My father, Edmund Francis Sheehan was born on this day 96 years ago, Thursday, November 14, 1918. The First World War had ended just three days prior- Dad’s Uncle Patrick and his cousin Harold Greene were still serving in the British and American armies, respectively. The influenza epidemic was raging in Massachusetts. Mom was still three years in the future, but her parents, my Grandfather Earl Dunn, and Nana were married and living in Rindge, where they would have been mourning the death of Earl’s father Daniel, just two weeks before.
Dad’s neighborhood in 1922
Dad was probably born at home, which in 1918 would have been a tenement at 2 Union Place in Worcester. The building is no longer there, but the street still exists, just barely. When Dad was born, Union Place ran between Grafton and Providence Streets, just south of Posner Square. Nowadays the street overlooks the eastbound Grafton St. off-ramp from I-290, connecting the shortened Providence St. to Coral St.
The Union Place area today
In 1918 the neighborhood was bustling with the flood of Irish, Polish and Jewish immigrants who had come seeking a better future. (I suspect Dad picked up some of his more colorful expressions from the neighborhood kids. I remember once when a driver cut him off in traffic, he yelled “you thick schlemiel!” This was long before I even knew there was a language called Yiddish.) Grandfather worked in a boot factory on Harding Street, while his brothers Edward (Uncle Ned) and Michael worked in the wire mills.
Most of the houses in the neighborhood were the typical three deckers that had been built by the thousands in the city during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The New Yorker writer S.N. Behrman, who grew up in the neighborhood in the years before Dad’s arrival, recalled it this way:
These triple-deckers, which straggled up our hill, were mostly sadly in need of paint jobs and their mass appearance was somewhat depressing. But in many other respects they were not so bad. They had balconies front and back, which we called piazzas. The yards in the back had fruit trees- cherry and pear and apple. We had more pear trees in our back yard at 31 Providence Street than Mr. Carnegie had in his at 91st and Fifth!
Dad was the sixth surviving child born to Nicholas and Mary (Casey) Sheehan. It’s possible that the couple had two more children who did not survive childhood. On the 1910 census, Mary was reported to have given birth to four children, of whom two were still alive.
1910 census entry for the Sheehan family
That information is contradicted by the following entries, which list four living children- Francis (Uncle Frank), William, Thomas, and Mary (Aunt May). So it’s hard to say for sure. There is a five year gap between the birth of William in 1904, and May in 1909. Grandfather and Grandmother Sheehan would have just one additional child after Dad- his sister Helen, born in 1923. By that time, Dad’s oldest brother, Frank, was already 20, and living in Jacksonville.
Dad’s generation is no longer with us, as far as I can tell. He passed away at the age of just 64 in 1983. His oldest sister, May, died in 1998, weeks after the death of Helen, the youngest. Dad’s last surviving cousin was Julia (Greene) Hackett, the daughter of Grandfather Sheehan’s sister Bridget. Julia died in 1999. Bridget was the first of our Sheehans to emigrate to America, arriving in 1890.