I was on the computer recently trying to figure out how we survived without Google. It reminded me of a family gathering where a question arose. I looked up the answer on Google just to see how long it would take. It was about twenty seconds. It wasn’t always so easy. The time wasn’t so much the problem. It was the emotional damage.
Sometime during the early seventies, we had a visit from my cousin Patty. I lived in central New Jersey, near the shore with my mother, brother, and grandparents. Patty stopped in for a couple of days on her way to Washington DC from Southern California. She had driven across the country heading toward an internship or grad school. I cannot recall which.
Patty was the youngest daughter of my grandmother’s sister, making her my second cousin, or first cousin once removed. Suffice it to say that while she was definitely my mother’s first cousin, she was closer to me in age. I would guess that she was about twenty-one at the time and I was probably about fourteen.
Since Patty’s visit stretched over a Sunday, and family visitors from so far away were rare, my grandparents had a family gathering to see her off. My grandmother’s two brothers and their wives came in from North Jersey. Her daughter Sherry came from the western part of the state along with her husband and children. My Aunt Phoebe and Cousin Alison were there from across town. Additionally, there was a smattering of other assorted relatives from the area, most of which I rarely saw, and was clueless about their relationship.
The one thing all of these people had in common was that they were all Jews. We had a very large eat-in kitchen where everyone was either sitting at the table, or milling around it. There was a cacophony of conversations with everyone who got near one immediately joining in. There was plenty of brisket, chopped liver, rye bread from Gelbstien’s and a selection of deli meats including tongue. For dessert, there were macaroons and a variety of sponge cakes.
This gathering was obviously special as someone opened the bottom of the china cabinet and took out the rarely seen spirits. There was cold duck, cherry herring and peach schnapps, all standards of the Jewish bar. Some of the adults tasted the tiniest of samples calling out l’chiam with each sip.
My cousin Alison and I were playing one of our favorite family games. We would watch a conversation between two relatives who were out of earshot and make up our own conversation using their hand gesticulations. We developed this game while watching her mother Phoebe conversing with our grandfather Oscar outside the Post Office one day while we were waiting in the car. Since nearly any conversation between Jews could easily be called an argument in most other circles, there was plenty of hand movement.
Here’s where it got weird. Patty was packed and ready to leave. She came up to Grandpa Oscar, her uncle, who was sitting at the head of the table. Patty had some Travelers Cheques and wanted to have a little more cash. Since it was Sunday, the bank was not an option. Patty asked Oscar if she could sign one of the Travelers Checques over to him in exchange for twenty dollars.
Oscar was happy to do it, assuming that it would be just like signing a personal check over to someone. Still, he had never heard of anyone actually doing this before, and with money, Jews check first. Quickly, the advice that came from those sitting closest by basically served to just reframe the question. His wife, Hilda had the only sensible advice, suggesting that he just give her the twenty dollars, but it was already too late to get by without a definitive answer. Uncle Arthur, who was an accountant, was standing nearby, and he jumped in. Soon the conversation began to grow and swirl around the room.
“Well, with a check, you just sign it over…”
“But this requires two signatures…”
“Is it American Express or some other company?”
“Wait, a minute. When I was in Israel…”
“Read the back already…”
“It’s supposed to be like cash according to the television…”
“Yes, the ads with Eli Wallach…”
“Schmuck, that’s Karl Malden…”
Alison and I were watching Cousin Patty who was still standing next to Oscar in the middle of this maelstrom. All of a sudden, Patty shouts out, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”, and rushes out of the room crying. Since the previous behavior was quite normal for Jews, everyone got silent for a moment while they all looked at each other shrugging as though it was a casting call for the lead in The Jackie Mason Story.
“What’s with her?”
“She gets it from her father.”
“He’s always been a little high-strung for my taste.”
“Must be from living in California…”
“Fruits and nuts…”
“I thought it was laid back, there.”
“It’s no place for Jews.”
“What about the Hollywood types?”
And there it was, back to normal. My grandmother followed Patty and calmed her down. She gave her twenty dollars and everyone said goodbye. The funny thing is that every time we had a family gathering, someone would remember the Travelers Cheque incident. People would comment on Patty’s mental state and laugh fondly. Occasionally, someone would revisit the question of whether you actually could sign over a Traveler’s Cheque to someone else.
“Travelers Cheque? Who still uses Travelers Checques?”
Jewish Google always has an answer.
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