My Bronx Tale
It’s been 20 years since I last saw my cousin Mel. If weever had a personal conversation, I don’t recall it. We keep in touchvia our parents, rumor substituting for facts in our extended familylife. Mel’s father, Ben, died a few years ago; I never even sent himcondolences.
A few weeks ago, I picked up the phone at theoffice. It was Mel, inviting me to his wedding.
“I want the whole family there,” Mel said. “Myfirst marriage, we eloped. I’m doing it right this time.”
Mel and I are second cousins, the third generationof what was once proudly called the Neswit Cousins Club. I know thatcousins clubs these days are enjoying a kind of nostalgia, withrelatives eagerly getting together for old time’s sake. But not in myfamily, where few of my cousins responded to Mel’s call.
Sam Neswit, the patriarch, was my mother’smother’s brother. My grandmother emigrated first, then brought Samover from Odessa. Sam grew wealthy in the laundry business, cleaningthe detached white collars of New York’s professional class. When Iwas growing up, I heard about a land across the bridge, where richJewish girls had so many dresses in their closets, they gave theextras away. This was the Bronx, near the Grand Concourse. My motheryearned to live there, near Uncle Sam and his three daughters.
“When they made a soup, they used the wholechicken,” my mother told me. “When we made soup, we used thebones.”
The Neswit Cousins Club met twice a year — anadults-only dinner in the winter, rotating through each other’shomes, and a summer picnic on Long Island. Mom would come home fromthe dinners disconsolate, with stories about the beautiful Neswitdaughters and their children, what they were wearing, who they weremarrying, how their homes were decorated.
“They were born with golden spoons in theirmouths,” said Mom, improving on the cliché.
Throughout the year, the bickering among therelatives grew stronger. Although membership in the Neswit CousinsClub was automatic by birth, acceptance in it was another matter.There were “A lists” and “B lists” and seating charts at familyfunctions based on who was not speaking to whom. There were fightsabout money and clothing, and imagined slights over who didn’t returna phone call. The phone would ring, and our whole house would turnupside down with news about the latest aggravation.
My mother protested that they loved each other,and now I can see that, in a way, they did. At the summer picnic,while I lay out on the blanket, swatting flies and reading novels,and Robert and Mel told off-color jokes, my mother pulled her lawnchair close to Uncle Sam and his second wife, the gracious Jennie. Isaw her trying to pick up, through his exhalations, the secrets ofAmerican financial success. It was Sam, and his grand vision of theirfuture, that they all loved.
One day, my mother said, I too would be an adultmember of the Neswit Cousins Club. One day, I would be married andhost an adults-only dinner in my own home. I imagined myself makingsalami roll-ups and tiny knishes for Elliot and Marty, Lorraine andReva. The Neswit Cousin Club was eternal, and nonnegotiable. Withoutit, I had no yicchus, no family stature or credibility. I might aswell be an orphan.
Of all the second cousins, only Reva carried onthe custom. When she got married, she and Harry actually hosted anadult dinner. Hearing about it in California, I was amazed. Was itour turn already? But whatever happened that evening, the traditiondidn’t stick. Looking back, I think we lacked the glue. Mel andsister Janet, Robert and Marty, Elliot and Barbara, Reva and Sunny,Lorraine and Andy, and my brother, Alan, and I had none of the senseof indebtedness, to our history and to each other, that kept mymother’s generation in touch. Uncle Sam had given my mother her firstadult job, in the laundry, and her first look at herself as someonedestined for more than piecework. We had given each other nothingclose to that.
Why did the Cousins Club end? I asked Mom.
“It self-destructed,” she said. “A death here, adivorce there….”
In my wedding picture, taken 24 years ago, there’sa photo of 28 Neswit cousins, the adult generation; Uncle Sam sitsnext to me, flanked by his Jennie. He had the force and bearing ofArmin Mueller-Stahl. He was holding the family together even at age80.
Last month, Mel stood under the chuppah with hisbeautiful Debra. The family portrait had shrunk to 16 of us,including three of Sam’s great-grandchildren and a grandniece.
“You know, if all the cousins had come, we wouldhave had 60 more of us,” Mel said. It was a big if.
Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of TheJewish Journal. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. All rightsreserved by author.
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Read a previous week’s column byMarlene Adler Marks:
September 12, 1997 — Of Goddesses andSaints
August 22, 1997 — Who is Not a Jew
August 15, 1997 — A LegendaryFriendship
July 25, 1997 — A Perfect Orange
July 18, 1997 — News of Our Own
July 11, 1997 — Celluloid Heroes
July 4, 1997 — Meet theSeekowitzes
June 27, 1997 — The Facts of Life
June 20, 1997 — Reality Bites
June 13, 1997 — The Family Man