The phone rang.
I picked it up, not knowing how that call would affect me.
Cousin Herbie was on the other end. I knew this call wasn’t going to be good. Herbie, the youngest of his family of four siblings and the main connection to the Liftman side of the family (my father’s), is unfortunately often the bearer of bad news.
“Myrna,” he said with tears in his voice. “My sister passed.”
These last few weeks I have been to so many funerals I’m beginning to feel like a professional mourner. The number of Jewish deaths especially has seriously disturbed me.
Why now, I ask myself? Why is this year different from any other year? Then I think of my mother’s words. “There are more Jewish deaths before the High Holidays than any other time of the year.”
Maybe their fate was determined before the Book of Life was sealed on Yom Kippur.
Admittedly, I hadn’t seen my cousin Muriel “Mickey” Zelin for several years. Mickey lived in New Jersey, and the last time we got together was at her brother’s funeral.
All deaths are sad, but Mickey’s was particularly difficult for me. Her parents, my Aunt Sarah and Uncle John Altsher, and their family lived in Mattapan, as did we. My father was one of eight children and most of them stayed in the Chelsea-Everett area except for the Altshers and us. Fortunately, we got to see many of the family at Aunt Sarah’s, especially during Passover. That’s when they hosted two Seders, one for each night of the holiday, giving all of us a chance to reconnect.
Mickey, who always helped, was one of the few people who still had enough energy at the end of the Seder to join in on a rousing “Chad Gadya,” taking us all with her.
Since her death, I think of Mickey just about every day. There are so many Mickey things, so many memories that keep surfacing in my mind. She was so much a part of my life.
In some ways, Mickey was a family trendsetter. I once asked my mother why she sent me to Sunday school and not to Hebrew school.
“Aunt Sarah sent Mickey to Sunday school and that’s why we sent you there,” she said.
I went to Camp Young Judea mostly because Mickey led the way.
When I was old enough, I joined the Hecht House as a teen. I was so excited when a young man asked me for my name and number. Trying to sound sophisticated, I told him it was Mickey. After all, it worked for my cousin.
A few days later, the boy called and asked for Mickey. I had forgotten about the name change so I said, “Sorry, you must have the wrong number.” That never happened again.
For years, one Sunday a month, Uncle John and Aunt Sarah, the Altsher cousins, and I piled into the back of Uncle John’s big beach wagon with real wooden trim, and headed to Chelsea.
And once a month, my single Aunt Betty would greet us at the door. Her first words would be, “You should see how beautiful [my cousin] Beverly is. She is so talented. You should see her drawings.”
One Sunday, when I came home unhappy, I vowed never to go back. I’d had enough. My father begged me to try one more time. What I didn’t know was my dad had called his sister.
This time when she started praising Beverly once again, Aunt Betty caught herself. She turned to me and said, “But you are the smart one.”
Whether it was coincidental or just a family education tradition headed by Mickey, who knows? She was a special needs teacher in New York and New Jersey, Beverly taught in Connecticut and California, and I taught in Lynnfield.
I always knew about shadkhans like the matchmaker in “Fiddler on the Roof,” but this was news to me. At an engagement party for Mickey and Jerry at the Altshers’ house, Aunt Sarah gave a beautiful umbrella to the friend who happened to introduce the couple. Evidently it was a custom none of us knew about and it must have worked. The Zelins’ marriage lasted 65 years before Jerry’s death.
Now, as most of us have completed the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I continue to think about my mother’s words. Θ
Myrna Fearer writes from Danvers.