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December 31, 2012

Coralie and Me

By: Aaron Datesman

I suffered some losses in 2012. The one I feel most keenly was my grandmother Miriam Urffer (née Miller), who passed away in June of this year. She's the second from the right in the picture below, taken with her family when she was about sixteen. Miriam, born in 1922, was the last of my grandparents to pass away.

Coralie and Me Fig1.jpg

Shortly after this picture was taken in 1938 or 1939, my great-grandmother perished in a house fire. According to the story as I understand it, she rushed into the burning house to save a rocking chair, was overcome, and died in agony with Miriam nearby. I was well into adulthood before it ever occurred to me to wonder how my grandmother's life might have unfolded absent this tragedy.

Miriam lived, I think, an average sadness.* When this picture was taken, she was probably already working as a seamstress in an underwear factory in Coopersburg, PA. (None of my grandparents graduated from high school; I think only my father's father, Ralph Datesman, remained in school past the eighth grade. His first job was working in a silk mill.) She smoked until quitting for good around 1980, was a member of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, and voted only twice in her life.

FDR got Miriam's vote in '44 - the first presidential election in which she could vote - because the union boss demanded it. Obama got her vote in 2008 because my mother and I demanded it. It pleased me that the woman who referred to African-Americans as "schvartze" (Pennsylvania Dutch and Yiddish coinciding in this case) in my presence pulled the lever for one later on.

I was, again, quite far into adulthood before I understood why she and her husband slept in separate beds in separate rooms. Probably I was always too young to determine whether she was bitter or simply resigned. She didn't drive, didn't work outside the home within my memory (I was born in 1971), and was totally dependent upon her husband and children. She did not enjoy a life with much independence or personal agency, nor any wealth.

But she was not plunged into more dire poverty when her husband predeceased her, and was able to enjoy a greater degree of dignity than I expected in the last years of her life. Social Security was entirely and solely responsible for this. The last years of Miriam's life would have been spent in true misery without it.**

And for that blessing, credit is mostly due to this tenacious and remarkable woman: Frances Coralie Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and principal architect of the New Deal.

Coralie and Me Fig2.jpg

Without irony or reservation, I believe there should be a monument to Frances Perkins on the National Mall, as well as a federal holiday. Without much more than simple conviction, Perkins managed to turn the levers of power in the United States rather permanently toward compassion. The efforts intensifying today aimed at unwinding her accomplishments, including the singular achievement of Social Security, often drive me to the brink of despair.

On the other hand, in 2012 I also enjoyed a few sweet victories. The federal government (without even asking!) nicely sent me a card to celebrate the best of these. It's pretty good as an antidote to despair:

Coralie and Me Fig3.jpg

This is my daughter, Magnolia Coralie Thomas. She was born on May 19, 2012, after nearly 40 hours of labor. Although I fully intend to have all three of these things some day, for the moment she's better than a monument and a federal holiday all rolled together.

Coralie and Me Fig4.jpg

Thank you, Frances Perkins. I hope a few more people will learn about you in 2013.

— Aaron Datesman

* "An Average Sadness" is the title of the final essay in a collection edited by Paul Auster, called True Tales of American Life. I find the expression useful and think about it often. These are the final two sentences of the essay, which I love: "Sometimes it is good fortune to be abandoned. While we are looking after our losses, our selves may slip back inside."

** I could tell a similar story, harder and nearly as sad, for my father's mother, Violet Datesman (née Kooker). For instance, there's a family story about how she got caught stealing potatoes from a neighbor's farm so her younger brothers and sisters would have something to eat. This is so foreign from my experience that it might as well be a story from another planet. Violet's husband Ralph Datesman died young, in 1977, after which Social Security became her principal means of support.

Posted at December 31, 2012 09:27 PM

I have no recollection of the potato story though I do remember your grandmother and her sister, Mabel, regaling with other stories which I would share with you if you wish.


Posted by: Ronald Lewis Datesman at December 31, 2012 10:24 PM

Aaron - As Gerald Weinberg aphoristically puts it in his book The Secrets of Consulting, things are the way they are because they got that way. As the odometer of the years rolls over, we see the contemporary manifestation of the interaction of long-lasting processes. Thanks for turning the spotlight onto this unfairly neglected champion of the ordinary people against the plutocrats. Some of those who wish to destroy Social Security are ill-informed and/or foolish, and would harm others through thoughtlessness, while others are actively malevolent. Is more harm done through ignorance, or indifference, or by malice? I don't know.

May the Creative Forces of the Universe smile in our general direction.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at December 31, 2012 11:41 PM

Your daughter is beautiful, Aaron, and so was your grandmother.
As for Frances Perkins, she is a shining star in U.S. history and should be better recognized than she is. When people toss around terms of derision, such as "entitlements," I wonder if they have any idea of what Social Security meant--and means--to those receiving it.
My father died in 1950, leaving my mother, at the age of 49, with six children, two of whom--my twin sister and me--still in elementary school and two others in high school. She had never worked outside the home, but received Social Security on my father's earnings until she died, full of years, in 1999. This small stipend, along with some other modest assets, helped her to live with dignity and in reasonable comfort throughout her long life.
And this is what's under siege by the monsters of both parties in Washington.

Posted by: Rosemary Molloy at January 1, 2013 06:40 AM

What a great post. I especially admire Aaron's sneakiness in allowing the reader to discern the Coralie connection for themselves.

All the same with me as with you and Rosemary -- my grandmother was able to live independently until her death because of Social Security. I don't think enough attention is paid to the fact that Obama's plan to cut benefits is structured so the cuts fall most heavily on the oldest recipients, the people who will have already spent down their other assets. That really undermines the whole point of Social Security -- that unlike other methods of saving it is truly secure and will never run out.

Posted by: Jon Schwarz at January 1, 2013 10:35 AM

Good thing SS isn't being cut (I'll add a "yet" in there just in case...).

Posted by: godoggo at January 1, 2013 11:33 AM

...or any benefit cuts at all, leastwise according to Krugman this morning, which I'll admit is about all I know about this.

Posted by: godoggo at January 1, 2013 12:13 PM

Good thing SS isn't being cut (I'll add a "yet" in there just in case...).

My guess is the odds are about 3-1 that Obama will sign a bill cutting Social Security sometime this year. He really, really, really wants to do it.

Posted by: Jon Schwarz at January 1, 2013 12:29 PM

I seem to remember him talking about that way back when he was running against Hillary, so maybe you're right. Hope not.

Posted by: godoggo at January 1, 2013 02:54 PM

Aaron Datesman& Ronald Lewis Datesman: CONGRATULATIONS&MAY GOD BLESS THAT CHILD!!!
Say, ya know what they call a guy that won't use a rubber?---DAD.

Folks, give Francis Perkins a helping hand, today, tomorrow, and the next day, too.
Call John Boehner @1-202-225-0600, EXPRESS YOUR CONCERNS, SAVE YOUR SOCIAL SECURITY. Tell him Francis Perkins wants him to keep his grubby hands off of YOUR SOCIAL SECURITY.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at January 1, 2013 05:43 PM

Aaron, great post. Thanks for sharing your story.

Posted by: cemmcs at January 1, 2013 06:07 PM

NY Times gives space to voices of reason on Social Security, as well as opposing positions, of course:

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at January 3, 2013 11:36 AM

This post has everything backwards. The only reason Social Security was even considered by the ruling class was because of the level of class struggle that was achieved in the 1930s.

If that sounds Marxist, its because it is.

It was a rare time in American history when you had a Communist Party that had mass working-class representation, cross affiliation with major unions including AFL and CIO and hundreds of thousands of revolutionaries among its ranks. One that proved in the 1934 San Francisco General Strike, among others that it could cripple entire cities at a whim. This is why Franklin D. Roosevelt administration was committed to co-opt and destroy it. A Capitalist tyrant masquerading as some Peoples champion. He made Capitalism palpable while keeping the system intact, looking out for his Capitalist class that any critical eye can see he was a significant part. This was before beginning to set the stage for the Red Scare. As he liked to put it, "I'm the best friend the Capitalists ever had." All of this can be found in Sharon Smith's Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States, which I recommend to anyone who wants to know an American history without Capitalist whitewash.

If working class Americans truly realized their heroes there would be statues to "Big Bill" Haywood, Eugene Victor Debbs and Elizabeth Girly Flynn. That in place of them are statues of political sycophants and imperialist warlords is a reminder that both wings of the One Party Capitalist system still rule this country, if precariously.

Posted by: Nikolay Levin☭ at January 3, 2013 10:02 PM

Although I don't share Nikolay's ideology, I do think he makes a good point that the threat of violence provided a lot of incentive for the good things FDR did.

Posted by: godoggo at January 4, 2013 11:13 AM

...or, I should say, the fear of commies.

Posted by: godoggo at January 4, 2013 11:33 AM

Ah, The Commies--- Freddy Kruger wielding a thousand pages of economic theory.
Apparently FDR got a 91% TAXation rate by slapping The Rich around with The Communists.

"Fear is beautiful"----Charles Manson.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at January 4, 2013 12:34 PM

Well, I was thinking of the New Deal. I think the high taxes were mostly to pay for the war.

Posted by: godoggo at January 4, 2013 12:57 PM

i agree with Nikolay Levin- a truly powerful union class is the best (historical) hope to sway entrenched corporate rule- probably a viable labor party to challenge the 2-headed dragon would put the fear of the lord into obama adm, et al- hell, even manson apparantly can have the fear of the lord instilled

Posted by: frankenduf at January 4, 2013 01:14 PM

'Tiz TRUE, unions and co-operatives hold the winning record for economic well being of the social whole, warts and all.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at January 4, 2013 07:41 PM

I don't know how useful that historical observation really is though. You're talking about a time when unemployment was 25%, there was a common perception that the Russian revolution was going well while mainstream economists had no idea how to deal with current problems, lots of commies throughout society and in positions of prominence. Pretty different from now.

Posted by: godoggo at January 5, 2013 05:36 PM

Something that just occurred to me: fear of the far right was probably at least as great as of the far left.

Posted by: godoggo at January 5, 2013 05:42 PM

Agreed on Frances Perkins. As for the rest, condolences, and congratulations.

Posted by: Batocchio at January 6, 2013 02:19 AM

The Social Security Trust Fund---The Biggest Pile-O-Money, quite possibly the largest concentration of wealth on the planet at this time. There will ALWAYS be sharks in the water looking at THAT PILE.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at January 7, 2013 07:33 PM