Tiny Coconut

I have things.

Friday, August 11, 2006


When I got off the plane at JFK on Wednesday night (yes, just hours before all hell broke loose at airports worldwide...and you must know how thrilled I am to be getting back on an airplane on Tuesday with two thirsty children and nothing liquid in tow), my mother announced that the very first man to hand me a paycheck some (gulp) 28 years ago had passed away the night before. My aunt has worked for him for, oh, I have to think it's been almost 40 years or so, maybe more. And so, even though I probably hadn't seen him in decades, I've heard about him often, and about his daughters--especially his youngest, Tracy, who used to work with me in his CPA office during tax seasons, starting when we were both around 14 years old. Seeing a grown-up Tracy today--in her early 40s, like me, but looking just as she did when she was 16, sorta like me--was bizarre and really, really nice, if there can be 'nice' in the death of an 83-year-old man who was in the office the day before he died so unexpectedly, and who was really about the sweetest, gentlest guy around, with a great sense of humor. Rest well, Howard Wolf.

One of the people in attendance today was my mother's cousin (my second cousin, if you like to follow those convoluted relationship charts). I've always loved Richard; always felt really comfortable around him, despite the fact (or perhaps because of the fact) that he teases me mercilessly. At some point, he made some kind of crack about how neither of us would be able to understand what the rabbi was saying, and I mentioned how we joined a temple last year, and how I was slowly (very slowly) but surely becoming interested in, if not yet fully comfortable with, Judaism. He laughed and said something about having gone in the opposite direction, and how that would have been such a source of discomfort to his Orthodox parents [my great-aunt and -uncle] and grandmother [my great-grandmother].

"Your what parents?"

"You didn't know that?" he asked. "My mother kept a fully Kosher household, and my grandmother was as Orthodox as they come."

"But...but..." I looked helplessly at my mother. Was it possible that my own grandmother, with whom I'd spent innumerable days and weekends as a child, and who lived until I was in my 20s, had been an Orthodox Jew and I'd never even known it?

Turns out that Grandma (mine) was the only one of my great-grandmother's kids not to take along with her any of the orthodoxy in which she'd been raised. "I have no idea how that came about," my mother commented. "It wasn't even like she was the youngest." (In fact, she was the fifth of six children, all of whom are gone now; the last died just a few years back, when she was in her 90s.)

That was better--the idea of having missed so much of my grandmother's essence would have totally freaked me out. But still. Uncle Jack (Richard's father) had been like a grandfather to me; he was very close to his sister (my grandmother), and my actual grandfather had passed away six or more years before I was born. And Aunt Tootsie, his wife? Orthodox? But all that time I spent with her when I was little; all those times I went with her to the school at which she worked as a secretary. How did I not know? How could I have lived in a world of so little religion, and not noticed that they lived in a world full of it? My only memory of Judaism that involves my grandmother is of her annual break-fasts after Yom Kippur. Sure, I knew that all the aunts and uncles walked from synagogue to Grandma's apartment, but that was it. I didn't know why. And I didn't think too much about it, especially since Grandma didn't go with them, at least not when I was old enough to be aware of who was where, when.

It's a little thing, really. And yet in many ways, it's not little at all. It's just this idea that this part of my family had a whole secret-to-me-but-not-really-secret-at-all life, and I missed the whole damned thing. Where *was* I? Where was my head? How is it possible for someone to be so embedded in your heart that you still think of them almost daily (I have a picture of Baby Me and Uncle Jack in the stairwell leading up to my bedroom, and so see him all the time), and yet, in the end, you find out you didn't really know them at all? What else did I miss?

[And this, my friends, is after only Day One of my attempt to go through *14 boxes* of my old letters and notebooks and memorabilia from various periods of my life so that my mother and stepdad don't have to move them when the sale of their house is finalized in just over two months. It's going to get maudlin around here, I fear. Death and disconnect. You've been warned.]

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