The last time I visited my mother in Detroit -- half to check on her, half to attend a Passover seder with some newly discovered cousins on my father’s side -- the nurse who dispenses pills to the residents (I call her the medicine woman) approached quickly, pulled me aside.
With half a smile and a great sense of humor, she said in her native Irish brogue, “Jane, I have to warn you. Your mother has started going to Bible class.”
Turns out one of the other residents has a daughter who wants to make sure everyone, no matter their age or circumstance, has a chance to study the Bible. I didn’t ask which testament they were studying, the old or the new.
“I tried to tell her your mum is Jewish, but she insisted,” the nurse explained.
It did not hurt my feelings. If my mother, who likes to be social but can’t hear squat or remember much else, wants to sit around with some other people talking about the Bible - or at least watching their lips move about the Bible - that’s fine with me, whatever the circumstance.
If I couldn’t take her to the seder - the night would be much too long and boisterous and confusing for her - and she was able to cobble together another assembly of sorts for the night, that’s fine with me, too.
But it did start me thinking about family and what the whole thing means anyway. Like many merged households, we tended to socialize and celebrate with my mother’s side of the equation, rarely seeing my father’s brood.
I didn’t know why at the time. I was a child. I didn’t have a vote. No one asked for my opinion. And I don’t know why now.
Most of the principals are either deceased, disinterested, pleading the Fifth or misinformed. Not that that stops them from having opinions or theories, a few of which have morphed into urban legends.
“It’s because your parents got divorced when you were a kid, right?” asked Beth, my first cousin and seder partner to the left who just moved from Israel to Rumania. “That’s why we never saw you growing up.”
Wrong. My parents stayed married, rightly or wrongly, for 30 years. I was in college when they got divorced.
Anxious to piece together the history of the family, Beth has met up with a distant cousin who is putting together a more complete family tree, disrupted as it was by Hitler. Apparently, the lineage starts in Pinsk, Poland, in 1856, with our great-grandparents Shmuel and Freda Begin, then moves to Dovid-Horodok, which has now become Belarus.
All very interesting. So is reconnecting with my Fishman cousins, especially now that an age difference of eight or 10 years doesn’t matter, especially since whatever went on between our parents or grandparents is old news, dead news. We look alike (kind of). We share the same politics (as far as I can tell).
In a restaurant, we all turn around when a maitre d’ announces our name. At a seder table, when my cousin Steve (whom I remember as Stevie) calls on someone to read from the Haggadah, I am still amazed at being with so many people with my last name. In a court of law, we’d have to be considered blood relatives.
But is that family? On an every day existence, is that who sustains us, supports us, sticks up for us, covers for us, checks up on us? Is that who laughs at our bad jokes, feeds us hashed brown potatoes and blueberry cobbler, brings over lunch without being asked, drops off shiitake mushrooms and a cantaloup out of the blue, lends us a book we might like, takes care of our dogs when we go out of town, tells us about the latest vitamin, takes us to the hospital when we break an ankle?
What about the family of people who share plants or books or morning coffee or fights over dog parks or even the same real estate on the same block for however long a time?
Some of you may remember the hippy-dippy notion that says we all choose our birth families. There’s a reason we have a difficult mother, a reason we have an intransigent father. They’re there to teach us something, to help us work through something. I always had trouble with that theory.
So while I’m happy to be reconnecting with my first-cousins and touched that so many of our relatives are buried so close together and dedicated to do what I can for my cousin Beth to fill in gaps in the family tree, I’m pretty sure I know who my day-to-day family members are.That said, I really don’t foresee joining any Bible study groups. But who knows? Family is where you can find it.
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