Cousin in the Room

On the first draft of our wedding program, at the end of the procession titles, it said:

Gabriella Rosen

Bride, and fifth cousin of the bride

Ultimately, I jettisoned the post-comma clause because it interfered with our parents’ increasingly solemn vision of that day. Close friends and family would have laughed, but most everyone else would have been puzzled, and confusion can look a lot like anger – not what you hope to see whilst walking down the aisle. Aside from which, there was the question of where it would stop. Why not also include “Brothers of the bride, and fifth cousins of themselves and the bride”? Or, “Father of the bride, and fourth cousin of the aunts of the bride, and fourth cousin once removed of the bride”? Creepy, sure. But for those who are not their own relatives, let me tell you: there is something comforting about always having a cousin in the room.

Here is how it happened: My paternal grandfather, Chaim, was born in Poland, where it was not so good to be a Jew. He barely had facial hair when he fled to British-occupied Palestine, to help drain swampland. For this selfless work he was rewarded with malaria. Finding health care in that corner of the world lacking, he deemed his adventure complete. Most of his family was stuck on the Continent, but he had a few relatives somewhere called Brooklyn, and they knew doctors who could help. The Merzer Family Circle served to ease the transition for newer immigrants by connecting them with American-born cousins. Many families had such circles then. I’m told ours was large.

Chaim got jobs through the Circle. One weekday morning, while painting a ceiling, he befriended a woman startled to find him atop a ladder in her kitchen. He asked her out. Her name was Tova, and they were third cousins. In 1937, this was a selling point.

I had occasion to revisit this history last week, when my maternal grandfather, age 87, my mother’s father, got engaged to my maternal great aunt, 82, my grandmother’s brother’s widow. (It’s a little easier with a diagram.) Hurricane Sandy and my mother deserve equal credit for this match. While trapped on a second story in the Rockaways as the ocean lapped their windows, my mother and her father got to talking. My grandmother’s death in 2006 had left my grandfather embittered and isolated. The pride that kept him in his house that day, however, despite evacuation orders, predated his grief. This is a man who convinced his cardiologist to expunge the words “heart attack” from his medical record.

When phone service returned, my grandfather made the call my mother had suggested months prior, to everyone’s favorite aunt. Said aunt was on her way to Florida, so he flew to see her there.They’ll be married in June: Groom, and widower of the sister-in-law of the bride.

Perhaps it’s also on my mind because I’ve moved home. I’ve lived all over the world, but today my parents live three miles away. My brother is even closer. It was a three year-old, not malaria, who drove the move, but tomato tomahto. Now that I’m here I don’t know why I stayed away so long. We’re too far these days, from our family circles. And having conducted a lifelong, controlled experiment, I can confirm: the cousin in the room is more helpful when she’s not actually you.