- Historic Sites
Mother And Son
February/March 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 2
She now worried about the future, and with good reason. Once she wrote me: “Father is sitting opposite me reading the Bible—yesterday he was so wobbly on his feet and coughing so much and weak constitutionally as well as his knees. I shiver with fear how will we get through life now that he is breaking down. … This letter is just for you a heart to heart talk.” Early in 1931 Popsie had fainted and fallen; he never recovered full use of his legs and could no longer visit patients. Many of those who came to his office didn’t pay their bills, for Pittsburgh had been hit hard by the Depression. He wrote me, “I get tired of sending out bills with no returns.” Mother scrimped on food, and they struggled along.
A curious feature of those years is that my parents had rather more social life than before, especially in the little Swedenborgian community where their oddities had been accepted as lovabilities. Once or twice a week they went out to play contract bridge, and Mother was surprisingly good at it; she had a memory for cards. But their friends, once prosperous, had lost their money too; everyone in Pittsburgh had lost money. Popsie’s Uncle John, the only rich Cowley, was in the hospital at age eighty-four. “Uncle John lost heavily, $8000, in a building-and-loan failure—money tied up in closed banks. No sale for real estate. He says he never thought that in his old days he would be poor.… Our church here is in financial straits. We may have to close the day school as there is no money to pay teachers. The Lechners and Schoenbergers can hardly keep going. S. S. Lindsay,” once a millionaire, “lost heavily as he was a stockholder in the failed Bank of Pittsburgh and liable as such.” Nobody remained who could offer help.
Years later I realized I had not been a wholly undutiful son; I had merely been imperceptive and short of funds and busy with my own affairs.
After a few weeks of better food, Mother went back to Pittsburgh, much restored in health but not in strength. She never again trusted herself to drive the car. Popsie had grown increasingly feeble, and she had to give him his daily bath, since he couldn’t climb out of the tub. In some ways he had become her child. Once he fell in a hallway of the Wallace Building. When she tried to raise him to his feet, she fell in turn and cracked a collarbone; it was an episode they didn’t tell me about for months. The bone healed and Mother began thinking again about new schemes for making or saving money; preserving food was almost the only one she still had energy to carry out. Afterward I found her engagement ring with the stone missing; it must have been sold to pay the grocer. That was almost her last sacrifice. Of course, the very last was not calling me to her deathbed.