"Because people are dying to get in."
was the punchline to my father's joke
about why there are fences around cemeteries.
My grandparents, their three children
and all of their friends and even some of their grandchildren are gone.
With every funeral, I think about this joke.
Like all of Abe and Eva's seven grandchildren,
I went to college.
I became an illustrator and moved to Manhattan.
In 1979, on a visit back to Ocean Parkway,
I showed my grandfather an illustration
I'd recently done for The Nation,
about the anti-union tactics of the misleadingly
named "National Right-to-Work" Lobby.
My law-abiding grandfather talked proudly
about the illegal acts he'd committed years earlier,
in the battle for a more humane workplace.
The union buddies were not all the boring old men
they had appeared to be.
Inside some of their sunken, suspender clad chests,
their renegade hearts beat passionately.
As a photography student In 1971-1972,
on my father's lunch break, I visited the factory
where he worked.That it was not the Dickensian workhouse I'd imagined was due to the efforts of the union.
The union died in fits and spurts-
(actually, it was murdered by decree)-
The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America
was dissolved in 1976.
A merger with the Textile Workers Union formed the ACTWU, which in 1992 merged with the International
Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union to create UNITE
The Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Workers) In 2004, UNITE merged with HERE
(The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union)
forming UNITE HERE, which split apart in 2009.
In spite of the dissolution of the Amalgamated,
at the end of his long life my grandfather felt satisfied thinking about his role in advancing the rights
of factory workers.
His houses are still standing.
With the exception of its inelegant Anderson windows, 1465 Ocean Parkway, built in 1926, looks the same, and still has four apartments.
When my cousin Donnie visited the Lake Mohegan bungalow several years ago, it was no longer just a summer place.
This past summer, Donnie and I went to
Bedford-Stuyvesant to see the brownstone at 519
Putnam Avenue, between Throop and Sumner,
built in 1901, where his father, my mother and our Aunt Lillian grew up.
It looks very much as it did in family photographs
from 1934, except for a floor that was added on.
It's now a rental. Sumner is now Marcus Garvey Boulevard.
I could picture my mother as a young girl, descending the stairs on her way to the school that had been next door.
My beloved mother, Rose, lived to be 96.
I inherited her childhood china set of white porcelain trimmed in gold still perfectly intact
because it was hidden away until she was (truly)
too old to play with it.
I also inherited her cat. (We were always a cat family.)
I have my grandfather's union tie clips, the modest one he always wore and the solid gold one he was awarded when he retired that he never became attached to.
These images, inspired by the contributions of immigrants and the foot soldiers in labor history,
are also part of my inheritance.
Donnie's daughter, Abe’s great-granddaughter Alyssa,
She is the co-chair, and this is her second term.
is continuing his fight for a fairer workplace.
Her union is the Graduate Employee Organization-
UAW local 2322.