My father and mother were teenagers when they first started dating in 1960s Wilmington, Delaware. The story of how they met — how my father rescued her from a bad date at a BBYO dance in a hotel ballroom (or something like that), how the guy who’d brought my mom was indifferent to her until my father asked her to dance, and how my dad stepped up to him when he suddenly got possessive — is a family legend.
But the story that is still told again and again takes place a little later, when my mother’s twin sister didn’t have the heart to break up with a dude, and asked my mom to switch dates with her and do the dirty work. The girls figured their respective gentlemen callers wouldn’t know the difference.
So when young Rollie (my dad) arrived at my grandmother’s house, it wasn’t Ruth (my mom), but Leslie (my aunt) who got in the car. I imagine it being one of those classic, amber-hued, midsummer evenings on the East Coast, where the humidity sits heavily over fresh-mowed lawns, locusts buzz gently in the trees, and the sun is making its hazy, melty, red-orange way toward the horizon. My dad has all the windows down, and hops out of the car to open the passenger door for his date.
He susses out the game before Leslie has even pulled the ruffles of her skirt away from the door so he can close it.
As the story goes (and it’s not clear to me if this happened right away or at the end of the date), Rollie gets extra fresh with Leslie, pretending that doesn’t know it’s not his girlfriend. Flustered, angry, and scandalized, my aunt runs into the house and says to her twin sister, pointing an accusatory finger, “Now I know what you two do!”
But Leslie would never tell my mother exactly what he tried to do, and my dad never spilled, either.
I’ve always loved the stories of my father, the scrappy little Jewish bad-ass, who would out-think his difficulties, and resort to his fists when necessary. He seemed unflappable and tough, smart and always figuring out the game before anyone else did.
I also loved the stories about the twins and their supernatural connection. How they’d have the exact same dream, or be in the same place in dreamland, but experience the story from different perspectives.
Last weekend, we celebrated the twins’ upcoming 70th birthday with a full-scale family reunion in Estes Park, Colorado — a mountain town best known for the Stanley Hotel (the inspiration for The Shining) and the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. My sisters and cousin worked for several months to locate a venue and coordinate the date, the lodging, the food, and the travel for the 40-plus aunts and uncles, cousins, sibs, and significant others who converged on a lodge perched above the little city.
Family came in from both coasts and across the Atlantic to celebrate Ruth and Leslie, to hike together, eat and drink together, visit and catch up, hug lots, and of course tell plenty of stories. I was able to get a little time with my London brothers, and Simone and her generation of cousins talked Pokémon Go, high school, and how weird and loud their aunts and uncles are.
Being among such a big, loud, affectionate group of people is always a bit daunting for Simone — her mom’s family is much more stoically midwestern, kind but reserved, minding their own business. When she’s with my folks, she’s wrapped up in hugs and kisses, and everyone is in her face, asking about her life and plans; she’s surrounded by chaos and non-stop chatter, and an endless array of snacks and meals (my middle sister Sarah and her husband did a masterful job of keeping us fed and buzzed all weekend long). It can be overwhelming for her, so I tend to be a bit more lenient about letting her sneak away or withdraw into her phone here and there. I did have to lay down the law a few times, when she wasn’t engaging with the family, but she is also a teenager.
Sadly, it was the first rainy weekend of late summer, the clouds hanging low over the mountains, sun only occasionally peaking through. It was pretty much hoodie temperature the whole time, which was tough on this summer boy. We still got out for a long hike, and some family members managed to wake up early on Saturday morning for a foggy horseback ride through the park.
We all celebrated Shabbat together on Friday night, my sister Sarah baking several epically huge challah loaves, the whole family singing blessings over candles, wine, and bread. I could feel my father in the room when we blessed our children, something he loved to do. My mom’s family adored my dad.
Saturday night was the big birthday party, which started outside by the pool, my brother-in-law Bob manning the grills and turning out massive amounts of marinated steak and grilled salmon. Eventually, the chill and the no-see-ums chased us inside; we convened in one of the larger units, which had a several bedrooms and a full living room. The twins cut the birthday cake, and the conversations continued.
The younger kids chased Pokémon until their phones died, and the full family was gathered in small groups when my mom and aunt’s sibs started telling stories about the twins’ exploits as kids.
They re-told the old story about how the girls were sitting at breakfast, my mother telling my grandmother about a dream she had, and her sister correcting her along the way. These were the early days of TV, and the girls didn’t realize that sharing a dream was any different from watching the same show on the tube.
My uncles and aunts had more tales to tell, and then I asked the twins about that time they switched dates. They tag-teamed the telling of the story, from each of their points of view, which was a first.
And then my aunt explained how my father had convinced her to turn the tables, to run into the house and tell my mother that he’d gotten handsy, and to say, “Now I know what you do!”
“Wait,” my mom said. “What?”
My aunt said it again, more slowly.
My mom screamed. The family roared.
We could feel Dad there at that moment, his laughter filling our hearts, the punch line from his practical joke landing more than five decades later, leaving my mother and the entire family breathless and crying.
Because her sister never actually said what my father did, and my father never broke his silence about it, either, my mom had no idea until that night in the mountains, in front of everyone, that they’d made the whole thing up.
Several family groups stopped in at the house that Sunday on the way to the airport, and Simone got picked up by her mom in the afternoon. The last of the cousins, and my aunt and uncle and mom, left in the early evening, and then the house was blissfully quiet. But it wasn’t long until I felt that ache of loneliness after such an intensely warm and noisy weekend.
My father would have turned 71 the next day. I woke up missing him, and celebrated his birthday by seeing one of his (and my) favorite bands, Flogging Molly, at Red Rocks. I lost myself in the music, singing and rocking out (in my kilt!), toasting my father with good beer on a perfect night under the stars. He would have loved that show, and I’m sad we never got to see them together.
I love that an old family story about the twins and Dad had a whole different ending after all of these years. It makes me wonder what stories Simone will remember and re-tell in the years to come, and how her understanding of them and relation to them will change as she grows older. I’m happy she’s close with her cousins, and that they’ll laugh and recount their family memories to future generations.
Because that’s what family is, right? A collection of shared stories, memories, and experiences woven together, keeping us connected and engaged with each other. We may not always see them from the same direction, and the outcomes might be different than we thought, but they’re uniquely ours, tribal and familiar, bringing us joy and tears and comfort.