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Sunday, December 09, 2018

Artwork by Siegmund (Siggy) Joseph, 1922-2010 (Credit: Sharon Mark Cohen)

The simple act of dusting can conjure up such intense thoughts. As I gently rubbed a cloth around the frame of a colorful drawing depicting a telling scene of our downtown, I was filled with thoughts of Siggy. The piece was hand-done and gifted to me by my multi-talented plumber. He was in his 80s when we met outside the local bakery shop. You couldn’t help being drawn to him sitting at the table and sketching…with a smile.

Strong, hardworking and a people person, Siggy reminded me so much of my own father, who passed away at just about the same age. They were each also the father of four and both lived until their mid-upper 80s; they were even similar in appearance and stature. But, Siggy’s story was very different. While my father came to this country from Chudnov, Ukraine, when he was one, escaping the horrors of Eastern Europe yet to come, Siggy, born in Czechoslovakia, faced the throes of the war. Seeing the watercolor from under the dust cloth, I thought about our friendship. Siggy told me stories about his family and the war, and how painting helped him get through the day. We had each written the story of our lives and had lots to discuss. Mentioning to me that his trade was plumbing gave me an opportunity to ask about a mystery in our kitchen, the room where his painting now hangs. In response, Siggy requested the opportunity to check our heating system. In no time at all, he switched the pipe to put it on a pitch, so slight that it cannot even be detected with the human eye. He explained that when there was coal heating in the homes, there was no need for the pipes to be on a slant. While waiting for me to show him the basement, he sat in my kitchen and read excerpts from my manuscript, left out on the table where I had been working. He bemoaned his difficulty expressing his thoughts in writing, not having a native command of the English language. He has to be given credit for getting his ideas down and hopefully one day someone will complete the written story of his life. At least he verbalized some of his account on my husband’s weekly one-hour radio show, The World of Work with Shep Cohen.

The last time I saw Siggy, I carried his tool bucket to the second story of our house, where he got down on the hard, hexagon-tiled floor to fix the pipes under my daughter’s toilet. The fixture was original to the house from the second decade of the 20th century. Insisting that it should not be replaced, he went to great efforts to get the necessary parts to make the repairs. When I heard about his passing and went to his home to pay a shiva call, I brought a copy of the tape from his interview on the radio. His daughter said, “Oh, you’re the woman whose house he just had to go to and make the repair.” His breathing had been noticeably compromised and had me concerned, which was why I insisted on at least carrying the bucket. Listening to the tape, his children and grandchildren heard not only their father’s/grandfather’s voice, but the account of his life with fuller details than he had imparted to them. Isn’t that the usual case?

A few years have passed. Spotting the very large canvas of an accomplished artist’s work in the South Orange Frame Shop, on Sloane Street in South Orange, across from where Siggy sat outside and created his mixed media masterpieces, I gave out a shrill, “Is that Siggy’s?” Picking up the piece, I found that it was indeed my friend Siggy’s signature work. Excitedly, I emailed a note to Siggy’s son Adlai about my discovery. The subject of the email announced “Siggy lives on!”

Adlai replied, “Thanks so much for this wonderful remembrance of my dad. It really did my heart good. I forwarded to my siblings and sons. They will also appreciate this! We are so excited about his mural being displayed in the new building in South Orange!” Simply from dusting the frame surrounding the artwork, I thought about these memories and so many more. Then, it came to me that my husband had met Siggy’s wife when he drove him back from his radio appearance. Wondering if she was still living, upon opening the newspaper my eyes jumped as I saw her obituary posted. Our family friendship continued as I wrote a note of sympathy to their children. Siggy’s ghosts are gone and he lives on in his family, his friends, his plumbing and his expressive art. Like Siggy, who stood for so much, his paintings depict daily life in a diverse community, where he chose to settle in America. Siggy’s detailed works tell a story and are sure to put a smile on anyone’s face when they walk into the South Orange Avenue rental office of The Gateway…just as Siggy always greeted passersby with a smile and a story.

By Sharon Mark Cohen