When Debbie Friedman died four years ago, the whole Jewish world stood up and paid attention.
I’d been paying attention to Debbie my whole life, because she was nine when I was born and our mothers are sisters. That first year after she died, pictures kept showing up on Facebook, synagogues were singing her songs and newspapers were printing article after article.
Sometime during that year, I started posting pictures of my other cousins. It took me awhile to realize what I was doing and why. When I did, it was one of those head-slapping “DUH!” moments.
It happened again this weekend. Pictures of Debbie show up on my Facebook feed and people share their thoughts about how much they miss her. I want to yell, “Hey! I have other cousins, too! And they are very cool people!!!!” (Sometimes I wonder if Beethoven’s cousins felt that way, or Hildegarde of Bingen’s.)
Growing up, I had 15 first cousins. (Thirteen were on Mom’s side, two on Dad’s.) My sister Debby and I were the drop-dead youngest of Bubby & Zaydie’s 15 grandchildren, and the middle two of Grandma-Grandma’s four.
On Mom’s side, my favorites are Barbara (Debbie’s sister) and Chuck. Barbara became my favorite cousin when I was seven. When I was 18, a road trip with Chuck and his wife (also a cousin Barbara, but not Debbie’s sister) sealed his place in my Cousin Hall of Fame.
Barbara is Debbie’s oldest sister. She still refers to us as “the baby cousins.” She is fabulous, funny beyond funny, and has been married to Werner for almost 50 years. Debby and I were six and seven the summer they came to town after their wedding. They took us to the zoo, and the four of us spent the most glorious afternoon chasing chickens, petting goats and getting to know each other.
I made sure my daughters got to spend as much time as they could with them when they were kids. They love and adore Barbara and Werner as much as I do.
I also made sure my daughters got to spend as much time as they could with Chuck (whose father was Mom’s only brother). He is also married to a Barbara. They met at a wedding; his sister – my cousin Dianne – married Barbara’s cousin Larry. They were 20 when they married, and have been married almost as long as Barb & Werner. Chuck got an associate degree in engineering technology and went to work for New York State the same year he got married. It wasn’t long before he was doing the same work the full-on engineers were doing, but at a fraction of the salary because he didn’t have a bachelor’s degree.
So, with three young children at home, Chuck went back to school. It took him six years, and he got his bachelor’s degree in engineering the same day my sister got hers in journalism, both from Syracuse University. It was a great day.
My cousins Dianne, Brad, Hal, Cindi, Marc, Mark and Cheryl are bright, interesting, accomplished and have made good lives for themselves. They’ve written music, run businesses, taught school, practiced law, cooked professionally, married and loved well, raised families and cherished their dogs and cats. They’ve also helped little old ladies across the street.
Randy, Larry and Gary are no longer alive. But they, too, left marks on the hearts of their parents and, in Larry’s case, his children.
Not everyone leaves great big footprints on the world. But we all leave footprints.
Debbie never set out to score herself a half-page obituary in the New York Times. She fell into something that carried her along, and they took off and did big things together. She worked hard for what she had, and she deserves the honors she received in her lifetime and the outpouring of love after she died. But I don’t think she’d want to just be remembered as having done the impossible things she did, as if she were some sort of superhero.
She had doubts and faults and worries, but she was amazing. So are her sisters, and the rest of her cousins.