Barbara Kay: Won’t win a Tony Award, but I enjoyed this family drama
National Post - Tuesday May 1st, 2012
When I was growing up in Toronto, annual visits to my Detroit cousins were much-hyped occasions. Sometimes it meant a day off from school. Then there was the drive through the spooky Windsor-Detroit tunnel, capped by heart-stopping excitement in the middle, as the crossed American and Canadian flags came into view. And finally, there was Detroit itself. In those days — more than half a century ago — it was a safe, bustling city, home to one of America’s first mega-malls, a thrilling novelty for us Toronto rubes.
I was fascinated by American money: It was strangely “worth more” than ours; yet all its denominations were foolishly produced in the same colour, forcing one to actually scrutinize every bill during a transaction. I was also bemused by Detroiters’ peculiar accent (the way they said “socks” sounded just like the department store “Saks”).
In the decades since, many of the Detroit cousins scattered to different parts of North America, while the Toronto branch stayed in Toronto, a culturally interesting disparity. A few years ago, it dawned on us that we were running out of children’s weddings to bring us together, and that several years had gone by since we had last been gathered in one place. So last weekend, we assembled in Manhattan for a reunion.
During the evenings, we wined and dined ourselves. But Saturday morning was the official “reminiscing” session for blood relatives. (The spousal “out-laws” went for a walk.) Two of my cousins, who had grown up in the same duplex as my grandparents, and who knew them best, had written a formal biography and read it aloud, after which we all contributed additional individual recollections.
My grandfather David Golden — Zaydie to us — arrived in Hamilton, Ont., from Rumania at the turn of the 20th century. He studied to become a cantor and a ritual circumcisionist. There were no openings in that line in Hamilton, but there was one in Detroit.
Zaydie imported a 17-year-old Rumanian cousin to marry. But soon after she arrived, she was stricken with typhoid fever. According to legend, Zaydie nursed her back to health in his rented room, because the local hospital was overrun with rats.
Zaydie’s service to the Detroit Jewish community didn’t bring him wealth, but offered something better than mere lucre: His family was rich in Jewish social capital. My mother felt like an aristocrat of sorts (it wasn’t for nothing she was later nicknamed The Duchess). She used to boast that everyone, even Detroit’s famous Jewish mobsters — the Purple Gang — many of whom sang in her father’s synagogue choir, treated her, the daughter of “Reverend” Golden, with exaggerated deference.
We all remembered, as a kind of objective correlative to his stern manner, Zaydie’s dark blue, stiff horsehair sofas that painfully prickled our bare legs. We talked as well about our bubbie, who cooked for young rabbinical students and died before most of us were born. But eventually we turned our thoughts to secondary and tertiary relations. And what a non-conforming lot they were.
I came for sentiment, but got entertainment. There were tales of wild parties, suicide and jail time. One couple whose erotically charged photograph poses leapt off the pages of my mother’s family album had their marriage annulled for non-consummation. A gambling habit caused domestic ruin.
And then there was this exchange:
Cousin Millie: “Little Trudie just adored your father.”
Me: “I forget whether Big Trudie and Little Trudie were sorted by size or age.”
“Why did Little Trudie adore our father?”
“Because he saved her.”
“Saved her from what?”
“You remember, when her first husband sold her into white slavery …”
It seems Little Trudie’s first husband would pimp out our cousin to all and sundry. My father apparently had some colourful pals in those days who could be … persuasive. He called in some chips. The pimp soon found it expedient to peddle his perversions elsewhere, and Little Trudie eventually found happiness with an honest man.
And so it went as the hours flew by. We didn’t get around to attending a Broadway play, but it didn’t matter. The family drama playing way, way off Broadway was a captivating smash. And I had a front row seat.