MYSTERY FAMILY

When I was little, there were no photographs of my father’s relatives in our house. My mother’s “side” was the only one that existed. My three siblings, all more than a decade older than I, had experienced limited contact with my father’s family in the period that preceded me, but the flames of kinship were almost extinguished by my early childhood.   This pullback occurred even though my father’s family contained just as many aunts and uncles as my mother’s, and a full set of cousins, most of whose names I never learned.

To my recollection, my father, who died in 1994, never uttered a word about the subject. When I was four or six or eight-years-old, I took relationships for granted. I didn’t ponder the absence of my father’s family. From occasional remarks, the unanimous impression I gleaned from the rest of my immediate family was that I wasn’t missing anything by not meeting the other half of my relatives.

To my knowledge, my father and his siblings rarely spoke. I recently considered this subject, after five decades, when a wedding provoked the question of how the couple would divide holidays between their respective families. We’d never had that issue.

My father absolutely had a right to privacy. He may have had perfectly valid reasons for his silence. But I’m still entitled to wonder, at least: “What happened?”

*****

I knew this from overhearing conversations as a child: my father had been fond of his older brother, Nathan, who lived in New York City until his multi-pack-a-day smoking habit hastened his death. The habit persisted after a cancer diagnosis. My father was neutral about a younger brother, Harry, who lived above his own corner store in a rundown section of Philadelphia. And my father disliked a younger sister who lived in New York City. My mother sometimes referred to her as “Shitty Shelley.” This made an impression; my parents never swore.

I didn’t know many details about my New York cousins. But Uncle Harry’s daughter in Philadelphia had the unfortunate name of Rhea, a source of hilarity at every mention by my siblings, who couldn’t resist adding “Dia.” He also had a son who fled his non-religious upbringing to become an ultra-orthodox rabbi in Israel, where he fathered fourteen children. Unable to support his brood, for years he begged my father, his uncle, for money. I never saw the letters, nor did I know my father’s response to them. From time to time, I’d hear him tell my mother, “I got another letter from the lunatic in Israel.”

*****

On a culturally historic evening, the night when Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles on his variety show, I accompanied my parents on my only visit to Uncle Harry’s home. I would have been six or seven. After parking the car on a dark, dismal street, my father pounded on a door in an alley. I heard footsteps descend inside and the door creaked open. A bald man appeared who was so slight that my five-foot-seven father looked huge by comparison. Harry led us upstairs where we sat in a dim, cramped living room on plastic lawn furniture, and watched a tiny black-and-white television. I don’t recall what we ate but Uncle Harry and his wife, Celia, bustled around to try to make us comfortable. My father and uncle agreed the Beatles were “animals” and represented a threat to western society.

After the show, Celia took me downstairs to their store and handed me a pack of baseball cards from behind the counter. I opened them immediately. I couldn’t believe my luck. The first one was my favorite player, Ernie Banks. This act of generosity impressed me so much I recall it fifty years later, but I recall absolutely nothing else about my aunt, who I never saw again. My cousins were not present that evening.

*****

Then there was Aunt Shelley. One day, when I was a teenager, we received a family tree in the mail from a distant, unknown relative, with a request that my father complete our branch. My mother noticed that Shelley had listed 1911 as her year of birth.

“How can that be?” she asked my father when he came home. “You and Shelley aren’t twins, and you always said you were born in 1911?”

My father declined to respond, except to sigh: “Eccch, a business with Shelley.”

My mother dialed Shelley’s number for the first time in decades.

“Why did you say you were born in 1911?” she asked. “Aren’t you younger than Lou?”

Shelley rasped, with all the charm that may have inspired her nickname: “He’s a liar. He’s older than he told you.” With that, she hung up.

Confronted with this information, my father said: “1911, 1907, what difference does it make?”

*****

When my parents married in 1941, my father was likely over thirty and my mother had just turned nineteen. My mother didn’t learn for seven years that my father’s father was still alive and living nearby in Philadelphia. After she discovered this, my mother, who didn’t drive at the time, tracked him down and took my two oldest siblings, who were around three and five at the time, on a bus to visit. A grey-haired, brilliantly blue-eyed man opened the door then rushed to a closet in his tiny apartment and returned with a piece of candy for each grandchild.

My mother was shocked by her father-in-law’s terrible cough. Concerned the children had been exposed to tuberculosis, she insisted on taking him, by bus, to be checked at a hospital where they admitted him. He remained hospitalized for three weeks before dying from what the doctors concluded was a fungus, not TB. My father showed no emotion at the news.

*****

My father demonstrably loved his grandchildren and burst with pride at his own children’s accomplishments. He warmly welcomed a step-grandchild into the family. Friends and business associates found him engaging. So what happened with his family?

I can only speculate. The most plausible theory is that a rupture occurred when my father’s father came to America from Kiev before World War I. The plan was that he would quickly send the means for the rest of the family to follow.

Instead, nearly a decade passed before my father’s mother and the four children arrived. After several years in Cuba awaiting visas, they reached Philadelphia in the mid-1920s. My grandmother chose to live separately from her husband. My father lived with her until her death in the mid-1930s. Harry apparently lived with his father when he first arrived. Nathan and Shelley, in their late-teens or early twenties, settled in New York City.

Had my father’s father failed to provide as promised? If he did fail, was it his fault, or did World War I and the Russian revolution make it impossible? Did the siblings divide over their parents’ split?  Asked to explain, both before my time and in my presence, my father always declined. “It’s not important,” he said.

In the late 1960s, my father made a tape describing his emigration from Kiev. In it, he relates with gusto the time he slept in a safe house somewhere in Poland. Several ultra-Orthodox smugglers had charged a vast sum to shepherd my father’s family through the area. Feeling overcharged, my father awoke in the middle of the night, found a scissors, and cut off the forelocks of the sleeping men before fleeing. What priceless passive-aggression! I listened to the tape several times, smiling each time at the thought of the smugglers’ fury; he never mentions the roles of his other family members, though they must have taken part in the adventure. Why not?

I’ve fundamentally failed to solve the mystery.   When my son was born, it seemed natural to make “Nathan” his middle name, after my father’s favorite brother. Characteristically, when I told my father on the telephone, he didn’t react. I choose to believe he was pleased.

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