Our family ethnicity was so diverse (for its time), that we’d say, we include everyone from Buddhists to Baptists. There weren’t really any Buddhists and the Baptist branch consisted of one uncle none of us particularly liked. The kith and kin I knew were European-Americans who were either very lax in their Judeo-Christian obligations or downright hostile towards them. However, there were a few little sprigs on the family tree who began as Jews.
Grandma’s distant cousin whom I called Aunt Shayna had the hair and complexion of fine white linen, making her sparkling blue eyes shine like welcoming beacons. Each spring when the earth offered up new shoots, Aunt Shayna, along with her daughter and grandchildren, arrived with homemade delights; chopped liver pate, delicate springtime soups and buttery knaidel. (You’ve probably eaten knaidel, but you’ve called it ravioli, mandoo or dumplings) Our already bustling house became even busier with local relatives descending to visit with Shayna and her brood. At dawn, our house filled with the aroma of frying onions—as the women readied them for roast meats. The ancient washing machine in our cellar, chugged through the day as relatives tossed in extra loads-- and laughter gathered in corners: some like baby giggles, coming from under the covers-- some raucous; as memories were resurrected at the kitchen table.
One evening, my visiting cousins and I watched a TV movie. In it, an old woman put a shawl over her head, cupped her hands above two lit candles, brought her palms to her eyes and nodded in prayer. MaryAnn, the youngest cousin, showed off her knowledge with a shout, “that’s how Jews pray. I know. I saw my grandma do that.”
And therein begins my favorite family love story.
When Aunt Shayna was a teenager, she worked at her parents’ candy store. A red-head with those same bright blue eyes that invited smiles though out her life, quickly caught the attention of a young Irish boy who came in for a pack of chewing gum. Tim Cassidy was smitten at the get-go, but he wasn’t a fool. He surely noticed the stern looks from the old man in beard and yarmulke behind the counter. But although love doesn’t always make us smarter, it certainly can make us brave—after a few months, Tim and Shayna were an item.
Pleas to their parents to allow them to marry fell on deaf ears. His Irish Catholic family locked Tim out of the house. Shayna’s father said kaddish (Jewish prayer for the dead) for her.
In all of this, one person rose to be their champion-my Grandma Rose. I don’t know why their story moved her to action, perhaps, because she was never a fan of organized religion-or maybe, like me, she couldn’t resist being part of a love story, but she witnessed their marriage at City Hall, secured them a 3 story walk-up in Manhattan and bought them a soup pot.
Tim worked as a day laborer while Shayna grew plump carrying their first child. The baby boy, a testament to their unshakeable love, survived only a few months when he caught a fever and died. Neither family, Catholic nor Jewish would supply a burial for their grandson. Shayna and Tim’s firstborn was buried in Hart Island’s Potters Field. There, dead infants were interred in trenches, stacked five little coffins high and twenty coffins across. Even today, there’s no marker to say he was here and he was loved.
The tragedy was too much for the young couple. Shayna returned to her parents alone. Tim joined the navy. Three years to the day of their seperation, as Shayna swept the dust from the candy store floor, Tim walked in. “Come on, Shayna. Let’s go.” She dropped her broom and left with him.
A bit more prosperous and certainly older and wiser, The Cassidy’s had another son and daughter. They lived in nearby Queens and kept their close ties with Grandma until a job opportunity in Maryland took our Cassidy cousins far from Grandma’s Sunday dinners. Still, Shayna and Grandma wrote monthly letters and occasionally, (if there was a birth, death or wedding) they shouldered the cost of long distance phone calls.
A call announcing Tim’s sudden death set our household into a flurry of activities. I was awakened, bathed and driven to my paternal grandparents’ apartment without one word of explanation. (We weren’t religious, but we were superstitious. Conversations about death with children were strictly forbidden-lest they bring similar tragedies to our door.) Grandma gathered her daughters into the kitchen to prep the funeral foods. Then she commandeered my father, mother and their car to drive her south. As always, she refused to let Shayna suffer alone.
More springs followed, bringing Aunt Shayna and her children for their annual visits. One morning before the family awakened, I tiptoed upstairs to Grandma’s to play with Toby, her cat. There at the kitchen table, bathed in the pink light of dawn, Aunt Shayna invited me to sit on her lap. She showed me a little card with Gothic print and a photo of Uncle Tim. “This is Tim’s mass card,” she shared. “I miss him every day and it helps to see his face.” Softly, she read the words, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” 1 Corinthians 13:7