Loosening family knots: a look back at big losses, big gain and sister stuff

It was eight years ago on January 9 that Mom called from California to tell me our cousin Debbie had died. She was with Aunt Freda, her older sister and Debbie’s mother.

This year is the first they’re all gone. 

Mom, Debbie & Aunt Freda, all z”l now. This was probably taken in the ’80s.

Aunt Freda, 95, died on February 15, 2018, Mom died 10 days later, a week after turning 90. They were six years apart, the last living and the youngest of five siblings. (David was 64 when he died in 1983, Ann (2016) and Bessie (2014) were 99.) 

The day after Mom’s call, my oldest daughter and I flew out for Debbie’s funeral. We met up with my sister Debby and our cousin Marc, who’d flown in from Texas with his mom, Aunt Bessie. Aunt Ann was already there – she and Aunt Freda lived together.

Debbie’s funeral was a big deal, filled with luminaries from the Jewish world. Upwards of 1,500 people came. Thousands more watched it via live stream. It wasn’t a time to just be with our family. 

Mom was already in California for her annual retired rabbis and wives/widows conference and had planned to spend the following week with the Aunts. 

Debbie’s death threw everything into a different place.

Mom stayed on. A week after returning home, I bought plane tickets so Sweetheart and I could spend a week with them when things were calmer. We coordinated the trip so we’d leave the same day Mom returned to Massachusetts, where she was still living independently. 

This is one of the things we did that visit. I brought some “beauty night” goo and we went to spa-town. Aunt Freda (z”l) (not pictured) is across from Aunt Ann (z”l). Mom’s on the left. It was the first time since the funeral that they’d laughed, which made it worth the whole trip.

My father’s yahrzeit was in March. Some years on that date were easier than others for Mom. I knew this was going to be a rough one. I wanted to be there for her. 

During that trip, Mom and I were talking about something else when she suddenly went quiet. 

“Debbie never, ever forgot to call me on March 7th,” she said. “Wherever she was, she always called.”

I’d never known it, but I wasn’t surprised. Debbie was deeply bonded with her mother and all the aunts, but Mom held a special place in her life. 

A throwaway comment by a stranger brought into sharp relief the extent to which that impacted my relationship with her.

I didn’t put it together until after Debbie died, but Mom transferred from Syracuse University to its Utica College campus for her junior and senior years and lived with her parents. Bubby and Zaydie owned the upper flat; Aunt Freda and Uncle Gabe, Barbara, Cheryl & Debbie were downstairs.

The sisters were old enough to appreciate a cool young aunt in their midst and Mom loved being a second mother to her nieces. That bond endured, long after the worst thing that could possibly happen to a six-year-old. 

It had crushed Debbie when her parents moved to St. Paul, Minnesota from Utica, leaving Bubby, Zaydie, her uncles, cousins and aunts, including the cool maiden one. Two years later, Mom met and married Dad. Debbie’s oldest sister Barbara represented the St. Paul family at the wedding; she and Cheryl weren’t able to attend. 

The following year Mom had me. At nine, longing for the family she’d lost, it’s hardly surprising Debbie would have had conflicting feelings about her new baby girl cousin.  

A few years ago, in a conversation that had come around to Debbie, a friend of my sister’s asked, “What was she, your mom’s first kid or something?” And, with that, suddenly everything made sense.

To describe our relationship as complex would be an oversimplification. It was fraught, frankly, until a family gathering in 2007. I have a lot of writing to do about this, and am still figuring out the most honest and honorable way to do it. 

What I will say now, though, is that it took me letting go of my expectations of her and her letting go of her ideas about me that brought about our final chapter as cousins and, I now realize, quasi-sisters.

That we never got to have the magical air-clearing conversation is one of the great disappointments of my life. But it’s not connected to any need for reassurance. I just wish we’d gotten to hang out for hours with nothing more to do than yack and play Scrabble or Boggle between trips to the refrigerator, the way our moms did. 

4 thoughts on “Loosening family knots: a look back at big losses, big gain and sister stuff

  1. Beautiful Amy! As always your words are so poignant. I have fond memories of your mom and of Debbie. May their memory be of a blessing to us all…xoxo Dena


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