Family matters

(This posting was a couple of sentences from being finished when the Ramona Xfinity Internet Crash occurred, two days ago (service has finally been restored). This in the midst of the (overlapping) Ramona Respiratory Pestilence and the Ramona Gastroenterological Pestilence. It’s been an unfortunate week.)

A posting about my family, and, mostly, about the fragility of memory. But first, an ornament, a layered spiral design from Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky’s Instagram site yeserday:


I prefer to see this as a fancy script Z, for Zwicky.

Then the story starts with a day Luc Vartan Baronian and I spent together back in late December, talking about linguistics and our lives. (Luc is a 2006 Stanford Ph.D.; now Associate Professor at Université du Québec à Chicoutimi; specializing in phonology and morphology, French varieties and creoles of the Americas, and Armenian studies.)

Along the way we talked about the #MeToo movement, and our own stories, from when we were young teens, of being aggressively approached sexually by men: in his case, in Montréal, in mine in Penn Station in NYC (the original, true Penn Station).

That led me to tell the story of my uncle Paul and a cross-generation relationship that was not at all sexual. As I told the larger story in my 1/30/11 posting “It Gets Better / Wonderful dad”:

Uncle Paul. Not too long after this — it’s very hard to work out the chronology from this distance in time — my father called me in for another serious talk, which he started by asking me if I’d heard about my Uncle Paul (the brother of the husband of my mother’s twin sister). I hadn’t.

It seems that Paul had gone from Allentown PA, where he lived and worked, to New York City for a night (probably a weekend) on the town, and was arrested, in one of those police sweeps of gay bars so common in those days, for dancing with another man. As was standard then, the names of people arrested in such cases were published in newspapers, and for out-of-towners the NYC papers shared the information with local papers, so that the Allentown Morning Call ran a story with a head something like “Local Man Arrested on NY Morals Charge”. And Paul’s life was ruined: his brother [Herb Fries] and local acquaintances refused to have anything to do with him, he was fired from his job, and he fled to NYC, never to be heard from again.

[I knew Paul pretty well, especially from summers on my aunt and uncle’s farm. He treated me much like a younger brother, and we spent time hiking in the fields and forests and just talking. I think he saw in me something of what he had been as a boy. In any case, he never said or did anything sexual with me. I did divine something of his feelings towards men, though, when his best buddy from the Army — Paul and his brother were both World War II vets — visited the farm, and they spent all of their time together, much of it in the bedroom they shared; there was a visible bond between them.]

Now, my dad on Paul: he laid out the situation, pretty much as I have above (well, I got the story from him), and went on to explain, earnestly, that some men loved other men the way most men loved women, that that was just the way they were, and there was nothing wrong with that. He added that he knew I liked Paul — and that he and my mother and my aunt all liked him, still did — so I should know there was nothing wrong with Paul, and if I heard nasty talk about him (I never did; apparently the news didn’t really make it from Allentown to Reading) I shouldn’t let that affect my opinion of the man.

Remember: this was the early 1950’s, scarcely an enlightened time. Wow.

My dad could not have known how electrifyingly comforting his words were to me. (Maybe, at some level he did.) In any case, all through his life I never heard him say anything disparaging about gay people or saw him go along with anyone else’s disparagement.

Luc had had some experience tracing people on ancestry websites and volunteered to see if he could find my uncle. This took more time than it should have, because my recollection of his first name was now incorrect — it had gotten misted over in the years since 2011 — so Luc had to get to him via his brother Herb, which meant via my mother’s twin sister. Whose name I clearly remember as Marian. But I remembered wrong. It was Marion (Marian is almost always a female name, while Marion can be female or male.)

It gets worse, much worse. Luc found my grandmother Sue’s death certificate, which was full of surprises, starting with the spelling of her first name — which I clearly recalled as Susannah with an H (as in “Oh, Susannah!”). But no:


This particular point is complicated; Sue might have varied the spelling herself. But the legal record is clear.

Some of this accords with what I knew: the 12/6/1877 date of birth — her birthday came up every year on the day before Pearl Harbor Day — and the place. “Laundry presser” might well have been the last domestic job she had before she retired on Social Security. My aunt Marion was indeed then Marion Knauss; Phil Knauss was her second husband, after she divorced Herb.

And Sue was indeed Susanna Hershey Rice, but not, as I had thought, because her maiden name was Hershey; Hershey was her middle name. Hershey was, it turns out, her mother‘s maiden name. Sue‘s maiden name was Long — news to me.

Then I had thought the name of her husband (who died a hundred years ago this year) was Richard (or possibly Robert), but no: Irwin, a name I don’t recall having heard before.


After this, Luc went on to track down uncle Paul — and found him. In an obituary in the Allentown Morning Call of 11/4/89, reporting Paul’s death on the 1st:


So he did escape to NYC — eventually to Brooklyn — and build a life there in the 50s and 60s, living to about 74. If I’d known this, I could have gotten in touch with him. Or my dad could have (my father died in 1992, at the age of 78).

There’s still a mystery. The Morning Call story identifies a Herbert J. Fries as Paul’s father, and that’s possible. But he certainly had a brother Herb, born ca. 1914. A sister Marjorie I don’t recall.

In any case, this sort of wonky memory for what you might have thought of as straightforward matters of fact is just par for the course. Memories erode, are confounded by other memories, get re-shaped by other people’s stories or cultural expectations. People remember things that could not possibly have happened that way. Families famously fall into dispute over quite different recollections of the past.

Annoyingly, your degree of certainty about your recollections correlates very poorly with their actual accuracy. Which makes these observations about the fragility of memory especially hard for people to credit.

And my memories are no better than anyone else’s.

2 Responses to “Family matters”

  1. Julian Lander Says:

    Official records, especially those related to death, are not always reliable. (Death record information is never provided by the subject, obviously.) There are certainly errors in the records of some of my ancestors.

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