Cousin Joel – gone, but not forgotten


“Please call me: I have something to tell you about your cousin Joel.” 

I came upon this voice mail in my office at the Rhode Island School of Design, which serves as a sociable salon for student conferences, colleague conversations, and, mostly and primarily, the home for my vast collection of memorabilia from past classes, and books, and photographs. 

This particular message was melancholy, almost alarming. The last time I had heard from my relative – and once-upon-a-time neighbor – was several years ago. Joel had said, quite calmly, “I’ve neglected my health, and my legs have been amputated to save my life. Don’t feel too sorry for me, I’m guilty of eating all the wrong things and ignoring the dangers of my diabetic condition.

“I’m OK in my wheelchair, and I’ll probably have prostheses in time so that I can stand up and get out of this wheeling whirling way of life. My son visits and takes good care of me.”  

I said, “Please keep in touch and phone again to reassure me that you are making progress.” 

That was my inadequate response, and Joel had not stayed in touch since that long-distance communication from Texas, across the American continent.

So I pressed the right button on my phone and reached his son, who conveyed the sad news that his dad had passed away.  

“My father liked you and would have wanted me to inform you,” he said. “I know all the conflicts, confusions and quarrels of my families, but I loved my dad and want to keep the good things in my mind.” 

 Would I send him the story of the Fink family, its history? 

“Please put the Dallas obituary in an envelope and mail it to my address and I will do the very best I can to fill you in on your dad’s boyhood,” I said.

 Joel Salhanick was born the year I studied abroad, at the Sorbonne, in Paris. I turned 20 in France, then sailed for home, where I met my baby cousin, who was living in his/my grandfather’s house at the corner of my street that abuts Summit Avenue.  His mother was the very first Fink born in the U.S.A., in Providence, Rhode Island. Her name was Edith and she had many talents. She played the grand piano in their – to me – rather grand and fancy parlor.  She acted, even starred, on the stage long ago – I think with the Players at Barker Playhouse. 

Edith picked up some seashells down by the sea shore and from playfully making a necklace out of some pretty ones, built herself a successful, flourishing career as a jewelry designer for the prosperous costume-jewelry industry of her home state. 

She gave me an identification bracelet for my Bar Mitzvah, and, by a special kind of witty magic, once turned a Cub Scout knot I showed off to her into an entire line of golden bracelets! 

Edith and I also often made pilgrimages to visit the various neighborhoods where her father and her uncle had dwelt in this land of the welcoming Roger Williams:  Oakland Beach in Warwick, Pratt Street and Benefit Street homesteads closer to our shared street. We were friends, comrades and admirers of the occasional Hollywood stars who visited our summer theaters or classrooms. 

Like others of her generation, Edith held the house of her parents together with her contributions and caretaking. Joel was her only child, and her husband suffered from a heart condition that kept him, likewise, dependent upon her care. 

I remember that she once told me that after her husband’s death, he reappeared to her in a dream, and she told him, “You can’t come back” – not only from fear of ghosts, but also because she found herself for the very first time in her hard-working life liberated from duties and responsibilities, and free to travel. 

For a few years, Edith indeed enjoyed her solitude and her own company on cruises to see the great world beyond our tight borders in this, our smallest state.  

Joel was a lonely lad, but he did have a neighbor who liked and admired him, a girl who lived right around the corner and kept him company at school and on the block. 

Joel married a lady named Brenda, a lawyer. They had two sons together, Marc and Scott, but the marriage did not last and Joel found himself alone in the great and giant state of Texas. 

When Edith was no more, Joel sold the stately Fink house as quickly as possible, and as much of its contents as he could, and brought to me, the clan historian, the paper records and a few souvenirs.

This is the very first time I am summoning up my scattered vignettes of my friendly, amiable, youngest cousin.

I remember Joel’s Bar Mitzvah,

which conveniently took place right around the corner from his home, at Mishkon Tfiloh, on Summit Avenue, across from The Miriam Hospital.  I can also recall the time I visited Hope High School, our collective alma mater of public schooling, where Joel was the photographer for his class. I also remember in my mind’s eye the twin gigantic computers shared by Joel and his wife. 

I respected and liked my youngest cousin, but I sensed and perceived that he did not have an easy voyage through the years. His mother, likewise, despite her capacity for friendship and alliance, her virtue of loyalty and protective concern for family, did not have a luxurious life. She knew labor, but kept a cheerful outlook, with an honest grin and a sense of adventure and sheer fun. 

So, Joel, if you can read above the clouds, I hope I am writing good things and an honest account. And so, Marc and Scott, I will try to find among my hoard of papers something to show you, in addition to these paragraphs to read.

MIKE FINK ( teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.