How can parents and siblings be so close and then not speak to each other for decades? Are the differences so insurmountable that they cancel all the shared experiences and the familial blood ties? And why does this sort of thing get passed down for generations in seemingly “normal” families? This is no intellectual exercise for me. I grew up in such a family, and have suffered the consequences. A couple of weeks ago, I had dinner with my cousin Joanie, who I didn’t know for almost 50 years. In fact, we would never have even met if it wasn’t for my mother’s decision 20 years ago that “enough is enough, already.”
Our maternal great-grandparents emigrated from Germany to New York in the 1860’s. Our great-grandmother Regina had a sister named Adelheit. They were extremely close all their lives. In fact, they never spent even one day apart from each other. When Regina married our great-grandfather Jacob, Adelheit lived in the same apartment with them. Years later, the three of them went out to dinner to celebrate Regina and Jacob’s wedding anniversary. In the cab, Adelheit became ill and died within minutes. On the way to the hospital Regina passed away as well. It’s as if she couldn’t live without her sister. I’m always reminded of this bizarre event whenever I visit their graves. They have the same date of death on their monuments, which of course are side by side in death, as they were in life.
Jacob came to New York as a boy and was apprenticed to a butcher. After a while, he borrowed some money from a German Jewish financier, who liked to help out fellow German Jewish immigrants, and bought his own butcher shop. He was so successful, that by the time he was 35, he sold the shop and purchased a bunch of tenements in Hell’s Kitchen (the 40s and 50s on the West Side of Manhattan). He spent the rest of his life as a landlord with his daughter (my grandmother Miriam) personally going to each apartment once a month to collect the rent.
Jacob and Regina had 3 children, Miriam and her two brothers, Milton (who died in his 30s) and Herbert. After Regina and Adelheit died, Jacob moved in with Miriam and her family (her husband, Gus, and their two children Barnard and Nanette). My grandparents had a great big 8-room apartment on Broadway and 93rd Street—fashionable, but not ostentatious.
My grandfather, Gus, grew up as a poor kid in Washington Heights. He quit school after the 6th grade to help support his parents and 7 siblings. A lifelong New York Giants baseball fan, ironically, one of his first jobs was as a water boy for the brand new team in town, the New York Highlanders, soon to change their name to the New York Yankees. A decade later, in his mid-20s, Gus and his brother Milton started their own importing business and quickly became very successful. After he married Miriam, she kept collecting the rents from Jacob’s buildings. Jacob was not a man that people said no to.
In 1948 Jacob died and since Gus was such a successful businessman and the most honest, fair and well-respected man that Jacob knew, he made his son-in-law the executor of his estate. The bulk of his possessions was his rental properties. My grandfather, Gus, divided up the cash and stocks, and then announced that he was selling all the buildings. He had never liked the idea of taking money from poor people—as he said, “Dirty business,” and although he never said anything while Jacob was alive, the idea of having his wife collect the rents was a double whammy.
Miriam’s brother Herbert, Jacob’s surviving son, tried to talk Gus out of selling the tenements, telling him that in 10 or 20 years, the property the buildings stood on would be worth a fortune. As it turns out, Herbert was right on the money. By the 1960s the West Side underwent a renewal, and the $2M value in 1948 would most likely be 100 times that now. But, Gus was a man of principle. Since he was in no need of money, he insisted on doing what he thought was the right thing. Miriam, who was always a hot-tempered, and at times, a downright unreasonable woman, got into the argument with her brother and the two siblings never spoke another word to each other for the rest of their lives. In fact, the two sides of the family completely severed relations that day.
My mother had grown up as friends with her cousin, Norma, Herbert’s daughter. Even though they were both married and in their 20s by the time of their parents’ feud, they were forbidden by their parents to have any contact with each other. In fact Miriam forbade everyone in the family to even mention Herbert and his wife Kate’s names in her presence. She would refer to them as him and her. When I was a kid, and my grandmother would talk about him and her, I would ask whom they were, and my mom would subtly shake her head signaling me to drop it. Man, could my grandmother relish a feud. She lived another 35 years and never gave an inch. Herbert was just as stubborn—a trait they both inherited from their tough father Jacob. The strength and determination that made Jacob a success in business, worked to his detriment in his personal life.
On my father’s side of the family, things were the same, but different. Where my mom’s family had money, my dad grew up in poverty. Born in Harlem in 1919, his parents were immigrants from Kiev and Georgia (the one south of Russia). My grandfather David (for whom I am named) spent his American life as a mostly out-of-work housepainter. For him, times were bad financially, even in the Roaring ’20s. During the depression things went from bad to worse. The family moved to the Bronx, and when my father was 16, he graduated from high school. Shortly afterwards, a policeman came to their apartment and asked my dad to come down to the street to identify his father who had just died of a heart attack right on the sidewalk. A year later his mother died.
By this time he was 17, his brother Milton was 19 and their sister Elsie was 12. Milton immediately disappeared. My father ditched any plans to go to college (City College was free in those days), and went to work to support himself and his little sister, who had gone to live with their aunts (who were as poor as church mice, or in their case, Russian Jewish temple mice) in Coney Island.
My father was drafted into the army and served for five years until 1946 when he returned to New York and married my mom. In the meantime, my Aunt Elsie grew up. A couple of years later, she was walking through either Penn Station or Grand Central and saw her brother Milton for the first time in over 10 years. She yelled after him, but he didn’t turn around. So she ran, caught up to him and stood in front of him. “Milton!” He asked her, “Do I know you.” She looked at him in disbelief, “You ought to. I’m your sister.”
After that, we saw uncle Milton at most a half dozen times over the next 25 years. My father would call him on the phone once a year. Milton never called either my dad or aunt. Ever. The last time we saw him was at my aunt’s funeral. He came looking for money. My aunt left all her money to my dad (as well she should have). And that was that. Dad never called his brother again.
When I was growing up, I would ask my dad about his brother. They had shared a bed for their entire childhood. When Milton took the train to Philadelphia to try out as a pitcher for the Athletics, my dad went and caught for him. When I asked if he was any good, my dad said that he was, but he was so headstrong, he could never follow directions or listen to anyone. When he was warming up, he tired himself out, so that by the time the scouts got to him, he had nothing left in the tank. My father also had an obstinate streak, but ultimately he would listen. He wouldn’t like it, but he would listen.
When I was growing up, one night at dinner, I got into an argument with my brother Bobby. This was 60 years ago, and we were just kids. My mom, always the peacemaker, said, “I hope when you grow up, you boys will be friends.” I told her that I couldn’t see it. We were so different, and I was older. We haven’t been all that close over the years. Bobby lives in Texas and I’m in New York, but, surprisingly, when we see each other or talk on the phone or email, we have come to have the relationship that would make my mom happy.
My brother Malcolm has been the sibling to stir up trouble, ever since he was a little kid. When he got divorced, he came to live with me for a year, the second 6 months of which we didn’t speak to each other, until I suggested that it was time for him to leave. After that, we resumed our friendship, but that has deteriorated, and he hasn’t spoken to me in a year. When I called to wish him a happy birthday in December, he didn’t pick up the phone or call me back. He barely has contact with Bobby or our sister. We all feel bad about this, and hopefully Malcolm will get over his anger with us. Or not. He always tells me how much he hated our grandmother, but he’s the one who takes after her in the being difficult and keeping feuds alive category.
And then there is the next generation. My son and daughter, both of whom I love to death and am so proud of, have no relationship with each other. My son always resented having to share his parents with this new baby. This continued throughout his childhood. They haven’t had much if any contact as adults. As kids Caleb was often nasty to Kate, and Kate often antagonized Caleb. Kate has 11-year old twin girls who have just started to behave in the same manner towards each other. Kate recognized the pattern and has gotten them into therapy. Hopefully, they will overcome this behavior quickly and return to their previous loving relationship. I’m happy to say that they are making very good progress already, so maybe if this sort of problem is addressed early enough, it can be resolved before too much damage is done and patterns become lifelong.
Is this kind of family dysfunction genetic or learned? I refuse to believe that it is normal. It certainly is not healthy. I hear about this in so many families, and always think, “What a waste!” And it’s not just families. I watched a Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis film over the weekend and thoroughly enjoyed their performances. There were two guys who really loved each other, and then they didn’t speak for 20 years. At the end of Jerry’s life, he said that Dean was the love of his life. Love is hard to sustain. It can bring out the best and the worst in us, and certainly all the fears. It’s hard work, this love thing, but it’s so worth it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that forgiving someone doesn’t mean that I think that whatever horrible thing they did was right. It just means that I’m willing to overlook their frailties, if they will overlook mine.