My Cousin in Pittsburgh

My Cousin in Pittsburgh

On October 29th, two days after a gunman burst into a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa. and shot eleven people dead, I got a Facebook message from my cousin who lives there. It wasn’t to me, personally. She sent it to all her Facebook “friends,” but it went like this: “Much as I love keeping up with you on FB, I have come to understand that social media does more harm than good. The only thing I can do about this is to stop participating. If you want to stay in touch, please send me your e-mail or street address. I’m out of here.”

I can’t blame her. I share her disgust at the way social media has been perverted into a platform for evil. I’ve often thought of doing the same thing myself. How close am I to doing this? I don’t know. What hideous event will push me over the edge, what shooting, of what group of innocent victims, trying to pray, or do yoga, or shop, or learn, will be more than I can stomach?

I’m not a FB junkie. I don’t spend hours on it. I don’t post huge amounts of stuff. I do post my blogs and this would be the main reason for me not to let go. I do keep track of what other people are doing and thinking. I read links people post. I “like” things. It was actually on FB that I got to know things about my cousin that I hadn’t known before. I found out we share the same political views. I found out many of the same things please us, or make us sick to our stomach.

I should say that my cousin doesn’t just happen to live in Pittsburgh. She grew up there, as did my mother. Neither of them grew up in Squirrel Hill, the Jewish section of the city where the attack occurred. I don’t know what part of the city my cousin grew up in. My mother grew up not too far away from Squirrel Hill, in Swissvale, when it was predominantly Swedish. She lived there from 1923 until she left in 1949 to “go East” and marry my father. Twenty-six years. I don’t know how often she was in Squirrel Hill back then. It sounded like things could get pretty tribal in the Pittsburgh of the 20’s and 30’s. Mother once said it was a big deal to wander into the Italian neighborhood at the bottom of the hill because, you know, well, the Italians ate GARLIC.

Ironically, years later when my parents returned to Pittsburgh to visit, it was to Squirrel Hill they went. Not to see my mother’s immediate family. Her father had retired to Florida in the early 60’s and died in a car crash only a few years after arriving. My mother’s two brothers had left the city, one to move to Alabama and become “more Southern than the Southerners” as my father liked to say, and the other one out west to a string of different locations. No, my parents went back to Pittsburgh to attend the various weddings and bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs of the offspring of one of my father’s war buddies, a Jewish man who’d grown up in Squirrel Hill about the same time as my mother was growing up in Swissvale. They didn’t know each other then. They grew up economically and culturally cut off from one another, neighborhoods and worlds away.

When my mother and father went back to Squirrel Hill, they would also try to visit her family, my cousin, for example, and those of my mother’s friends who’d remained in the city. I didn’t appreciate it growing up, but I know now that my mother mourned leaving that city at the confluence of three rivers, the city whose air was so filthy when she was living there that the street lights burned all day and children walked to school holding handkerchiefs over their mouths. She mourned it not because of the steel industry’s environmental carnage but because it was what she was used to and the fast-paced world of New York and its environs never really suited her. She would have preferred to remain in Pittsburgh where life was slower, people were more considerate, and her childhood friends and extended family remained. She was always happy to go back, to visit Schenley Park and Heinz Chapel and the Nationality Rooms at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. She was proud of the city of immigrants that had produced these places.

I didn’t often go with my parents. My sister and I were away at college and then later off living our own lives. Pittsburgh wasn’t where I met my cousin. We met when she walked into the Stockholm department store I was working in the summer of 1985. Unlike my mother, who, proud as she was of her Swedish roots, never learned to speak Swedish properly, I majored in Swedish at my British university and was working in the Swedish capital the summer after my year “abroad.”

“You don’t know me, but I’m your cousin from Pittsburgh,” a slender, dark-haired woman presented herself to me as I was dusting a display of men’s shoes. She was in Sweden on vacation and had promised my mother she’d look me up. Her unexpected appearance delighted my Swedish co-workers whose cousins, all of whom lived locally, never came to see them, and I was sent off to have lunch with her. We ate at a restaurant in Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s medieval old town on its island next to the locks where the salt water of the Baltic meets the fresh water of Lake Mälar. I remember I had an omelet and we talked about places we’d been. Both of us had done a fair amount of traveling. We got on. We liked each other, and I was sorry when I had to go back to work. We parted after exchanging addresses and I still remember the gentle warning my cousin, who was older than I, gave me about living overseas. “Don’t stay out too long, Linda. Don’t become a professional American.” I’m not sure I appreciated her advice the day she gave it, but I followed it three years later when I decided to come home.

We met again years later at my parent’s house when she and her husband were traveling in the East. We were both older. We talked about her life in Pittsburgh, a city I still hadn’t gotten to know. I was living in New York and New Jersey at that time, teaching ESL, something she’d done in Central America when she was in her twenties. Again, we got on, liked each other, sat down to dinner together. I never saw her again. I haven’t gone west and with my mother gone, the connection with Pittsburgh has fallen away. It was through social media that my cousin and I reconnected. It was through social media that we took up the connection we began in Stockholm thirty-three years ago.

Of course, I’ll do as she asked and add her e-mail address to my list, and I’ll send a direct mail every time I blog, but you know how it is with e-mails. They’ve become almost like letters. Writing them seems onerous and old-fashioned. Though I understood my cousin’s pulling out of social media, I did feel a little “oh” of dismay when I read her text, like when someone you like but whom you only ever see at one place tells you they won’t be there anymore. I waited until I got home to reply. “I understand how you feel,” I wrote. “Here’s my e-mail address. Let’s definitely keep in touch.” Then I hit send. The little blue circle whirled around and around but a few moments later I got a message that said the connection I was seeking was no longer there. My cousin must have closed down all her accounts shortly after she sent her message. I’d waited too long. I’d waited and she was gone.