Jewish families used to live in clusters. Bubbes and zaidas, brothers and sisters, uncles, cousins, and aunts would live in one house or be opstairikes or nextdoorikes; they’d live down the block or around the corner; they’d live in adjoining or at least nearby towns. And the women, especially, would visit back and forth, ferrying food, gossip, and sewing baskets filled with mending or needlework, to keep their hands busy.
Our maternal grandparents, uncle, and aunt lived upstairs from us in a two-family house in Passaic, and we and they were often visited, as well, by the Paterson tantes, Sadie and Annie to say nothing of our mother’s friends from Russia (Anya, Nadia, Sylvia, Dora, et al). We also visited the tantes and their offspring, most of whom lived in separate apartments in one apartment house.
My father, on the other hand, was an anomaly (he was an anomaly in many ways, but that’s another story). An "immigrant" from Massachusetts, far from his large family there, he missed his four sisters (and two cousins raised as his sisters) and two brothers. He was particularly lonely on Sundays, when he would lament his sisters and brothers would be calling on one another, but not, alas, on us. So we visited them, on (very) rare occasions. The trip to New England, in the car we called the Rattletrap, was not lightly undertaken. I remember meeting my father’s mother only once we called her "little Jewish bubbe" because she was tiny and wore black and covered her hair, as opposed to my round, blonde, secular grandmother. And I remember meeting his father not at all; he died shortly after my birth.
Three of the sisters died young; their husbands remarried and their children were lost to our family history. But Aunt Ida sent my sister and me into giggles because she dyed her white hair blue. And Uncle Hymie was delightful, but we became more than geographically distant when he, who had been a Wobbly, continued to sing Stalin’s praises. (My mother and her family had fled the Soviet Union.) I don’t know if he ever recanted, but the breach was somewhat mended when he came to my son’s pidyon haben (and slipped a $10 bill into his diaper).
My father’s brother Eli was a cantor in Atlantic City and therefore easier to get to. But even there, after our parents’ deaths, we lost track of his sons, who were boisterous and friendly, who had picked me up and flung me around, and whom I liked very much.
A few years ago, we sent letters to just about every Jewish newspaper in the country, looking to find family. We did get one response, but from a distant branch, and that, rather than signifying a find, seemed a sign that the others were lost.
These days, far-flung families are common. To quote the Carole King song, everyone’s "so far away; doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?" But family visits have become easier, what with fast cars, superhighways, and air travel weather permitting, of course.
And, of course, it does not always permit.
Just last week, my brother- and sister-in-law, who live half the year in Arizona, were expecting their daughter-in-law and grandchildren to fly in from Pennsylvania. To that end, our in-laws had rented a van big enough to hold two children’s car seats. They also rented a double stroller and (they are super-organized) a bagful of toys.
But snow rained down and chaos to which, no doubt, the two tired and hungry little girls contributed reigned in the Philadelphia airport. They had to postpone their visit for a month, at which time the van, stroller, and toys will have to be rented again.
Meanwhile, if anyone knows what’s become of the heirs of Meir and Tzipi Kaplan and their children Eli, Hymie, Rebecca, Florence, Martha, and Ida, who lived in Lawrence, Mass., I’d love to hear about them. And then I would say, "It would be so fine to see your face at my door."