My Uncle Tom

Sister and I

Uncle Tom was my mother’s only brother.  I never knew him very well because he was so gruff and grim and very rarely spoke to children.  As a child, whenever my sisters and I, along with my mother, would visit my grandmother’s house, Tom would be sitting at the kitchen table eating and reading the newspaper. That’s the only place I ever remember seeing him.  Funny I remember him at all because his face was usually buried in the newspaper.  I am not sure if he was interested in politics because he never seemed to engage anyone in conversation, least of all the children.   At least never more than a grunt and that was to ask either mom or one of his sisters for more coffee or more to eat.

Tom had dark hair and always had a five o’clock shadow and if he had any personality, it was never apparent.  The only way I knew anything about him was through my mother and her sisters. They talked about him behind his back of course.  The strange thing though was they always used the name “Dick” when they referred to Tom.  My sisters and I always assumed that Dick was his name.  We never found out that his name was Tom until we were adults!

Tom did have a favorite sister and that was Lily, one of his older sisters.  She was married and living with her husband in another State.  New Jersey was the State and eventually most, if not all of the family eventually moved there for the jobs.  There was work in New Jersey for both men and women.  But at this time, Lily was the only one of the family that lived there.  The reason being that her husband Frank got a good job working in the ship-yards in New Jersey before and during the War.  The second world war that is, or WWII as most people were calling it.

This was a few years before America got into WWII  and the young men were either being drafted or joining up with the Army, Navy or the Marines.  The older men, by that I mean men in their thirties and forties were going where the jobs were and also helping the war effort. They were glad to get the jobs as there  was no work in Northeastern Pennsylvania except the coal mines.   No one in their right mind, wanted to work in the coal mines.  You either died in a mine accident or died more slowly from “black lung”.  Jobs had been scarce for a long time in that area and the men and their families sometimes had to work in the mines because they couldn’t afford to move to New Jersey or their families didn’t’t want to move.

Tom was deferred from the service because he was the only man in the family.  His father had died a few years before from an accident in the Coal Mines.  His sisters worked in the silk mills and Tom did also but the pay was not that good.

The younger men elected to leave the area rather than work in the mines.   Since New Jersey was the closest State to northeastern Pennsylvania where we lived and had a lot of good paying jobs, especially now with the rumors of war and the buildup of companies making the machinery of war.  It was only natural that a lot of young men in the area would migrate there.  Also, the pay was much better in New Jersey.

But back to Tom.  He worked in the silk mill closest to where he lived.  Several of his sisters worked in silk mills also.  I know my mother would talk about the time she worked there.  It was interesting mostly because my mother was a good story teller.  In fact, when my friends would come to our house to either pick me up for a dance or other activity we were going to do, or just to visit, they would be entranced by the stories my mother would tell.  A lot of the stories were about ghosts and graveyards and they would scare both my friends and my sister’s friends. However, they always wanted to come back for more which they did on a regular basis.

There was a definite smell that clung to my aunts who worked at the mill.  It was a medicinal smell that was not pleasant.  It just seemed to ooze out of them and when they would come to visit us and we would complain to my mother about the smell, after they left of course.  She would try to explain where the smell came from and told us to never to mention the smell in front of the aunts.  As far as I know, none of us ever did .  Most of the older sisters, including my mother had to quit school after finishing eighth grade.  This was because she, as well as the other older sisters had to go to work in one of the mills, to help the family survive.   There was not  much, if any other work in the area at that time.   Tom refused to work in the mines.

Mom, she was my grandmother but she insisted that her grandchildren call her ‘mom’ because she thought grandma made  her seem too old.  My mother and her other sisters who had children did not mind that we then had to call our mothers,  ‘mother’.   It was the Irish way anyhow!

Lily and her husband Frank were much loved by mom.  I think one of the reasons was because Lily was a good Catholic and went to church on a regular basis and mom was very religious.  Lily’s husband Frank was also a good Catholic.  Lily also had a big family consisting of five children, only one was a boy.  John was his name.   He was named after his grandfather and mom loved that.  John was also very spoiled by his mother and indeed by his sisters also.

Lily doted on John and sent him to Catholic school when he was in high school, which was several towns away from where they lived.  He had to take the streetcar to get there.   Whenever either myself or my sister, Anna would see him on the streetcar, we would address him as ‘Jackie’ because that’s what we called him when we were younger.  He would now correct us and say “John please”!

Lily decided early on that John should become a priest, which of course the nuns were happy about and encouraged this.  Mom was extremely happy about this also.  In fact, John was her favorite grandchild!   The other grandchildren were relegated to somewhat lower positions.

So Lily was the ‘Golden Girl’  and her family got most of the attention from mom.  I never heard any of the other sisters complain about their children being left out of mom’s affection but I do not believe they were happy about it.  I do remember being snubbed however whenever my sisters were visiting mom and Lily and her family were there also.

Lily’s girls had taken dancing lessons, tap dancing and were always asked to perform for everyone to much applause and adulation.   Of course they were always dressed in the latest fashion which Lily would donate to my mother for her ‘girls’ when they were done with them.  The material of the dresses was always taffeta and lace and we would refuse to wear them because they were too fancy for us.

To be continued.

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