Comfort From My Cousins by
(211 Stories)

Prompted By Cousins

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My father was the youngest of eight children, my mother, the youngest of four and I am their youngest. That makes me the youngest in a large generation of cousins, some old enough to be my own parent. We are a diverse group of people, yet we all get along, have each others’ backs and genuinely care about each other. I suppose we were raised to be that way.

Our grandparents were the immigrant generation, and, at least in my mother’s family, there was some family feud and one part didn’t speak to another part. I don’t buy into such nonsense and more than 25 years ago, reached out to second cousins who I didn’t know growing up (though one lived in my neighborhood and went to the same high school), introduced myself and said, “let’s get over this”. We did and, much to my delight, have been friends ever since.

I wrote about my father’s brothers and sisters in The Sarason Clan. You can read about the parents of my diverse cousins in that story. One of my father’s brothers even converted to Southern Baptist to marry the woman he loved. Both his daughters married ministers, so that was in the family too. But we were taught to accept it. We were bound by our blood relationship. On that side of the family there were 19 first cousins in all, though many are now deceased. We had a writer, an IBM salesman, a nurse, a physical therapist, a rabbi, a PhD mathematician, and many others covering a wide range of professions. We are all unique personalities, but we actually enjoy getting together and turn out when invited to weddings and b’nai mitvot. One of my Baptist cousins came to my children’s b’nai mitvot and even wore a Jewish star out of respect for her ancestry. Hers is the first Christmas card I receive every year.


Here are some of us at Mimi’s (in the black) daughter’s bat mitvah in suburban Kansas City 18 months after my father passed away in 1990. It was the first time I’d been with a large group of my cousins and I felt nurtured and cared for. At the beginning of the torah ceremony, the family follows the rabbi, holding the torah aloft and parades it through the congregation. I had never seen that before (now it is common practice, but I hadn’t seen it at the time). I began to weep, seeing that beautiful family altogether, aching for my father. My cousins immediately held me close, comforted me and told me I came by the tears naturally; both my father and Ike (Mimi’s father) were weepers. This helped me so much and validated me.

I was always closest to my cousin Connie, seen with me in the Featured photo at her granddaughter’s bat mitvah. I was the only out-of-town cousin invited, as I have always been very close to her family. I was the 6 year old flower girl at her wedding. She lived a few miles away and this was the long bike ride I would take when I couldn’t stand being in my own home. I would just go and hang out with her and her three sons, all younger than me, but we’d have fun together.

Connie’s sons

In 1966, my dad won a sales incentive trip to Palm Springs for himself and my mother. Connie’s family took me in for ten days (Rick was a Freshman at Brandeis). Her husband drove me to school each morning, many miles from their home. Their children were little, the boys close in age to one another, as much as 10 years younger than 13 year old me, and a little wild. I wasn’t used to such behavior, but watched them rampage through my room with wonder and amusement. I helped get them to bed. I brought the results of my Home Ec class back to Connie (pineapple upside down cake, as I recall). Gordon even took me to Sunday School. His boys were too young to go yet. For those days, I was part of the family. I became so for life. Even now, when I visit Detroit, for part of each visit, I stay with Connie. She has been my surrogate mother most of my life.

I wrote about my adoration of my cousin Alan in my story Action Jackson. He already lived in Geneva, Switzerland by the time I was born. He was exotic and fabulous. He came to visit his parents, my dad’s oldest sister Pauline, many times a year and we would all get to visit him, so I grew up feeling like I knew him. He passed away at the age of 50 in 1981. I was heartbroken, but stayed in touch with his widow, Sissi, a Viennese beauty close to my age. She and her children (she remarried after Alan’s death, so in addition to her son Gregory, has two daughters) wound up in London. Alone, I went to Vienna to celebrate her 60th birthday in 2008, hosted by her sister.

Sissi’s 60th in Vienna

I remain close to Alan’s son Gregory, also living in England and try to see him when I visit my son in London. I was particularly honored when he and his beautiful bride asked me to do a reading at their wedding three years ago. There was a good representation of cousins from the Jackson side of the family (my father’s sister) who traveled in for the wedding and here we are at brunch the next morning. 

It was good to be together.

On my mother’s side, the cousins are fewer and less diverse. There are 7 of us in total and we are teachers, counselors and doctors. And still, I am the youngest. Lois, my oldest cousin and my mother were pregnant at the same time. Her son is 21 days younger than I am, though he is one branch down the family tree from me. We were always invited to each other’s parties (I do have a really cute photo of me dancing with David at my 13th birthday party, which was held at a dance studio; that was a thing then). But we didn’t really become friends until we were adults. He is the other cousin I always stay with when I visit Detroit. He and his wife have always been most gracious to me; she took care of my nursing baby during my father’s funeral; I was distraught. It was a kindness I will never forget and can never thank her for enough.

Though my cousins are much older, they have always been very good to me. The women “mothered” me. The men took a while to realize eventually that I was a grown-up, take me seriously and treat me as their equal; their wives have always been wonderful to me.

During my four years at Brandeis, my cousin Dick did his internship and residency at our fine Boston hospitals. He went on to become one of the world’s experts in Barrett’s esophagus. With wife Linda, they were great surrogate parents, having me over when Brandeis took off several days for the High Holidays and I couldn’t go home, coming to see me in my shows (they couldn’t quite believe their eyes when they saw their little cousin in “The Devils”, topless in the final scene). Linda even hosted a shower of my college friends during my engagement my senior year and joined my parents for my graduation celebration in May, 1974, so I have always felt a great kinship with them. Here they are with my Aunt Stella, Uncle Herman (Dick’s parents) and their cousin Fred Sampliner, who attended Babson College, in May, 1971, shortly before I went home at the end of Freshman year.

Here are most of the first cousins at one’s granddaughter’s bat mitzvah, minus our oldest cousin, a few years ago. My brother, Rick, is on the right.

We don’t have many chances to see one another, as some of us live far away, but we do enjoy getting together and we all care deeply about each other. In the above photo, I am wearing our grandmother’s pearls, which I inherited from my mother. I cherish them. Our grandfather owned a jewelry store in Toledo, OH. His son Joe worked there and took it over after his death. The other two women in the photo are his daughters. The woman is blue, my cousin Helene, has a daughter and grandson in Boston. Several years ago, she and her husband (I was a 12 year old Junior Bridesmaid in her wedding), bought a condo in Newton and spend part of the year here now to be close to their grandson, with the added benefit, that I get to see more of her too.

Mother’s Day, 2014

This story goes live three days before my 67th birthday and I am the youngest of the clan. My cousins are aging. Many of their grandchildren are out of college. I can only say how much I love and appreciate all of them. I wish I could see them more often, but we are spread out across the country, indeed, in some cases, even international. The Internet has made communication a bit easier, but I miss seeing them on holidays or family get togethers. I draw strength from them. As the generations increase, the bonds weaken. The branches of the family tree don’t know one another. I seem to be the family historian. I want so much for us to know one another and continue to feel the love I carry for all of my family, that was instilled by our parents. Our parents taught us to value family, to take care of one another, no matter how different we may be. I think these are wonderful lessons to carry on. They seem more relevant today than ever.

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Tags: Sarason, Stein, closeness, family
Characterizations: moving, right on!


  1. Betsy, how I envy you your large, loving family! Another friend with a large family often speaks of her “cousins club” , and I always envied her too for that!
    My family is relatively small, as is my husband’s, but we do have wonderful cousins all whom I love.
    In fact since my parents are gone I’ve become the glue striving to hold us all together. It’s a good feeling!

  2. John Shutkin says:

    From your earlier stories, Betsy, I was aware of both the size and closeness of your family. But this story on cousins really pulled a lot of it together. As someone with few cousins and relatively distant ones, I cannot entirely relate (pun intended, I guess) to your own family situation, which is one of the reasons I find it so fascinating.

    But, beyond that, what you have shown in your story is what a warm, supportive group these people can be in one’s life. I hardly feel I’ve led a deprived life, but I now appreciate how wonderful it would be to be surrounded in such a loving way. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Suzy says:

    Betsy, what a great tribute to your large and diverse family. And as always, you have wonderful pictures to go with it. The featured photo of you and Connie is very glamorous! And I love the “Ali’s Chocolate” and “really cool grandma” photos. You do such a great job as family historian, I am sure that you can hold everyone together if anyone can! I hope you have sent this story to all of them!

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    From one family historian to another, Betsy, you have done a great job sharing all of the cousin bonds that were so important to you growing up. What a blessing that you were blessed with so many of them and have maintained relationships over the years.

  5. John Zussman says:

    Reading this and seeing your cousins’ comments on your stories on Facebook, I am constantly impressed at how you have become the fulcrum around which your family interacts. (And that’s obviously true of your college class as well.) I can only imagine how much work and effort that takes — not to mention the guts to single-handedly end a family feud! Of course, I’m not surprised.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, John. I think my family knows that I am interested in our history and so share all the stories with me. When we found our grandfather’s will among an uncle’s papers and discovered that one of the Sarason brothers was cut out due to his conversion to Christianity, the others met and decided to defy their father’s wishes and share everything among the 8 of them (this was before I was born), it impressed me SO much. The lesson to stick together NO MATTER WHAT and take care of everyone in the family did not fail to impress me.

      As you well know, I married at a very young age and various aunts controlled my wedding and who would be invited, but I wanted it to be fair (all aunts, uncles and cousins at a certain level within the family), even tho it was a relatively small wedding. The same was true for my kids’ b’nai mitvot. I made certain to invite everyone along the same branch of the family tree; after that I invited those with whom I was close, regardless of the relationship. One cousin was the photographer. I wanted her husband to attend Jeffrey’s celebration. I really liked him (he passed away this August. I literally was in tears at the Steamship Authority office, begging for ticket off to get to his funeral; they were not as helpful as I would have liked, but finally, a reservation magically opened up). My cousin hesitated about her husband and I realized it was because she needed her husband to watch her two youngest children (her oldest was invited). I asked if I invited them, would they allow her to work and she said that wouldn’t be a problem, so they came too. Since a beloved cousin came in from London, a request was made for not-invited cousins be allowed to come to Sunday brunch at my house so they could see him. Of course I said yes. The point is to welcome everyone as much as possible.

      I don’t know that I healed the family feud, but I didn’t let it stop me from getting to know the off-spring of those involved. We moved past it and became friends. What our grandparents (long dead) fought about didn’t concern us, so we let those sleeping dogs lie. Not our problem.

      At my 25th reunion, one classmate described me as the “soul of our class”. I was enormously touched by that. Perhaps that motivates me to continue to do reunion work, even 20 years later, as things change on campus. I still like so many people in my class, across so many different groups and like to try to pull them all together. I’ll keep trying.

  6. John Zussman says:

    Maybe you didn’t heal the feud, but it takes courage to say no, I am not going to let something that happened before I was born cut me off from family. I think every family, and every class, needs someone with your sense of inclusion to bind it together.

    I also admire the fairness with which you scrupulously invited family members to events. A few years back, we went to a lovely wedding in Brooklyn. After dinner, my cousin and her husband (parents of the bride) made the rounds of the tables, and we thanked them for including us. “We were glad too,” the husband said, “You were on the B list, so we weren’t sure we could.” Okay, we understand how this works, there’s always a limit, and some invitations depend on others sending their regrets. But you’re not supposed to TELL someone they weren’t close enough to be automatically included!

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