Me and the family this last Rosh Hashanah

A beloved member of my extended family passed away recently. He was a good man who — despite his struggles — came out on top as loving, lighthearted and always helpful. He will be forever missed.

News of the death broke that Friday with a call from my sister. She is our family’s Emergency Broadcast System (and it is never a test). I assumed the burial would take place the following Sunday, as is Jewish custom. But the coroner wanted an extra day or two to evaluate the body. Within 24 hours of calls, texts and Facebook posts to those affected, it became clear the burial would be on that Wednesday.

I live in Los Angeles and my family are in Toronto, a significant but traversable 2000 mile DMZ. That Wednesday however I had to be in Vienna to give a paid speech. Because 2019 was a slow year professionally, and the organizer would have been devastated, I simply couldn’t cancel at the last minute. It was soon clear that there was no way I could make it to the funeral.

I felt awful. Everyone seemed understanding of my predicament and said they felt loved, nonetheless. I contributed by writing much of our family’s eulogy, which was delivered beautifully by my sister.

Missing important events is a fact of modern life. But if I’m being honest, it happens to me a lot. And while I was once very comfortable in this distance, I’m not sure how I feel anymore.

I’ve been away since I turned 18 — and with the exception of a few months waiting for my US visa to clear, I haven’t lived in Canada since. I’ve always come home for the major Jewish holidays, which are Passover and Rosh Hashanah in my family. They are celebratory occasions, filled with food and laughter. I usually lead the ceremonies, because my parents paid good money (don’t worry, they’ll remind you) for my religious education, and it makes them happy to hear me say even a few words in my rusty Hebrew.

I rarely stayed for more than 96 hours at a time though. I’d fly in, cook some stuff, do the ceremony and fly out. I was endlessly rushing back the morning after in the name of business or other time commitments. In this way, my presence at home was like a Charo cameo on The Love Boat; always amazing, vaguely ethnic, too short and big breasted. And as much as you loved it, you were glad it didn’t wear out its welcome.

The distance was my doing, not theirs. The first chance I got, I left home. Initially to University around 70 miles away, and afterwards to the US for graduate studies. The more headroom I put between myself and my family, the better I seemed to feel. Of course, I loved and missed them in moments, but most of the time I was glad to have my own physical space, my own agency, and not have to answer to their emotional needs or desire for closeness. I was determined to build and pilot my own speedboat, and my past felt like ballast that needed to be cast off.

Weirdly, this isn’t because my parents were strict. On the contrary, they were European. It’s that thing where you see French families out for dinner with their 6 year olds at 11pm, and the kids are swigging bordeaux while the parents laugh, chicly. My parents were like that, but with more whine.

Their permissiveness made for a fun contrast with my white-bread friends. Mom and dad let me go to Amsterdam alone when I was 14, drive down to Mexico at 17 with my bestie, and generally have alcohol and people over provided we didn’t drink and drive.

Their trust allowed me to expand my life into greyer areas they — and my friends — had no visibility into. For example, I would go out with high school pals on Friday and get dropped off at home. As my friends’ car pulled away, I’d make a silent show of going inside, but turn right around, start my car, and go off to have my second night as a closeted gay boy. They never waited up for me like parents do in the movies, and they never questioned my timing.

Another good example was the weed. My friends and I smoked tons of it in the basement of my parents’ house. My mom only ever brought up drugs once, when I was 15 or 16. We had been talking about the 1960s in the kitchen after breakfast because I had to write a paper about it for history class.

“How well could you follow the Vietnam war stuff from behind the iron curtain?” I asked. My mom grew up in Budapest under communism. At the tender age of 18, she defected to Canada on her own, leaving my grandparents behind.

“Well sweetheart,” she said in her perfectly unintentional Zsa Zsa Gabor impersonation, dragging on her cigarette, “we got all the news except it was filtered through the government. But we knew better because people shared the truth directly.”

“Oh wow, so you knew about the summer of love and stuff?”

Now my mom took a beat. Then she said, “Yes honey. I even tried marijuana one time but it didn’t do anything for me.”

She looked at me closely.

I was a little hazy about her intent, and suddenly a fleeting hope that she might be a pot smoker flashed across my mind. I know how weird that sounds now, but I had good reasons for my optimism.

I first tried pot with a friend from high school. We smoked up in my basement one night early in our friendship. He told me that his mom got him his weed, he got high with her regularly and that she was a psychiatrist. It all made sense at the time. The next week I somehow found myself at their house, smoking a blunt with him and his mom, while she made me take the MBTI personality test. I scored highly on paranoia and introversion. Her cookies were pretty tasty too.

Back in the kitchen, I decided to play it cool with my mom.

“Oh really mom? That’s interesting,” I was sure she could see the ghost of red eyes past.

“Yeah. Have you tried it?” She asked, calmly.

Now we were on more familiar territory. I realized that she was doing a Nancy Reagan / DARE kind of thing, and that I was definitely prepared for.

“No mom. The kids at school do it but I’m not really into it.”

That seemed to placate her. I was grateful, but never understood how she didn’t smell the weed. I guess our prominent Jewish noses were not really for sleuthing.

As permissive as they were, I fled my family for many reasons that don’t make sense now. I needed space to become gay even though my dad was also homosexual, my parents had gay friends, and I never heard the word fag said out loud. I felt the need to leave for privacy, even though I had the basement of our house to myself and parents that never snooped. I yearned for adult control and flexibility over my time, even though I led a robust social life — both single and double — without any conflict.

But at the same time, I felt like I was constantly working for my family. I needed to be strong for my single and often depressed mom. I needed to try hard to maintain a relationship with my cold, distant and manipulative dad. My grandparents were thoroughly traumatized by the horrors of the Holocaust and my broader family was grappling with alcoholism, teen runaways, and kids that simply didn’t want to become dentists. Everywhere I turned, I had responsibilities, expectations to live up to, people to please, tears to dry. Except my own, and I rarely cried.

We were immigrants, survivors, refugees. I was the first born and precocious. My family, not knowing much better, gave me a sense of adult responsibility before I was ready. But I also craved that desire to feel needed. Somehow, being loved and wanted never felt like enough, and I felt an extraordinary sense of duty to my clan. So wherever the family cried out for a savior, I tried to step up. I rarely ate at the kids table, both literally and figuratively.

Their strategy worked, for the most part. But when it didn’t, it really didn’t.

Once, when I was 5, two of my parents’ friends came to visit from Montreal. They were childless and prissy — the first people I had ever met with teacup poodles and wall-to-wall white carpet. We visited their home once, and I remember Susan telling me to “take off my shoes and not drink anything colored” while on the carpet. That made things tough because the carpet was literally everywhere, and I wasn’t old enough to drink straight vodka with breakfast. I left thirsty.

On this occasion however, they were visiting us. My parents rolled out the luxe treatment, and we ate at our formal dining table (rarely used) with the good silverware (never used) and the carefully curated set of fancy crystal glassware (just for decoration). Though there’s nary a suitor, I am pre-pre-pre-registered for a set of those tumblers at Neiman Marcus.

On that dinner party occasion, I wore a big brown bowtie and a matching vest and pants, and sat at the big table with the adults. I remember participating in the conversations as an equal, and generally enjoying the tasty things my mom had spent 2 days preparing.

And then I vomited.

I threw up all over the carefully set table and the fine china. I threw up on my new, fancy clothes and the Persian rug below. But most shockingly, I threw up all over the woman sitting next to me. That happened to be Susan, the aforementioned neat freak and germaphobe from Montreal. It was tough to see the poodle she was cradling in her arms from all the vomit, but I knew it was there from the noises it was making. They were not good.

When I finally regained consciousness from my unexpected projectile vomiting, I looked around in fear. Susan was sitting there stunned, her mouth agape. That was a suboptimal choice. I clocked my dad, and he was starting to get red. Oh no, I thought, he’s going to be mad. But the person I was most afraid to make eye contact with was my mom. I knew she had worked so hard to impress Susan and Mark, and I felt that I had ruined the night.

But I needn’t have worried. My mom was laughing hysterically. Like it was the funniest thing that had ever happened. She’s always been good at finding the irony in a tough situation. And I had — unwittingly — done what she and my dad secretly wanted to do to Susan and Mark and their pretentiousness but couldn’t. I was sent to wash up and lay down, while Susan set fire to all her belongings and they hopped the next flight back to Montreal. 40 years later, my mom still tells this story with a big laugh. I’m not sure if Susan has recovered, because as far as I know, we never saw them again.

As good as I was at destroying family friendships, I was equally skilled at making new ones.

In 1984, we moved onto a just-built cul-de-sac in a new subdivision, and while my parents were proud of having their own new home, they were busy at work trying to pay for it. Our biological family was not too far geographically, but we didn’t really know people in the immediate neighborhood.

Over the next few months, I noticed that a family had moved in a few doors down, and they had 2 girls that seemed just around my age. I waited for our parents to meet on the street, but it never happened. So one Sunday, I marched over to the house at number 6 and rang the doorbell.

A woman my mom’s age (who I took to be the lady of the house), answered the door.

I had dressed up in a little man suit for the occasion and she took one look at me and smiled broadly.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hi. My name’s Gabe. I live down the street. What’s your name?” I had rehearsed the speech, but my cadence could best be described as hopped up on candy.

“Mary,” the nice woman said. She seemed very amused.

“Nice to meet you. I noticed you had a daughter. I think she and I will be friends.”

I turned out to be quite right. It will soon be 25 years since I introduced myself to the family down the street. In that time we have become virtually inseparable — working, celebrating, traveling and now mourning together. Mary and her husband Izzy became my mom’s closest friends, sticking by her even as her circle dwindled through these hardscrabble years.

It was Izzy who passed a couple of weeks ago. His was the memorial service I couldn’t attend. Until now, it’s been birthdays and brises, marriages and bar mitzvahs that I’ve missed. But we are entering the long, cold funeral season. My parents generation is capital-O Older now, and I wonder if soon I’ll be not coming home for the deaths of relatives and friends that I have known my whole life.

As time has gone on, my speedboat too has slowed of its own accord. As I cast off some baggage, I made room for a new kind of weight. I miss my family, and I long to be with them, even as my choices and my life continue to propel me in other directions. My trips to Toronto have gotten longer, I feel sadness when I leave, and I can’t wait to plan another trip back. Taken together, these changes mean something entirely new.

Ever since my 18th birthday, I’ve always referred to two cities as “home”. One is wherever I am living at the moment, and the other is Toronto. Although I’m not quite ready to give up the California sun, I’d very much like to spend less time being away and more time in my family’s own special warm light.

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