
The next few tweets in the thread speak for themselves:
10/ Here is what I know about my genetic family.
My maternal grandmother could trace her ancestry–and family presence in the United States–to the 1700s. English, Dutch. Her ancestors primarily lived in the southeasterern [sic] United States.
Where they fought for the Confederacy.
11/ Alice Mulkey married an Irish Catholic Philadelphian named William Dixon, and moved to Philly. Their first child is my genetic mother.
They lived in what was then a working class area
At 19, while working at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, she met my genetic father.
12/ This part is…fuzzy…so I elide it.
However, the man she met was almost certainly the only son of legendary naval historian Reuben Elmore Stivers. Assuming I am correct, my genetic father died in 2006.
The Stivers family also goes back in the United States to the 1700s.
I exaggerate only slightly when I use the word “legendary” to describe the man who is almost certainly my (genetic) paternal grandfather. When I explained to a different cousin, who serves his country ably and proudly as a Lieutenant Commander, Naval Intelligence, “Smokey” Stivers was likely my ancestor, he said admiringly, “Oh, THAT Reuben Stivers!”
Continuing the thread:
13/ Except they were primarily in Kentucky.
And those men fought for the Union during the Civil War.
“My” branch settled in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. This could explain my (legal) mother’s belief that my genetic father was Colombian.
I miss her (and my father).
One, it was not just Kentucky. It was specifically around Lexington, Kentucky, based on what I have learned on Ancestry.com and through discussion with newly-discovered genetic cousins (who have been unfailingly gracious).
But more to the point, I was shocked to learn my genetic ancestors fought each other (perhaps literally, I do not know) in the American Civil War; ponder that counterfactual for a while. This discovery also fits well within the context of my “split identity” first post.
Two, Elaine Berger was so convinced (after a bad game of Telephone: my genetic mother conveyed what she knew to Modell, who passed it on to his client, who probably misunderstood “District of Columbia”–which had only just received its three electoral votes—as “Colombia”) of my genetic paternal heritage she went to the library to see what Colombian children looked like. I do not know what photographs she saw, but she told me numerous times she thought I would be black, or at least much darker-skinned.
She was one of a kind, my mother was.
14/ Upon learning she was pregnant, my genetic mother–unmarried and lacking means–chose to put me up for adoption.
That adoption was arranged through another child of Jewish immigrants, Herman Modell.
How, you ask, did my (legal) father and uncle know the powerful Mr. Modell?
I scrupulously avoid injecting my own political beliefs onto this site, but I make an exception here.
Had I been conceived seven years later, my genetic mother could have had her fetus legally aborted, thanks to Roe v. Wade.
Now, because of her Catholic upbringing—and this is pure speculation on my part—my genetic mother may have carried me to term anyway. She also may have been living in different economic and/or personal circumstances after January 1973. The counterfactuals make my head spin.
And let me back up a second here.
Nell and I have discussed on more than one occasion how much of a role privilege (read: white privilege) plays here. Her own mother was raised with a modicum of wealth, and there is no doubt that if she had found herself with an unwanted pregnancy early prior to 1973, her family would have quietly arranged an abortion for her. It is a near-certainty my genetic mother had no such option (which is why, as long as I am shouting from my soapbox, I have always been opposed to the Hyde Amendment—it denies less well-off women access to a Constitutionally-protected medical procedure and is thus, frankly, unconstitutional. Talk about an “undue burden!”).
But if, under ANY circumstances, my genetic mother had chosen to abort the fetus gestating in her womb—the fetus that would not really become yours truly until the end of September 1966—I would absolutely and unequivocally support that decision.
It was her body, so it was her choice. As it is for all women, everywhere. If you do not like abortions, do not have one, but do not sit in any sort of judgment on any woman who makes that most painful of decision in private consultation with her medical providers and selected loved ones.
Just as I do not get to sit here, more than 50 years later, and judge my genetic mother for any decision she made (or did not make, or could/would have made). I did not yet exist as an autonomous being…and I if I had never existed as an autonomous being, so be it. It was never my decision to make.
My (legal) mother would often remark something to the effect of “If men could get pregnant, you would be able to get an abortion on any street corner.”
For a woman with only a few years of post-high-school medical technician training, she saw things with exceptional clearly.
Returning to my Twitter thread:
15/ Through their simultaneous membership in La Fayette Lodge No. 71.
Yes, my (legal) father, his uncle and the powerful lawyer who arranged my adoption were brother Freemasons.
To be fair, my (legal) father was asked to leave La Fayette Lodge No. 71 for non-payment of dues.
I have told some of this story before, so let us move on; see also here. I would just add that to the extent you knew my father—and realize he was a Freemason for about 10 years—any support for the myth of the controlling influence of the Freemasons evaporates.
16/ But consider this.
When the unplanned child of two people who could trace (mostly) ancestry in the United States to the 1700s was placed for adoption, with whom was he placed?
The children of Yiddish-speaking immigrant fathers who had built successful lives in Philadelphia.
And there it is…thank you for continuing to “just bear with me.” Often lost in our collective squabbles over immigration: the descendants of recent immigrants often do better economically and socially than the longer-term “original settlers.”
Speaking of bearing with me:
End/ I was fortunate to be raised by loving parents of some means in the leafy suburbs north and west of Philadelphia. Nature and nurture cooperated successfully, and I enrolled in Yale College in 1984, sparking a fairly successful life of my own.
And that is #MyAmericanStory
Here is a photograph of those leafy suburbs, as my (legal) father holds his two children (backstory here):
And here I am with my legal mother and maternal grandmother at my graduation from Yale in 1988.
Here is the first postscript:
PS/ I am writing a book (inspired by, of all things, trying to explain why I love #FilmNoir so much) detailing this history. Working title: Interrogating Memory: Film Noir, Identity and a Search for Truth.
For more, please see justbearwithme.blog.
Thank you, and Happy 4th!
Hmm, this is getting very circular.
PPS/ My profile picture is from my (legal) parents’ wedding in January 1960. Their wedding, literally and metaphorically, took place about half a mile south of City Line Avenue. They were on the Philadelphia side, but maybe they could see their future home in the suburbs.
For those of you who do not follow me on Twitter (tsk, tsk–@drnoir33), here is that photograph:
I do not know who the gentleman on the far left is (a great-uncle?), but from left to right are Rae Caesar Berger (mother of the groom, Lou Berger, Elaine Kohn Berger (photograph taken after exchange of vows), Irene Kohn (mother of the bride) and Samuel Kohn (father of the bride).
I LOVE this photograph, even if the men on either end look dyspeptic.
Please have (or continue to have, or I hope you had) a safe and festive holiday!
Until next time…
9 thoughts on “Happy July 4th! Here is my American story.”
Lovely pictures! Something is lost having pictures only in the cloud! I take all my photo’s and make a hard photo book from Shutterfly for every occasion.
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Awww I love this! Happy July 4th (belated). Family histories are fantastic and should be treasured. Thank you for sharing!
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You are welcome. Just wait until my book comes out… Thank you for reading. 🙂
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I can’t wait to read it!
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Awesome. I can’t wait to write it! 😉
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