“It’s not like I could forbid you, or anything,” my uncle says to me, head turned in profile. We are driving around the San Fernando Valley, on freeways between Chatsworth and Granada Hills, in the Prius. I used this car to take my driving test in Winnetka, another suburb in the valley, all those years ago, and scuffed it as I pulled away from the curb, new license in hand. He never minded. The scuff is still there, and we joke about it sometimes.
“You’re an adult,” he reminds me, “so I can’t tell you what decisions to make. That said,” and now he takes an eye off the road to peek at me, while I look straight at him, “I’d really prefer you didn’t see her. Like, at all. Yeah. Don’t.”
I sigh and turn to look out the window. It’s raining in California, which really isn’t fair, because I’m only here for a weekend and it’s already cold in New York City. I always shiver in the cold. I spent high school in Los Angeles, and I’m always losing hats and scarves, forgetting to add that extra layer; I was banking on significant sunshine in L.A., enough to last me through the coming New York winter. I wasn’t expecting rain. It falls in tendrils down the windowpanes of the Prius as my uncle speaks to me about his ex-wife, my aunt—my ex-aunt?—whom he recently divorced.
He tells me more about their relationship, how he has tried to be the good guy in this situation. I believe him, here in his car. I don’t doubt anything he tells me, really, as we’ve always been close. But I’ve always been close to my aunt, too. In all my baby pictures, it’s the two of them smushed up against my cheeks, not just my uncle. She bought me a necklace when I got into Barnard, a ropey brown chain with crystals and a hamsa charm. She was always there, at family events, family drama, family camping trips, family family family.
I don’t know what happened in their marriage, to be sure. And I don’t want to take any sides in this—it’s their drama, not mine.
“She just doesn’t deserve you,” my uncle says. And here, I have to sigh deeper.
My therapist calls families our own little microcosms. In this wide world, we most often define families as the people we come from, the ancestry we follow, the bloodlines that match the ones that run through our own purple veins. My cousins across the Thanksgiving table share a quarter of my gene pool. And I love them, I really do. When we hang out, it’s always fun and easy and perfect.
My aunt has always been a part of this, the things that make someone family. Froyo trips on weekends and jokes around the buffet table. But with time and age comes the realization of the reality of family: the drama and the politics that exist beyond uncontestable bloodlines.
I’m lucky that my immediate family and many members of my extended family are always there for me, supportive and consistent, despite the distances between where we all live. On one side, my uncle with the Prius’ side, my family is loving and dependable. Most of them live within a few miles of of my grandparents’ house in Los Angeles, where my father and uncle grew up. I am lucky that I can say they are important figures in my life.
But the other side—my mother’s—is a whirlwind of nasty emails and a court case.
I try to ignore this drama when I can, but I haven’t seen my cousins on that side in 10, maybe 15 years. It’s strange having them out there in the world, growing up and getting married, disconnected from me.
It’s odd that I’m old enough that there are people I haven’t seen in 15 years. It’s odd that they are my family. It’s odd that there is family I will never get to know, whole lives of relatives whose secrets I will never get told, by no choice or choosing of my own.
I think about my other grandmother—the one from New York, not L.A.—in all of this. My Bobby, whom I never quite said goodbye to. I visited her gravestone a few weeks ago on a clear fall day on Long Island. On the drive over from Manhattan, in a Lexus now, my friend and I sat and listened to Leonard Cohen’s deathbed album and watched the bushy, bright fall trees fly past outside the windowpane. Framed in sunshine, not rain. We were heading to a mutual friend’s wedding.
My friend asked me: “If you are at a crossroads and see a wedding party and a funeral procession, which one do you follow?” I would choose the wedding party. Jewish tradition says to follow the funeral. Today, the graveyard was a convenient stop along the way to a wedding—so we did both.
The graveyard was expansive, well kept, very Jewish. I could only imagine the ghosts at night, playing poker on the heavy gravestones, running to shul (synagogue) to pray on Friday nights. There was only one hearse at the graveyard that day and the older ladies in the bathroom seemed quite chipper, making me think that the deceased lived a long, good life.
I ventured into the graveyard with a map that an attendant had handed me. The directions to my grandmother’s grave were marked in highlighter and ballpoint pen. My friend stayed some 20 steps behind, tactfully, as I approached the family plot for the first time.
The whole family was there, lying together underground. It felt familiar. It was my first time seeing my great-grandma Ricky since I was one, when she died. She who lived in Brooklyn and visited the sick in hospitals, who planted gardens, who had a radio show called “Gemara Kreplach”—a Jewish text and a noodle dish. But what she bantered about and who she bantered with on that show, I’ll never know.
To her left: her husband, Oscar, who was a photography whiz with the camera and darkroom. My grandfather, Irwin, was there too. He who died in his sleep when I was four. He who was a Mets fan and accountant, one who survives in the stitches of photographs, but is otherwise absent in my memory.
Then my Bobby. She lived in Rockland County and loved to read. Her house was full of the knickknacks and fabrics—the kind that I seek out, now, in thrift stores that collect things looking to be found. Sometimes, I wonder what it would be like if she was around, if she would have read the books on my syllabi with me. What she would think of the existential wormholes in my postmodern lit curriculum?
My knowledge of each of these family members is furnished with only the barest details of their lives. How I could have gotten to know Bobby, as a student at this school—a grandmother living near the city. A smart listener to poke holes in my arguments. She was one of three women in her law class at Brooklyn College. (She’d wanted to go to Barnard, but her parents thought it inappropriate for a Brooklyn girl.)
She gave me a locket with golden birds and two emeralds on it on the eve of my bat mitzvah. I wear it a lot, try to remember her. But memories aren’t archive-quality photographs, and mental Polaroids tend to fade. I wish my memory could do more.
I’ve heard people mention an abortion, one in the 1940s. It was never spoken of again—but what happened to that secret? I suppose it died with her, though I wish and wish it could be one of the stories I knew to tell. In the distance between us, both in geography and in time, we missed out on our chance to listen to one another.
At the graveyard, though, I was happy to say hello.
We left for the wedding.
There, we all danced for the new couple, and in the circles we spun around each other I was grateful in a happy-heart way that families are always building. I was grateful that new photographs are taken, even when the wedding photographer is too intrusive on the dance floor.
I decided that the memory of my aunt shouldn’t be frozen in a photograph, set to disappear, not while she is around and willing to hang out. You lose so much more than you gain—the stories, the secrets, the person to love—when you cut the person out completely.
While I danced, I reminded myself to smile for photos, to speak to my relatives, to call my living grandmother more often. To connect with the family that is still here, alive and kicking and available for phone calls.
Back in the Prius in L.A.: My uncle asks me not to see my aunt. I am an adult, he reminds me repeatedly, so the choice is ultimately mine. The car window is splayed with water splashed from the other cars zooming through puddles. Later, when I tell him about my decision to see my aunt, to take new photos to supplement those baby pictures we’re all smiling in, it looks as if he almost starts to cry. But we keep driving, and he hugs me goodbye.
The rain pours down on the freeways of this coast, and in a few days I’ll be returning to New York City. I’ll see my aunt soon.
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