My ninety year old cousin Gene introduced me, at his birthday party yesterday, as his only living relative. His wife, sister and daughter were also there, along with a brother-in-law and a son-in-law, but his point was taken. His father, one of eighteen siblings (nine of whom lived, for a while, at least) was the only one who made it out of the caldron that was Hitler and Himmler’s Europe in the 1940s. His father had survived by sheer luck. An uncle in the U.S. had sent his future father a ticket for a steamship. This was around the time of the First World War. That uncle died shortly after the thirteen year-old arrived in America. That was it for that side of the family. No trace was ever found of anybody else, and Gene searched on at least two trips to Europe.
My grandmother and Gene’s mother were first cousins. They had come over together right before the First World War on a steamship called Korfus die Grosse. I never met that grandmother, my father’s mother, who died young before I was born, but I remember Gene’s mother very well. Dintch was a bright woman with mischievous eyes and prominent cheeks that were often raised in a wry smile. She also lived to be ninety or more, if I recall. The rest of our family disappeared into that marsh south of the Pina River, across from Pinsk in what was then Poland and is now Belarus. There is no trace of any of them, or even the muddy hamlet they all lived in, as far as any of us have been able to find out.
Gene explained our exact degree of cousinly relation yesterday. Since my father and Gene were the sons of first cousins, they are, apparently, second cousins. This makes Gene and me second cousins once removed. I believe the same relationship exists with my cousin Azi in Israel. His mother and my father were first cousins, so their children, Azi and Azrael (Israel), both named for their common ancestor, my father’s grandfather and Azi’s great-grandfather, were second cousins. Or something– I’m pretty sure my analysis is faulty, now that I reread it. I have never been good at this cousin business, probably because I have so few of them it never seemed to matter.
Chatting in the restaurant with Gene’s sister, I couldn’t help mentioning the 1,200 page manuscript I’ve drawn up grappling with my father’s life. Gene’s sister has only fond memories of the witty, well-spoken Irv, and of my mother, another colorful character, an opinionated, earthy woman who loved a good story and a good laugh. Gene’s much younger sister expressed interest in reading it, as Sekhent put the sales varnish on it, that it’s a story of history, and memory, and forgiveness and blah blah blah (actually, all she mentioned was history, but she strongly suggested the ms. is way more than a cv of an unknown man going on 13 years dead).
As is her way, Sekhnet pointed out to the group at the table that it is much easier for me to keep cranking out new pages than it is for me to figure out how to package and sell the book I’ve already largely written. That’s the hard work, she pointed out, making the obvious a little easier for all to see. Hard work, she made plain, is something I constantly shrink from. Like the grasshopper I am, think of that parable of the grasshopper who loves to play guitar, and mocks his constantly worried, constantly working ant neighbor (until winter comes and the grasshopper begs in vain for some food), I continue tapping here, instead of reading the whole thing and plucking out a succulent 15-20 page slice to send out to literary agents and get to the next step.
Since I have promised to send Sheila the whole megilla, I figured I’d seize the opportunity to select a strong 15-20 pages and send her those first [I sent her a random 53 page sampling– ed]. It will be much easier for her to deal with an appetizing slice than more than a thousand pages of sometimes rambling prose.
In my experience, people have a very hard time reading even a five page story, unless it’s published somewhere, in which case they are all pleased to send a good word. I need to cut out a strong section to get to the next stage. How I will do this, I have no idea. I do know I need a cup of strong coffee before I get started. That is the very least I need. You hear me, Sekhnet, goddamn it?