The Good, the Bad, and….. the Better


My great aunt died last week. That’s the bad.
Calling her my great aunt doesn’t do her, or her memory justice, unless you use the term as an adjective of character, rather than to explain her relation to me.

She was my grandmother’s younger sister. But here’s the rub. I never knew my grandmother (or for that matter my grandfather, on my father’s side).

My grandmother died when my dad was 12. It was a difficult time for all. My grandparents had a unique relationship. They were first cousins. By family history, when my grandfather fought his way across Europe, got into steerage and came to this country, around 1908, he saw his cousin in Brooklyn, and instantly, and apocalyptically, fell in love. He was determined to win her, despite all family, and social protestations to the contrary.

And win her he did. It was these stories that my aunt would tell me. Her face glowing as she would talk about her sister, and the love of her life, my grandfather.

But Elsie, my grandmother, suffered from horrible atherosclerosis. Something so easily treatable today, but fatal in the early 20th century.

It was her death that made my father determined to become a doctor. Nobody would die again, if he could prevent it.

So, my aunt Claire was a link to that side of the family. A font of family history because both her sister, and and her brother were both long gone.

But it was more than that. So much more. It took years to see just how extraordinary this woman was.

When I was young, she was just the towering woman – all the women on dad’s side of the family are close to, or over, 6′ – who baked better than any bakery.

In fact, she was constantly recruited by every manner of person to open a bakery, or to cater affairs, and she was frustrated that the customers were not willing to pay for the best ingredients. So she made herself happy by just doing it herself and giving it away.

Her rugelach – a Jewish pastry – is legendary, as was her chocolate layer cake, which somehow seemed to get better every day as it aged, although it rarely made it past the first moment she put it on the table!

When she was young, Claire took the civil service exam. She scored so high, that she was sent to any job she wanted to pursue. She wanted to work for the FBI. Unfortunately, when she got there, she was told by the NY Director that he could not hire Jews, despite her score.

But he was so impressed by her, her sent her to see his friend, Nelson Rockefeller, and she became his aide, until her marriage.

When my grandmother died, she insisted on moving in with my grandfather to help care for my dad, who, as you can imagine, was lost.

Claire had three children. Her oldest, while 10-15 years younger than my parents, was viewed by my dad as the sister he never had (actually he had two, who died young. 2 additional reasons for his dedication to medicine). But more importantly, she was perhaps the only family member he ever had true intellectual respect for.

When he spoke of her, it was the only time I ever saw him glow…

The middle sister, Eloise, was the emotional one. Always running away from home, she would show up on our doorstep, and dad would take her in and convince her to go home.

The youngest, Jeffrey, was the jokester. I can’t remember a single moment in my life when he wasn’t smiling.

All three of Claire’s kids became my (and my sister’s) babysitters. And Eloise was my piano teacher.

But over the years, they dispersed. Rosa moved to Columbus Ohio, to run the arts center and the opera. Eloise, after a troubled first marriage, to Southern Jersey and then Florida, and Jeffrey married and moved to Massachussetts, near Boston.

My intermittent contact with them really relied on my mom. But after dad’s death, contact with his side of the family became rare.

And just when I would have begun to do it myself, I married the horror that is my ex wife. She systematically cut me off from my family. So as a result, I had not seen Claire and her kids for many years.

So, the better. It took her death to get me in my car and drive to Massachusetts this past week to visit. A funeral, last week and then what we call in Judaism, a shiva call this weekend.

It was shocking to see Jeff’s kids, who, it seemed to me (but not them!)I related to better, but there were my cousins, who now looked to me, just as I remembered their parents. But the hugs, and the kisses were real. In a way that they can’t be with friends or lovers. They spoke of genuine love, and caring in a way that only family can express.

And they brought me back. Back to memories, and back to my family.

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