Author's note: This isn't really a book.... I just figured it was too long for the regular memoir section!
DeathJust in case you, whoever is reading this, think that my life is easy, think that I am one of those vapid girls that thinks of nothing but boys and make up, you’re wrong. In two and a half years, I had nine relatives die. When I walk around the school moping, and you think to yourself, judging me once again, that I’m just being a moody school girl with no friends and no life, there’s usually a reason. I miss them, each and every one of them. I loved them, whether I remember them from my own experiences, or from the shreds of my history that I have gathered from my family over the years.
First, in 1999, one month before my parents left to adopt my brother from Russia, my PopPop died. He too young, only sixty three, and a heart attack left my mommom, mother, aunts and uncles in a state of dysfunctional, disheveled disrepair. I have one distinct memory of him, though I remember hardly anything about him. I was only two and a half at that point. I remember sitting on his lap in the recliner he loved so much, and I remember him laughing. It was contagious, his laugh. He smoked for much of his life, so he had one of those low, raspy laughs that sounded like it came right from his toes. His belly would shake, bouncing me up and down, and I remember that I would laugh, my high-pitched giggle mingling with his low-pitched roar. I don’t remember the day he died, or the day I realized that I would never again sit on his lap and feel his long beard tickle my head as he laughed at things I didn’t yet understand.
And then there was PopPop George. I recall his house more than anything else about him. His living room, specifically. I don’t remember the color of the paint on the walls, the number of windows in the room, the color of the carpet, or even if there was a carpet. I recollect one particular cabinet, a dark wooden one, on the same side of the room as the recliner, the beat up arm chair that PopPop George loved so much. I would always rummage through the depths of the cavern of wonders--toys and books and games and movies and puzzles. I would select something, oftentimes a stuffed animal Curious George. I would climb up his knees, onto his lap, and hold the toy or game or puzzle or book and I would play pretend, content whether we talked or not. I could be there still, having a conversation. Now I would be too big to sit on his lap, so I would sit on the floor, gazing up at him, not caring how much time would pass, just sitting there, retaining the stories and love that would flow from his lips. I would ask him, for I’ve always been dying to know, what it was like being one of nineteen children. What it was like being farmed out to live with your older sister as soon as you could work. What it was like watching his children, then his grandchildren, and then his great-grandchildren grown up before his very eyes. Anything I could possibly think of to ask and for him to answer, for if he could answer, it would mean that he was still alive.
Grandpa Moishe emigrated from Belarus, a country on the outskirts of Russia, to Ellis Island. The year was 1925, and the ship was the Rotterdam, part of the Holland American line. Persecution of the Jews basically forced him out of his country. His father, Baruch, came over to America first, and later sent money to provide for Grandpa Moishe’s passage. At Ellis Island, his name was changed from Simonovich to Simon, the name my family has now kept for eighty-five years. I didn’t get to see him very often, but I do remember the last time I visited him in a nursing home. By that point, he was already very ill, and so he was asleep for most of the visit. We wheeled him into the courtyard, a flowery place, as I remember it, well-kempt with those paving bricks all around and stone benches for the visitors to sit on. I began to sing a song in Hebrew, “Hinei matovu mah na’yim, shevet al-chim gam yachad,” and as I began the refrain again, he began to sing with me, with his heavily accented voice. My father told me that it was one of the only times he was with it the entire visit. I only wish I remembered the singing, his voice, his face.
Uncle Herb was, in my mother’s words, the Halter Reunion King. The Halters are my mother’s mother’s side of the family. He lived for it. He built the Cohansey Store, and my family has always called it Uncle Herb’s Store, even though it has been closed for almost my entire life. He was also one of the nineteen children. Because my PopPop was farmed out, he didn’t grow up with my uncle Herb. They were nearly twenty years apart. They were more like cousins than brothers. Until they stood side by side and smiled.
I can’t count how many people have told me I was too young to remember it--to remember them. But I do. I remember the party--cousin Kenny was on crutches. It’s funny, because that’s all I remember ever calling him. Cousin Kenny. He was sitting on the couch in a pretty room, one that’s fancy and makes me think of country clubs and bathrooms with couches in them. A group of kids, all little, were sitting on the floor in front of him, a coffee table separating us. A glass bowl of jelly beans sat on the light colored wooden tabletop, and he kept reaching out and grabbing handfuls. He would toss up the handful, and then stand, teetering, on his uninjured led, swerving his head around to catch the small candies in his mouth. The ones he missed would rain down on us, causing us to screech and scatter momentarily, only to congregate once more in the exact same spot to watch cousin Kenny’s magnificent display.
Uncle Arthur was a dancer. He and his wife would whirl around the dance floor, and all I had to do was watch them to be content. I wanted to be like them, Aunt Susan’s dress swishing around with each step, Uncle Arthur’s leather shoes blurring with the speed of his dancing feet. I remember the day Uncle Arthur and cousin Kenny died as if it were yesterday. We were visiting friends in Great Falls, Virginia. The windows were open, and for fall, it was a nice day. As I recall, we were playing a board game, when the neighbor came out on his deck in nothing but a tank top and a pair of boxer shorts. He looked pained, and he asked the adults if they had heard what had happened. They said that they hadn’t, and he told them that they had to turn on the TV. He turned away, and he slid open the glass door that led back into the confinements of his house. My mom called out, “Can the kids watch?” And the man shook his head. The date was September 11, 2001. Both my uncle and cousin worked in the World Trade Center. Both perished on that fateful day.
Uncle Ted and Aunt Ida had one of those houses that just breathed rusticity. There were shelves along every wall, and there was stained wood everywhere you looked. The floors, the shelves, the rafters. There were things sitting on the rafters, stuffed animals, carving, old metal tools, shadow boxes. Their house, smelling of dust and decomposing wood, was a treasure trove. The one day I clearly remember at their house, Uncle Ted stood on a wooden stool and grabbed something down from the rafters. He handed it to Aunt Ida, who sat in a comfortable love seat. She then handed the item to me. It was a little figurine, a bear wearing a dress. The dress was a green jumper, and it wore a blue shirt underneath. The body was stuffed, but the head and the hands were brown porcelain. I have that doll still, and the day I got it, I named it Ida.
I’ve told you a little something about Binka already, but he has to be included. He was the person who ended the breakout of grief in my family. After he had been moved to Bridgeton, I got to see him more often. I used to beg my parents to not make me go to his house. As I grew older, his hugs started to reek rather than comfort. His house seemed to be less of an incredible wonderland and more of a cluttered wasteland. I wish I hadn’t resisted so much then. Now it weighs heavily on my conscience. The last time I remember visiting his apartment, I saw a teddy bear in a mug on a shelf. The teddy bear had a pair of spectacles on, and I thought it was just the cutest thing in the world. I pleaded with him to give it to me, but he just smiled and said, “Someday.” My birthday was coming up, after all. I never saw him again after that day. I have that bear. I got it when we were cleaning out the house after his death. I miss him each day when I look at the shelf above my light switch and see the little bear smiling at me through wire rimmed glasses.