Sad Stories of My Cousins

Two days ago I heard that one of my few surviving cousins had a hemorrhagic  stroke. Of course I’m pulling and praying for him, even though the past 50 years have somewhat strained our relationship. It’s sad when these things happen, especially when we were as close to each other as siblings.  Together all the time with lots of shared activities, not to mention shared family  I’m not going to retell the whole long story but my cousin was never happy as a Jew so he became something else.  That’s pretty hard for Jews to swallow.  I wonder now, as he fights to recover, if there’s any element of Judaism that he discovers within himself. A discarded prayer or the Shema.  His daughter did agree to let my husband recite a misheberach for him.  I don’t know much about his other religion, B’hai, but I am comforted that it is a tolerant faith and that she did not oppose the prayer being recited in the synagogue.  Who can understand these things? And we never asked a rabbi whether it’s permissible to recite a prayer for a former Jew.  Is it?  I assume so.

So I started to think about my other cousins.  There are two, plus my sister, who are younger than I. And, happily there’s one quite a few years older than I.    Wishing them to 120.  In good health.

The others are all gone.  And none of them went without a huge battle. Horrible struggles.

There was my cousin Lee.  He was just 3 months my senior so we really were constantly together.  I’ve reported on these pages how he whacked my sandcastles when we were 3, smashed them to smithereens.  In return I whacked his head with a spoon, not exactly to smithereens but enough so that our shared aunt took me by the ear to the local constable, Sam the Cop, and threatened me as I whimpered by her side, to spending the next several years in reform school.  Kids today don’t know what reform school is.  I didn’t either to be sure but i knew it was very very awful and scary and that I wouldn’t like it at all. Luckily for me that 74 years later I can still feel that euphoric sigh of relief that I’d spend the night in my own bed and not in that dreaded reform school..

So Lee and I had lots of experiences together.  His life was more dramatic than mine since he was adopted at birth and his parents lived in fear forever that his biological mother would come looking for him and take him back.  They didn’t tell him he was adopted until he was 21.  Until then he never had a clue.  Really. He didn’t know.  Whenever a neighbor in the small town where we spent our summers would ask me or my sister which of us was adopted, usually when we were walking around town with Lee, one of us would always claim to be the adopted one.  He never caught on.

In fact his biological mother did actually come looking for him when he was 2.  She had her facts a little twisted and saw the older cousin, the now former Jew, playing in the back yard and, realizing he, at 4, was too big to be her child, imagined she had things wrong.  She resurfaced many decades later when my aunt and uncle were long gone.  She and her never forgotten first born had a reunion and she died shortly after.

And a few years later he got sick and became my hero.  I never knew the guts and courage that he had.  All those years together and it was in dying that I saw the man that he was.  Remarkable, stoic, and tough.  He became my inspiration, not merely my cousin and friend.

I had another cousin who also showed her true grit.  She had a rough life.  She was four years older than I but we spent a lot of time together and felt very close.  She married young and it was one of the first weddings I had ever attended.  Maybe now that we’re all so sophisticated I wouldn’t cherish such a wedding but then, as a 14 year old, I was carried away.   A huge curtained heart opened at the top of a very ornate gilt stairway;  the band played the beautiful and schmaltzy Love is a Many Splendored Thing as she solemnly marched to meet her groom.  I was so moved that I remember it in every sentimental detail.  Alas, the wedding was not a predictor of good things to come.  Two children were healthy but the chatan became terminally ill and was dead in his early 30’s leaving my cousin a widow with two very very young children.  Somehow she did what needed to be done and raised her kids.  Then she fell in love again and had a few decent years when husband sheni became ill and died in his prime.

When my cousin herself was diagnosed with a deadly illness she , by now too realistic about life’s tragedies, carried on with courage until the end.  She was dead in her mid 60’s; In the past three years she became a great grandmother several times over.  I wish she could have lived to enjoy those beautiful children.

My cousin Bobby lived upstairs from us in Newark.  I guess by now I’ve forgiven him but when we were kids, his family had a tv before we did.  I used to go upstairs to watch Howdy Doody, my all time favorite show at age about 6.  Bobby, seeing how frantic I could get if I missed the show started actually locking the door so I couldn’t get in.  In our house on Aldine Street doors were never locked.  Finally I got the message,  Howdy was not to be my show anymore.  So for years I was mad at Bobby. .

I guess we had made up when the phone call from Newark to our summer place in Parksville took place.  My mother got off the phone shaking.  Bobby had been diagnosed with polio.  Two days earlier he had polished my nails.  My mother spent the summer in constant dread, even more so than the usual summer fear of polio that marked the childhoods of my generation.

Luckily I did not catch it and Bobby recovered without any long lasting effects.  Not so with his neighbor M D who became severely disabled but still managed to make a meaningful life out of a very challenging condition. She died long before her time, a tragedy indeed.

Bobby and I resumed our cousinship and, in his 50’s, he succumbed to lung cancer.  All of us cousins smoked.  Every single one.  We thought we were cool when what we really were was stupid.

I have more cousins to talk about.  Another day.

About the Author
Rosanne Skopp is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of fourteen, and great-grandmother of two. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and travels back and forth between homes in New Jersey and Israel. She is currently writing a family history.