Friday, June 13, 2014

#21-Jack Higgins, Grandfather

 Jack Higgins, Grandfather
Jack (Victor) Higgins had an unexceptional life. I wrote about his youth in a previous post when I wrote about his mother. [52 Ancestors #5 - Recent Immigrant Catherine Higgins (Kate) What’s the Truth?], but will give you a thumbnail here:
  •  His father is unknown. Victor was born 23 December 1905 in a hospital for unmarried mothers run by the Catholic Church in New York City. "Victor" is on his birth certificate (a name he hated and never used), but went by Jack (ultimately confusing because sometimes my father was called Jack). His father was a Cassidy from County Cavan, but he and Jack's mother never wed. 
  • His mother was Irish, from County Sligo (then Mayo). Her last name was "Higgins" and he was "Higgins. 
  • His mother, as single mom, had to work to support them. As an uneducated immigrant, she worked as a servant. One census has the 9 year old Jack (in 1915) living in a boarding house and his mother’s not listed. Likely, his mother may have had a bed to use where she worked; she worked as a servant or cleaner. This was pre-World War 1 tenement life--it must have been pretty rugged in the winter. 
  • When he was a young man his mother married a Patrick Devaney (they had two boys, Thomas and Joseph).  Jack didn’t take to the new stepfather Patrick; they'd get into brawls. Jack graduated from "grammar" school. After that he chose not to live at home. He had been quite independent till Patrick came into their lives. He would have been the same age as a junior high student, but was working-- doing the kind of jobs young men would do: sell papers, run errands, shine shoes. And, he hung around a gym because he enjoyed boxing.
"Jack" (Victor) Higgins -probably abt 16 yrs old

The Boxer
Boxing went from sport to income as more of his income came out of boxing matches.  By the time he and my grandmother met and married, he was an amateur boxer. 

At some point, he caught the attention of the people who make money off of boxers. And he was promising enough that he was offered the opportunity to box for the syndicate. However, when Jack figured out his actual take-home pay after the syndicate’s cut, he realized that he was better off finding his own fights and remaining independent. Which he did.

This was still the 1920s, the syndicate pressured him hard, warning him to accept or he’d never get another fight in the “City” (NYC). He didn’t take their offer, and indeed, he never got another fight. Traveling far from the City, would cost too much (say, to Poughkeepsie or north).

When he was a middle-aged man the sacs under his eyes were quite prominent. He was probably tired mostly. I was told there was some scarring from the era when he was boxing. And that if his eyes were too swollen to see in a fight, the trainer would slit the sac open. I'm not sure how you fight with blood on the floor, but it makes a good story (and the Irish like a good story).

I am not sure how my grandparents met. My aunts tell me Kate’s (my grandmother's) sister knew him somewhat--mostly by reputation--and pointed him out to my grandmother while on the street. Everything else is left up to the imagination. 
My grandmother was in 15, going on 16, when she married him. He was an “old” man of 21. They had 13 children; of those, 5 boys and only 3 of the 5 lived to adulthood. I still haven't found a marriage certificate for them. Their marriage was loving, if stormy (but that's another story)!

Moving To The Country and Etc
When my father was young, before he got hired by New York State, he had a variety of odd jobs: he worked as a driver mostly. I get the impression he didn’t make much and they had a growing family. 

Then in the mid-30s when he moved to Sullivan County (Neversink, NY), as he'd gotten a job in the newly-opened Woodbourne State Prison. My dad recalls what a marvel it was for him that in  the country food  grew, and he could satisfy his hunger without paying a dime. my father was young, before his father was  hired by New York State, he had a variety of odd jobs: he worked as a driver mostly. I get the impression he didn’t make much and they had a growing family. 

Then in the mid-30s when he moved to Sullivan County (Neversink, NY), as he'd gotten a job in the newly-opened Woodbourne State Prison.
My dad recalls what a marvel it was for him that in  the country food  grew, and he could satisfy his hunger without paying a dime.

Higgins clan (or some of them) Neversink NY 1942
Shortly Jack moved his now-widowed mother with his two half-brothers out of New York City. The entire clan lived together in one house for a short time in Neversink,  till his mother and her sons found a place of their own.  Though supporting a growing family, he was likely giving as much money as he could spare to his mother: She now had a small amount of public assistance as she’d become a US citizen (finally) but wasn’t able to work. 

In Sullivan County, more children were added to the family--right up until the last child, who was born in 1947, three years after my father graduated from high school (he graduated at 16 having skipped two grades).  

My dad said the only time he got a call from his parents while at college (on a Navy scholarship) was when they had to tell him they had moved house---because their house had burnt down. That’s right. 

Several of the children were still very young when their house caught on fire. Once they'd gotten outside, they realized that two of the younger children were still inside. My father’s brother Joe rushed back inside, got the children, and ended up getting somewhat hurt but the tots were safe. He was featured in “Boy Scouts In Action” in “Boys Life” magazine.

"Late" Life
Now comes the parts I recall. By the time I knew him, he had a stable job for some time in the prison system.
1955 Woodbourne NY Higgins clan, my 2 grandfathers, mom & 2 brothers (I'm the infant)

We would go to their house every Sunday after church and usually stayed all day. The entertainment industry has still growing, and people tended to stay home on Sunday. Most stores would be closed, or open for a few hours on Sunday.  I’d read the comics. When my aunts were still living at home, I’d listen to their gossip and to their records, jump on their beds, get chased out of Richie's room, learn where babies came from, get the inside story on which aunt was getting serious about what man, and I'd play with their shoes and jewelry.  

Jack would come home from Sunday's work (prison doesn't close) and have a cup of tea with saccharine (because that's how he treated his diabetes) and smoke a pipe. 

Most Sundays he'd watch the ball game on TV--preferable baseball. If not, then any other sport would do. Boxing, when it was televised, wasn't on a Sunday afternoon. Sometimes, I recall Jack returning from playing handball--he enjoyed his sports. 

Late 1960s his chair is on the other side-near the pipes. He was talking about catalytic converters.

He’d  take me with him to Levitt’s Store in Woodbourne where he’d hang around chatting with locals, then we’d go return the Squirt soda bottles, sometimes stop at church and say a few prayers. Sometimes we'd stop in at his half-brother's bar in White Sulphur Springs and have a soda, he'd chat with Joe while Joe cleaned up (it was closed on Sunday).  

Sunday dinner (supper) was always meat and potatoes. With canned peas or creamed corn. Hank or Uncle Richie would peel potatoes if they wanted mashed potatoes. Often the meat was an overdone roast beef--so of course, I prefer my roast beef over done!  Now and then we'd have the oddball pot-roast or chicken. 

When the girls were living at home there were too many people for the table, so we'd eat in shifts. (When someone asked my daughter-in-law who also comes from a large family, how they all could eat together at their table--I knew what her answer would be).

But the Higgins family were clannish with our Sundays: it was for family only (including Hank Monahan who counted as family).  Jack bought some IBM stock in the mid-1960s, but other than that and his pension, they had just spent money on food, clothing, shelter and cars.(Not to mention weddings for those daughters!)

Don’t get me wrong: When we celebrated, we celebrated. None of the fashionable vacation getaways or “camps” in the mountains or at the shore, nothing was ever very fancy.  Slipcovers and plastic curtains were always in style in the Higgins house.   

But, we always had great Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners--lots of food, lots of booze. I think it was "great" or "fun" mostly because it was the Higgins family, where nothing is ever too dire. 

1958 Devaney's at the end of the table

I always sat here-Vera's holding Grandma's place till she's done in the kitchen. Table & chairs from firehouse. :)
1960s - He was the meat carver & potato masher. Someone always made the punch. That shirt is still in style!
Jack died suddenly in February of 1969 at 63 years old. He was a diabetic,  and had gone into the hospital for an infected foot. The hospital thought he could be released the day after we saw him, but instead he died.
Known Trait
Throughout the depression, and even post-Depression, everyone was poor; Hollywood version of the 1950s aren't accurate.  Jack was just like everyone, but he was known for being generous.

I was trying to recall why I always thought he was so wonderful (of course all of my grandparents were wonderful but he was exceptional).

Was it because he was generous? if so, then what did he gave me (other than the mandatory Christmas gift)?  Sure, he gave me Wrigley’s Spearmint gum and maybe a few puffs on his Sunday pipe after work. 

My general sense was that people in town genuinely liked him--and that he really liked them. And after his death, people told me he was the most generous man they'd ever met. Certainly my father has been generous with his money as well. But Jack didn't have much money...

As I think about it I realize he gave me the one thing that is most precious. It's precious to everyone: he gave me his time. Everyone likes to be paid attention to, and children like it more than anything--and middle children (me) love (good) attention. He didn't over-praise me. He didn't ask me about my feelings or opinions. What did he do? 

He let me babble on all sorts of stuff that was likely nonsense. And I know he just enjoyed having me there. 

And I wonder--was he really as generous as people said? Or was it the largeness of his heart and his seeming interest in their pesky little lives, that left them with the impression that he was more generous than he could ever really be?

The answer really doesn't matter. Sometimes the best living people in the world are related to you; if you’re related to a kind, generous and likable person, then cherish the time you spend with them. 
Jack, July 1950

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