Loss and Sorrow: Remembering my Cousin on her Birthday
Growing up like sisters
Published in ChicagoNow, June 20, 2017
When my late mother entered her eighties, she often told me about which of her friends had died that week. Before my father died, she had an amazingly positive attitude about making new friends. Even living on her own in a senior community after Dad was gone, she took any loss in stride and tried to forge a meaningful life. I hope I can share her positive outlook on life and see my glass as half full, but today that is hard to do. Today, I am thinking about my cousin Annette because it would have been her 71st birthday. But she died just shy of turning 70, and I still can’t believe she is gone.
Annette was more like a little sister that a cousin when we were growing up. Only nine months younger than me, she was my BFF. I’m pretty sure our families lived together from the time we were born. I don’t remember our tiny apartments upstairs from my grandparents right after WWII when housing was scarce. After the birth of my brother, I definitely remember moving to the upper floor of a two-story house on Cortland in Detroit, which we shared with Annette’s parents, my Aunt Mickey and Uncle Phil. My cousins Annette and her younger brother Steve, who were close in age, respectively, to my brother and me, supposedly lived on the lower floor of this house. In reality, the four of us were together constantly. All of my earliest memories of childhood, up until I turned seven and we moved to the suburbs, include Annette.
We spent hours together digging a hole to China in the backyard that we called the “far distance.” We picked berries off a neighbor’s bush and were chased by a broom-swinging old man. We ran up and down the block together with the gang of neighborhood kids.
One memory that stands out was getting into trouble for creating a special potent of shaving cream mixed with every pill in Annette’s parents’ medicine cabinet. That was probably the only time my aunt was truly angry with me. Another time we partners-in-crime cut the beautiful curls off of a neighborhood girl. In our defense, she asked us to give her a haircut.
I was a school year ahead of Annette, so when she started kindergarten, it was my job (good grief, I had just turned six) to walk her several blocks to and from school. Once, I couldn’t find her at the end of the day. I remember feeling terrified and crying, but Annette was fine. She had gone to Mickey’s candy store across from the school to buy candy buttons. Somehow, we found one another there and walked home sharing those buttons. Another time Annette and I bought a box of stars and plastered them all over ourselves in the hope that our parents would think we were exceptional students.
Eventually, Annette’s family moved to a suburb not very far from where my family had moved. Now, we had to drive to see one another, so our friendship was harder to maintain. Like many sisters, we had very different personalities. I was a shy homebody who loved to play with dolls and help my mother with my new baby brother. Annette was an extrovert who made friends very easily. We were constantly being compared. My mother wanted me to be more outgoing, and my aunt wanted Annette to be more studious. We drifted apart as friends, but our sister-bond remained.
Life happened. We married, had children, and lived in different states. Sometimes years would pass without much contact. We would see one another occasionally, mostly at family events, and would talk on the phone from time to time, mostly when one of us needed emotional support. We mourned the deaths of our mothers, the true biological sisters. But regardless of the time apart, those first seven years were part of our DNA, and she will always be my soul sister.
When Annette died on May 31, 2016, I had already lost my parents and all of my aunts and uncles except for the two who live in Israel. Those losses were heartbreaking but expected. By the time you turn 70, you expect to transition into being the oldest generation. But the loss of a close peer is something else.
Like my mother, I’m a pretty optimistic and pragmatic person. Like Sheryl Sandburg, I accept this loss as part of Option B. But today, I need to pause to remember Annette. Today, I need to grieve.