MARGOT SCHERTZ, circa 1949
I remember exactly the first time we met. It was in 1979. A letter had arrived from the States telling my mother and my uncle that they were coming to France, and would we like to meet them some place in Nice for lunch?
This was the first I had heard of a family in America. Or maybe I had, but I never ‘clicked’ or asked questions about who these relatives were. My mother is not the kind of person who likes to think of those who belong to a rather painful past (meaning her German childhood), so she might have said ‘I have cousins in the States’, but I am not sure she ever added anything like ‘I wish we were in touch’…
Anyway, there they came, Margot, my mother’s first cousin, and her husband Leo.
My uncle asked us to book for lunch at an upscale restaurant in Nice. At the time my husband and I were young teachers, and we didn’t know much about that kind of place, but we enquired and booked a table at a place that was recommended as being classy. It was located on the same street as the synagogue…
Lunch there was the kind of affair that the French had in those days. Several courses, white linen tablecloth, silverware, formal service, dainty food.
Margot and Leo were still a bit jetlagged, and certainly not ready for the show but, despite their American ways (!) all went well between them and their long-lost French first cousins and, more important, something happened between them and me (and my husband) that was to mark the rest of our lives.
Margot wanted to see where we lived. So, once lunch was finally over, and after saying goodbye to my mother and uncle, we took Margot and Leo to our tiny doll’s house downtown, where they were able to meet our children - who had been carefully kept out of the way for lunch; in those days you didn’t take young children to such restaurants – people liked their peace and quiet when eating!
Then I remember it started pouring down with rain. Never mind, we drove Margot and Leo around town, took them to the old city, and showed them the sights as best as we could, chatting and chatting all the way.
When the time came to say goodbye, we knew we had ‘connected’. We knew we liked one another, a lot. We knew we had much in common, besides a few drops of DNA. Interests. Humor. The love of people. Books. Films. Etc.
A long correspondence followed after they left. Margot was a wonderful letter-writer. I still have a file full of her neatly typed letters. I admired her typing, when all I could do was longhand, for which she admired me!
I saved her stamps for my collector friend. I chose mine carefully knowing Leo would like them and also save them.
Inside the envelope, her newsy, funny letters were a joy to read. She would tell me the latest family news, of course, but often sent me newspaper clippings taken from the NY Times, that she thought might be of interest to me. And they were, and often useful teaching material, too! Then, she would ask a million questions, and then apologize for being nosy – but she wasn’t, she just wanted to be part of my life. Of course I could be as talkative as she was in my answers, and just as inquisitive!
We ‘talked’ and ‘talked’ for years in this way, creating a marvelous bond, before getting together again for good a few times. Once, it was in Switzerland, on their return from Karlsruhe in 1988, where Margot had been invited to a ceremony in honor of the Jewish citizens who had been molested on Kristallnacht, then forced to leave, and who survived the Holocaust. A little before the 50th anniversary of the date, in October, the survivors went back to Germany, some for the first time.
Margot was indeed a survivor: one of the many children who were evacuated to England on the ‘Kindertransport’ she spent some (very unhappy) time in London prior to being able to meet her family in the States.
I remember that weekend we spent together in Locarno as a kind of floating moment of sheer happiness.
When we visited with them in Forest Hills in 1990 we felt as if we were the lost tribe that the others had finally found! Such was the welcome we got.
Wasn't just this smile worth the trip?
There weren’t enough of these get-togethers, but then, an ocean stood between us. Later long-distance telephone calls became affordable, and we would actually talk on the phone fairly regularly. The ocean remained there, however. They enjoyed its shore:
Whatever… Margot stood by me all these years, encouraging me when I was feeling low. Telling me that things would pick up, and they often did.
I have collected, not stamps, but her phrases – and now I use them also. Like: ‘Nobody gets a free ride’ – or: ‘We make plans and God laughs’. You might say, no big comfort there. But yes, there was, because it made me feel I was not the only one in trouble. And also because these expressions are so typically Jewish - and there comes the other thing that Margot is responsible for: my growing awareness of my origins - and those of my maternal branch. Something that led to my later search for long-lost relatives, with the amazing result of fabulous family reunions in Europe and in the States. Gratitude is also another lesson I learned from her: ‘This is truly God’s country!” she would say when talking of a beautiful place, like Vermont, or the Catskills. Well, this is just what I say when I watch the Med’ everyday!
There was this magical thing between Margot and I: unconditional affection. One that is devoid of all the heartache that can get in the way between, say, mother and daughter. Affection that grows on trust and mutual interests is a very special gift. It is like having your cake and eating it, no strings attached, just perfect and so relaxing!
Of course, I was also fortunate to get to get to know Margot’s children, and her nieces. I can now say how very very lucky I am to be endowed with such great cousins!
The last time we met was in 2006, in the Catskills, where Margot and Leo were vacationing. The hotel experience was something I wouldn’t want to repeat, but it was saved by the moving reunion, and the weekend’s visit of their son Philip.
OK. This is it.
Margot passed away this morning, October 30. Since Leo’s death, on November 30, 2010, she stopped wanting to live. She gave up on life altogether. Nothing mattered to her anymore. She wanted this day to come, and it has.
So now, even if I am sad that she is gone for good, I am relieved that she in no longer in pain, morally or physically. All I want to do is remember the fun we had together, her jokes, her smile, her common sense, her tolerance, her curiosity and, most important, the love she gave me, us, unconditionally. For those gifts I shall be forever grateful.