Familial DNA

Image Credit WikiMedia Commons

Image Credit WikiMedia Commons

Back from Las Vegas jet lagged. The three hours time difference feels like three weeks. My clock says 6:15 a.m., my usual waking time, but my body thinks it’s 3:15 a.m. Or maybe it’s not my body but family that pulls me back to bed.

For the last four days my family has spent nearly all of our waking hours together, drawn to Vegas for the unveiling of my Aunt Anita’s tombstone. Contingents from New York, Washington, Florida, California, Maryland are present. We have greeted each other with tight hugs and firm kisses, and when we stand at the gravesite, shoulder to shoulder, we pass tissues and reach for each other’s hands. We remember, together.

Always I am struck by the unbreakable bonds of familial DNA. Our daily lives do not intersect — we live too many hundreds and thousands of miles from each other — and yet we know each other well. And because there are no warring camps among us, our reunion, though bittersweet, is sweet.

We catch up, share Aunt Anita tales and form new memories. We vow to stay in touch, knowing we likely won’t. But when we meet next it will not have mattered. We’ll fall into conversation, share smiles. The hugs will be tight, the kisses firm. We will be together again.

(More of Aunt Anita and the remarks I wrote for her funeral.)

cold cuts, pastries, funerals

Cold Cuts, Pastries, Funerals

cold cuts, pastries, funerals


When I was a kid, funerals were my favorite gatherings. Strangers would appear at the door, bearing platters of smartly folded cold cuts and pretty pink boxes of pastries. When they heard I was Judy’s girl, they’d look at me and ask my age. “How can that be?“ they’d ask accusingly, which always confused me. Why would I lie about my age when there were better things to lie about?

These strangers would then turn to my mother and accuse her too: “Six years? We haven’t seen each other in six years?!” But instead of defending herself, my mother would hug them.

The strangers would then whisper, “How’s She/He holding up?” My mother would point, and we’d all turn our heads. There She/He would be, the surviving spouse, son or daughter, surrounded by attentive ears as if it were story time at the library.

Oh, but it was story time, with everyone taking turns telling tales that made people laugh, cry, cry, laugh. I’d observe and think, “What’s with these people?”

Over time and the course of numerous funerals, I learned that these strangers, indeed tribes, were family. Via bonds and tethers, we were connected, and via funerals, we reconnected.

The first funeral I attended was for my 97-year-old great-grandmother, Babu. I was five and didn’t think she was particularly great. She spoke only Yiddish, wore thick glasses and was missing a leg (diabetes, I later learned). She gave me the creeps.

Next up, Grandpa Al, who dropped dead on the street while pushing his hot dog cart through Manhattan. Turns out, he wasn’t my grandfather but the man my Grandma Dora took up with when she could no longer stand her alcoholic husband (aka Grandpa Benjamin, who died before I was born.)

cold cuts, pastries, funerals

Grandpa Al (on right)

My family didn’t like Grandpa Al and had to scavenge for good things to say about him.

“Well, he did take her to Florida that time,” they recalled. Florida wasn’t Paris, of course, but it was a big deal for a woman who had lived in shtetls all of her life: one in Eastern Europe, the other in the overcrowded Jewish slums of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Florida had been her one and only vacation.

I was about eight when Grandpa Al died. I remember walking over to Grandma in the funeral parlor and her pulling me to her ample bosom.

cold cuts, pastries, funerals

Grandma Dora

Let me say here that like many Old World grandmas, she was all bosom. Only when she wore a belt could I locate her waist. And so when she pulled me to her and squeezed tightly it was as if I were being sucked between couch pillows. I couldn’t breathe. I panicked. I started to cry.

Finally, she let go, and when saw my tears, she cupped my face. “Ah, kinder, kinder. It’s okay to cry. You loved him too.”

Next up: Uncle Harry, the kind of uncle you kiss hello and goodbye and forget in-between.

cold cuts, pastries,funerals

Aunt Mollie and Uncle Harry

At family gatherings hosted by Aunt Mollie, his wife, he’d sit at one end of the long table, its seats crammed with three generations talking over each other. Aunt Mollie would sit at the opposite end of the table, close to the kitchen, so she could ferry platters to the raucous masses.

Somehow, amidst the shouting, Aunt Molly could make out everything her husband said, and she would scream, “Shut up, Harry!” Poor Uncle Harry. He couldn’t even say, “Pass the salt” or “How ‘bout them Yankees?” without getting yelled at.

I was surprised, therefore, when Aunt Mollie wailed at his funeral; you’d think she’d be happy now that he had finally shut up.

But people are like that, I’ve since learned. Something about grief balances relationships. What they once hated about someone loses its potency. What they once loved sharpens, cutting their hearts in two.

Next up:

Cousin Barbara, Grandma Dora, Uncle Victor, Uncle Jack, Grandma Ida; my father. No longer a child, I was no longer an observer but a participant, mourning with the grownups and sometimes even helping with funeral arrangements. I came to understand the undertow of grief. How, when people die, they take a piece of you with them. Sometimes this is sad, other times a relief, which makes death — and life — so very complicated.

Last weekend, I went to a memorial service for a friend’s husband. It was held in the small country church he attended as a child and where his ancestors are buried; he’ll be in good company.

A few people stood up and shared memories that made us smile. But I am old enough now to know that memories aren’t enough. They can’t lie next to you at night. They don’t snore or buy milk on the way home. They don’t remember your birthday; they can’t comfort you when your heart shatters. My friend was going home alone. At some point, we all are alone.

When I got home, I swapped my black pants and heels for jeans and sneakers. I ran an errand. I thought about my friend and how I might help fill the vacuum in her life. There is little I can do, of course — except to appear at her door bearing smartly folded cold cuts and pink boxes of pastries, to sit beside her for story time.


Beth Mende Conny of Write Directions and Lifenicity writes gives tips for how to get rid of negative thinking so you can get on with your writing and other goals.

Beware of pestimists

Beth Mende Conny of Write Directions and Lifenicity writes gives tips for how to get rid of negative thinking so you can get on with your writing and other goals.I’m not sure I mentioned, but I have another blog: WriteDirections.com; It’s for writers. I just posted a piece called “Beware of Pestimists.”

Pestimists are those obnoxious, persistent voices that are determined to keep us in place, or even set us back. They are unhelpful and hurtful.

As I reread it this morning, I thought–crap! I should follow my own advice, which is applicable not just to writing but to all aspects of my life. Perhaps you can apply it to your life as well. Possible?

#3 — My glamorous Aunt Anita

Beth Conny's Seasons of Goodbye and death of a family member, her Aunt Anita Korotkin.My wonderful and very glamorous Aunt Anita passed away on Thanksgiving day. She was in her early 80s. I couldn’t make it out to Las Vegas to say goodbye, but I wrote this letter to her, which my sister read at the funeral.

Hi, there, Aunt Anita–

I wish I could be with you today. But maybe it is a good thing I am so many miles away. If I were with you, I might be tempted to say goodbye, and I never want to do that. That’s because one of the things I love about you is the way you say hello.

When you see me, you always smile widely and say: ” Hello, darling. How’s my beautiful niece?” You’ve been saying that since I was a little girl. Even now, as I’m approaching 60, I love hearing it because you say  it with such warmth and affection. It’s  hard to NOT feel beautiful, or at the very least special.  So, for that, I thank you.

IMG_3734 IMG_3735There are other things I’d like to thank you for: my first purse–a  hot pink suede shoulder bag that made me feel so grownup. Seeing firsthand that women can be glamorous their entire lives–and to me, you, with your long hair, have always been  movie-star glamorous. And, of course, I’ve got to thank you for introducing me to Mrs. Dash–You’re right. You can sprinkle Mrs. Dash on everything! Read more

#2 — Hello goodbye hello

Seasons of goodbye--Goodbyes and hellos go together, one giving life and meaning to the other.Goodbyes aren’t morbid. After all, there can be no goodbyes without hellos.

Hellos get good press. They’re pleasant sorts of things: Hello, morning! Hello, my love! Hello, new adventure! But goodbyes also have their positives, depending on circumstances: Goodbye, extra pounds! Goodbye, crummy boss! Goodbye, polygamist you! It’s a matter of perspective.

So this is what I see: Read more

#1 — The List

Seasons slider

Death is polite. No jostling to get ahead. Quite organized too. A first-in, first-out affair. Here, then, is the order:

  1. Father-in-law Jim, 91
  2. Aunt Ethel, 91
  3. Aunt Dotty, 89
  4. Mother-in-law Ann, 89
  5. Aunt Anita, 80
  6. Uncle Kenneth, 80
  7. Aunt Shirley, the baby, 79

(Absent my list: my mom, 86. I refuse to add her name.)

Aunt Molly, 93, once held the top spot. She passed on last May, which lent credence to my theory that those I love will leave as expected, chronologically. It takes the edge off anticipatory mourning. Read more