He was always Jon, never John, differentiating him from the common John, my eldest cousin Jon, his second name Howard, given him as a cover should he need to hide his Jewish last name.
It had been years and years since I’d seen him, but by chance he and his engaging wife Elaine were in San Diego so we were able to reconnect.
In the spaces that often separate people by year and location, we had heard the odd story of moves from Charleston to Nashville, job promotions, the family expanding: the kind of chatter old aunts discuss as they contemplate the “ what if’s” had the family stayed in the home town. Jon, the first born, had lived in the flat on Brunswick Avenue above my parents and the grandparents as people did, years and years ago, so his earliest days from the outset of my parent’s marriage had been entwined in my own history, but mostly my recalling his odd dinner with us as a student at U of T.
So an opportunity to meet, have conversations as adults was truly an event to be anticipated with excitement. And my cousins did just that, filling our time that expanded into hours and more pleasurable hours, together, recanting family stories, providing missing pieces, retelling the tales I had thought I knew, some tweaked, some only partly remembered, revised- and I sat in wonder at the recollections. There were additions and reworking of the strange and the bizarre, guffaws, noddings of agreement, some with open mouth surprise and sweet smiles of acknowledgement over the two days we walked, and talked, and rambled, and discoursed and wandered into one another’s lives.
These memories would not have been complete without focus on our shared aunt, Marion.Our Aunt Marion and Uncle Sid were in deed a most peculiar couple. They were the first ever in Canada to import baskets from Eastern Europe, building over time a lucrative business, Bacon Basketware, particularly known for their willow sewing baskets lined in silk, usually bright red: before anyone else had considered how these goods might enhance or improve one’s living space. Yet Sid, our aunt’s second husband, who stood according to my mother “as tall as an arrow” , according to Jon, fancied himself a acome again Fred Astaire , dancing beneath the stars with a new paramour, his hair slicked back, smoking marijuana every night before bed. Marion and Sid’s marriage was superficially a romance, a rags to riches in Forest Hill, but laced with my uncle’s many betrayals that ended in divorce.
Although now described by Jon as not particularly generous, to my mother Sydney ( as he romantically referred to himself) was something of a godsend, rescuing her from days of drudgery by whisking her off to see a ballet once or maybe twice a year, my aunt always blamed for any impecunious attitude. Now it seemed, Sid was non too generous either, denying them a small amount when needed. He was a world federalist, a real communist, even briefly detained on Ellis Island for protesting the Rosenbergs, but later in life one of Moses Znaimers’ speakers in his extravagant symposiums. In deed, even as the last holdout at Sutton Place Hotel, Sid was an unforgettable character, his grand flourishes, whether purchasing Picassos or commandeering great pianists to perform at his extravagant birthday parties.
I was tarnished by my aunt’s favouring me : especially an extended trip to Europe when I was eighteen, travelling first class on The Queen Elizabeth to England and all over Scandinavia, exposing me to the life of culture and expense, yet also visiting day cares and synagogues. My father despised his sister’s “airs” so any similarities between aunt and niece were not to his liking. Yet I was invited to her soirées with film and television celebrities, and hours spent discussing the styles of artists formed a core of love deep in me for her as she made me feel special, even smart. Sid, on the other hand, was a somewhat shadowy figure, both of them eccentric, but he given to such exaggeration that he did not figure in my appreciation of them. Their daughters too were irrelevant to me as well, only my aunt special.
Still Marion’s return from an exotic trip was an opportunity for her to expound and explain at length on Sunday afternoons, describing in inflated minute detail the gifts she had chosen for us. Gathered at her feet, we were required to hear an unending provenance on some trinket whose story was not at all in proportion to what she was bestowing. But we sat quietly, her performance essential to her presentation. My father, barely able not to scoff, resented losing an afternoon that didn’t include music or cars.
During our reunion with my cousins in San Diego, there were threads about other members of the family, questions concerning why the family had returned from California: worries of polio or my grandfather’s involvement in unions. We brought Uncle Joe, my grandmother’s brother, back to life, the flamboyant auctioneer in Las Vegas, dying a pauper in Florida. But he too had dazzled me, showering us with gifts and those jewellery boxes with tiny spinning ballerinas. Mine still in my bedside drawer at home. Once I had even penned a poem to him. Jon mentioned Mimma Dvora and another Mimmas( aunts), only distant whispers and blurs from my past, he able to put a face to the person, no doubt even wizened even then.
And my grandfather Zaida Sam’s furious Romanian temper… chasing Jon around the table, Jon’s eyes lit with remembering Zaida’s face red hot and I too recalling how he had taunted my father into giving me the only slap I’d ever received from him; Jon’s own father’s deep relationship with my father’s: “ like brothers”, we knew. Some saying he preferred my father to his wife, Goldi credited with being an outstanding cook (although both Jon and Elaine did not support that pronouncement) and the eye witness accounts that I had heard told by my mother of the Friday nights of Zaida Sam’s family shmisses of cackling women, card games, all but blood relatives forbidden to attend: my grandmother Molly derided for her desire to be “ modern”, wanting a washing machine; my father’s potency questioned when polio had destroyed his limbs. Then memories of our cousin C. who when manic, broke into a government building late one winter night, seeking to know her “true” paternity; her stoic solid frumpy sister cutting off all communication with the rest of us when her mother, our aunt, set out her will.
We asked why Jon’s family had fled Toronto and I was reminded of the anti Semitic stance of the school board for hiring Jews. The quota filled, an opportunity for a music teacher at a school in Windsor had determined the fate of the family. Jon’s father was so loved by the community that Inuit sculptures were donated in his memory to the museum. But always memories of my parents’ big smiles and easy welcomes should Jon’s father come to visit. He and my dad became two boys huddled over some new piece of electronic equipment, scratching their heads, consulting consumer reports, searching out the cheapest avenue for purchase, consulting one another, dialoguing, engulfed in their company, enjoying their time , laughing- where my father hardly ever laughed. I always remembered Jon’s father not walking, but almost skipping along to the sound of the music in his head he conducted in the navy. My father adored him.
And new stories that revealed more of my cousin to me, such as moral dilemmas he faced as a doctor, making choices where although the answer might have been clear, the paths towards resolution not so much. He was always the premier contact, the scientific perspective before my parents sought medical advice elsewhere: “Call Jon”, someone would insist. Now too, I could talk easily with his wife, sharing creative pursuits, mother’s fears and wisdoms, a closeness never imagined previously.
These were stories like spider webs of people attached to our central core, relevant but several times removed or connected through marriages, stories that stranger than fiction concerned cartels, extravagance, and peril in South America, almost trysts. And to be sure we chased down the facts on Google, our eyes wide with amazement, thinking how our lives are inadvertently tied to bigger stories: as ours were when we stumbled into The Black Dog on Martha’s Vineyard and sat at the table across from Bill Clinton, Hillary, and friends. Or the night we dined with Charles and Diana on The Royal Yacht Britannia. Our tales lucky ships that passed in the night;, theirs permanent couplings of trains headed in the same directions.
There seemed a well of bottomless narratives that might dry up with the passage of time, tangled family bits one wanted to dislodge from the skein of years, untwisting them to locate personal relevance, a bit of me, a bit of you unknown or rediscovered in the tight tie of family history. All these stories in Jon’s head revived in two days to amplify and modify my own.
I cannot end this piece here because I anticipate that will continue…