Second Cousins, fiction by Lou-Ellen Barkan

“I think it’s disgraceful,” my mother said.

            “I agree,” my father said. “Pass the bread, please.”

            “What’s disgraceful?” I asked, walking into the dining room and dropping my book bag on the floor.

            “Maybe that you’re half an hour late for dinner.” My mother pointed to my chair. “Sit down, please.”

            “What’s disgraceful?” I stared suspiciously at my bright red beet salad. I hated beets and had successfully avoided eating them for years. The trick was to push them under the lettuce leaves and hope nobody noticed.  

            “Nothing.” My father gave my mother the look. The one that said not in front of the children. “Nothing is disgraceful.”

            “Nicht vor den Kindern,” my grandmother reinforced his message with her favorite phrase. “Not in front of the children.” Now I really was curious.

            “They’re talking about the Barons.” My younger brother, Willy, looked up, his mouth bright red from beets. “Patty ran away with her boyfriend. He’s not Jewish, so her parents are having a funeral to pretend she’s dead.”

            “You’re kidding,” I said. “Pretend she’s dead? What’s that?”

            “Enough.” My father tapped on the table with his fork.

            “Well, since they know so much,” my mother stood up and cleared the salad plates, “I think they deserve the whole story.” She looked down at my plate. “You didn’t eat your salad.”

            “Beets.” I shook my head. “I hate them.”

            “Children are…,” my grandmother said.

            “Starving in Europe.” Willy finished her sentence. “We know.”

            “Well, you can send them my beets,” I said. “So, you going to tell us about the Baron business?”

            My father pulled a roll from the breadbasket. “The Barons are religious. They believe if you marry someone who’s not Jewish, you’re dead. So, they sit Shiva.”

            “Shiva?” I asked. “Like when someone really dies? You kidding me? Jews do that?”

            “Oy,” my grandmother sighed, standing up and straightening her blue housedress. “Yes. Yes, they do that.” She shook her head and followed my mother into the kitchen.

            “They do the whole mourning thing? Sitting on boxes? Wearing black? Prayers?”

            “That’s right,” my father said. “The whole megillah.”

            “And after the ceremony, she’s dead to them?” I looked at my father. “Would you do that?” I started to worry. I had a crush on Johnny Zuckarelli. He was definitely not Jewish.

            “Of course not,” my father said, watching my mother carrying a covered platter to the table.

            I stopped talking and started to worry about the food. Sometimes on beet night, my grandmother made beef tongue or boiled beef or lamb shanks. On those nights, I managed to skip the meal and grab crackers and cheese after everyone had gone to bed. But tonight, I was starving and if the dinner was going to be weird stuff, it was going to be a long hungry night.    

            “So, her parents kick her out of the house, sit shiva, and then carry on like nothing happened?” I asked. “Even if she’s alive and living in the same town. How’s that work?”

            “Well, it’s definitely awkward.” My father said, taking the cover off the platter. “But it’s what they believe, so it’s their business.”

            I tried not to smile. Chicken. Rice and peas. My favorites. I passed my plate.

            “Oh, come on, Joe.” My mother added extra rice to my serving. “Do you really believe that once Patty’s pregnant, they won’t come running to see their grandchild? Shiva or no shiva.”

            “Pregnant?” Willy picked up his head. “She’s pregnant? She’s having a baby?”

            “I have no idea,” my mother said. “I’m just making a point. And it is our business. Her mother is my first cousin. And we’re not living in the shtetel. They’re making all the Jewish families look ridiculous.”

            “Who’s your cousin?” I looked up.

            “Patty’s mother, Marge Baron.” My mother sat down to her place at the table and put a napkin on her lap. “That makes Patty your second cousin.”

            “What’s a second cousin?” Willy asked.

            “It’s complicated,” my mother said. “Eat your peas.”

            This was new information and had potential. Patty Baron was the most popular girl in school. Being related could add meaningful points to my status. Maybe Johnny would notice.

            “So, how come I didn’t know I was related to Patty Baron?” I asked. “How is she my second cousin.”

            “Her mother and I had the same grandmother.”

            My grandmother nodded. “Margie Baron’s mother was my sister. She was a nasty piece of work.” 

            “Mom, please,” my mother said. “It’s not a big deal. Margie Baron and I are first cousins, so Patty is your second cousin.”

            “So how come we never see them?

            “We had a falling out,” my father said. “And no, I’m not going to explain. Eat your dinner, please.”

            “If I marry a person who’s not Jewish, you don’t have to sit shiva for me?” I asked.

            My father shook his head. “No, we might be disappointed. But we would not sit shiva. Is there any salt?”

            “No salt, Joe. The doctor said to reduce your salt.” My mother put down her fork and looked at me. “I’ll tell you what I think. Better you should marry a lapsed Catholic than an Orthodox Jew.”

            “Marilyn,” my grandmother shook her head.  “What? She’s fourteen. You need to give her ideas?”

            “She’s smart enough to understand.” My mother put down her fork and looked at me. “We’re not living in Europe. This is America. It’s 1961. What, we didn’t suffer enough? So, you marry a nice boy from a good family. Who cares what they do on Sunday. Not me.”

            Maybe Johnny and I had a future after all.

            The next morning, I missed the school bus and walked the mile and half to school. It was drizzling lightly, so I arrived damp and annoyed that my carefully organized outfit was wrinkled, and my hair was lying flat without any of the curl I tried to achieve sleeping all night on heavy mesh rollers. My plan was to pick up a late pass, stop in the girls’ bathroom and organize my hair before I went to class.

            The hallways were empty when I arrived. I got my pass and headed to the girls’ bathroom. The door squeaked as I walked in, and the five girls huddled in front of the window turned to see who had arrived.  I recognized the most popular girls in school, all seniors, including Patty, my new cousin. Instead of combing my hair, I headed to the closest stall, closed the door and sat down to listen.

            “My God,” Maria said. “Where will you live?”

            “He gave you a cigar band?” I recognized Marsha’s nasal whine. “You ever getting a real diamond?”

            “He promised. As soon as we’re married.” This had to be Patty.

            “Ooooh!” Barbara was a squealer. “A wedding. What are you going to wear?”

            “A wedding dress, dummy,” Patty said.  

            “I guess it won’t be white.” This was Maggie, dripping sarcasm. She could afford to be mean, her parents were almost as rich as Patty’s.

            Sudden silence as the door opened and I heard the high-pitched voice of Mrs. Neilson, our English teacher.

            “Girls,” she said. “Can I assume you are planning to come back to class?”

            There was a flurry of “Yes, Mrs. Neilson,” and the sound of the crowd traipsing through the bathroom, the door opening and shutting. As soon as it was quiet, I opened the stall door and went to the mirror to comb my hair.  Behind me, in the reflection, I saw the door open.  Patty walked into the bathroom and stood with her back to me in front of the window. I couldn’t see her face, but I could hear her crying.

            “You okay?” I asked.

            “Why wouldn’t I be?” She turned to me, a river of tears rolling down her cheeks accompanied by a trail of black mascara.

            “Well, for starters,” I said, handing her a tissue. “You’re crying.”

            “Allergies,” she sniffled.

            I raised my eyebrows. “I know what’s going on.”

            “What? What do you know?”

            “My parents told me,” I said. “Apparently we’re cousins? I know the whole story.”

            She started to retch.

            “Sit down,” I pulled a chair from under the window. “Stay here. I’ll get someone.”

            “No,” she whispered, wiping her eyes. “I’m fine. I’m going to get married.”

            “I heard,” I said, “You’re marrying your boyfriend.”

            “My parents won’t take my calls,” she held her hand out for another tissue. “I had to stay at Nick’s house last night. Everyone speaks Italian. My father called and threatened to kill Nick. Then his father threatened to kill my father.” She stopped crying and blew her nose. “How are you my cousin?”

            “Second cousin.” I had done some research before I went to bed. “Same gene pool.” 

            “What are you anyway?” She looked down at me. “Twelve?”

            “Fourteen,” I said. “Just short.” I was seriously late for class, but I had one last question. “Are you pregnant?”

            “What? Who told you that?”

            “No one. I’m guessing. Hormones?”

            “How old did you say you were?”

            “Fourteen. I have my period. You are pregnant, aren’t you?

            “I have to get to class.” She said, wiping her face with a wet paper towel. “You say nothing about this. Swear on your mother’s grave. We’re cousins, right? You go out first.”

            “No worries.” I patted my hair down and headed out the door, leaving Cousin Patty sitting in front of the window.

            Mom was waiting in the car when school let out. It was weekly library day. Even though we argued about a lot of things, books and movies were two things we both loved. When we talked about our favorites, we laughed and cried together, analyzing scenes and comparing opinions. Best of all, unlike my friends’ mothers, mom let me pick and choose whatever I wanted to read or see. Nothing was off the table. So, in addition to Little Women and Gone with the Wind, I was the only kid in my class who had read Peyton Place and seen Bridget Bardot in action. Mom and I agreed they were both overrated.

            “How was your day?” Mom asked.


            “Run into Patty?”

            “She’s not in any of my classes.” I figured this wasn’t exactly a lie.

            “I thought she might be in your Honors English?”

            “Not this semester. We going to the library?”

            “No, you didn’t see her? Or no, she’s not in your classes?”

            “You going to start the car?”

            “Answer my question, please.”

            There was no upside in trying to keep a secret from my mother. Her instincts had a one hundred percent success rate.

            “Fine,” I said. “I did see Patty. In the bathroom. She was crying.”

            “What did she say?”

            “All the parents are fighting. Her parents won’t take her calls. No one speaks English in Nick’s house. I think she’s pregnant. Are we going to the library?”

            “What?” Mom turned to face me. “Are you sure? Did she say that?”

            “Not exactly. It’s hot in here. If we’re not going anywhere, can you at least roll the window down?”

            “Not exactly? What does that mean?”

            I was torn. Tell mom the whole story or keep Patty’s secret? I was reading Catcher in the Rye. What would Holden do?  I decided to give it all up and wait for Mom’s reaction, which as it turned out, was totally predictable.

            “My God.” She shook her head. “She’s pregnant and they won’t talk to her? What kind of people are they?”

            This was going to be one of those conversations that mom liked to have with herself. The kind where she had both the questions and the answers. It paid to keep quiet while she figured things out.

            “I’ll tell you what kind of people,” she continued. “Idiots. Idiots who think the family is going to forgive them for abandoning their kid when she needs them most. And what are we going to do about that?”

            I waited for the answer.

            “Well, I’ll tell you what we are going to do about that.” She slammed her fist down on the steering wheel. “We are going over to see that stupid cousin of mine and tell her what we think of them.”  She started the car.

            Ten minutes later, we swung around the circular driveway of a 1960s suburban version of Tara. Tall white columns reaching up to second-floor windows. A porch that ran the entire front of the house. A small white poodle was dozing on a wicker rocking chair.

            “Wait here,” Mom said. “Do not get out of the car. We’ll go to the library when I get back.”

            I took my King Lear assignment out of my bookbag. If this was going to be anything like mom’s visits to her friends, I had time to finish Lear, write the essay and do my math homework. I wanted to get a head start. Once mom got back in the car, the rest of the evening had potential to be pretty interesting.

            The Baron’s front door had a brass knocker shaped like a horseshoe. Mom knocked three times before the door opened. A tall, thin black woman in a blue uniform opened the door and Mom disappeared into the house.  I was halfway through my math homework when the door opened, and I saw Mom was hugging a woman I assumed was Patty’s mother. I rolled down my window to hear.

            “Anything I can do,” Mom said. “Anything. Really, just let me know.”

            Margie was wiping her eyes. “Thank you, Marilyn.”

            “You have a plan.” Mom took Margie’s hands in hers. “Now all you have to do is follow through.”

            Margie sighed. “It’s up to Sam. I can only do so much.”

            “You’re stronger than you think,” Mom said. “Call if you need support.”

            They hugged and kissed each other’s cheeks. Mrs. Baron closed the door and Mom got back in the car. I put my math book down.

            “Well?” I asked. ” What happened? Does she know you’re cousins? Because Patty didn’t know.”

            Mom put her key in the ignition, looked back at the door and started the car.

            “My cousin Margie married a difficult man, more religious, more observant than our side. Very controlling, full of himself. And very, very rich. One time, when your father and I were out with them, Sam insulted me. Your father took offense. They had a fight.”

            “A fight? Like a real fight? Like a fistfight?

            “Yes. A real fight. Your father broke Sam’s nose and knocked him out. Since then, we don’t speak.  It’s a shame, really. Margie’s sister died young and her parents are gone. I’m all she has and it’s going to be hard to help.”

            “What did Sam say?” I asked. “I mean to start the fight.” My mother was pretty much the smartest, nicest person in town. Everyone loved her. What could anyone possibly say about her?

            “He called me a shiksa.” Mom smiled. “I might not have taken it seriously, but for some reason, he kept it up all night. “Does the shiksa want to dance with me? Is the shiksa having fun? Maybe some bacon for the shiksa’s salad.” He was obnoxious. Your father got fed up and asked him to cut it out. He kept going and then…”


            “He hit him.”

            I tried not to smile. My father was a former professional baseball player. He had a zero handicap. He played squash against West Point Cadets. He had muscles that made the boys in my class jealous. He could knock anyone out with a breath.

            “Margie wants to bring Patty home and talk about things.” Mom sighed. “Sam said absolutely not. He called the Rabbi to set up the Shiva service and invited all their friends and relatives.”

            “So where does that leave Patty?”

            “I want to talk with your grandmother. Would you mind if we skipped the library this week?”

            “That’s fine,” I said. “This is more important. And anyway, I have books from last week.”

            “If you run out, we can trade.” Mom started the car. “I finished Marjorie Morningstar.”

            When we got home, the house smelled like tomato sauce and Grandma was upstairs in her bedroom taking her afternoon nap. Grandma had her own apartment in the city, but she stayed with us half the week, arriving with barley sugar lollypops shaped liked zoo animals and really good bagels. Most importantly, she arrived with the promise of a night off or a weekend away for mom and dad. Willy and I adored her. She made our favorite foods and allowed us to eat the new tv dinners in the little trays with turkey and gravy and mashed potatoes. She let Willy skip his bath and stay up late to play with his trains. Sometimes, we watched the Hit Parade and sang along with Rosemary Clooney. Sometimes, I did her nails and earned an extra toasted almond ice cream.

            “I’ll go wake Grandma,” Mom said, pulling into our driveway. “Stay downstairs until I call you.”

            I headed to the kitchen for a snack and checked the pots on the stove. The tomato sauce was going to dress up Grandma’s meatloaf, but she had also made her special, depression spaghetti, which was plain spaghetti seasoned with Heinz ketchup and lots of pepper. Grandma said it was her version of marinara.  

            I stuck a piece of rye bread in the toaster and got out the butter. Rye toast was my favorite snack, but Mom said I would have to stop eating it soon or it would make me fat. So far, I was normal weight, not skin and bones exactly, but okay for my height. Mom promised to warn me when it was time to join her for carrot and celery sticks. I wasn’t looking forward to it.

            By the time the rye toast was out of the toaster, I heard mom and grandma talking. Their voices were raised, but I didn’t take them seriously. They always raised their voices when they were excited. And, this didn’t sound much like an argument, just an energetic discussion, mostly in English with a little German, Yiddish, French and Russian thrown in, none of which I understood.

            By the time we sat down to dinner, I was waiting to see who would bring up the Patty problem.  It was mom. She poured dad a glass of beer and gave him a roll, already buttered and sprinkled with salt.

            “Listen Joe,” she said. “I need you to drive over to the Barons and make up with that idiot Sam.”

            “What are you talking about?” my father looked up and wiped the foam off his upper lip.

            “Margie’s in trouble and Sam’s being his usual pain in the ass.”

            “So, what do you expect me to do about it?” My father asked. “Sam is a pain in the ass. I can’t stand the guy. It’s none of our business what they do or don’t do.”

            Mom and Grandma exchanged the look, the one that meant this wasn’t over, but they would get back to it later.  

            After dinner, I went to my room, sat down at my desk, finished my homework and packed everything in my school bag for the next day. Then I headed to the closet for a bathrobe. I was headed to the shower to wash my hair before I set it in the new style featured in Seventeen.  I opened the closet door, turned on the light and saw that someone was sitting on a stool in the back of my closet.

            “Jesus.” I tried to catch my breath. “You scared me to death.”

            “Shhhh.” Patty whispered. “Don’t make any noise.” She was wearing the same clothes as the last time I saw her.

            “Are you kidding?” I was waiting for my heart to stop pounding. “What are you doing here? My mother will kill me.”

            “Actually, your mother knows I’m here.”  She walked out of the closet and closed my bedroom door. I was struck by how little alike we looked. Patty was the prettiest girl in school. Tall with dark, thick wavy hair and pale skin. Her eyes were brown like mine, but widely set. I thought her bust-to-waist ratio was probably exactly what Seventeen Magazine had decided was the perfect amount. No wonder she drove the boys wild.

            “Your mother’s a saint, you know.” She sat down on my bed. 

            “So how did you end up in my closet?”

            “I didn’t want to stay at Nick’s and I didn’t know where to go. I found out where you lived and your grandma, my great aunt apparently, let me in. She said I should hide up here until they figure out how to convince my parents to see me.”

            “Why were you in the closet?”

            “Your mother said I had to hide from your father?”

            “Got it. You have any clothes? Did you eat?” I opened my bedroom door and hung out the “DO NOT ENTER” sign I had made to keep Willy out of my stuff.

            “No clothes, not really hungry,” Patty said. “But I could use some water.”

            “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”

            “No, wait. You have to be careful.”

            “I got it,” I said. “My father is not supposed to know.”

            This turned out to be easier than I expected. Dad was asleep in front of the television in the den. The Yankee game was going full blast. Between the announcers yelling the plays and dad’s snoring, there was no chance he would see or hear me. Mom and grandma were sitting at the dining room table drinking tea and wearing their worrying faces.  They hadn’t cleared the dishes, so this was serious. One of the house rules was clearing the table right after dinner.

            “So, Patty was in my closet.” I whispered. “Did you think I wouldn’t notice? I assume you have a plan?”

            Mom stood up and walked over to me.  “We’re trying to figure this out,” she said and gave me a hug. “I’m going to put some things on a tray for Patty. Think you can keep her company until we decide what to do?”

            I nodded and opened the refrigerator. Mom took out dinner leftovers and put together a plate: meat loaf, depression spaghetti, an apple and some cookies. I filled a glass with ice water and put it on the tray, balanced everything and walked carefully up the stairs. I put the tray down on the floor and opened my bedroom door. The room was dark. Patty was fast asleep on my bed. I put the tray down on my desk, ate the cookies, and went to take a bath. I figured if Patty woke up, she would know what to do with the food.

            After my bath, Patty was still sleeping, so I took the cover off my guest bed and lay down with my flashlight and Catcher in the Rye.  I was still asking myself what Holden would do when I fell asleep. I heard the door open during the night and saw Mom and Grandma standing in the doorway whispering. Willy woke me up banging on my door.

            “Mom says get up now,” his voice cracked. He was going to be a real teenager soon and even a bigger pain. “You’re late for school.”

            I threw off the quilt and sat up. Patty was gone. Her bed was neatly made. It was as if she had never been there. I dressed quickly and went downstairs. Grandma was in the kitchen alone. She said Mom drove Dad to the station to make an early train, but she would be back to take me to school. I figured I would get the update when she returned.

            By the time Mom showed up, I was waiting on the porch with Willy. She dropped him off first and then headed to the high school building a few blocks away. She parked in front of the building. I saw Patty in a group of girls sitting on the front steps.

            “So,” I asked. “What now?”

            “You’ll see Patty in class. Obviously, you don’t say anything about last night.” Mom said. “I’m working on your father and making progress. I’m not optimistic, but if I don’t succeed, there is some chance that Patty will be living with us for a while.”

            “Secretly?” I raised my eyebrows. “How is that going to work?”

            “It won’t be secretly,” Mom said. “If they sit shiva and she’s dead to them, what difference does it make to the idiot Sam.”

            “What about Nick?”

            “What about him?”

            “I mean, if they are planning a wedding, doesn’t he need to be a part of all this?”

            Mom sighed. “I’m working on that. Go to school.”

            The next day was a classic example of how, when things are incredibly complicated, I just keep doing the day-to-day stuff as if everything is fine. I sleep, I eat, I get dressed for school, and sit in the class with the cousin I never knew I had. The one who’s pregnant and has been thrown out of her house. The one who hides in my closet and cries all night. And I just act like everything is normal. I really think human beings are amazing.

            The whole day felt normal, until mom picked me up after school, Patty was waiting for her too. We got in the car and drove to our place without talking. I had rye toast and made some for Patty, but she wasn’t hungry. Mom said we should stay out of sight, so we went up to my room to do homework. Mom said she would bring a tray for Patty.

                        At seven, I went downstairs for dinner. Dad was home from an early golf game.  Apparently, he had won his match and was in a good mood. It didn’t hurt that his golf partners had won a bundle betting on him. Dad didn’t believe in betting on his game, but he let his buddies take him out for a round, which is what he called hanging around a bar for two hours. He was smiling even before he saw Grandma’s fancy roast beef with horseradish sauce. See, everything was normal. At least at that point.

            I was impressed with how, during dinner, mom and grandma never mentioned that Patty was living upstairs. Dad told us about his game and mom made the mistake of asking Willy about his trains. That took us all the way to desert. Dad’s favorite, rice pudding with whipped cream. Mom reminded Dad that the Yankees were playing, so he went into the den, turned on the tv and was snoring by the time we cleared the dishes. Mom sent me upstairs for my bath and asked me to show Patty how the shower worked. By eleven Patty and I were both in bed. The privacy sign was still up, so Willy wasn’t allowed in, but Mom stopped by to kiss us goodnight. Patty was already asleep. I guess that’s what pregnancy does to you.

            To be honest, this whole thing had knocked me out, so I skipped reading and fell asleep immediately. I was deep in a dream when I felt a hand on my arm.

            “I don’t feel well.” Patty was standing over me. In the moonlight flooding through my window, I saw she was very pale. “Really, I don’t feel well.”

            I opened my door, checked the hallway and held Patty’s hand as we walked across the hall to the bathroom. I held Patty’s head while she leaned over the toilet. Nothing happened.

            “What is it?” I asked. “Are you nauseous? I can get you a Coke. Mom always does that for me.”

            “I’m not sure what this is.” She held her stomach and stood up. “My stomach hurts. Can I go back to bed?”

            I walked her back to bed, pulled back the covers and held my breath. The sheets were soaked with blood. Patty sat down and started to cry.

            “Listen,” I said. “I need you to wait here. I’ll get mom.” I closed the door, checked that the Keep Out sign was secure and walked down to mom and dad’s room. I walked to mom’s side of the bed and touched her shoulder.

            “What?” She lifted her head. “What’s wrong?”

            “It’s Patty. She’s bleeding all over the sheets. You need to hurry.”

            “Shhh,” she whispered. She stood up, threw on her robe. “Don’t wake your father. Go get your grandmother.” We closed her bedroom door on the way out.

            I ran down the hall to wake Grandma, who put on her robe and walked back with me to my room. Mom was on the phone, calling for an ambulance. As we walked over, she hung up the phone.

            “The ambulance will be here in fifteen,” she said. “I’m calling Margie.”

            “Listen, Margie,” she said. “Don’t talk. Just listen. Patty may be having a miscarriage. She’s bleeding heavily.”  She paused and nodded at Grandma, who was holding Patty’s hand and stroking her forehead. “Of course, I’m with her,” she said. “I’ll go with her to the hospital. Meet us there. With or without Sam.”

            Mom hung up and took Patty’s other hand. Both mom and grandma were looking at Patty, so I was the one who saw my door open and Dad in the hallway outside my door.

            “What the hell?” he asked. “What the hell’s going on here? Who the hell is this?”

            “You know very well who this is,” mom said. She was using her no-nonsense voice, the one that meant don’t mess with me. “This is Patty, my cousin Margie’s daughter. She’s bleeding. We called for an ambulance. It’s on the way.”

            “You called for what?”

            “An ambulance,” mom said, just as we heard the siren coming down the driveway. “And, Joe, I don’t have time to argue with you now, so if you would just get dressed and take my mother to the hospital to meet me that would be helpful. I’m going in the ambulance with Patty.”

            My father knew better than to argue with mom, and he knew what happened when people bleed. During the war, he had seen some of his best soldier friends bled out on the battlefield. It left him with years of anxiety that only time and golf seemed to help. And in emergencies, he was great at following mom’s instructions. He motioned to Grandma and they both went to get dressed.

            “Julia,” mom said. “You stay here with your brother. I’ll call you as soon as I can.”

            Fifteen minutes later, Patty and mom left for the hospital with two ambulance doctors and a nurse. Grandma and Dad followed in his car. I took the bloody sheets off my bed and brought them down to the washing machine, started a load and threw in some extra bleach. I watched as the machine churned and the bright red blood disappeared in the soapy water until it was like it had never been there at all. Then, I went back to my room and tried to stay awake, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

            I woke up at 6:30. Willy was sleeping, but mom, grandma and dad were not back. I woke up Willy and made sure he was dressed and had his books. I poured some cereal for both of us and tried to figure out the best way to get to school. It occurred to me that I could call my best friend, Susie. Her mom worked in the city and took the early train, so I knew she would be ready to go.  I told Susie that mom wasn’t feeling well and asked if her mother could give us a ride. By this time, Willy had started to ask questions about what was going on. I told him to keep his mouth shut and there might be a new train in it for him. Ten minutes later, Susie’s mom drove us to school. And for the rest of the day, it was like everything was normal.

            When the three o’clock bell rang, I rushed outside and sure enough, mom was waiting, standing outside the car, just like any other day. She was wearing her red coat, so I spotted her as soon as the school door opened. I waved and ran down to meet her. She gave me a hug and kiss in front of everyone, which was something I had asked her not to do, but given everything that was going on, it felt right, so I hugged back. We got into the car and sat quietly.

            “Patty’s going to be fine,” she said, taking my hand in hers. “She lost the baby, but she’s going to be fine. In a couple of days, she’ll go home and sort this out with her parents.”

            “Did you see them?” I asked. “Her parents? The Sam guy?”

            “They were at the hospital when we arrived.”

            “Was dad okay? I mean with Sam?”

            “Your father was wonderful. You know what the word mensch means?

            “Of course.” I smiled. “Grandma loves that word. ‘So and so is a real mensch’. ‘Or that SOB is no mensch.’ “

            Mom laughed. “Exactly. Well, your father’s real mensch. A real human being. He made everything so much easier.”

            “So, no shiva?”

            “No.” Mom started the car. “No shiva.”

            “What about for the baby? Will there be one for the baby?”

            Mom put her foot on the brake, turned and looked at me. “What made you ask that?”

            “I just thought that…” I hesitated. “That since it was the baby that died, if they were going to have a shiva, it should be for the baby.”

            Mom turned off the car. “Patty was only a couple of months along,” she said. “But you’re right. A life is a life. If they were going to sit shiva…” She stopped talking and took my hand.

            “I don’t understand.” I saw that mom was having trouble with the question and would use her backup plan for these kinds of questions.

            “Let me think about it,” she said, pulling out of the parking lot.

            “What will happen to Nick?”

            “The sixty-four-thousand-dollar question,” she said. “I guess we’ll know soon enough.”

            You probably think the story ends here. And in a way it did. After Patty got home from the hospital, Sam changed his mind about the shiva. A few months later, after Patty graduated, Sam and Margie paid for a wedding and four years at Cornell where Nick and Patty lived in the married couples’ dorm. Nick went on to Harvard business school and Patty used her English literature honors to read stories to the three kids she had in five years, two boys and a girl. She named her daughter Anna, after my grandmother. The boys were Simon and Josh. No one was named Sam.

            Fifteen years later, Nick was running Sam’s business and Sam was spending his time building his legacy through a series of seven-figure donations. By the time, I saw him at dad’s funeral, his name was on more than a few hospital and museum walls and Margie was a regular on the charity circuit. We kept up with them in the society pages.

            One year, Sam made a particularly generous seven-figure donation to the city’s leading museum. According to the papers, they were going to name an entire wing after him.

            “Chinese Pottery,” Mom read from the Gala invitation. “He always had a thing for Chinese pottery. Margie hates the stuff. I think he bought it to annoy her.  There’s a gala to announce the gift. I would appreciate it if you would take me.”

            The society pages predicted the event of a lifetime. Sam had hired Cirque de Soleil to entertain and a big-name band for dancing. The food would be catered by the city’s preeminent kosher caterers and served by the cast of Fiddler on the Roof, which was being revived on Broadway. The cast would sing during dessert.  Mom and I bought new dresses and met for mani-pedis on the afternoon of the event.

            “I can’t believe how many years have passed since Patty lost the baby,” I said.

            “Shhhh,” mom put her wet fingernails up. In her recent campaign to be modern, they were painted dark blue.

            “Oh, come on,” I said. ” It was a thousand years ago. You think anyone cares or even remembers?”

            “Actually, I do,” mom frowned at her nails. “You like this color?”

            “The color’s fine. Why so secretive after all these years? It was the worst kept secret in town.”

            “It was.” Mom stood up and headed to the nail dryer. “But it’s still painful, so I don’t like to talk about it.”

            That evening, we dressed at my place and, if I do say so myself, we looked gorgeous. Both in long black dresses with trendy leather tops. High heels, big fake diamonds, and bright red lipstick. We were in the taxi on our way to the Plaza when Margie called mom. I could hear her screaming over mom’s phone. Mom turned white and turned to me.

            “Sam’s dead.” she mouthed.

            “What?” I asked as a taxi swerved in front of us. Our driver hit his horn.

            “Dead,” she repeated and turned off her phone. “He dropped dead in the limo on the way to the Plaza.”

            Our driver dropped us in front of the hotel, and we headed to the ballroom to join three hundred guests, all expecting to honor Sam. Margie met Mom in the lobby and asked her to make the announcement to the guests. She had decided to go ahead with the dinner and a new program highlighting the gift and all of Sam’s favorite charities.

            “Priceless,” my mother said as she headed to the ballroom. “Instead of raising a glass to congratulate Sam, three hundred people will raise a glass to say goodbye. You couldn’t make this up.”

            Two months later, Nick finally got his CEO title and held the job until he retired at sixty-five. After retirement, he spent a year watching ESPN and playing golf before he walked out on Patty and moved to Florida with Marie, the club’s thirty-five-year-old golf pro. They moved to Miami, where he was still living. Every once in a while, I saw Patty walking her dog in the park or hailing a cab, but I was still working and with the kids and grandkids, I had a full plate. I meant to call and catch up, but you know how it is.

            Until, one Saturday afternoon, I ran into Patty in the shoe department at Saks.

            “Cousin Patty.” I smiled. “Long time…”

            “Julia.” she came over for a hug. “You look great. How are you? How’s your mom? The family?”

            “All good. ” I smiled. “Mom’s doing well. It’s been hard since dad died, but she’s making progress. How’s your mom doing?”

            “The merry widow.” Patty laughed. “Sam left her with lots of cash and she’s using it to enjoy herself.”

            I smiled. “That’s great.”

            “I agree,” Patty said. “She earned it. Now she has trips with friends. Shopping sprees. Parties for her girlfriends. I’m sure your mom was at a few of these.”

            “And you?” I asked. “How are you doing? I mean, since the divorce.”

            “Oh, I’m fine,” she said, pulling her phone out of her bag. “Look at the kids.” She scrolled down pictures of six smiling adults standing at the beach in front of eight kids of various sizes and two bored-looking teenagers. “All doing well. I’m financially secure. Have a nice place to live. Friends. It’s all good.” She smiled.

            “So, was it worth it?” I asked.

            She raised her eyebrows. “Worth it?”

            “You know.” I couldn’t help myself. “The great romance. The scandal. The shiva. Losing the baby? Was it worth it?”

            “I can’t believe you asked that,” she said, but she was still smiling. “By the time you get to our age… Sometimes I wonder if I did the right thing. But I was seventeen. All alone in so many ways. I just went along with things. It was easier. And…”


            “We had a good life for a long time. Nick’s happy now with Marie. She’s Catholic, you know, so he’s gone back to the church. Hoping he’ll go to heaven.” She laughed. “Anyway, it was nice seeing you. I have to run. Let’s get together for lunch or something soon.”

            I kissed my second cousin on both cheeks and headed down the escalator to the first floor. I walked through the cosmetic section to the 50th street exit and took the Madison Avenue bus home. It was rush hour and crowds were coming out of the buildings along the Avenue and I wondered how many of them had a story to forget.  Time, I thought, time…



Lou-Ellen Barkan is a native New Yorker, currently living with her husband and an eleven year-old Golden Retriever. Her three careers, on Wall Street, in city government and not-for-profit have produced enough characters and material for a lifetime of writing. She has previously published fiction and narrative non-fiction, and written two television series with a comedian/writing partner.

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