Family Affairs

My Uncle Irving was a quiet, unassuming pipe-smoking man who never said much of anything but did have a disarmingly innocent smile and his wife, Bertha, my mother’s oldest sister, also was quiet and had a peaceful smile but didn’t smoke a pipe.

They lived in an apartment they owned in a high rise in North Bergen which I always thought was interesting because I thought everybody lived in houses. Taking the elevator up to their apartment was fun. Uncle Irving never worked, but was always sitting in an easy chair, smoking his pipe and reading a newspaper for as long as I knew him.

Their son, Billie, became an obstetrician/gynecologist, so he did alright.

Family lore reports that Irving retired probably in his 40s after having made his money on the stock market. Whatever that means. Did he make a killing by buying and selling? Did he live off the dividends? Who knows. Maybe it wasn’t stocks at all. Maybe he owned a dry goods store in West New York.

It’s like that with every family. These stories make their way down the generational ladders and they change and are beautified and homogenized and exaggerated as the tales are exchanged until it gets to the point where nobody really knows what they’re talking about.

Then there was Uncle Bill who was married to my mother’s older sister, Frances. They lived in North Bergen and had a backyard that I never visited, for unknown reasons. There were also lots of hat trees in the vestibule and the smell of old clothes and mothballs in the attic which I always thought was mysterious and dark.

I never really knew what Bill did but he had an outboard boat and would turn it in for a bigger one each year that he docked on Lake Hopatcong where they had a bungalow. The bungalow was right on the lake and Bill would take us out on his boat in the summer. I didn’t like walking around in the lake because the lake bottom was too slimy.

Bill had a badge and I think he was a constable in Hudson County, which means he served subpoenas and summonses. Bill liked to think he was more of a law enforcement professional than a constable and would talk about it to my brother, who was a career FBI agent, something slightly more than a constable. My brother would talk about real-life bank robbers and Bill would make up something about the time he had to serve a summons on a dangerous felon, which he may or may not have ever done.

But Bill was good-natured and my brother humored him.

Bill and Frances had two kids. One was Herbie, who retired from the Air Force as a pilot of B-52 bombers with the Strategic Air Command or SAC, the division that would be dropping H-bombs if need be. He wore aviator’s sunglasses so it must be true.

It has been said that Herbie was in line to be one of the first, Mercury astronauts but was bypassed because he was Jewish and the country wasn’t ready to cheer a Jew in space. Maybe. Herbie had a career as a private pilot, not quite traveling into space but it paid the bills. He lives in Florida, just turned 100 and he, his children and grandchildren are all Lubavitch Jews. To understate, he is very opinionated like his late sister, Sue.

Sue was a piece of work, to say the least. Don’t get me wrong. Sue was always nice to me. She even got me a diamond engagement ring at a cut price for the woman I had planned to marry but didn’t.

Sue was a very attractive interior decorator who knew everything about everything and was very loud about it and I believe every family has one. Her husband left her when she was in her 30s and moved as far away as he could, to California. Sue intimated that her husband was abusive but I think it was the other way around, judging from the way she shrieked at her children.

Two of her children, twin boys, also moved as far away as possible, to Alaska. One opened a fur store and the other lives a sort of mountain man life and I think, married a Filipino woman he met on the Internet. Someday I would like to go there to see Alaska and the twins.

Another son had lupus and was a very friendly, very talkative tatooed, hippie, motorcycle rider who lived in Arizona and ran an Army-Navy store, specializing in firearms. He died a few years ago of complications from lupus. A fourth developed serious drug problems and moved to North Carolina and I haven’t heard about or from him in more than 30 years.

That takes us to some of my in-laws, including my step-grandmother’s brother, Uncle Sollie, who was a world class musician and played the tympani kettle drum with the New York Philharmonic and was supposedly one of the best tympani players in the world. Sollie was close with the famous maestro, Leonard Bernstein, or so I am told. You hear the tympani drum only a few times during orchestral pieces and I’m told it is not an easy instrument to play. We’re not talking Ringo Starr.

And then we had cousins who lived somewhere in Bergen County. They had twin daughters but we would never see them when we visited, usually for the Jewish holidays. Apparently, the twins had development problems and didn’t do well with visitors so they stayed in their room until the company left.

I’ve lost touch with them all over the years. Either they died or our lives all took different directions and all we’re really left with is the stories and the memories.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store