EXCITING news! My New York cousin is coming to visit! Her mother and my mother were first cousins, growing up together in South Yarra during the Depression and WWII. How did my cousin come to be a New Yorker? Read on.
The Depression superimposed itself, so everyone – father, daughter, grandma and two aunts – all moved in together. My mother went from a peaceful home with just her aunt and uncle to this rowdy lot. And worst of all, a cousin.
Two years younger, blonde, pretty, vivacious and clever. My mother now expected to share toys and clothes but sensing her share of the attention was less equally available. Sibling rivalry had nothing on this. She literally never got over it. So when the cousin got engaged to an American soldier on leave from the war, no doubt my mother said a silent but heartfelt good riddance.
Not so fast. The cousin left, certainly, but after an absence long enough to produce two children and a divorce, she came back to visit at intervals.
Perhaps oddly, the cousin never brought her children to Australia to meet their Aussie relatives. Maybe finances didn’t allow, or, more likely, she was unwilling to expose them to the inevitable “I told you it wouldn’t work out” recriminations, not least from my mother. Which brings us back to my own New York cousin.
In her youth she travelled quite a bit, especially favouring the Greek islands. Without much encouragement to explore her Aussie roots she took little interest. Likewise, we Aussie cousins had little interest in our New York counterparts. Our mother’s bitter animosity to her cousin didn’t encourage us either.
Despite this I developed a fine relationship with my “American aunt”. When she visited I took her on outings. At first this was to lighten my mother’s load but then I decided I liked her. It wasn’t her fault she was fun-loving and bright. We enjoyed a wide-ranging phone conversation every Christmas and birthday. It must have been desperately lonely in post war America, a non-Jew married into a Jewish family, and a foreigner as well (“Australian? Huh?”), then divorced and left with two young children. And her Australian family frankly unsympathetic. You’d need to be smart and sociable to cope.
Eventually, however, dementia started to claim the mind of my aunt. It dawned on my own cousin that, having lost contact with her father after her parents’ divorce, her only “family” apart from her brother was us, way down under. My cousin found my number and rang.
My aunt died earlier this year, so now my cousin feels free to travel again. I’ve been to visit her twice and now that it’s her turn I’m looking forward to showing her everything she’s heard so much about but never seen, and many places she doesn’t know about yet, not to mention introducing her to the rest of her cousins.
But I’m nervous too. My cousin and her husband are sophisticated New Yorkers. Until her retirement, she headed a staff of 150 at a major book publishing firm, and now chairs several voluntary committees. They are accustomed to frequent social events and mingling with authorities. While not wealthy they are comfortable enough to eat out most meals of the week, breakfast included. (When your primary residence is a small historic Manhattan apartment you want to leave it at frequent intervals.) They have cable of course, and stay up late watching their favourite British detective dramas. They walk everywhere, because in Manhattan anything you need is within a couple of short blocks.
We barely do anything social, never eat out, and go to bed with the birds. Like almost everyone in regional Victoria, we drive almost everywhere because walking isn’t practical. Our TV only picks up SBS and the regional channel 7 relay, and we don’t have cable. Our pick-the-design-from-the-catalogue house is bigger than a Manhattan apartment, but I fear it’s going to feel a bit tight working around our contrasting habits.
But I so want her to come and enjoy a memorable experience. She’s waited a long time for this. She adores gardens, museums and galleries so some locations are obvious. Australian fauna too, of course, so Healesville Sanctuary and the Penguin Parade have to be included.
But my cousin will want most of all to meet with her extended family, and wrangling that lot will be my biggest challenge. Half of them still have little interest in distant relatives, in addition to having no experience beyond my mother’s frosty attitude to guide them.
Family matters so much more as we age; apart from wondering who’s going to be around to help us with the shopping and getting to the doctors, that essential sense of connection is primordial and must be satisfied somehow. My cousin has felt alone so much; I’ll find a way.