Saturday, July 04, 2020

Speaking with my cousin Lois gives me that warm-all-over feeling. After many years, I reached out and found my long-lost older female cousin. Our mothers were each the firstborn of our grandfather’s fruitful marriages. To make a long story short, I always knew that she existed, yet we were living in parallel universes.

While I was born and bred in central New Jersey and currently live in northern New Jersey, Lois never took root. Lois, with 17 addresses in the Cleveland area before marriage, mingled with some episodes at our aunt’s home in northern California during bouts of her parents’ separations, thought she found an anchor when she married in January 1953 in Cleveland. That was not to be, and as a young widow with two small children, she remarried. While married to her second of three husbands, she perched at another 14 addresses around the world. “An officer and a gentleman,” husband #2, the father of her younger two children, was a surgeon in the U. S. Army, and a Sephardic Jew who donned tefillin on a regular basis, while she hung ornaments. Oh, can Lois, the daughter of Ashkenazi immigrants drawn to assimilation, tell stories.

Now Lois lives her sunset days mainly confined to her well-appointed apartment in the Cleveland ’burbs. Since my iPhone will travel, we have gotten the chance to catch up on our entire family history, as I devour the tales she tells. Predating me, she would travel to New Jersey with her mother to visit our mutual maternal grandfather. “I know, I know,” is my natural response when she is quick to remind me that they didn’t speak the same language. But, all I can think is that she held our shul-going, Yiddish-speaking Papa’s hand. As the youngest of four in my nuclear family, my only living grandparent was Papa, but he died when I was not yet 2. I hold onto the thought that maybe, just maybe, he held my hand.

Ironically, my son’s choice of college led me to Lois. Fortunately, since she lived in the neighborhood of his school, we easily connected. These days she sometimes poses a sad thought: “What if I hadn’t agreed to meet with you?” After listening to my family history manuscript during a scheduled call session, and discussing our family members, she said that she loves me, after admitting that it is a hard thing for her to say to anyone. More than 20 years my senior, Lois is more the age of a parent or an aunt, but somehow we are on the same level. She has a powerful sense of humor and there’s nothing we can’t talk about. She admits to her failings, makes no judgments, is boldly honest and shows no signs of jealousy. A retired personal shopper, who had been an officer’s wife, she is full of worldly knowledge and is a caring queen of fashion.

What makes it even more fun is that Lois and I together knew the older cast of characters in our mothers’ family of 11, some of whom settled on the East Coast and others who migrated to the West, with her mother and one uncle moving about in Cleveland. While she grew up with our older cousins, I grew up with the younger, but we each knew all the aunts and uncles. The funny thing is that she knew those on both coasts when she was younger, though less and less in her married life, while the reverse was true for me. Lois filled a gap when my mother passed away at the end of 2012 at age 97.

When Lois answers my nearly daily calls these past months, I first breathe a sigh of relief that she’s still here to mentor me and then I get a flushed feeling at her energetic reaction to hearing that it’s me. After a now familiar, “Hello dear,” followed by either a shallow breath or a vibrant, “What’s new?,” or some instant recap of current news, “Did you hear…?,” depending on how she’s feeling that day, we will laugh and cry and cover family history and world topics. Lois always gives unsolicited advice and encouragement, and she can make me laugh like no other.

Our topics of conversation flow easily from the mundane to the morose, from family history to world history, books to movies, politics to national affairs, recipes to kashrut, with the freedom to discuss anything. Lois tells me about the trials and tribulations with her children and grandchildren, acknowledging that although she raised them without instilling religion, she is very culturally Jewish. Especially keen on the memory of the Shoah, she dwells on the importance of the continuation of our people. Bluntly, she insists that she feels that she did the best thing for her four children by bearing them of Jewish fathers. We have a real give and take. Our mothers would be delighted.

We never know who will come into our lives and who will leave. I am so fortunate my cousin Lois came into mine. While we never know how it will end, luckily for us, we’re adding chapters. At her insistence, she prepaid for two copies of my published book (have to love Lois’ confidence) to be given to her eldest two granddaughters—the doctor and the lawyer (just sayin’), so that our family history won’t be forgotten.

Sharon Mark Cohen, MPA, is a seasoned genealogist and journalist and a contributing writer at The Jewish Link.