Last night, I found out that my great-aunt Sylvia (known to me as Aunt Sylv) passed away. She was one of six siblings (including my grandfather), and she was the last to die. Five of those siblings were married, and all five of their spouses have already passed away as well. They were a close-knit bunch. They looked out for each other, spoke with each other on the phone all the time, and visited each other regularly. When something was wrong, they held it back, but only because they didn’t like to trouble each other with bad news.
They were a long-lived bunch. Most of them lived into their 90’s, and, for most of them, their minds stayed sound almost until the end. This meant that my siblings, my cousins and I, had ample time to get to know them well.
Growing up, when I thought of my family, they always figured prominently in my mind. Of the six, there were only two siblings that I didn’t know well – mostly because they lived in Florida. Until around the time when I entered college, the other four lived locally, and we saw them all the time. I have so many memories of family gatherings with my aunts and uncles. When I was younger, my grandparents lived in Paterson, and three of the siblings lived in apartments just a few minutes away from my grandparents by car. I can still remember visiting their apartments to drop of teiglach (dough balls cooked in honey) before Rosh Hashanah. I remember my grandparents and my Great-Aunt Lil visiting weekly for Shabbat lunch (Aunt Lil often brought Stella D’oro “shabbos cookies”), and I remember that, in addition to parties with our friends, our birthdays were always an excuse to have a “family party,” when all of them came to visit to enjoy bagels (or matzoh) and birthday cake. I have so many memories of all of them sitting in a row at the seder table on Passover, enjoying the traditional dishes like the borsht and the brisket. Aunt Sylv was the one who made the tzimmes, and also the floemen (prunes) and potatoes. A few years ago, she taught my father how to make those dishes, and the tzimmes is still an essential part of our annual seder menu.
Now, all of them have left this world. It really feels like the end of an era.
But that wasn’t the only reason that this time feel different. There was something else, too, that made me feel like the generations have shifted.
In the past, when an aunt or uncle passed away, I’d get a call from my mother. “I have sad news,” she’d say, and then she’d tell me who had passed away. Usually, it was after an illness, and while it was sad, it wasn’t a surprise. (Once, I heard the news from my sister, who asked, “so, are you going to the funeral?” Somehow, no one had actually told me that my uncle passed away. They thought they had, but they hadn’t, so it’s a good thing my sister called.)
This time, it was different. This time, I signed on to Facebook after Shabbat, and there was a message from my second cousin, who wanted to let all of us cousins know that his grandmother had passed away. Which meant that, this time, I was the first to know, and I was the one making the phone call. I was the one saying something like, “So, I thought you should know… I learned from Facebook that Aunt Sylv passed away.”
It felt very strange for the conversation to be going the opposite direction, and it felt equally strange that the information was getting to me via social media. Not only did I know before my mother, I also had access (once I scrolled further down my news feed) to the time and location of the funeral, because another cousin had posted it as her status.
It also felt oddly appropriate that the information should arrive in this manner, that the burden of passing on the news has now shifted down to the next generation, and the news no longer spreads via telephone, but instead via facebook and text and e-mail. And yes, there was also the phone call to my mother, but it’s just so fascinating to me how the way we communicate has changed so much since that day over a decade ago when my mother called to tell me that Aunt Lil had passed away.
My grandfather, his siblings and their spouses added so much to our lives, and I hope that my generation of the family can remain as close-knit as they always were, whether via in-person gatherings, phone calls, or all of the newer modes of communication available to us. May the memories of Aunt Sylv, my grandfather, their siblings and their spouses be for a blessing, and may their close-knit relationship with each other and with all of us serve as an example for all of us to follow.