Cousins: the key to family mysteries

Savannah Morning News

Nov. 27, 2016


In some families – not all – they don’t mean that much when you’re young. They’re just someone close to your own age, someone you’re supposed to like, someone who also calls your grandparents Nana and Papa, in that order. If they live near you and go to a different school, forget about it. If they’re a year or too older (or younger), well, who cares about them? He’s such a baby. She’s only in third grade. Such a huge difference to a kid. If they live in another town, another state, they might as well be strangers.

Except they’re not. They’re your cousins. They’re blood. They know things no one else does. They remember things. And now that the world is so much more connected they can get your number and call you out of the blue.

“Hey, Jane, this is your cousin Bert,” the message began a few days ago. “I got a question for you.”

Bert, as in Aunt Joan’s son? The one we called Rusty because he had red hair? Could it be? It’s only been about five decades. I called him back right away. He got right to the point.

“Remember that black-and-white photograph Uncle Harry and Aunt Trudy took that one Thanksgiving day in Huntington Woods when we were all there, the one that hung in Papa’s den all those years?”

The one I snagged, I thought, and held on to through at least 20 different addresses in five different states? Yep. I remember that one, I said.  I’m looking at it right now. I love it. There you are in a red-plaid vest, to go with your hair, I assume. I remember that vest. You were –what? -12?

Except I totally forgot it was taken on Thanksgiving, which is what made Rusty think about calling me. I guess. Holidays will do that.

Even before he asked I said I’d be happy to make him a print.

“But can I still call you Rusty?” I said.

I know nothing about him now, who he voted for, what movies he prefers, what he likes to do on Sunday afternoons, if he plants garlic or likes to cook collards. I only know we played together. We shared grandparents. We knew where they hid the candy, how they snored at night, how much they loved to watch, “I Love Lucy.” He probably remembers the orthopedic shoes our grandfather wore, how our grandmother was always going to doctors, the contraption she set up to make chopped liver in that sunny back kitchen of their ranch house.

For the first three or four decades of our lives, none of this seemed very important or relevant. Why would it? You take it for granted. When one of your cousins invites you to a birthday party with people you don’t know, you whine, “Mom, do I have to go?” They are not your best friends. Not even the death of a grandparent – which can happen when you are living out of town or when you’re busy with a different life – brings you closer together. Much of the time you tend to be closer to one set of grandparents than another. This has more to do with your parents than with you. The whys of these relationships often go to the grave. Why did our nuclear unit “go with” the Modell side and not the Fishman side? We don’t know. Rusty was a Modell cousin. Every time we get together, we Fishman cousins, we ponder this but we don’t get very far. No one is around who can give us answers.

When I visit a cousin who lives in Minneapolis she tells me, “You’re a Fishman. You have a big head. You’re not very mechanical.”

I do? I’m not?

It’s only when one or both of your parents pass on that cousins start to become more important or more interesting. Or when one of them remembers a certain photograph. Then a certain pride kicks in at the descriptor. “This is my cousin, Nancy,” I say when Nancy and her husband Ronnie visit. Or Marsha. Or Bonnie. Or Maggie, Andy, Carol, Beth and Steve (who used to be Stevie). As a kid I always felt I had so many cousins, but I really didn’t.

When I go to a restaurant with my cousins Melvin and Karla and the maitre ‘d might say, “Fishman party of four,” I do a double take and think there are four of us? Then I remember. I’m not the only one with that name. Melvin is a second cousin. Our fathers were first cousins. That kind of thing used to mean something. Now it doesn’t. Melvin – and my other cousins – know things about my parents and our family I don’t know. Some of it seems silly to me. You wanted my father to be your father? Really? Because my father would play catch with you and your father wouldn’t?

We have so much in common genetically but we all turn out so differently. It’s no accident that we make up our own family as we go along, that we gather our own sisters and brothers, people who are closer to us emotionally.

I’m still hoping a cousin or two will say something that will unlock the mystery that is family. But in the meantime they are my cucina and cucino. And one of them I still call Rusty.





Hold on tight

Savannah Morning News

Nov. 20, 2016

Fasten your seatbelts, my friends. We’ve got a wild ride ahead of us.

“Which stage of grief are you in?” a friend writes.

That depends on the day.

Shall we sit Shiva as we do to mourn the loss of a loved one? It’s hard to escape that route. The times call for it. This is, after all, a perfect reason for mourning. But then what?

Recently I ran into a friend who was grieving the death of a young person in her family. Terrible death. Terrible loss. Her house, once lively, optimistic, sat dark and mournful, somber and gloomy. For months, she said, you could stand back and hear a pin drop. What was Emily Dickenson’s poem? “After great pain, a formal feeling comes/The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs.”

Then someone decided to give her a banjo. It’s time for music, he said. She didn’t know how to play the banjo. She’d never given it a thought. She’s a writer, a poet. But she said OK. And she learned, one note, one chord at a time. Then she returned the gift and went out and bought a better banjo. Now she plays – for herself, for others in the house, for friends gathering at a Sunday picnic in the country (which is where I heard her), the sheets of music spread out in front of her, people crowding around, shoulders touching, head to head, to read the words and join in.  She sings along, every verse, too. Music, she said, quiets the nerves. It lifts your soul.

Maybe this is the the time to learn an instrument, to tuck our tails between our legs and retreat, kind of like way back in the early ‘80’s when Ronald Reagan, another entertainer, another outsider, another sheep in wolf’s clothing, played the odds, hoodwinked the pollsters and got elected. (How’d that work out, you may ask. Not so good.)

Maybe it’s time to check out Maven Makers, a cool new collective on West Boundary Street in Savannah (next to a crazy urban folk garden of garlic and sugarcane) where a couple of enterprising young men have transformed that cavernous, red-bricked space that used to house a railroad station handling freight (and then a magical spot where a magical guy named Charlie made wooden kayaks) into a learning, teaching, gathering space for novices – and people looking for a creative environment away from their homes. Now you have no excuse not to explore woodturning, woodworking, soldering, jewelry making, slipcovering, to learn about band saws and 3d modeling.

Should we gather around the new Susie King Taylor Community school, where nonviolence, critical thinking, diversity, creativity, learning-to-live-with-others and self-reliance are the focus? Taylor was born a slave in Liberty County. She became the first black Army nurse to learn to read and write, which she passed on to former slaves. Recently given the OK by the Savannah Chatham Board of Education – not always an easy task – the school is planning on opening in 2017. No bullying there, you can be sure. No walls, either. No one will be voting with their middle finger.

That was last week. Retreat, regroup, refocus, refresh, accept what we can and cannot change. Keep on keeping on.

Not so easy. That would mean ignoring history. Except we’ve been around this block before. Check out the headline that appeared in the 1922 New York Times. “Hitler’s only kidding about anti-Semitism.”  His anti-Semitism propaganda, the article went on, “was bait to catch masses of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic. You can’t expect the masses to understand and appreciate your finer real aims. You must feed them with cruder morsels and ideas like anti-Semitism. It would be politically wrong to tell them the truth about where you really are leading them.” Many Jews, long established in the European community, thinking themselves exempt, chose to believe that. They chose not to leave. We’ll stay on, they thought. Things will get better. Except they didn’t get better. We know how that ended.

So now we have this story, one we couldn’t have made up although in retrospect some people say they could have. Me? I’m conflicted. Do we shut out the world, play our banjo, find solace in in Joni Mitchell or Leon Russell, stick close to home, very, very close; or do we refuse to drink the Kool-Aid, stay outraged and not believe the autocrat? Do we turn back the open-minded talk? Note to self:  head down to Amtrak, buy a ticket for the Women’s March on Washington (Jan. 20, 2017), hop on the 7:21 p.m. Silver Meteor the night before the March, disgorge with like-minded people at that stunning Beaux Arts Union Station down from the National Mall and find a different kind of solace, this time in numbers. One step at a time, one note at a time. For this week, at least, I know what I’m doing.

All aboard!