Background - Parents 001


Much has been written by me about me.  But of course, there would be no me without two important people: my mother and my father.  Perhaps this should have been introduced earlier in the series of autobiographical essays, but I really don’t know a lot about either of them as far as their early lives are concerned.


Neither mother nor father shared a great deal about their lives with me – my father much, much less than my mother – but that is like comparing a thimble with a teaspoon.  Mother and her family lived in Pennsylvania in a town named Bradford.  I take it that her father was some sort of inventor who had worked in the coal mines in Pennsylvania, but had invented something which took him out of that sort of work.  What it – or what was the group of things he invented - was not something that was ever shared with me.  I believe that he had contracted what is called black lung disease – a disease that commonly afflicts people who work in coal mines.  Whatever the disease he had, he died at a relatively young age.


Mother was apparently a very bright youngster in whom other members of the family took an interest.  I think she had an aunt who taught school and worked with her to increase her knowledge.  Someone used to play math games with her.  She said she would look forward to the times when they would play those games.  I cannot clearly recall with whom she had such a good time.


Mother’s name was Gertrude Birmingham before she was married.  And her mother’s name was also Gertrude.  Apparently my grandmother Gertrude did not get along well with my grandfather (whose first name I do not know).  Along the way, while mother was under 16, my grandparents got a divorce.  That was a matter of some shame in those days (although now it seems like a hobby in America).  That may be why mother did not talk about her family much and particularly did not talk about her father.  Another reason may be that he remarried, and the person with whom he remarried was my grandmother’s sister.  I suppose some occurrence like that might ruffle some feathers.


Mother was raised in the Catholic Church.  When she was about 16, her father died, and the question about where he should be buried came up.  Some of the family wanted him to be buried with some other members of the family in a Catholic cemetery, but other factions wanted him to be buried elsewhere.  In those days, and to some extent today, the Catholic Church was very hard on people who were divorced.  Divorce was against the church doctrine, and it could be very difficult for people who were divorced. Apparently the “feud” grew worse, and some members of the family involved the Priest of the Catholic Church.  However the priest became involved he took the churches standard position and said mother’s father could not be buried in the Catholic graveyard.  Mother was on the other side.  Her side wanted him in the Catholic graveyard.  Mother never forgave them, and never practiced a religion after that time.  There was a short time when mother and father went to a Unitarian Church.  It is a church that accepts people from all religions as well as people who do not believe in any religion.  The members of the Unitarian Church all agreed that humanity is great.


She did well in pre-college school, and went to the University of Michigan, a prestigious college, where she also did quite well.  It was not ordinary, though not exceptional, for a woman to attend college in those days.  She obtained a BA degree and then worked to send her two younger sisters (Laura, and Muriel) through that University.  I really don’t know what jobs she had, but one was as a dental assistant.  Time passed (and I don’t know how long or how it was filled) and she went to Columbia University in New York City, New York.  There she took a law degree.  Apparently she did quite well, and was interested in practicing law.  However she was a woman, and women were not employable as lawyers in those days.  So, it was very difficult to find work in her chosen profession.


As I understand it, she had some contact with a woman in Colorado who had her own law firm.  Mother got in touch with her, and went to Colorado to join that firm.  I think they may have been or they may have become good friends.  I believe that it was this woman who went with mother (at least some woman and mother) went mountain climbing in Colorado, a state where such activity is commonplace.  Colorado is beautiful state with many mountains.  On this particular trip something went wrong.  The woman fell or was somehow injured or sick.  I don’t have a clear picture of the malady.  Mother was a small woman, just under 5 feet in height, and about 90 to 100 pounds in weight.  She could not carry the friend down the mountain.  So mother went down the mountain as fast as she could to get aid for her friend.  When she and the rescue team arrived back at the spot where the injured friend lay, the friend had frozen to death. 

I have no direct word of mouth evidence of this, but I think mother was devastated by what had happened.  Again, I do not know the time line of events, but I know that she decided to go on a boat to Alaska for a vacation.  I think it was to get away from what had happened.


Of my father’s side of the family, I know little.  I know little of my father’s life.  I do know that his parents were from Cuneo City (, a city in the province of Cuneo in Italy that is in an area near France called the Piedmont area. 


Economic conditions were bad in Cuneo City, so many people from that city went to Genoa.  Since I am writing this to my friends in China, I will mention that it must have been a little like it now is in China where the middle and western Chinese population travels to the eastern part of China to look for jobs.  Genoa is a port city and was doing well financially at the time.  None the less, many people – my grandparents included - came to California, an area similar to Genoa in terms of weather.  The family was a typical Italian family made up of parents and a number of children.  There were Romeo and Juliet, Henry and Henrietta, and another female child whose name eludes me currently (perhaps Jewel).  His mother died when Juliet was born, and at 6 my father was put in a Catholic orphanage, because his father could not raise all the children.  I have no idea what happened to the father or to the other children at that time.  I met some of them once or twice later in life, but have no clear recollections of them.  I met the family once when my father and I flew on an airplane to California to be with the family when his brother Romeo was buried.  In what was an extremely rare moment for him, he confided to me that Romeo’s death was a suicide. 

I remember very little of that meeting.  One or two of the sisters had married Portuguese men and had farms on which they raised sheep and artichokes.  The custom for families with this heritage was to bring children up to drink wine almost from birth.  I had not been so reared.  I was probably 7 at the time.  The relatives decided, with dad’s permission, to give me a glass of wine with dinner.  Whether it was the excitement of being there or the wine itself that caused me to get sick, I don’t know, but I got sick and lay down for several hours to recover.


As I said, Dad was placed in an orphanage that must have been run by Catholic monks or priests of the Franciscan order.  That order was quite prevalent in California, and they had a number of orphanages and other facilities aimed at helping people.  Dad never talked about that part of his life.  He did not talk about either growing up or being a young adult, but once when he and I were out west together we had occasion to look at some old missions and I noted his interest in the names on plaques on the walls.  I was sure that he recognized several names, and many memories were stirred up. I am aware that he was very well educated, and although I do not have details, I know he took Latin for 20 years, was fluent in Spanish, German, Greek, and Italian.  He also studied Sanskrit.  The Catholic Church oversaw his education, and he became a Franciscan Priest.  As part of his education, he spent time in Egypt and in the Middle East.  He did research on the bible.  He translated many documents having to do with the Bible and with his religion.  As his career progressed, he became a teacher at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. ( where he taught in the branch of philosophy called ethics.  The class was held for other priests and persons preparing for priesthood.  He conducted the classes in Latin rather than English.


His life is sketchy in my mind because he never told me about it.  It was my mother who told me the little I know.  But apparently the more he learned the more he tended to disbelieve the teachings of the church.  The more he disbelieved, the deeper his struggle went.  He was after all, a teacher of ethics.  Could he remain in the church and not accept some of the basic tenets.  Is it ethical to abandon the principles of the family (the Catholic Church which raised you)?  Is it ethical to continue teaching and living by principles that you do not agree with?  He was struggling with those thoughts and perhaps many others when he decided to take a boat trip to Alaska to sort out his mind, and to see what direction his life should take.