I have a very small family. I am an only child and so is my mom. My dad had a sister we never saw. So I had to create my own sense of extended family. To do that, I’ve developed family depth relationships with people who were not actually related to me.
My earliest memories include the family housekeeper, Ethie. She was with my mom for years before I was born and left to have children of her own when I was four. Though Ethie was black, I thought she actually was part of our family. I remember that around age four, someone mentioned Ethie’s church. I was stunned. I suddenly realized that Ethie wasn’t Jewish. Like we were. She wasn’t ‘one of us’. She was different in some way.
It never occurred to me that she wasn’t ‘family’ because of her skin color. That was a non issue to me. I loved her and she loved me.
Ethie also protected me from my stern and unloving nanny. She got suspicious of the nanny’s treatment of me and eavesdropped on her threatening me when I cried during the night. Ethie also conspired with my grandfather when he noticed that I was coming home too clean from the playground. She got Grandpa to spy on the nanny too. He discovered that she was making me sit on the bench with the other nannies in the playground. She wouldn’t let me play because she didn’t want to have to chase me around. Ethie and Grandpa finally convinced my mother to fire the nanny. But she had been terrorizing me for two crucial years, from birth to age two.
When I was four, I used to punch Ethie’s pregnant belly because I knew that the belly was why Ethie was leaving me. But my mother and I stayed in touch with Ethie and her two daughters until she died. I was in my early thirties. Ethie had a hard life. She lost a daughter to diabetes in her twenties and suffered from the disease for years herself. In fact, she became blind a few years before she died. She remained a very special person in my life and she always treated me like her third daughter.
Another pseudo relative from my childhood was ‘Aunt’ Esther. She was actually a distant cousin, but definitely not an aunt. She was my grandmother’s best friend and she spent a lot of time at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. She sometimes visited on her own. But she also spent weeks with her husband, Louie, at my grandparents’ summer cottage on my parents’ property in CT. It became an extended family enclave. I don’t remember Louie ever speaking.
After Louie died, Esther spent even more time with Grandma, including most of the summer in CT. In a one bedroom cottage. It caused endless fights between Grandma and Grandpa. But it was great for me. We all played cards together (Gin Rummy) and I got to have a second Grandma. (I had no grandparents on my father’s side).
I adored Esther. She was more patient than my grandmother teaching me to crochet, knit and cook. She also told great stories, often about her own five grandchildren. She always told me I was her sixth. She also mediated between me and grandma when we got on each other’s nerves. When I got older both Grandma and Esther would complain to me about the other and I had to smooth things over for the two of them. Quite a lot. But Grandma and Esther were really like sisters, with the same love hate that most siblings have through the years. Esther stayed in my life till she died, a few years after my Grandmother.
The next example of a non-family family member came into my life when I was an adult. I was pregnant with my second child and was on strict bed rest. My housekeeper walked out on me with no notice. I was left scrambling to take care of my four and a half-year old son – from bed. I called an au pair agency and a nineteen year old German girl named Daniella arrived for an interview. I hired her and she moved in immediately. It was a week before Xmas, 1984.
Daniella said she would stay with me for a year but she only stayed for seven months. She did, however, find a replacement for me from her hometown in Germany. She never really had her heart in babysitting but she fell in love with New York City. We got very close in those seven months and we stayed in touch after she went home.
A year or so after she left us, my whole family traveled to Europe. Daniella joined us in Paris. A few years later, we all visited Daniella in Germany. But Daniella was still obsessed with New York City. So she saved up her money and almost every year from then on, she visited us in America.
Sixteen years ago she had a little girl of her own and couldn’t come to visit us as often. But she still came. Now she is a teacher in Germany and is the chaperone of a school group that takes a trip to Wisconsin every year. She always spends time with us on her way home, sometimes with her daughter and sometimes on her own.
Over the years, Daniella has come to every major family event. She came to my kids’ Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, to David’s wedding and to my wedding to Tom in 2002. She is considered part of the family and we talk and email often. She’s on the short list if there’s any family news. We met when she was nineteen and she’s now 42. So she has grown up with us as part of her life. And my kids have grown up with her as part of theirs.
There is one non-family member who stands above all the others. We ‘adopted’ him in the late 1980’s and he is still a major part of all of our lives. His name is Brian and he was a caretaker for my mother on her CT estate. He became a close friend and literally helped me raise my kids when their Dad was working long hours and living part-time in a different state. I’ve written a separate blog about him, called “A Fortuitous Friend”.
But there is one other person I want to mention here. I lost touch with her a long time ago, but she played a pivotal role in my growing up years. Growing up as a child with live-in household help is a unique experience. I got very attached to many of these wonderful people who shared my day-to-day life and knew me and my family better than anyone else possibly could.
A housekeeper/cook from Austria named Liesl came to live with us when I was around ten and she was around twenty-two. She stayed for two years and we spent a lot of time together. She became my ‘best friend’. She even protected me when my mother got mad at me. She had great spirit and humor and enthusiasm for everything in life. Though we lost touch over time, I developed a very strong attachment to her. I adored her. She helped me go from child to teen. I still remember her and think about her. Some people just have an impact on you for some reason and you never forget them. Liesl was one of them
So I’ve been very lucky to have life long relationships that rose to the level of family relationships. My real family was very small, so these people gave me the sense of extended family that most people have naturally. I am very grateful to all these people for being such a wonderful part of my life and my memories.