My Father’s Cousins
They are dying. But that is how it should be. As my father’s cousins grow old, fade and become ill, they are passing away. Today I read another one has vanished.
My father died young at barely 68, after a hard but courageous life battling polio, post-polio, then lymphoma, all misdiagnosed by the doctors he consulted.
And more than 20 years later, the obituaries of his cousins and contemporaries are sporadically appearing in the newspapers and I am saddened. It’s not because these people played significant roles in my life. In deed they were at the peripheries. I was introduced at large noisy but rare gatherings of his clan, bar mitzvahs or weddings when even the children of the cousins were invited to participate in these lavish events. Occasionally I might run into a cousin on the street or at a mall and they would say,” Aren’t you Solly’s daughter?. You look exactly like him”. I would quietly nod, pleased that I was recognized by these outliers.
Years and years ago I had the feeling that these cousins lived in one another’s houses on Euclid or Manning or Palmerstone. Through his rare reminisces, my father recreated a tale of a boisterous fun loving and large roving group of first generation diaspora Jews who played and stayed together. Grouped in the downtown core, they grew up together, attended “haydar” together, hung out at playgrounds together, played ball together, but were much more than cousins. They were friends. Their camaraderie was true and loving. Even as young adults their strong ties were sustained. I think my mother was dating a cousin when my father first laid eyes on her on that moonlit cruise . Easily, the cousins moved together, a loose but loving crowd until they married and moved further north away from the downtown shetl inToronto.
For us, it was my father’s polio that was the line in the sand that further separated my parents from the cousins, yet I don’t recall any badmouthing of the cousins, just an occasional wistful comment about youth before each went his separate way. And when new celebrations occurred, those reunions were happy and they laughed about their time growing up together.
Now these people I hardly knew are passing and it is like my father is dying again, that small ties that reached beyond our nuclear family are being cut, that those far reaching connections to the relatives are being severed. With each obituary, I am aware that the family is shrinking. When I mention to my children that cousin Shirley on my father’s mother side or cousin Murray on my father’s father’s side has died, they respond, “who? ” and shrug their shoulders.
For me, the cousins are kindly images usually in their festive best, images softly tucked at the edges of my life, deteriorating sepia film. These people are stuck in my head from 30 or more years ago, people whom I have not seen in a long, long time, but people with whom I felt a spider’s net connection as part of a fragile support system whose names and maybe features resemble my own. My ” mishpocha” they would murmur in Yiddish.
As I reach towards the age at which my father passed away and realize how fleeting life is, I grieve the passing of these people I hardly knew as faces silently disappearing from withering family photos, yellowed, tattered and aged.
I am surprised I feel this way towards my father’s cousins but in a way, they are my diminishment as well.
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