There were some extremely urgent messages on my home phone the other day. Texts appeared on my cell phone emphasizing the emergency. My cousin had been to our house for Shabbat dinner and when I received the calls and messages from her grown children, one in Israel for a bar/bat mitzvah and another on his way to vacation on the Cape, I grew concerned that she never made it home.
My own son was one of the messengers. I called him and learned that my cousin’s 50-year-old niece in Washington State died of a heart attack in her sleep. It was just after she responded “awesome” to the picture of the sunset in Jerusalem posted on Facebook by our cousin there visiting. Regina’s life and lust for living are summed up in this email her aunt shared with me, which her niece sent the day before her untimely passing.
“Hello #1 Auntie
Guess we didn’t win the lottery. Let’s try again!!
I’m doing great, just boring. Chores, sewing and crafts. I am blessed to be able to not have to work. Not complaining. I know I made a good choice in the military, gave us a great pension.
[Son] doing great too. He has back to school orientation today. School photos ($51), getting an assigned parking spot ($40), etc. He’s a junior this year. He has a girlfriend too. She goes to a different school. She’s a senior but takes college classes that count for high school and college. Very smart, adorable and likes fishing with him.
[Husband] doing good too. Passing several tests. He loves cooking so it’s nice when he does it.
Below is a picture I took of a sunflower field nearby.
How have you been??
Regina’s life was anything but simple, yet she made the most of each and every day. Born with a birth defect, which required multiple surgeries to correct a deformity of her mouth, abandoned by her mother as a young child, depleted by a recurrence of Hodgkin’s lymphoma as an adult, she still had a zest for living, which shined through.
Born in Newark, she was my third cousin once removed. When her father remarried, his second wife helped to raise her and her younger sister, along with their own three children, in Arizona. After her father and stepmother divorced, she did her best to keep up a relationship with her deadbeat father. That’s when his sister took on the role as #1 Auntie/mother to Regina and her sister.
It must have been 45 years since I had seen Regina as a child of around age 5, before we were reunited for her #1 Auntie’s 80th birthday celebration in New York City. Just this past April, Regina flew in from Washington for the big weekend and was greeted by her brother, who came in from Ohio with his two precocious young children. It was a freliche event and we talked and talked and felt the connection. She looked and acted like her paternal grandmother. That was the same woman my father and uncle escorted around Newark with a horse and buggy when she first came to this country from Ukraine in the early 1920s.
I told Regina and her brother that I could not wait for them to read my book with all the stories about their grandmother and the rest of the extended family. When I got home, I charted out our family connection for the two of them. They were both craving the knowledge of their ancestry, which I have recorded from my memories of the talks around my childhood kitchen table.
One of my favorite memories of their grandmother is when I was a young tween and my father would spot her as she walked carrying shopping bags to the nearby Newark Housing Projects where she lived. He would stop and ask if he could drive her and they would rapidly converse in Yiddish. They were both somewhat hard of hearing. After dropping her off he would joke, “That was my cousin Rose...she hears what she wants to hear.” Those connections are the chains that bind us and I am forever grateful we celebrated together for #1 Auntie’s birthday and I had a chance to tell some of those tales, even with their whiskers.
How apropos for Regina to have sent her #1 Auntie a picture of a sunflower field the day before her sudden death. In her note you can see that this doting mother wanted to spare her aging #1 Auntie the anguish of her illness. When this courageous warrior lost her personal battle her cousins wanted to be assured that someone was with their mother—that #1 Auntie—to soften the blow. May Regina rest in peace having reinforced for the rest of us just how truly precious life is.
By Sharon Mark Cohen