Uncle Nathan

I remember this photo hanging on the bedroom wall of our West Rogers Park two-flat.  We only had two bedrooms and I shared it comfortably with my widowed grandmother who made up for the crowded condition by rubbing my back.  The eight by ten room had a closet on one wall, windows on another and a door on the third.  A corner of the fourth was occupied by the photo.

A smiling, pudgy, twentyish face filled the frame.  The photo, taken in a day when color photography was in its infancy, had been colored with pencils to overcome the starkness of black and white.  Dressed in a tie and sweater, the young man’s hair is a light red and his eyes a bit blue.  If you had a daughter, you wouldn’t give a second thought to his dating her.

Whenever I asked my mother about the young man, she’d say “that’s your Uncle Nathan.  He got sick and died.”  A few years younger than my mother, he like her had come to this country  as a teenager just before the Depression.  I’d usually react to my mother’s terse description of Uncle Nathan with mild interest and with a small pang of regret that I’d never met him.  But, under the surface, something seemed to be missing from her story of my uncle’s demise.  Just what his illness was and where he was buried were two elements that seemed unmentionable.

Many years later, after I had traded my grandmother’s company for Sweetie’s loving arms, the story of Uncle Nathan grew legs.  A darker picture emerged.  He had not simply gotten sick and died.  He had run afoul of the law, been caught, sent to prison and died there.

A July 12, 1936 article in the Los Angeles Times chronicles the adventures of Nathan and several accomplices whose names would fit nicely into a movie about Bugsy Siegel, Dick Tracy or Meyer Lansky.  Multiple robberies, an unfortunate demise, and extradition from Chicago to Los Angeles play prominent parts in the recital.  Conviction and incarceration in San Quentin quickly followed.  Case closed…but not quite.

About a year ago the State of California was kind enough to exchange a copy of Uncle Nathan’s death certificate for my $10. Clinically, the certificate announces that Nathan departed this mortal coil on April 6, 1941 just a month shy of my second birthday.  Done in by fellow inmates, he had been in the Big House four and a half years.  Twenty-four when he got there, twenty-eight when he left.  Interment at Eternal Home Cemetery, Colma, California.

How many degrees of separation?  His “Usual Occupation” was listed as “Photographer”, my brother’s occupation for many years and a hobby that occupies a good deal of my time.  Eternal Home Cemetery is walking distance from the first house we rented in Daly City.  The coincidence ends there as I have yet to be incarcerated in a public institution.

We visit our Berkeley kids a few times a year.  On a number of occasions, I promised myself that I would make a special trip to Colma to find Uncle Nathan.  Last week, I fulfilled that promise.

Sweetie and I hopped on BART at the North Berkeley station.  Fifty minutes later we exited at the Colma station, walked about a third of mile and arrived at the Eternal Home Cemetery.  Sandwiched between the Italian Cemetery, the Serbian Cemetery and Route 82,  Eternal Home is a basic Jewish institution that has been there for at least seventy-five years.  With not a tree in sight, it has a somewhat arid appearance perhaps appropriate to our middle-east heritage.

A few days prior to our adventure, I phoned the cemetery and was assured that indeed Uncle Nathan was in residence.  Section 8, Row A, Grave 23.  Upon our arrival we found the office, a room about the size of the bedroom shared with my grandmother, and the lovely Lisa the office manager.  Using a yellow highlighter, Lisa pointed us in the right direction and off we went.

Arriving at the approximate location we scoured the various gravestones for a sign of Nathan.  Twenty minutes of futility led a trip back to Lisa who, the sign announced, was off to lunch.  It was sunny and  quiet, a rare day.  We sat and absorbed the memories and electric energies in silence.

Upon Lisa’s return she accompanied us on our search.  Her records indicated that Uncle Nathan resided between Mr. Small in grave 22 and Mr. Kaplan in grave 24.  Arriving at the correct spot, there was only bare ground.  No marker, nada, nothing.  Residing in anonymity for seventy-one years and shunned by those ashamed of his deeds, we were perhaps his first visitors.

Sweetie and I looked at each other and almost as one we said “he should have a marker.”  Seventy-one years is long enough.  Forgiveness is in the cards.  And won’t Bubby be pleased.  You bet.

8 Responses to “Uncle Nathan”

  1. 1 leo July 1, 2012 at 2:44 pm

    Beautiful story fredila.


  2. 2 Irvin Lucks July 1, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    Fascinating- you did good!


  3. 3 ed reicin July 1, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    Thank you for that lovely story. Some things are better left buried.



  4. 4 Susan Magness July 2, 2012 at 9:13 am

    Such a warm and touching story, thank you Fred. And I’m sure Nathan thanks you.


  5. 5 Mapleleaftech July 2, 2012 at 11:55 am

    Fred will you do the same for me. Joan may forget where I went, or what she did to me. Love George.


  6. 6 Alice Witkowski July 4, 2012 at 9:12 am

    So poignant. It is a tribute to you that he was finally remembered.


  7. 7 Maureen July 11, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    Fred, your story made me act on something that has been at the back of my mind, sort of nagging at me since 1999. I went back to Chicago that August with my parents and went to the cemetery, right on the Chicago-Evanston border to see the graves of my father’s mother’s family. Turns out there are 8 of them in a single plot (must be pretty crowded….although most were very young children) with no headstone or marker. When a grounds keeper there tried to help us find the plot he mentioned that there were many, many people buried in that small cemetery without markers. People were just too poor there to spring for such a luxury. So, finally after thinking about this for almost 13 years, reading your story made me act on this piece of unfinished business in my family. I’ve ordered a simple headstone…just with the family name “Furlong”…but it will be there to mark the burial spot of my great grandfather and several of his infant children. Thanks Fred for taking care of your Uncle Nathan and in a way making sure these little ones have some marker that they were once, if very briefly, here.


  8. 8 Jay Rosenberg January 6, 2018 at 3:54 pm

    Um..I think we may be related. My father, Phil Rosenberg, was Nathan Reicin’s nephew by his mother whose maiden name was Reicin. They came here to Chicago from Russia/Ukraine by way of Mexico City. My father always told me of his favorite uncle Nate, who was killed in San Quentin.


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