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As an Adult Orphan, I Found Closeness in a Distant Cousin

The bond between us has become stronger than ever.

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photo of two female cousins smiling surrounding by city landscape and palm trees, family
David Weissberg
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After selling my parents’ house, I took a walk on the familiar street where I grew up, and everything came back to me from my girlhood. I felt my brother beside me. We were engrossed in a profound conversation. What did we talk about? I’ll never know because my only sibling died 30 years ago.

Many people, like me, when we reach our 60s and beyond find ourselves bereft that we don’t have close family with whom to reflect on our history.

“As we age, there is an increasing awareness of loss and a yearning to reconnect with your past, whether cultural or socioeconomic,” says Phyllis Urman-Klein, a couples and family therapist in New York City. “The early roots of one’s life become more salient and meaningful, often expressed in seeking out those who can appreciate or grasp your origins.”

After decades of not communicating, my distant cousin Cheryl Lodinger and I recently connected. Just months apart in age, our fathers were first cousins. When she saw that I had written a memoir that would launch soon, she emailed. I called her immediately. Cheryl was incredulous that I remembered hearing about her running through a plate-glass door when she was 8, in her zeal to get outdoors. It was the first time I knew of someone my age, let alone a relative, being what I imagined cut to ribbons and needing to be sewn back together.

That picture of young Cheryl stuck in my mind for over 60 years, although in reality her injuries were much less dramatic. In October 2021, we spent an evening together when she visited New York City from her home in Los Angeles. We went to dinner and to the theater at Studio 54 to see “Caroline or Change.” I rushed along West 55th Street to La Esquina, a funky Mexican café, wondering if I would recognize her. When I saw the familiar face, still youthful and perky, I felt like I had stepped back in time.

Her brown hair streaked with blond, like mine, was perfectly styled and her sweater reminded me of the impeccable garments her mother wore. Now in our early 70s, apart for decades, it felt like a reunion of long-lost friends. I always felt close to Cheryl because when our parents were alive, we visited for holiday celebrations and weekends. As young girls we played Monopoly and jacks, singing along to the Shirelles and the Crystals. She is an only child, had never married and has lots of godchildren. I am reunited with my ex-husband and have a millennial son.

During most of our adulthood, Cheryl and I weren’t in New York at the same time. I lived in California for 12 years, a flower child art student who walked on the wild side. Her 20s were more traditional. When I returned to New York, we couldn’t have led more different lives. I was a downtown girl painting in my Tribeca loft; she an uptown girl working in advertising. Shortly thereafter, she migrated to Southern California.

Luckily our parents were alive until we were in our 60s, and they kept us up to date on each other. The jolt of becoming adult orphans makes us appreciate the remaining blood family and the need to forge a stronger bond.

I love that she remembers details of my late father, mother and brother. Our communication now has reached unprecedented frequency. We check in when we know the other has had a medical procedure and is feeling under the weather. We also share happy news. I tell her about my son finding his way in the world, or something funny I saw that reminds me of 60 years ago.

She tells me anecdotes about her godchildren. When I asked Cheryl about her memories of our formative years, she recalls: “Family was precious to me. Holidays spent with your family, were my favorite [times] because it gave me an opportunity to bond with my only girl relative.” Even though we are distant cousins, I remember feeling almost sisterly about Cheryl. We loved to giggle about the antics of our fathers, who acted like little boys together.

We watched our mothers admire each other’s jewelry. After settling in at the table of La Esquina, I ogled Cheryl’s striking necklace and the jewels on her fingers and wrists, just like our moms would have done.

Only now does it occur to me that cousins growing up in different households had these advantages: Unlike siblings, there was never a sense of competition for parental approval or affection.

The bond between Cheryl and me has become stronger than ever as our flurry of messages and calls accelerate. It’s as if we are 12 again, together at a Passover dinner. I hold Cheryl, who lives far away, close in my heart, a sentiment she echoes.

“We are family, a bond that always existed in my heart,” says Cheryl. “It overrides everything and will never change.” She tells me that seeing me again was “magical,” a word I will also use. She adds, “It was like no time had passed. The feeling of being home pervaded me.”

When Cheryl and I met at the restaurant, we both commented on how the other looked exactly the same. However, what came through in the selfies of two grown women was a deeper beauty, that of joy and gratitude for being together. I now have a link to all of me. Cheryl brings my childhood to life and adds new life to me.

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