Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

January 20, 2005 Family Shindig.

I came east in mid-January to attend a Major Family Event. My aunt’s husband Harry – whom I guess I should call my uncle, though not having grown up with him as my uncle, I don’t think of him that way – has just turned 90. In honor, or as an excuse, or something like that, he invited the entire extended family to a weekend-long party at a resort hotel in the Poconos. This seemed worth coming east for, even though it meant plunging Matilda and myself into cold weather that would make camping pretty hard, as well as missing the mother of all VW events, taking place in Arizona the same weekend.

My family on my mother’s side has collapsed in on itself. My mother (on the right in the photo above) has one sister, Lillian (next to my mom). They had a couple of second cousins, Edith and Abe (not in the photo above, unless they are there in spirit), whose mother was my “little bubby’s” first cousin. (“Little” bubby distinguished my mother’s mother from my father’s mother, who was taller and stouter, and whom my sister and I called big bubby.) Edith was married to Harry (the man above), and they had three children, whom we knew as Sandy, Herbie, and Mark – though we hardly ever saw them, so knowing them by name is about all we did. Edith died unexpectedly in the late 1980s, and a year later Harry married my aunt Lillian. Confused? Well, so were we! (And the woman on the left in the photo above is Harry's sister Ida.)

Their wedding was a lovely event, though, held in Abe’s backyard on Long Island. A posse of little girls in frilly dresses sprinkled rose petals around the yard, and I remember my nephews fast asleep in their car seats long after my sister had arrived and unloaded the car. The high point of the wedding, of course, was the endless attempt to untangle the family tree. “Well, you were my third cousin, but now you’re also my first cousin, or my step-brother, or whatever!”

My nephews are now finishing high school, and the little girls are in their twenties, full-grown working women (on the right) who don’t even remember sprinkling rose petals. The wedding of Harry and Lillian has enabled me to get to know Harry better, but I still don’t see the rest of his family very often. So his birthday party was an interesting event.

At events like this a lot of people stick to the folks they already know. My cousins – Lillian's children, that is, the only people I've always considered cousins – mostly stuck together, sharing a big table at meals with their spouses, my mother, and sometimes my sister and brother-in-law. Harry’s grandchildren also mostly stayed together, twenty-somethings starting out in life. The teen-agers seemed happy to find each other. My nephews (one of them below) palled around with the two granddaughters of Harry’s sister (also below), and my cousin Fred’s daughter (below on the right) hung out with Mark's youngest son.

As for me, I get impatient with the clannishness, and I like to check out the people I didn’t know before. I’m terrible at parties if I don’t know anyone, but at this kind of event no one should really be a stranger. I also worry about folks who seem like outliers – the girlfriend of Harry’s daughter-in-law’s brother, for example – and I like to talk to them. I officiously designated myself to put together a family tree and get everyone to sign sheets with their addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses. So by the second day I had sorted out who everyone was and how they fit in. That helped a lot, because it made it easy to meet the people I’d never heard of before. And because everyone wanted copies of the tree and the contact list, they all ended up knowing who I was.

So I met some neat people. One of the folks I’d never heard of before – Harry’s sister’s son – used to work for the NYC parks department, and we knew people in common. He also knows lots about many issues that I’m interested in. We discussed Thomas Hoving’s term as parks commissioner, and how it related to the expansion of the Metropolitan Museum into Central Park. We talked about Christo’s first application to build The Gates in Central Park back in 1979, and why it was rejected. We talked about NYC water supply issues, and Hudson River Park redevelopment issues. Who knew that someone in my family was involved with all of this?

Edith, Harry’s first wife, had two nieces named Ruth and Elaine. I’d met them once in a while, but mostly knew them from my mom as “Ruth, who’s an interesting woman,” and “Elaine, who lived on top of a mountain in Oregon.” Ruth turns out to be an artist, living with her husband on Prince Street in lower Manhattan. We didn’t talk too much, but I hope I’ll see her when I’m in NY this winter. Elaine, who has been Elana for the past thirty years, left the mountain years ago to move to Salem Oregon, where she and her husband David are both in state government. Elaine talked about her parents, her father’s unfortunately protracted death, and how it affected family relations.

David works on environmental issues, so we talked about the different roles we play at work. I expect to be driving down the west coast next summer, and I hope I’ll see them again.

I shared a room with my niece, who is eleven. At first I don’t think she liked that idea, but it turned out to be fun. Unlike her parents, I didn’t make her go to sleep when she didn’t want to. The first night she stayed up till one doing her homework. At some point she said she was done except for one science question that she couldn’t do because she needed to know how many milliliters there were in a liter. When I told her, she hopped out of bed to finish it off. The next night, we didn’t even get back to our room till one, and then stayed up talking until half past two. She talked about her parents, and I amused her no end by imitating my sister nagging her to go to bed.

On Monday when the party ended I drove down to Philadelphia to stay with Harry’s son Mark and his wife Linda, as I had to be in that city the following day to visit a friend. Growing up, Mark’s brother (to the left) was “crazy Herbie,” and his sister Sandy was the cool cousin, but I have no recollections of Mark whatsoever. Maybe he was the normal one? Well, now he and his wife are both judges, and he and I had a really fun discussion about standards of evidence and how a jury is supposed to decide whether to hold someone responsible for the consequences of his or her actions if they could be due simply to chance. It’s basically a problem of making a decision in the face of incomplete information. To my way of thinking, you make the decision based on the probability that you’re right, but in a court the jury is supposed to actually know whether the person is guilty or not. Since information is never perfect in a court case – when it is perfect, the case is settled without going to trial because the outcome is obvious – Mark felt that juries could make judgments based on the karma they sense from the accused or the witnesses. Yipes, not my way of thinking about how court cases should be settled! Interesting, though.

The best part of the weekend was definitely the conversations about the family. Many of us have known each other all our lives, but we rarely talk about our differing perceptions of others in the family. Call it catty gossip if you like, but it was really interesting to hear how others in the family perceive those older than us, the relations among family members, and the traits that run through the family. Okay, okay, it was catty gossip – my mom talking to me about my cousins, kids talking about their parents, my cousins offering their impressions of my mom and my sister, and everyone discussing Harry, his long-deceased father Schmolka, his relationship with Edith, and his relationship with my aunt Lillian. Enlightening, though! And I hope I do see some of these people in New York this winter, or in Oregon next summer, or wherever else they happen to be.

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