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Jon and Paul ( hardly The Beatles)

Last night I attended a shiva for the last remaining member of my father’s cousins. Shirley had lived into her 100th year, experienced a good life and apparently died a good death, having had her hair coiffed for a niece’s wedding, eating a steak and lapsing into that final sleep. Her daughter related that her mother, just prior to her passing, was conversing with her dead brother and sister, as if being welcomed into a secret society from which few return.

Interestingly, my mother-in-law also conversed with her parents and siblings who had passed away many years before she too departed this realm last February. So, there does appear to be a trend in terminal exchanges. Interestingly, my daughter Erica is involved in a study entitled Last Words, charting and researching the last utterances of the dying. She is part of an impressive team who will analyze themes, metaphors, meaning and spiritual indications.

At Shirley’s shiva, it was a pleasant few hours I spent re-connecting with Shirley’s son Paul, long re-established in Tel Aviv. When family gathers, they attempt to resurrect family ties and stories and that was the focus of Paul’s and my conversation.

We chuckled at the cantankerous rivalry between my Aunt Marion, my own flamboyant Auntie Mame and his mother, each attempting to outdo one another with family tales and triumphs.

Paul described Marion as a ”bohemian” which connoted for me long hair, heavy eye liner and black turtlenecks. Marion wore a lot of red and did make up her eyes excessively, but she was short and dumpy in stature, trading aloofness for true sophistication. It was a well known and damning fact that Marion was “artsy”, meaning she enjoyed art, an insult not a commendation in the family. When my father wished to insult me, he would say I was just like her. But her passion and knowledge of painting were precisely the reasons I was drawn to her. True, she put on airs but I always felt I was part of her secret soiree, sharing some secrets that mundane people like my parents could not possibly fathom.

Marion (born Minnie ) flaunted rules, marrying out of the religion before it was fashionable to do so and breaking her mother’s heart. The marriage did not last long and the stories I heard whispered alluded to Bev, her husband not only as a raving Anti-semitic but abusive. They had moved to Sudbury where part of my father’s family lived, dirt poor.

I had vague recollections of Sudbury as a child, returning home from visits with newspaper cones overflowing with the bluest and hugest of blueberries. And although I recalled my father as taciturn, I strongly remember much affection from his cousins and aunts who strangely referred to him as “Solly” and hugged him to their more than ample bosoms.

Between our branch of the family and Shirley’s thrived antipathy, each claiming a son more brilliant than the other. Shirley, with IQ tests to prove his intelligence, exulted Paul as the next heir to Einstein while both my aunts, Marion and Goldie, lauded my first cousin Jon ( notice no “h”) as the world’s next prodigy.

Goldie, Jon’s mother, would not stoop to the rivalry, but Marion was always contemptuous of Shirley’s boasts. Perhaps as young girls they too had been pitted one against the other, intelligent women, first born in their families, displaying dazzling intellectual prowess at young ages in macho times that would not allow for women to excel- although Marion eventually won the position of an editor at a magazine. Both women strove with their husbands to create important businesses: Shirley with Alec in the restaurant venue ; and Marion and Sid to be the original importers from Poland and Prague of wicker goods.

How excited I would be when my Auntie Marion would return from one of their trips. Marion would gather us around her as she laboriously explained the provenance of every single gift. Even yesterday I came across the garnet necklace she had brought specially for me from some exotic place, although for the most part, the offerings were useless trinkets whose story far exceeded its worth or importance, while we, summoned to their Forest Hill enclave were prisoners to the fables she spun endlessly; we, the captive audience at her feet.

Yet, I cannot fathom my grandmother Molly nor Paul’s lovely grandmother Fanny engaged in this kind of feud over their offspring, both intent on making good lives for their struggling families. Fanny had those eyes that disappeared into folds of laughter, and my memories of my grey-haired grandmother are eclipsed by her struggles to breathe. Still I did not truly know either woman.

However, I imagine in those days, Goldie had the last laugh as Jon became the embodiment to every mother’s dream, a doctor. In fairness, Jon was a spectacular student, gaining laurels with his work and expertise. The most revealing story retold by my mother was of Jon, the ingénue medical student, so fascinated by a chicken embryo that he observed it too long and fried it.

Thinking back now, I wonder whether that was even possible: a microscope that hot? For me, it creates the image I have of myself so obsessed with art that I am able to vanish all else, causing the world outside to disappear, and become one with the study. In our family Jon was adored, our Sir Lancelot. Even given the middle name Howard should his Jewish surname need to be dropped to avoid discrimination.

With an eye to unravel genealogy, Paul has been composing family charts as it seems everyone married their cousins in the shetl years back, resulting in Shirley’s and her daughter Carol’s assault by Chrome’s disease; and in my mother’s family, a neurological disorder termed Essential Tremor. And likely my father’s asthma had its routes that travelled from cousin to cousin threaded and replicated in the cohabiting DNA strands that united them.

At the shiva, I was fortunate to be chatting with Paul, for I caught the maintained one-upmanship between our sisters ( does it ever end?) nearby of “ What does your son/daughter do now) and I was glad for a conversation of books and travels with Paul. I can easily play the successful child game, but it bores me. It speaks not to who we are, but what we have/possess: children and their accomplishments as indications of a satisfying and valuable life worthy of bragging and envy of the other… Shades of Shirley and Marion?

On the way home from Shirley’s shiva, I remarked to my sister, “I remember so and so, when… “ and I recounted a particular narrative that had assumed a spot in my childhood fables of who I was as a child in our extended family. Then I reflected that often we are defined by others by certain past moments, thin threads of remembrances that are frozen in our heads for some reason. Usually it is a sad, downtrodden or embarrassing revelations. Maybe it is schadenfreude. That memory does not persist to discredit any future activities, but serves to point out- for me- a frozen interchange or observation that is returned to whenever our thoughts pass over the countenance of that person from years back. We never stop to ponder that one single interaction should not assume symbolic proportions because we have alighted upon it –with joy or dread or wonder. It is a single thread of tapestry.

But even so, as these stories offer glimpses into ourselves as children, the picture offers only single strands, individual stars to provoke jealousy or suggest affection. Perhaps I am overly sensitive as to me the Jon and Paul recollection assumes the old pissing game of who shoots the furthest.

Maybe when the immigrants came over, they felt they had to re-establish their sense of self through material possessions or the possibility of renewal and upward mobility through their children. And we hold on to diffuse memories exaggerated at the sake of all the other days and encounters by the cousins.

What strikes me most strongly at these get togethers, ostensibly sad ones such as a shiva are my cousins. Some are people I feel I could have shared real relationships with had I encountered them in university or work, exchanging ideas, smiles and easy conversations. And I think that perhaps if like my father’s cousins, they had been crowded into houses next door to one another, we might have naturally skipped rope or thrown balls with them, easy access to friends who just happened to be our relatives. And I am fascinated by the trajectory in the family, noting the talents and trends that have budded: writers and doctors on one side; social workers and lawyers on the other.

I think it can be rather rewarding to be in a quiet room and surprisingly, experience kinship even when you are related to the people sitting next to you. Not the music of the Beatles, but sweet and provocative, anyway.

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