Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Red Diaper Memories: An Homage to My Mother

Many of these stories have been about my father, but now its time to honor the real parent, the rock that didn’t disappear – my mother Fay Caller.

Like my father, “Fagie” was a Communist activist from her teenage years. She was the eighth of ten children, the first “Yankee” born in America. While her sisters were ardent socialist Zionists – many became “Kibbutzniks” in the 1930’s and were involved in the founding of the State of Israel, Fay was drawn to the broader class struggle.

She was thrown out of high school for organizing a lunchroom protest, and at age sixteen, found herself featured on the [3/3/1930] front page of the New York Times, which described how a “girl Communist” arrested at a City Hall demonstration the day before, who had refused to pay a three-dollar bail and instead spent the night in jail, was found guilty of disorderly conduct by a City Magistrate “after bandying words with him for more than forty minutes.” She received a suspended sentence, and was told by the judge to “stay home, mend your clothes and help your mother.”

Well, Fay went home, and may have mended her clothes, but was soon out protesting once again, and soon back in jail. She was arrested for painting political slogans on factory walls, for throwing marbles under the hooves of police horses, for carrying the furniture of evicted families back into their apartments, for dozens of similar actions in the 1930s.

By the early 1940s, she had become one of the leaders of the Brooklyn Young Communist League, and when the Party began running candidates for local office [part of the “united front” strategy once the US and the USSR were wartime allies], she was often on the ballot for state and city positions. She worked on the [1937-41] campaigns for Peter Cacchione, who became the first Communist elected to the New York City Council in 1941. My father was Pete’s campaign manager, and my mother and he were already a couple by then [this despite his dalliances with some of the younger girls in the movement].

When the War took the men overseas, my mother joined a number of Party comrades and went to work in defense plants in New York City and later in Schenectady, where she was an activist union organizer. These women forged a deep and special friendship, a sisterhood that would last through the end of the War, McCarthyism, the end of the Communist Party, the birth of their children, the end of most of their marriages, illness and death. These were the “aunties” that raised me and Peter, whose [“Red Diaper”] children were our deepest friends during a time when the whole country hated us, whose apartments I was always welcome at, whether as a twelve-year-old “running away from home,” a confused college student, or later, as a father with my own wife and child.

These incredible women went through hell together. They loved each other, and they loved each other’s children. They supported each other through their aging, long after their political idealism was crushed by the realities of Stalin's horrors and the Cold War, they still had the special bond formed in their youth. They taught us well.

And I still love them: Ruthie, Flo, Lil, Martha, Bertha and May – the village that raised me.

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