My father-in-law, Is, short for Isadore, would often muse that he was the fifth child born on the fifth day of the fifth month. That was in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in 1911. His parents, from Pinsk, married in Elizabeth, where his mother bore and, with the help of her eldest child, her daughter, Ann, raised 14 children.
Whenever Is and his siblings spoke of their revered sister Ann, whom I was privileged to meet several times, you could see the love shine from their eyes. When their paternal aunt, Chipa, Celia in English, divorced and relocated to Groveton, Virginia, with her three children, from a tenement in New York City where she had been a janitor, Ann made the long trek to visit. That started a new life for the maiden Ann, who was beyond childbearing years for a woman of her generation.
In 1944, before my husband was even a twinkle in his father’s eye, and long predating JDate, it was Aunt Celia’s son-in-law who made the shidduch for Aunt Ann, with a widowed man he davened with at shul. Soon after the introduction, she married the widower, who had a grown son, and the couple moved to the DC metro area. Ann left the life she knew in Elizabeth, bustling household and all, the year that her youngest sibling turned 19.
It was always special to see Aunt Ann when she made the reverse trip and came up to visit her New Jersey family. I have vivid memories of the broad smiles on the faces of her siblings when she came to town, and their joyful sense of urgency to please the matriarch of their large brood, who was simply happy to see everyone. In the summer of 1975, after our June wedding, we sat in her DC apartment, with my husband’s brother, his wife and children, and talked about, well…family.
Fast forward all these years later, with three decades of genealogy research under my belt, as my husband and I sat easily conversing in the Lake Worth, Florida, home of Grandaunt Celia’s eldest granddaughter, Frane. Like déjà vu, speaking about family, Frane regaled us with fond memories of the Cohen household in Elizabeth as part of her travels north from Groveton, via crowded automobile and ferry. They would stop to refresh in Elizabeth on their way to visit the mutual great-grandmother of Frane and my husband in the Bronx.
Frane, a full 15 years my husband’s senior, tells that whenever they came to the busy home of my husband’s grandparents there was always someone awake, with food cooking on the stove 24 hours a day. The days of visiting her grandaunt, granduncle and many cousins came to an abrupt end in 1951, the year that Celia died, coupled with the untimely death of Frane’s father—Aunt Ann’s matchmaker—which ended their regular monthly northward travels. Frane recalls, almost incredulously, that even during the war with gas rationing they never missed a visit.
While Frane spent years wondering what had happened to her cousins in Elizabeth, I was researching for over 20 years to find more details about Aunt Ann and the grandaunt who relocated to Virginia with her family. Since my husband was born the year that Frane’s family stopped traveling to Elizabeth, she and my husband had no knowledge of one another. That’s where my consummate research really paid off.
Ultimately, it was Frane who told us the year of Aunt Ann’s marriage and the place, right on her parent’s grounds, in 1944, in Groveton, Virginia, adding a description of the lace tablecloth she helped her father spread for the celebration. Frane notes that she still uses the family heirloom on her table for holiday meals.
Mirroring the familiar glow of Is and his siblings, it almost seems surreal when a cheerful Frane lovingly tells of a grandmotherly Ann, her mother’s first cousin, who lived with her family for six months after her marriage and taught an impressionable 8-year-old Frane how to bake. Matter-of-factly, she adds, “She was a great baker.” A vision of the abundant apple pies my mother-in-law told me that Ann and her mother baked for the married children to take home from their weekend visits to their childhood home flashes through my mind. Frane exudes what I recall as Aunt Ann’s good nature. If only she had the family recipe for apple pie.
While the recipe for the legendary apple pie will have to remain a missing piece of the family lore, Aunt Ann’s legacy will forever remain cemented by finding Frane. About to celebrate 60 years of wedded bliss, in a home that radiates shalom bayit, with shared family history, it is Frane who affirmed Aunt Ann’s kitchen prowess.
With a name like Cohen it was certainly a challenge to find this important missing branch of the family, but our meeting and friendship these past six years has rejuvenated a special family bond. The research it took to find her is a story for another time. Simply stated, however, like Aunt Ann, Cousin Frane is a family treasure.
By Sharon Mark Cohen
Sharon Mark Cohen, MPA, is a seasoned genealogist and journalist. A contributing writer at The Jewish Link, Sharon is a people person and born storyteller who feels that everyone is entitled to a legacy. Sharon was acknowledged by two authors in their recently published books and is looking forward to the publication of her family history book.