She was the family beauty, the winner of the prize for being the prettiest girl in her high school graduating class in Montreal. She was the only, lonely child of my mother’s eldest sister, Minnie.
Minnie had a talent for dressmaking, and dolled up her daughter in high style. Rhoda had the look of a Paris model or a postwar, mid-century movie star. Youthful delicacy was the mode, and Rhoda fit that bill. She had a steady beau in high school and married him even before she left her teens behind.
My roommate at Yale drove with me up over the border into the province of Quebec, took a look, and never forgot her elegant beauty. At our recent 65th reunion, he brought up the subject of Rhoda’s stunning charm and quiet dignity.
Today, Rhoda is still lovely to look at, but she is now a widow, and a great-grandmother, and – although you wouldn’t know it by gazing at her – she is blind. Her son-in-law adores her, but, although he is an ophthalmologist, he cannot rescue his beloved mother-in-law from the darkness.
To trace the history of my cousin’s time-travels, she bore a daughter and two sons – I was there at her wedding and at the marriages of her trio of children. (There is a Providence connection here: The Canadian branch of my family are graduates and admirers of Brown University. That son-in-law, in fact, served as a trustee of the university.)
When I spent a year at the Sorbonne, in Paris, my Aunt Minnie and her husband visited me and treated me to a grand dinner in a fine restaurant – a break from my Left Bank quarters and its bistros.
My mother passed away half a century ago and more, and it was my task to go through her things and determine what to do with her valuables, her souvenirs, even her costume jewelry, a few pins and kerchiefs. Among the items in her purse, I found a photograph of Rhoda.
My mother had three sons but no daughters. During the World War II years of no-travels – which included gas rationing and trains that favored soldiers over families – my mother kept in touch with her Canadian nieces with cards, letters, snapshots (not so much by phone, because even its use was limited).
I liked that little image of Rhoda as a youngster, a child, and may have kept it. But I like to believe that I am both a hoarder and a sort of gypsy, so I get rid of things for the sake of living now, not then. “You were nostalgic in the womb, before you were born!” a friend claimed, to mock my sentimental loyalty to yore!
Rhoda calls me from time to time, and tried to stay in touch with both my siblings, my elder brothers, who have since died, leaving me a survivor of Long Ago and Far Away.
I went to Romania once upon a time, and to Toronto, and to London, to trace the migratory routes of both sides of my ancestry. And, maybe, to make up for the confinement of my boyhood, the years of the Great Depression and “The Duration.”
Rhoda for me has not only a personal value for her kindly greetings and her stunning good looks, but also a symbolic value as the embodiment of my extended family.
Despite the surface prosperity of her lifetime, there is somehow a melancholy quality of solitude about her odyssey.
Rhoda’s husband was somewhat estranged from the cousins and their households. He had some sort of shady connections that made it necessary for him to live abroad – and yet, my father admired and liked him and seemed to understand how he had had to cope with the ruling economic classes of Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, Canada, and its environment in order to provide the hospitality that he showed us during our visits to my mother’s past.
You see, my mother had been, in fact, a model in Montreal, at a shop called Darwin’s, and among the clutter on the back shelves of my closets, I keep the letters that my father wrote to the belle who became my mother.
I will close this account with a “philosophical” musing about what cousins come to mean to us. They are not our siblings, who totally share our genetic past and future. They are not our children, who grow up under our influence, if not our control. They are not our spouses, or our parents, or even our friends or our pets!
Instead, they are variations on the destiny of our entire personal history, widening the skylines, the “firmament” above us. They are ever-more dear to us as the years go on.
We may have a great many cousins, but each one comes to us with a blessing and a boon!
MIKE FINK (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.