I hadn’t seen my cousin in 30 years.
The last time we saw each other we toasted marshmallows on the beach – I was five, brown and bowlegged, and she was 10, fair and willowy.
We didn’t have anything to say to each other then because, five years is a lot when one of you has all her baby teeth and the other one wears braces.
It was fourth of July – I know this only because I remember we had a picture, long lost, where we’re all wearing red, white, and blue.
I held a flag.
I watched her grow older and more beautiful each year through her Bat Mitzvah pictures, and school pictures, and then a senior portrait that her parents sent.
This was before the internet, when the mailman would shlep a sack to our door — birthday cards, Hanukkah, occasionally a letter for no reason other than “hello.”
But our parents were close – they were like brother and sister, even though they were cousins. They shared a house on Fairfield Avenue with a backyard and a plum tree, and a train set in the living room, and a basement where their mothers made plum jam.
But we only met once, that summer 30 years ago.
The first time I heard her voice since I was five was right after they took my mother’s body out of the bedroom on a bright sunny day in January.
I think a lot of people expected a phone call by then – it wasn’t a secret that she was dying. But still, you’re never ready for those words, even if you brace yourself, you still cringe when the phone rings, you still gasp when her daughter says “she’s gone.”
So that was the first time we had spoken in 20 years. Her voice was higher than I had imagined – I liked how my name fit in her mouth “Sah-rah” — that East Coast sound, long and ringing, unlike the nasal California patois. “Sah-rah” — a voice that rang of high rises and brownstone, of supper clubs, of patent leather shoes.
We emailed. We spoke. I would work her name into conversations with the rest of the family on the West Coast — a family she hadn’t seen or spoken with since that summer on the beach.
We both love vintage coats. And red lipstick. Although she can pull it off and I can’t.
She’s got humour like a gin martini.
She understands history and its importance.
And my family has shrunk.
My mother is dead. So is one aunt. So are my grandparents. I live on the other side of the world – far away from what’s left of my family — from my dad and his wife, and my Aunt Caren and my Uncle Robert, from my cousins, and from the other side of my family, too — my dad’s people, who are also mine.
But this is it – what’s left of a history, a legacy of poets, pioneers who left Poland on a leaky ship, a life in Chicago where cousins sent food baskets to one another through open windows and a rope, a history over Sabbath dinners, relocation, and loss of communication, this is what’s left – these scraps of life…
So just a few days ago, deep in the heart of New York City. In the middle of Penn Station, loud and clanging, people walking, coats brushing, the brisk air syphoned in through stairwells, and from underground. I tried not to cry while I waited for her:
Our great grandparents came to America through New York.
And now it would be our port, too.
And there in Penn station, we pulled our scraps together — her stories from New Jersey, mine from LA — and we sat there, my cousin and I, over bagels, we shared the stories we had heard.
I had seen pictures of her – yes. But I didn’t realise how much she looks like my mom.
And when she put her hands on the table, I realised that her hands were the same as mine.