Thursday, September 15, 2016

On the Death of an Estranged Family Member

My uncle, Joe Spinner, died yesterday, on his 84th birthday.  My mother called me to tell me the day before that her older brother was moved to hospice care in the end stages of cancer and was not expected to survive the week.  His wife, Hilda, could not come to the phone when my mother called, but my mother spoke to her nephew, who filled her in on much of the details.

As sad as it can be when anyone in your family dies, I struggle with my emotions. I hadn't seen Uncle Joe in a very long time; so long, in fact, that I can't remember when it was.  It was either when my older brother got married in 1989 or when my younger brother had his Bar Mitzvah, way back in 1977.  There may have been a family event in the middle there somewhere but I honestly cannot pinpoint the last time I saw him or spoke to him.

Growing up in New Jersey, my parents took my brothers and me one weekend every month up to Brooklyn to visit our grandparents, who lived a short distance away from each other in Seagate, a gated community in Coney Island. We'd spend lots of time visiting with our grandparents, and my dad's sister and her family who lived upstairs from her parents, and my mom's sister and her family, who lived right across the street from her parents.  But Uncle Joe lived in Howard Beach, probably a half hour's drive away from Seagate. I remember as kids seeing him and the family, with their two sons Jeffrey and Mitchell, occasionally when they came to Seagate, but I don't recall ever going to Howard Beach.  At major family gatherings -- Bar Mitzvah's, etc. -- they'd come to visit.

Honestly, I saw my cousins as strangers and didn't like them much.  Mitchell was actually nice and friendly but much younger, and Jeffrey was aggressive and a bit of a bully and we never really got along.  I don't recall conversations I may have had with my mother back then, but I know I didn't keep silent about my feelings for them.

When my parents moved us from New Jersey to California in 1977, visits with grandparents and other relatives went from monthly to annually, then to hardly at all.  My brothers and I were young adults and were beginning lives of our own out west.  I can count on two hands the number of times I saw my grandparents over the next 10-15 years, during which time all but one had passed away.

My mother had monthly conversations with Uncle Joe, trading off turns to share the expense of the long distance phone calls.  But I don't think I ever got on the phone to say hi to him.

After my maternal grandfather, Abe Spinner, passed in 1988, I guess his three children had some disagreements over his estate.  My aunt, the eldest and closest, took charge and was apparently pretty stingy with the assets.  That caused a fair amount of friction.  As she got older -- she's now 88 -- my mother and her drifted apart.  Joe, in the middle, took sides with his older sister, and my mother did not speak to either of them for years.

In a way, because I wasn't particularly close to Joe or his family, I can't say I feel at all deprived of a relationship with them because of how my mother handled her relationship with her brother.  I'm an adult with my own family and large set of relatives on Lisa's side.  I could have reached out, but I didn't and I have never particularly regretted it.  I feel some small desire to reach out to Hilda and my cousins, but what would I say? I guess I don't need to say anything in particular except hello and that I'm sorry for their loss and that I wish them well, but would I simply be doing what ought to be done or what I really want to do?  I'm not sure, and as I'm writing this in real time, I won't be making any sort of decision yet.

But Joe's death brings to light something that I haven't ever really faced: the lack of relationship among my relatives.  On my father's side, I'm in regular contact with his nieces and their parents.  But my paternal grandfather had nine siblings, all of them long gone.  I think I met three of them when I was young.  I went to a Bar Mitzvah of one cousin on that side when I was 13, purely because he came to mine and it was the right thing to do.  My paternal grandmother had three siblings, all of whom I knew well, and I saw their kids pretty regularly until we all grew up. Now we never speak or write, despite the ubiquity of Facebook and other social media.  I haven't even looked them up.  I wonder why that is?

On my mother's side, there was Joe's family, and her sister's family.  Her two kids were 6-10 years older than I was. Her son, Glenn, left the family more than 30 years ago because they refused to let him marry the (non-Jewish) girl he loved.  He moved to Michigan and severed all contact with his parents, not even coming to his father's funeral.  Only his sister, Bonnie, remained close all these years, and I am friends with her on Facebook.  I never met any of my maternal grandparents' siblings -- or at least I don't remember meeting them -- except for one, my sweet Aunt Irene, who lived in the downstairs apartment from my grandmother, her sister.

In the movies you always see stories of tight-knit Jewish families, cousins going for generations, all of whom live within a few blocks of each other, or with each other, and all of whom get together for every family event. It didn't happen in my clan. All but one of my grandparents were Eastern European immigrants who came to the U.S. either right before or right after World War I.  Some went to South America, in fact.  By the time I came into the world, they had all apparently drifted apart or were never really all that close. Squabbles and other circumstances sent us all in different directions. And with Joe's death, I wonder now what would have been different had we all been more like that iconic Jewish family.

Now, my two sons know and frequently visit with first, second, and third cousins on both sides of their family -- Olivia, Tori, Elle, Max, Ethan, Juliana and Josh from my side, and Ben, Allegra, Gabriella, and Alexander from Lisa's side -- and even have relationships with cousins in far-flung places like Capetown, Sydney, and Perth.  My cousins and I have managed to create that tight-knit clan out of our somewhat neglected family tree.  And that's something I truly appreciate and plan to nurture for as long as I can.

Rest in Peace, Uncle Joey.
Love, your nephew, Eric

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