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A Special Cousin in the New Yorker

So much to read, so little time to go through those pages. That’s why I now scan the periodicals I get and decide which articles to read in their entirety. Following this practice, I recently paged through my latest New Yorker and sampled random paragraphs to determine what to concentrate on. That’s how part of my past found vibrant new life.

Glancing at details of the story about a mother who, fifty years ago, publicly supported her gay son, I was initially impressed by the courage of this woman, particularly because, at that time, she had to have battled fierce resistance.

Still, she refused to hide, to take refuge in silence. Early on, I was drawn to the fact that her family name was “Sobelson,” remembering that one of my mother’s sisters was Sadie Sobelson. An interesting coincidence I thought, but simply a happenstance. Although not a common surname, it couldn’t have been that unusual. But the name was enough to pique my interest, so I read on. Any doubt about my connection to the subject vanished because of details in the next paragraph.

The subject of the article, Jeanne Manford, née Sobelson, was born in Flushing, N.Y., where her parents, identified as Sadie and Charlie, lived. Sadie was a nurse, Charlie, a salesman. Instantly, I was consumed by images of my Aunt Sadie and Uncle Charlie and their attractive house in Flushing, which I really enjoyed visiting. If any doubt remained concerning my personal connection to the story, it was dispelled by the final salient detail that Jeanne was one of five sisters, whose names, after so many years of going unused by me, I was able to summon instantly.

Sometimes, we claim that we remember long-gone episodes in our lives as if they happened yesterday. Mostly, that’s exaggeration, a wish rather than a fact. Despite my skepticism about whether that phenomenon exists, I felt instantly flung back to a cherished but long unrevisited part of my early life. That process wasn’t initiated by photos of Jeanne accompanying the story. Had I seen them without realizing our connection, I’d have thought the images suggested a generically pleasant, but thoroughly determined middle-aged woman. What totally seized me were the words--the family name, location of their home, the mention of five sisters. A dormant past had suddenly come alive, word images of people and places connecting with heart-rending accuracy.

When I was a kid, all my cousins and uncles and aunts paid agreeable attention to me, which, of course, didn’t offend me at all. Their affection and concern for me, I realized in retrospect, contributed to development of self-esteem. Somehow, I especially enjoyed being with the Sobelsons, whether on one of our infrequent visits to Flushing or theirs to Philadelphia. I think there were two reasons for that. They were New Yorkers, which, a kid who’d lived his whole life in what he regarded then as the unspecial city of Philadelphia, conferred uncommon worldliness on them. More important, they were always upbeat and ebullient. Life always seemed to excite them, and they lived it with enthusiasm. I smile now as I recall a particular habit I developed as a kid. After the customary Saturday movie matinee with my pals, I’d sometimes hurry home ahead of them, hoping to see Uncle Charlie’s car parked in front of our house, signifying a visit from the family. That happened rarely, but my yearning for the possibility never wavered. I simply enjoyed being in their presence.

I’m not implying that I didn’t have genuine affection for other family members. However, because most of their time with my parents was spent on more serious matters, their interactions didn’t interest me as much. Later, I came to understand the reason for the off-putting gravity of their discussions. Most members of my Philadelphia-based family were working through a variety of post-traumatic stress syndromes. Recovery from the Great Depression had begun some years before, but the worries and uncertainties it had caused hadn’t disappeared. My father and mother, though not unscathed, had survived that period fairly well. Other relatives hadn’t. So it was understandable that family conversation often got around to economic issues, which precluded my participation in the give-and-take. I didn’t really begrudge them those sessions because I had a basic perception of their seriousness. The adults, though, in various ways tried to shield me from the essence of what they were discussing, and that, of course, was another manifestation of genuinely caring about me.

When the Sobelsons were around, the mood was always lighter. Angst-producing topics couldn’t be entirely avoided, but they were superseded by that aura of optimism. While I could never forget those days, the passage of time resulted in their being consigned to deep memory.

I got older. I graduated from college. I became a teacher. I married. Elaine and I had children. We moved several times. Life evolved into a continuous, absorbing adventure. Certainly, similar events impacted other parts of my extended family, which, I think, explains why, without meaning to do so, we lost contact with each other.

Then, courtesy of the New Yorker, my cousin Jeanne escaped the erasures of time. But revelations of the article stunned me. What transpired in her life after we lost contact was diametrically opposed to what I’d have anticipated. Her older son, beset by depression, took his own life at age twenty-one. Some years later, her other son revealed himself to be gay. As I read, I couldn’t help thinking that the proximity of these events--remember, in 1972, gays had few public advocates--could have devastated her family. Instead, in June of that year, Jeanne, along with Dr. Benjamin Spock, led the Christopher Street Liberation Day March. She had rejected despair in order to advocate for justice. Years ago, could I have envisioned her life taking such twists and turns? Not in my wildest imaginings! That she had reacted so forcefully and with such determination to what life had dealt her reinforced the affection I’d always had for her. That was now enhanced by great respect.

After finishing the article, I thought for a long time. Regardless of how we’d prefer to have our lives unfold, our futures can’t be entirely serene. Challenges will inevitably lie ahead. How we confront them, how we resist being overwhelmed by them will define in large measure who we are. My cousin Jeanne, determined not to be overwhelmed by life, responded to what it contained with adherence to principle. I’m happy and honored that she was my cousin.

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