My "Cousin Joyce" (which was her formal name in my childhood world) was my only female cousin on my father's side of the family, and my Godmother. Joyce was the second eldest of the cousins on that side of the family and 24 years separated us, so for most of my childhood, Joyce was more like a mother figure than a cousin that you could hang out with. When I was very young, when I went to Joyce's home, it was to play with my her sons cousins Chip and Brian, who were closest in age to me, not to sit with Cousin Joyce and commiserate about the personality ticks that invaded our family.
After my mother and I escaped from Shaker Heights in 1977 - it was a mass break out that year; lots of people like us got the hell out of Greater Cleveland- my relationship with Joyce started to change. She became more like a cousin and less mother-like to me. This meant that when we did visit, I relished my time with her because she was the first person in the family to say "It's not you - it's them; look around! They're all nuts..." because it was true.
With my father, everyone else in the family was fucking crazy. This was coming from a man on his umpteenth wife. "I see you were talking with Joyce," he remarked once. "Be careful with what she tells you because she doesn't know like she pretends that she knows what she knows. Got it?"
I got it - she was on to him and he didn't want me to know what she knew because he didn't know exactly what it was that she knew, and that un-nerved him.
All the more reason to trust my Cousin Joyce.
Not only was she my reality check, but she was also a HUGE support when the old man finally died. Joyce kept the whole thing moving, kept the family focused, and kept me sane.
One of my most cherished memories was about 15 years ago when Neicey and Niecey II flew in from California for a visit. Let me say this up front - my brother and his wife did an astonishing job raising their daughters. For everything that went wrong in our household during our childhood, they made good decisions, and the result are two wonderful people who are gracious, smart, funny, loving and fun to be with. Neither is spoiled, each gives willingly without expectations of "whats in it for them."
So this one day, the Neicies and I made plans for lunch at Corky and Lenny's in Pepper Pike. Corky's is consistently the best of the east side Cleveland deli's because their food is consistently good. They have not thrown themselves on the sword of culinary experimentation. If you want a corned beef sandwich, you go there. If you want an herb encrusted corned Kobe beef sandwich served on artisan rye bread, go someplace else. This is why we love Corky's - it's a constant in an ever changing world - and they don't get involved in BS.
So the Niecies and I set up a time to meet Cousin Joyce for lunch, and Couisn Joyce brings her daughter. We all slide into one of the bright apple green booths and start looking over the menu. Now the Nieces, were just starting their teen years, and starting them in California. They were also being raised in a spiritual household, but not a Jewish household. This meant that there was a lot of the food on the menu that people like Joyce, and myself, and her daughter, and everyone else there was more familiar to us than to the girls.
So we order, and I order my chopped liver appetizer (because you cannot get decent chopped liver in Columbus), which comes first The youngest Niecey, who had never been around chopped liver, did what any 12 year old who hadn't been raised with it would do - she looked at what looks like two scoops of something the same color of shit brown crap and we got a big "YUCK" and a face that gave visual articulation to that Yuck.
I offered her a taste and she quickly did another "YUCK" and another face that told me that she was not open to the expirience of trying a new food.
Out of no where came "EAT IT!" as Joyce admonished the youngest Niecey. "It's your heritage."
In my mind that moment is frozen in time. Joyce outraged because the idea that someone in the family could be so disconnected from what we grew up loving.
And she was right. For as wonderful as the Niecey's are, they were 50% Cleveland Jewish, and this is what "we" ate. Chopped liver in our family was treat - and it still is. So Joyce took a cracker, smeared on the liver, spinkled it with a pinch of salt, snapped it in half and handed it to both nieces.
"Just eat a bite - if you don't like it then you can say 'yuck'. But Grandma Cookie didn't carry my mother to America just so you could turn up your nose at good food."
"How could she carry Aunt Mim from the Old Country? I thought they came on a ship," said one of the Niecey's.
"EAT!" And they did. And then they asked for more. So we ordered more. And that was when the Neicey's became one with the chopped liver.
Joyce died a number of years ago and it makes me sad when I think about how much I wish she were still here. I no longer have my cousin to laugh with, or share stories with. I miss talking with her and rolling our eyes as we remembered the craziness that we saw, and sometimes contributed to, in our family.
But, I still have the Niecey's, and more importantly, I still have memory of Cousin Joyce standing up for our right to eat chopped liver in a country where we are free to order more if we like it.