My family lives 3,000 miles away from me (or is it the other way around) so other than my sister (who attended our wedding) Janet had never met any of my remaining family members. As we well know, since family is essential in the Philippines, this had become a big deal. Yes, Janet is Facebook friends with some family members and nowadays that’s as good as actually seeing someone in the flesh. And yet I knew that for her it wasn’t enough.
Plus, I generally go back home promptly about once a decade and it was time. In addition, my aunt and uncle who are the glue of the family are getting older. This all added up to the suggestion that we go “back East” to the wilds of New Jersey for Passover, the one time in the year where everyone who is available and above ground gets together.
I booked tickets for Janet, me and my 15 year old daughter. She hadn’t seen the relatives since she was five so also believed it was about time. So, this past Thursday we all went for a three day whirlwind.
We took a red eye (I barely slept) and arrived in Newark early in the AM. My sister was already waiting and it was great to see her again. For work purposes she owns a large panel van without back seats. Having crammed this trip into my schedule and more importantly into my budget I was too cheap to rent a car, so we spent the weekend bouncing between the steel walls of the back of the van and ended up shaken but not stirred.
The first stop was a drive to suburban Philadelphia to see the ancestral burial plot. The patriarch of the family, Jack, bought eight plots back in the day when such things seemed very very important to families. Five of the eight are occupied and the other three reserved, though not for me. My mother, maternal grandparents, paternal grandmother and an uncle reside there. Ironically, Jack, who shelled out the cash and about whom I spoke in my last blog entry, ain’t there. Such is life in America, where a man paying rarely means he gets to benefit.
The key reason for visiting was to see my mother’s grave. My sister and I were very close to our mother who died at the very young age of 40, so I had not been to her grave in many years. I wanted to introduce her to Janet and to my daughter, who was partly named after her.
Strangely enough, the other reason we visited my mother’s grave was to avoid seeing my father. At nearly 86 my father is an old crank. This is not a criticism of the old, which after all I just about am. He was a young crank as well and hasn’t spoken to anyone in the family in many years.
A couple months before the trip I called my sister and asked “Should we go visit him? It probably would be the last time.” My sister was horrified and I was pretty shocked at my own suggestion. I mostly made it because I have been unable to explain to my family-oriented Filipina wife why we don’t speak to our father. When I corrected Janet, telling her “he doesn’t speak to us” her response was we ought to see him and thus I reluctantly suggested it to my sister. After we slapped each other back to reality I suggested that we visit the only parent who might actually want to see us – the one in the cemetery.
It was actually nice to reminisce about our mother and other relatives, and take lots of smiling pics at the family plot (I am married to a Filipina, after all).
I next suggested we visit our ancestral home and show Janet and my daughter where we grew up. The suburban neighborhood was still OK but not as showy as I thought it was when we lived there in the 60s-70s, when it was a sub-division filled with hundreds of shiny aluminum sided, split level homes. The house appeared empty and I took out my camera and began taking pics of all of us in front of the home, when the owner appeared out of nowhere and appeared pissed. We quickly apologized and explained why we were there.
Elderly and Russian she invited us in and we were transformed into our childhood. Her husband, who looked like an elderly and Jewish version of Putin, soon arrived and once again there was a round of rapid, very nervous explanations of what we were doing there.
I couldn’t help but be impressed and find humor in the juxtaposition between our nicely maintained suburban house now occupied by Russian Jews. When we grew up, the neighborhood was 95% Jewish, but Russian – no way. Russians in those days were thought to be like Khrushchev with missiles off our coast; not the warm, inviting people who took strangers into their home and showed off what they had done to restore it.
I couldn’t help but wonder what Janet thought of the environment I grew up in compared to the one she grew up in. OTOH, I revisited my bedroom, the one I imagined to be huge and luxurious and found it to be far more modest that my failing, old memory recalled.
We bid the Russian couple goodbye, stopped for the required Philly cheesesteaks, driving 30 minutes to my sister’s fave place, and then returned back to Jersey to check into our hotel room. I had booked a modest, aka cheap, place but it was a national chain, so assumed it would be adequate. I couldn’t be more wrong.
It was early season for the coastal town of Seaside, which will get busy starting in May. We went into our room which appeared not to have been cleaned since summer season last year. I have been in many modest hotels in the Philippines and other Asian countries but never saw a pit like this. I complained and the desk clerk showed us the room next door, which was equally a hole. Apparently they had not discovered cleanser or the joys of vacuuming in this part of New Jersey. The clerk, sharp as a tack, could see our unhappiness and came back a couple minutes later with a solution; another hotel just up the street. It too was a dump but at least a clean dump. I have to say that the three women I was traveling with were pretty cool about it all and I escaped too much female wrath, though by the next day everyone in the family had heard the story.
That night we went to our aunt and uncle’s home for dinner. The next day would be the big Passover gathering but that night we were invited for a meet and greet. I think Janet was nervous knowing how important my aunt and uncle are to us.
First, a bit of an aside. My 15 year old daughter did not have a completely positive reaction when Janet and I married. One of her objections (all of them somewhat understandable) was that Janet looked her age. I argued that while Janet was indeed young, slender and a bit shorter than most Americans, she certainly did not look like she was in middle school or high school. That was just plain ridiculous!
We entered the home where my 90 year old uncle warmly greeted us. My daughter entered the kitchen where my aunt was preparing dinner.
“Janet,” she excitedly exclaimed, hugging my daughter. “I am so glad to finally meet you!’
“That’s not exactly Janet,” I corrected her. “This is Janet,” I said, shoving Janet toward my aunt. Everyone managed to fake a cool attitude, as I estimated the number of times I will get busted for this gaffe over the balance of my life.
But all told Janet loved our trip. The family was wonderful to my lovely wife and she appreciated being accepted as a new member of the family. Did I mention she liked Gefilte fish? She’s now officially a Catholic Jew!