The moment I walked into cousin Eileen’s apartment, she threw her arms around me. I froze. “Lynn, you’re so beautiful,” this 20-something woman said with great enthusiasm. Not ever having had any affection from my own mother, I couldn’t allow myself to believe it was genuine.
My parents and I were on a trip to New York from Los Angeles to see relatives, including my cousin, Eileen, none of whom I had ever met.
I was 11 years old, being raised by a cold, intimidating mother and a passive father. Even though we are Jewish, we never went to temple, except for weddings or bar mitzvahs, so I had no spiritual foundation from which to draw. I stood there staring at this strange woman and said nothing.
“Mamela,” Eileen went on to say, “one day this week I’ll take you shopping.”
Still, I didn’t say a word. This woman seemed to want to be friends with me. But if my own parents didn’t like me, why should I believe this stranger would?
Two days later, Eileen kept her word; she took me shopping and bought me a beautiful bracelet. A relationship with my cousin Eileen was developing, whether I believed it could or not.
Years passed, and at 20, I came back to New York alone and stayed with Eileen and her husband. I was leaving for Europe on a new ocean liner in just a few days. They took me to Windows on the World at the World Trade Center for dinner. It was the most lavish restaurant I’d ever been to. I still remember all the silverware. I knew basic utensil use, but this was so extravagant, I didn’t have a clue. But Eileen didn’t find fault with me because of it.
She took me to the ship and handed me a large gift-wrapped box. Later, in my cabin, I opened it. It was an ankle-length, black, squared-neck, elegant evening dress. It fit me perfectly. How did she know my size? I was flabbergasted. I’d never had a sophisticated dress like this before. I wore it on Captain’s Night and I was a hit. I even won a replica of the ship. I felt the dress brought me good luck.
My cousin Eileen and I stayed in touch over many decades. At one point, she went to Israel for a vacation and sent me a beautiful menorah. I still have it and think of her every time it catches my eye.
I don’t remember if Eileen was kosher. If she was, she never said anything about my food choices. She went to temple every Friday night for Shabbat services, and loved going. “Mamela, I get nourishment from it,” she used to say. “You might, too.” Her suggestion drifted out of mind without a second thought.
My beloved cousin was always supportive of me, encouraging me on both the social front and in my writing. With every phone conversation, she would mention Hashem. She reveled in being Jewish.
I stayed with Eileen one last time while in town for a business event. She lived in Long Island then. One night she hired a car and we went into the city to see a Broadway show. The play wasn’t great, but we had fun together — as adults.
It took me a long time, but I finally realized I could find love outside of my parents, that I didn’t have to keep going back to an empty well and experience the raw pain of rejection each time I did.
When Eileen died I was heartbroken. In sharp contrast to my parents, she was in my corner, the one who made me feel loved, accepted and valued. She embodied generosity of spirit as a living, breathing way of life, and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about her. Everything she touched blossomed from her passion and love for Judaism and its teachings. And, recently, late in life, I have become deeply interested in understanding and embracing my religion, something I never thought possible. When exploring Judaism, I think about Eileen and her suggestion that I might get nourished from it.
Following her lead, going to services, reading daily prayers and seeking opportunities to be kind, I am discovering change. I seem to be living in a kinder, more forgiving world, and I am experiencing a deeper sense of peace and acceptance in myself.
If Eileen is looking down from heaven, I bet she’d say, “Mamela, I couldn’t be happier, and I’m so proud of you.”
While my mother’s critical voice has faded, the connection with my cousin Eileen lives on.
Lynn Brown Rosenberg lives in Los Angeles and is the author of the 2014 memoir “My Sexual Awakening at 70.”