This past Thanksgiving I traveled to Detroit, a city I’d never seen, to meet my father’s last surviving brother for the first time. He is 92, I am 60, my father has been dead for 20 years and his other 2 brothers and sister are also long gone. I never met any of them, nor any of my myriad first cousins on my father’s side. The reason: a family feud over $200 back in the 1930s.
My father and his brothers were all extremely poor back then. They came to New York City from Detroit together to make their fortune, but wound up more destitute than they’d been when they had arrived. They were reduced to selling fruit on the street to survive. My father never spoke about the feud, but my mother claimed that my grandfather and my father’s brothers took all his belongings and went back to Detroit, leaving him in New York with nothing. Another version of the story is that my father loaned them $200 before they left that they never repaid.
Barney, the brother I just met, told me that the final rift took place in the 1940s or maybe early 1950’s when my parents discovered that Barney and Sidney, the brothers who returned to Detroit, had gone into business together, done very well for themselves, and subsequently lived in comfortable circumstances, yet still had never repaid the $200. According to Barney, my mother wrote a letter asking them for $5,000 for a down payment on a house. A whiz at math, my mom had figured out that the $200 with interest would have appreciated to about that much. She wrote that since they had nice houses, she and my father should have one too. In response, they wrote a nasty letter which Barney regrets to this day, basically telling my parents to get lost. He and Sidney had taken care of their father and mother into their old age. They resented the fact that my dad never took an interest in his ailing parents, and refused to help with their care.
It was eerie to look into Barney’s face, the face of someone who resembled my long dead father, and instead of the sour, nasty person my parents had portrayed, there sat a sweet, lovely man who was still haunted by that long ago feud. I asked him about my father, what kind of man he was, and he said my dad was always a queer duck, not very communicative, that he was angry and resentful and no one in the family knew what to make of him. That sounded about right-my father spent his life being depressed and withdrawn. However, I had been indoctrinated that he was the victim of the family feud, that he was an innocent who had been taken advantage of by his crass, materialistic father and brothers. In reality my father was the black sheep of the family. His brothers all were successful and became wealthy contractors. He was the artist, the dreamer, the one who couldn’t keep a job.
When my grandfather died, Barney explained, his final request was to see his son, my father, one last time. My father flew to Detroit from New York, walked into the hospital room and, without taking off his hat or coat or sitting down, said a quick goodbye. He then turned around and took a cab to the airport and flew back home. My cousin Ellen
still remembers that day. She was desperate to meet my father, so she got all dressed up and waited, fruitlessly.. She felt desolate when she learned he had gone back to the airport without seeing her. It seemed impossible to her that she had an uncle that she couldn’t even meet, let alone get to know
I am an only child who desperately wanted a big family. Growing up, I felt lonely and deprived, envying friends with large, contentious families who fought but remained close. I married very late in life and never had children. My mother’s death six years ago, fifteen years after the death of my father, left me terribly bereft. Despite our often explosive arguments, she was the only family member I’d ever been close to and I was extremely devoted to her.
I decided to search for my father’s family. With little effort I plugged his last name, Katzman ,and Detroit, into the internet White Pages and voila, about three Katzmans turned up, all in the same community. It turned out that Katzman was a fairly unusual name-at least in Detroit-and all the Detroit Katzmans were my family members. From there I started calling cousins. I arranged to spend some time with Ellen, my wonderful cousin who told me the story of wanting to meet my father. I found out about my father’s family who, as it turned out, were just the kind of clan I’d been longing for. There were lots of cousins, close and loving despite different backgrounds and interests and having moved to far flung parts of the country.. They’d grown up together in Detroit and that was what bound them-a childhood together, memories that couldn’t be replaced.
After my marriage broke up a year and a half ago I wanted to meet my family more than ever, so I went to Detroit for Thanksgiving. There I met another charming cousin, Jane, with whom I had a lot in common, and two aunts, in addition to Barney. They were thrilled to meet me at long last, and kept telling me how beautiful I was and how much I looked like my father. I felt proud to be part of such a charismatic and successful clan. However, they were strangers and would basically remain so. There was no replacing all those years that we never knew each other, all those years that we could have spent holidays and summers together, all those years that we could have stayed in touch. They are a tightly-knit family-I will always be an outsider. This makes me unutterably sad.
I’m dating a man now who is going through a divorce and has an only child. He has a brother he dislikes intensely and a sister with whom he rarely speaks because they had an argument about some trivial matter. I’ve been pressuring him to mend fences with his siblings-that otherwise his daughter will never get to know her cousins, that she needs a family when he and her mother are gone. He doesn’t understand because unlike me and his daughter, he has siblings, even though he isn’t close to them. I can’t convey to him the emptiness of having no one to share your past with as an adult, no family who claims you as theirs.
People who do have families are often annoyed or angered by them, because they don’t have anything in common , or they don’t approve of each other’s lifestyles, or they don’t live up to some imagined Norman Rockwell ideal. What they don’t realize is that they need to hold on to that family for the sake of their kids if not themselves. Painful though it is, parents need to project themselves into the future and imagine their childrens’ lives when they’re gone. Who is going to be family to your kids when you’re not there anymore? Where are they going to go on Thanksgiving? Who are they going to invite to their weddings, bar mitzvahs? Blood relatives are special, irreplaceable, and must be nurtured and treasured, or we lose our past, our history, our uniqueness in the world.