Weddings Are Complicated by
(211 Stories)

Prompted By Forgiveness

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Rick & Annie’s wedding, Feb 12, 1983

My brother was married in the chapel of Hebrew Union College on his 35th birthday. It was not a big, elaborate ceremony, but included close family members on both sides and the many friends they happy couple had made along the way. Rick had already taught at HUC for several years, was well-liked and respected in his field. Anne worked in the museum education field, was native to Cincinnati, had a close-knit family. She was 31. At that age, the couple, usually along with the bride’s side, dictates wedding plans.

We, also have a large family. Not everyone could be invited. Rick was given a strict limit on numbers of invitations. A raging blizzard on the East Coast impeded some invited guests from even making it in. Dan and I came in a day early, just to get our bearings.

Annie’s mother and aunts had a whole program planned after the rehearsal dinner. I was to be the Emcee. They didn’t know that I had been a theater major, was a born performer, even now was in direct sales and accustomed to presenting in front of an audience. The women worried about my ability to host such an event. Of course I carried it off with aplomb and won my new in-law’s seal of approval.

But there was limited space and Rick could not even invite all our first cousins. I don’t think he even invited all our surviving aunts and uncles, but did invite Aunt Roz, the widow of Uncle Roy, the first of Dad’s brother’s to pass away. When Dad first asked for a divorce from our mother, a few years earlier, she took him to court and fought it; for a YEAR! Dad wound up living with Roz, so she had to be invited. She asked her daughter Jean to be her Plus One, so Jean came, but only because her mother invited her. Her two younger brothers, Steve and Robert (yes, the one from the “Mr. Bienstock” story) were not invited; nor were other first cousins from the Sarason side. There were just too many.

Steve Sarason was furious. He complained to any family member who would listen. He, correctly, pointed out that he and his wife had always socialized with our parents, had stayed in touch with our mother after the divorce, helped her when she sold our family house, hung pictures in her new apartment. He thought he deserved credit for all that. But the fact was, he just wasn’t that close to Rick. It was awkward. He nursed his hurt feelings.

Fast forward 9 years to Steve’s daughter, Denny’s wedding ceremony in suburban Detroit. Steve was dying of esophageal cancer (he is second from the right in the Featured photo – this is the “first cousins photo” from the wedding; three are now gone). He had, perhaps, six weeks to live. My brother was not invited to this wedding. I flew in on Friday afternoon, went directly to the home where the family gathered for deli food after the wedding rehearsal. It was good to see my cousins. Steve’s son Ronnie had been my camper one summer at the JCC Day Camp, when he was a hyper-active little kid. He thought he could get away with stuff, since his cousin (with the same last name) was one of the counselors, but that didn’t work out for him. Now we were friendly and I was happy to see him.

I sat for a while with Steve, who was skeletal. I had never seen anyone so close to death. I asked if he was in pain. He assured me he was not. We talked of family, I tried to be reassuring and comforting. Family really means so much to me. I stayed with my cousin Connie, always my closest, my surrogate mother. Her younger brother and sister had also come in, from the West Coast, so I was on the couch, which wasn’t a problem for me.

The next day, Connie’s sons, with whom I am also close, came over to visit. One went for a drive through Detroit with his Uncle Tom and reported back on the many boarded up and abandoned buildings in downtown.

We dressed and went to the wedding, which was small, but lovely. We danced and enjoyed ourselves, though death hung in the air. At the end of the evening, I went to say good bye to Steve. I knew that this, really, was a last good bye. His final words to me were, “Tell your brother to go fuck himself.”

I was stunned and shaken. I tried to mollify Steve, apologize on my brother’s behalf, but Steve angrily turned his back on me. Last is my last image of him.

I tossed and turned all that night. I couldn’t let it end that way. I called my brother as soon as I got home. “Rick, you have pastoral training. I know this is hard, but please, Steve is near death. Don’t let him die this way. Please call and make amends before he dies. Please, I beg you!”

I’m sure it was a difficult phone call for my brother. No one likes confrontation. Both of us learned to go around our mother rather than provoke her. It is our nature. But Rick did call and tried to explain that guest list from long ago; Steve was NOT the only cousin to be left off. He tried to soothe Steve’s hurt pride and feelings. He asked for forgiveness. Whether Steve granted it, I do not really know. But we both tried. Sincerely. That is all one can do.



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: Rick, Steve, left out, dying
Characterizations: moving, right on!


  1. Laurie Levy says:

    This is a powerful story, Betsy, and I can totally relate to it. My family is large, with many cousins. Like your brother, I couldn’t invite all of them to my kids’ weddings because we were limited by the fact that there were several “sides” to be accommodated – my family, my husband’s, my future in-law, and the bride and groom’s. Also, we did have close friends who actually knew my kids, while my cousins did not. I did include all of my aunts and uncles, but not all of their children. My parents applied the all or nothing rule — every cousin or none. But my cousin who was like a sister to me was really hurt, so I decided to invite her. The cousins on my father’s side were outraged. It took years to be forgiven. I hope Steve forgave your brother in the end for his sake. Glad your brother made the effort for his sake.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Laurie. Yes, large families and wedding dynamics can be a difficult mix. I was so young when I married that I let my mother and aunts run the show, but insisted that everyone from the same generation be invited.

      I told this story to a friend who reads along. She asked if I ever followed up with my brother. I told her I hadn’t. I made my request. I couldn’t do any more. One can only hope. It is all in the past now.

  2. Betsy, hard decision your brother and his wife had to make, and then how awful for you to hear your cousin’s words.

    A young woman we know was thoughtlessly not sent an invite to a Zoom family Seder – the only cousin of a much smaller clan than yours not to be invited. She was understandably very hurt and very angry, and though she’s only a casual acquaintance of mine I felt terribly hearing it, don’t know if that wound will heal.

  3. John Shutkin says:

    In thinking about this prompt and what I could write about, my thoughts immediately went to families and weddings. It is just such a ripe area for anger, regret and, yes, forgiveness. I have a few forgiveness stories of my own in this regard, but, in the end, I copped out on sharing them on Retro. So thank you for sharing yours.
    And yours is a classic story where the best of intentions and practical considerations nonetheless seem to run afoul of personal feelings. And I wonder if Steve would have been so bitter had he not known that he was near death. I can certainly understand that sort of a “Fuck ’em!” emotion. That said, both you and Rick did the absolute right thing in trying to explain things to Steve. I too wonder if Steve ever granted forgiveness. But, at the least, I hope that you and Rick have had some peace of mind by virtue of your own efforts.

  4. Betsy, this is a wonderful and moving story, and I’m so glad you wrote it up and shared it with us. There are many lessons for all of us here, and I appreciate the way you gently teach us about the need to apologize and to forgive. Whether or not Steve forgave Rick, I’m sure Rick felt better for having apologized, and that his pastoral skills as a rabbi increased because of it. I only hope Steve was able to accept Rick’s apology and die peacefully. Thank you for a beautiful story, so well written. I shall remember this for a long time.

  5. Betsy, this is a classic story, and one so many of us can relate to. Forgiveness is such a complex issue. I’m struck by how the person who doesn’t or can’t forgive is so often stooped from carrying the heavy sword of resentment, honed to perfection over a lifetime. But what purpose does it serve? I don’t have the answer, except to wonder why we were created with the capacity for this emotion if not to learn to rise above it? When I hear stories about people who have forgiven more than I can possibly imagine forgiving, I’m in awe, and inspired. On the other side of the coin, apology is equally inspiring when it’s heartfelt and sincere. Thanks for such a moving and thought-provoking story.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Barb. Having read your story, I am struck by your desire to move beyond the weight, grief and anger of feeling wronged into the area of forgiving and forgiveness. Some are definitely better than others at it, but it is a worthwhile goal.

  6. Marian says:

    How painful a scenario, Betsy, but one familiar to many of us. And, how brave of you to engage Steve in that conversation, despite his surprising reaction. I am sure many of us had atonements we wish we’d made to people who now are gone.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Atonement is a good word, Marian. As I wrote the last few phrases, I thought of that part of the Yom Kippur service where we ask for forgiveness, humbly, sincerely. And even if the person does not grant absolution, if we have asked three times with sincerity, we are forgiven. But particularly with one we know is dying, I think it is so important to try to not leave things unresolved. As you say, that can’t always be the case, but we can try.

  7. Suzy says:

    Wow, Betsy, that’s quite a story about forgiveness or the lack thereof! Since I come from a very small family, it never occurred to me that there could be an issue of not having enough room for all the relatives. But I can see where that would be a heartbreaking situation. Sounds like you did a superb job of trying to play peacemaker, and I guess we’ll never know if you succeeded or not. You can feel good about your efforts, whatever the result.

  8. John Zussman says:

    Betsy, your story made my eyes tear up. I’ve heard that carrying a grudge is like taking poison and hoping the other person will die. But I’ve also learned that forgiving can be very hard, especially if the other party does not apologize or take responsibility, and also that some wronged parties will use their righteous indignation to sharpen their edges and frame their own story. It’s very complicated, this forgiveness business.

    In your case, it’s a mitzvah that you reached out to your brother. I hope Rick apologized as well as explained, and I hope your cousin forgave him and eased both their hearts. But maybe it makes a better story that we don’t know; we’re left to wonder and reflect back on those we’ve hurt and those we’ve been hurt by.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Your analogy is apt, John. Though Steve’s hurt feelings didn’t come between us, it obviously poisoned his feelings toward my brother who I love very much, so I internalized that as well.

      As I think I comment earlier, I told this story to a friend (who reads along. I actually met her through my sister-in-law and she knows Rick well). She could imagine how this would eat away at both of us, She asked if I followed up with Rick, even now. I said I just couldn’t. I reached out in the moment. I believe he reached out to Steve immediately, but really don’t know how it turned out. She liked the lack of resolution and I will never bring it up again. I did what I could, as best I could. Our cousin is long gone, laying beside so many other cousins, aunts and uncles, not far from our parents. There is no point in rehashing it.

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