MY FAMILY: “THE FAMILY THAT SPOILED THE NEIGHBORHOOD”?
Some group or other is always the minority, in any society. And I imagine that when our Catholic family of two parents and three children moved into a home on Wakeling Street in a substantially Protestant section of Northwood in 1956, and when the little ones kept popping out of our mother every few years, the Old Blood families of Frankford surrounding us groaned and thought. “There goes the neighborhood!”
But the neighbors quickly got used to us. In between running errands for elderly neighbors, we kids played step-ball with pimple balls on the back steps, and kick-the-can on Rutland Street on hot summer nights. With tips earned carrying groceries at the Harrison Quick Shoppe grocery store, at Harrison and Large Streets, we purchased comic books and bubble gum at Schwartzy’s Drug Store on the corner across Large Street. Schwartzy was my introduction to Judaism. He was one of the kindest, gentlest souls I ever met. If anyone goes to Heaven, it will be Schwartzy. And if he doesn’t make it, none of us will.
ONE OF NORTHWOOD’S MATRIARCHS
One of the matriarchs of Northwood, descended from one of the “Old Blood” dynasties of Frankford, the textile-manufacturing Garsed family, was Edyth Holden Remmey, who after her birth in 1905 had lived for years over on Allengrove Street, between Rutland Street and Castor Avenue with her husband and children. Her Garsed ancestors had owned a group of textile mills arranged in a crescent around the west end of Frankford, some of them visible in Smedley’s 1863 Atlas of Philadelphia.
It was John Garsed who built the Frankford “Y” building at Arrott and Leiper Streets. Even as the residence was being constructed in 1864, Mrs. Remmey later told me, the Garsed mansion was nicknamed “Garsed’s Folly,” as acquaintances of the Garsed’s saw construction being inhibited by materials shortages and an economy shocked by the changes generated by first the commencement of, and then the termination of, the American Civil War. Lo and behold, John Garsed was forced by economic difficulties to sell his home to his bother Richard Garsed, famed for his patented high-speed steam-powered looms, who in turn was eventually compelled by a post-war economic bust to economize by re-selling it to William Bault, one of the principals of Globe Dye Works.
Several generations down the line, after Mrs. Remmey, as Edyth Holden, met and married Paul B. Remmey, soon to be a prominent commercial and landscape artist, descended from the dynasty of Remmey ceramic- and brick-makers, with a large factory on the banks of the Delaware in Bridesburg, she memorialized her Garsed family ancestry by naming her daughter Nina Garsed Remmey.
When Edyth Holden, born 1905, was courted by Paul Baker Remmey, born 1903, in the 1920s, Mr. Remmey was an art student, earning recognition and awards for the excellence of his work He was descended from the dynasty of makers of ceramic, brick, and heat resistant materials for handling steam heat, who first came to the American colonies from France in the early 1700s. As the Remmey family integrated their expertise into American industry, they built at least two factories in our area, one on the Delaware, on Hedley Street in Bridesburg; the other on the north side of what is now Aramingo Avenue, but what, back then, was Aramingo Canal, east of Cumberland Street. (Yes, Aramingo Avenue used to be a canal.)
After their marriage, Mr. Remmey became a prominent water color artist, exhibiting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the 1930s, in the Philadelphia Art Alliance and in the Art Institute in Chicago from the 1930s to the 1940s. His works are exhibited in museums to this day. The American Watercolor Society issues an award in his name every year to budding watercolor artists. Their home on Allengrove Street in Frankford featured a third floor converted into a large, well-lit studio.
The Remmey’s gravesite can be seen today in Cedar Hill Cemetery. The gravestone reads, “Paul B. Remmey, 1903-1957, American Artist” and “His Wife, Edyth Holden Remmey, 1903-1987.”
After Mr. Remmey’s death in 1957, Mrs. Remmey had a special problem: Mr. Remmey had left his wife dozens of valuable paintings, stored in racks in the basement of their Allengrove Street home. Because the basement tended to be much more humid and damaging to paintings in the Summer, every Spring dozens of paintings had to be carefully moved from the basement to the storage racks in the third floor studio, and every Fall the paintings had to be carefully moved again back to the storage racks in the cool dry air in the basement. At first Mrs. Remmey did this herself, a few each day. But beginning around 1962, Mrs. Remmey couldn’t manage the job any more, and she called on “the Dawson boys” — me, at age 9, and my brother Chris at age 11 — to help her. We did this for years — up and down, up and down, up and down we took the paintings, third floor studio to basement, basement to third floor studio, year after year — and that is how we came to know Mrs. Remmey.
THE INTERESTING GRANDFATHER CLOCK
Mrs. Remmey had a grandfather clock in her living room which intrigued me very much as a child. She said that it dated from the Revolutionary War, and that the hole in the side was made by a Revolutionary War bullet.
MATCHING ME UP WITH MISS FRANKFORD
Mrs. Remmey had a special place in her heart for me, I think. To a certain extent, she came to view herself as my “second mother.” Once around 1973, as I filled-in some plaster cracks in the walls and ceilings of the stairway to the basement, she called me over and asked, “Peter, do you have a girl friend?” I answered, “To have a girl friend you really have to have a car, Mrs. Remmey. And I can’t afford a car now because I am paying for college.” “Well,” she answered,. “It is time for you to have a girl friend! And I have found just the girl for you!” “Who?” I asked, very surprised and somewhat cautious. Mrs. Remmey picked up a copy of the Frankford newspaper called The News Gleaner and pointed triumphantly to the pretty girl, just elected “Miss Frankford,” in the picture on the front page and said, “Her!”
She put down the newspaper, found the scrap paper with the girl’s family’s telephone number which had found in the telephone book before calling me over that morning to do the plaster work, and began dialing!
Alarmed I said, “Whoa, whoa, WHOA! Mrs. Remmey, you can’t just call a girl out of the blue and say, ‘Here, date this guy!’ It doesn’t work like that!”
MRS. REMMEY AND MY SEXY FIANCÉE
When, about 6 years later, I brought my gorgeous fiancée over to Mrs. Remmey and introduced them, I think that Mrs. Remmey thought that she was too sexy looking. When I stopped by Mrs. Remmey’s a few weeks later, she expressed disgust at the clothing my fiancée had been wearing! However, Mrs. Remmey recovered, and the following October was generous in her wedding present to us — she gave us some cash, and another gift.
THE REMMEY CHILDREN
Mrs. Remmey had had two children by her prominent artist husband — a son Paul, Jr., who was born in 1930 and passed away in 2009, and a daughter Nina, who I think was born a few years after her brother. I met Nina, long since moved-out and married, a few times, when she visited her mother. She struck me as having a wonderful, generous heart. Her brother Paul, Jr., on the other hand, seemed very troubled. In the 20 years I knew him, from around 1962 to around 1982, I never saw Paul, Jr. smile even once.
PAUL, JR.’S INTELLIGENCE WORK
Since I was prone to being a “bookish,” nerdy guy, I perused Paul, Jr’s bookshelves, and I asked Paul about the Russian language books in his bookcase. He explained that he had learned Russian and then, as a State Department employee during the Cold War, translated Russian documents for the American intelligence services in the Far East. He told me that he had met a Japanese girl while stationed in the East, but that she had died at a young age.
ANGRY UNCLE BUNNY
Though Paul Remmey, Jr. was “nerdily bookish” like myself, his surly manner put me off. Though we kids in the neighborhood nicknamed Paul, Jr. with the seemingly gentle title “Uncle Bunny,” there always seemed to be a high level of tension between Paul and his mother. I was never nosey, but I should have been. Mrs. Remmey seemed only persistently kind toward her son, but he responded only with persistent distancing behavior and anger. He may have felt justified, but my internal response to the anger I saw was the thought that Requirement #1 for getting into Heaven is, “Do not bring hatred with you. Forgive.”
There is a saying along the lines of, “In the little things we can see the big.” When Mrs. Remmey use to call us and ask “the Dawson boys” to cut her grass, Paul would be out there on the back lawn on his folding chair, not getting up, reading, while we cut the grass around him. I used to think, “What is the matter with him? Is his leg broken?” The same thing would happen when we were called over to move the paintings again. Paul, Jr. would be sitting in the living room, reading, while we walked past him, 20, 30, and 40 times, carrying paintings up or down.
A HAMMER AND SCREWDRIVER AS WEAPONS
One day, around 1975, when I was around 22 years of age, a very strange thing happened. Mrs. Remmey called and said, “Peter, would you please bring a hammer and a screwdriver over?” As I walked up her driveway toward the front door on Allengrove Street, I saw that her car was in the driveway rather than in the garage, and that one corner of the car was raised up on the car jack and a tire removed and laying on the ground. Assuming that Paul, Jr. would never stoop to manual labor, I thought, “Mrs. Remmey tried unsuccessfully to change a flat herself and needs help now?” When she greeted me at the door, I saw that Mrs. Remmey, 70 years old at this juncture, had a big black eye. “Mrs. Remmey,” I exclaimed, “What happened???!!!”
“Something bad happened at dinner last night, Peter. Paul just sat there, in front of his plate, saying nothing, when he suddenly got up and punched me in the eye.”
“Well,” I asked, holding up the hammer and screwdriver, “Did you want me to finish changing your tire?”
Mrs. Remmey answered, “Forget that right now, Peter. You can do that later. Right now I want you to help me with something special. Is that car I see you driving sometimes” — it was my brother’s Chris’ Buick LeSabre — “available for use right now?”
“Sure!” I said.
Mrs. Remmey took the hammer and screwdriver from me and held them up. “I want you to take these and go to Paul’s room and brandish them in front of Paul to force him downstairs into your car and then force him to go into Friend’s Hospital!”
Completely astonished, I said, “Mrs. Remmey, it doesn’t work like that! He either has to go voluntarily, or else a judge has to ‘commit’ him — force him by court order to go and stay there. The problem with going into a mental hospital voluntarily is that he can leave any time he wants. But an involuntary commitment takes time. To get Paul out today, you’d have to file criminal charges against him, for punching you, and they’ll set bail and he’ll end-up at the Detention Center on State Road. If you don’t want to do that, Mrs. Remmey, the best I can do is try to talk Paul into a voluntary commitment.”
She answered, “Well, Peter, I don’t want to file criminal charges against him. There’s a lot of trouble hidden in that. So, please try to persuade Paul to commit himself voluntarily.”
I went and got my brother Chris’ permission to use the LeSabre if I filled his gas tank, and I parked his car in front of Mrs. Remmey’s house, and went in and quietly went upstairs to Paul’s bedroom. He was sitting up on his bed, pretending to read. I said, “Paul, I saw your mother’s eye. Paul she’s 70 years old, and she’s a lady, and she’s your own mother. What you did is really, really bad. If a policeman saw a man your size punch your own aged mother in the face, he’d draw his gun and be sorely tempted to shoot and kill you. Most judges would send you to jail for a long time for punching a lady her age, Paul. What happened? Why did you do it?”
He just sat there, silent.
I continued, “Look, Paul, your mom could have you arrested, cuffed, and jailed today. Who knows? — that might still happen! I think that it would look good to the outside world, and it would be good for you, if you let me drive you over to Friend’s Hospital and you committed yourself there, voluntarily so that they could figure out why all of this happened.
“So, please, get in the shower, get dressed, pack a bag of clothes, and I’ll drive you over.”
Surprisingly, despite the age difference — Paul was 45, and I was 22 — Paul permitted himself to be impacted by my argument, and agreed. I drove him over to Friends Hospital and introduced Paul to staff, and after Paul was shown to his room I explained the circumstances to Friends Hospital Administrators and gave them Mrs. Remmey’s telephone number.
Arriving back at Mrs. Remmey’s house, I advised her to change her locks and call the 15th District Police Station and tell them the circumstances and ask them to keep an eye on the house. I asked her why her son Paul had seemed so angry for so many years. “After his wife died many years ago, Peter, he never seemed to recover from that. He was always sad and prone to anger. I think that he is angry with God.”
I was told shortly thereafter that Paul walked out of Friend’s Hospital the following day, but that he did not return to his mother’s house. At least, not immediately…
PAUL, JR. BARGES INTO MY PARENTS’ HOME
Months later, Mrs. Remmey called me over to move her deceased husband’s artworks from her basement to the third floor studio again. She said, “Peter, when you are finished, I want you to be paid in a special way, for your work here today, and for your support over the years. From the unframed canvases, I want you to pick out your favorite three paintings.”
From among the unframed items I picked out two small paintings comprising magazine cover illustration drafts, and a small colorful landscape painting.
Two of the three paintings by famous artist Paul B. Remmey,
given to me by his wife Edyth Holden Remmey some 35 years ago
A few days later. as my family stood in the kitchen talking, the back door was flung open and Paul, Jr. barged in, pushing past my father. He said with a loud, angry voice, “I understand the woman paid you with three paintings! The woman had no right to do that! I demand to see the paintings!”
I felt ashamed that my activity had caused an angry man to push his way into my father’s house. I also sensed danger, in light of his prior willingness to punch his own aged mother. So, to calm Paul, Jr. down I shook his hand warmly and told him that I would retrieve the paintings. When I brought them down from upstairs, Paul pronounced the magazine cover paintings, shown above, to be worthless, but seized the colorful landscape painting and ran out.
That was the last time I saw Paul Remmey, Jr., except for one strange encounter.
LIVING IN A VOLKSWAGEN BEETLE?
In 1978, while I was still in law school, I began to work as a paralegal in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, in the Centre Square Building, behind the giant clothespin across the street from City Hall.
In 1979, when I was coming out of the Centre Square Building at around 5:15 p.m. one day to go home, I saw a yellow Volkswagen Beetle illegally parked on Market Street directly in front of the Centre Square Building. I thought, “Sheesh! What a place to park! And during rush hour! That person’s car will be towed in a few minutes!”
As I looked at the car, to my astonishment Paul Remmey, Jr., after having been curled-up on the back seat asleep or unconscious — I couldn’t tell which — sat up in the car, dirty and unshaven, and peered out the window at me, looking sleepy and confused, and, to put it bluntly, “down and out.”
As I put out my hand to open his car door and talk to him, an angry policeman came along and yelled to Paul, Jr., “Are you out of your mind, parking here! Get that car out here!” and Paul, looking under-nourished, climbed over the seats into the front, started the motor and drove away.
And that was it — the last I saw of poor, angry Paul Remmey, Jr. His mom died several years later, in 1987. My wife and I attended her funeral service. Paul died 22 years later, in 2009, I hope in a state of humility and forgiveness, and friendship with God. And I hope that his sister Nina and her children and grandchildren are thriving.