By Malkie Gordon Hirsch
I didn’t realize this until the end of this wonderful past weekend, but it hit me as we had the chance to mingle with around 50 members of Jeremy’s immediate family that my kids are now the lucky new recipients of a third set of grandparents, new aunts and uncles, and many new cousins.
It hit me as I heard Rosie refer to Jeremy’s mother as “Grandma,” her official title from her biological grandchildren. It was uncharted territory, this trip we took to St. Louis for the bar mitzvah Shabbos of Jeremy’s nephew Shai.
This was the first time we went together as a family to finally meet the entire Magence tribe. Until now, our life with Jeremy in it had changed minimally. He had moved from his home into ours, and into our community as well. He fast-tracked his way into the lives of our friends, family, neighbors, and community members and quickly and easily found his place. One might not count how well he fit in as a talent, but to me it is. And being this way always seemed elusive and slightly out of my comfort zone. But I didn’t need to worry, because as far as I knew, things wouldn’t change.
Until they started changing. I’d glance at pieces of unfamiliar mail that started inviting us as a couple to various smachot and realized that eventually I’d have to join him for them. But as effortless as this seemed for Jeremy, that’s as difficult as it was for me. Although I give the impression of being outgoing and friendly, there’s also a shy and reserved side to me—a side (among the others) that only people who have known me for long would know about me. And at my age, how would I seem to an entire new set of siblings-in-law, nieces, and nephews? Would I understand any of their family stories and the inside jokes I hadn’t been privy to until now? Would my presence there with my kids cause any discomfort among this tight-knit family that regularly attended all family occasions as a unit?
Thankfully, I didn’t have the time before this trip to consider any and all of the ways it could be awkward and uncomfortable. I just did things in my usual way—without thinking much. After all, there are plenty of matters to worry about without adding this to the laundry list of things to keep you up at night.
To my kids, it was an opportunity to travel somewhere they’d never been. And also to miss three days of school. The combination was a dream come true.
For me, it was a way to see where Jeremy grew up and to observe the dynamic between him and his siblings back in the place where life began for them all. People change dramatically when you strip them of the layers of time, environment, and social responsibilities they accumulate. There’s something about going home that brings you back to the simplicity of that time and those relationships.
So although there were points during the weekend when I had to ask lots of questions, or just be OK with not knowing everything that went on before my arrival, there was a tremendous effort on their part to fill me in, to engage with my kids and ask them questions, and to really take an interest in who we are.
I noticed Jeremy’s mother express her concern over my kids feeling overwhelmed with the amount of new they’d encountered during their stay, but I quickly reassured her that the one superpower they developed after their father’s death was the gift of adaptability. It’s something that happens when Shabbosos suddenly look new from week to week, and there are different people sitting around the table regularly. Arriving in a new city, into a new family, davening in a new shul, and sleeping in new beds doesn’t faze them. On the contrary, it’s part of the journey and the learning that this semi-new life has gifted them.
The cast of characters this weekend was a writer’s dream. Between Jeremy’s nephew Jake writing the most epic bar mitzvah sibling dedication I’ve ever heard (and no, I didn’t understand most of it but it was still hilarious) to meeting some of the most interesting people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, it was an unforgettable experience that led my kids to request a visit back to Jeremy’s hometown during summer break—the best possible review.
We sat with Yitz Magence, Jeremy’s uncle, whom I count as one of the most fascinating people I’ve met. As if being the leining rebbe for Bravo Channel’s Andy Cohen and being the subject of a Broadway song dedicated to his missing the morning of Andy reciting the parashah wasn’t enough, he topped things off by bringing his former girlfriend Lori with him for the weekend. Lori lives in her sailboat on the Boston Harbor and counts an accomplishment of sailing on a five-week nonstop expedition to Amsterdam with one other crew member. And while our table knew we weren’t there for Lori, she definitely could’ve led a Q&A on all the things that happen as someone decides to travel the world by water and circumnavigate the earth in a 42-foot sailboat named Medusa.
We spent time with Jeremy’s sister Elana’s mechutanim who, before becoming observant, were members of the Winnipeg Philharmonic, playing the clarinet and French horn, respectively. I learned the difference between what a conductor and composer does and how each section of an orchestra responds to the man who stands in front of them and makes the notes on a page become the soul-stirring music we get to listen to.
The kids and I were lucky enough to receive a berachah on Shabbos from Jeremy’s stepfather Maier, to whom I feel connected because of our different but also similar arrival into the family.
I knew going into the weekend that my son Nison’s birthday wouldn’t be the same as usual, being that we there to celebrate Shai’s. Even with all the prep involved on our hosts’ end to take care of any and all details pertaining to the simcha, they remembered to purchase a cake especially for Nison, and just as Havdallah ended, while the room was still dark, there was a rendition of “Happy Birthday” sung by us all as he was presented with his birthday cake. It was a small gesture that meant so much to not only Nison, but to us all. I won’t soon forget his happy and surprised expression and that memory is something that he’ll always have from our trip.
More important than any of the fascinating people I got to meet, though, was my once-again realization that life isn’t linear. It often doesn’t go from Point A to Point B the way you’d want or even expect. Sometimes it zigzags around the alphabet or even feels like you landed in totally different one. Sometimes, we love and we lose and we grieve, and if we’re lucky, we get a second chance. The challenges in a newly blended life might be the parts of it that come with the biggest blessings and the best experiences.
Traveling to an unknown destination to celebrate a bar mitzvah for a kid I didn’t yet know brought me so much more than just a pleasant weekend together with this new family.
It has made a permanent mark in our sands of time. It’s not about loss right now, but about gaining more family that I never expected, for myself and my kids. I didn’t know at first what Jeremy’s family would bring to us, but now that I do, I’m grabbing hold and I won’t let go.
Malkie Gordon Hirsch is a native of the Five Towns community, a mom of 5, a writer, and a social media influencer.