File photo

Squirrel Hill

Leave it to my mother, the daughter of Irish Catholic Republicans from Pittsburgh, to move our small family to Squirrel Hill in the 1950s.

Jane was an iconoclast. She made her clothes from decommissioned WWII parachutes, managed the avant-garde gallery Outlines and produced performances by Merce Cunningham and John Cage there. She studied art at the School of Design in Chicago, marched for civil rights and was arrested for attending a “Negro” nightclub in Pittsburgh. Those are the stories she told us. I’m pretty sure the more interesting ones were left untold.

There have been many times since her death in 2001 when I have wanted to know more. Sometimes I turn to her old friend Francie Bluestone Nebesky, age 93 and now living in Maryland, to fill in the blanks. Francie and Jane met on a street car after attending Langley High School together but not traveling in the same circles there.

Francie says, “One afternoon we got on the same street car at Penn and Stanwyx and sat together. We talked about many things,” (and ate a pound of Bridge Mix), “and by the time we got to our stop… we were friends. I always considered Jane my first ‘intellectual’ friend. We talked about boys and clothes, but we also discussed politics, religion, current events, etc.”

I can see them engaging in witty dialogue with each other. Francie, the dry-witted, no-nonsense straight-shooter and Jane, with her easy laughter and sophisticated ways.

Francie was from a socialist, atheist family of Jewish heritage, while Jane had an avidly Catholic mother and a less avidly Catholic and mostly absent father. Neither Francie nor Jane cared much for religion, but both cared deeply about social justice and equal rights.

When my mother moved us to New York City, she enrolled my brother in Holy Name School because it was the best school in the neighborhood. When the priest asked her why he should take my brother when my mother was not part of the congregation, she replied, “You have lost my soul, Father, but you may have a chance with his.”

She joined the Unitarian Church and raised us with an open mind about religion. Francie knew nothing of Jewish tradition growing up—her parents had rejected Jewish doctrine. When she had her own child, Aviva, she told her husband that their daughter would be given a Jewish education, stressing she would be free to accept or reject religion, but that “she would know what she was rejecting, a privilege I had not had.” As a result, Francie became active in the Temple, serving as membership chair and editor of the newsletter. (She has impeccable editing skills to this day.)

When the synagogue murders happened last week in Pittsburgh, I immediately thought of Francie and Jane. Not having my mother to turn to, I wrote to Francie, wondering how to process this new tragedy. She wrote back saying her “cousin David belongs to one of the congregations that share the Tree of Life building. He knew two of the people killed and one of those wounded.”

“Don’t even try to make sense of what’s happening in our country…” she wrote. “Remember what Archie Bunker said to Meathead… about population control. You don’t have to worry. God, in his infinitesimal (sic) wisdom will send us wars, plagues, floods and volcanoes.” Francie added, “He didn’t include crazy, hateful and bigoted humans.”

 

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