Debt, Repaid

By Howard Tanzman


I had just returned from my father’s funeral when the landline phone rang.

“Hello,” I answered.

“Are you Howard and is your mother’s name, Pauline?” the caller asked.

“Yes. And who is this?”

“I’m your cousin,” he replied. 

I didn’t know of any cousins on my mother’s side.

It was forty years after my mother died, and I now found out that she had six cousins I never knew existed. I don’t know why my mother had no relationship with them.  One of the cousins found me through He had everything, a complete history of my mother’s extended family, more than I knew.

My maternal grandfather

I learned these cousins were very close to Mom’s parents, my maternal grandparents. The six of them were born in Minsk. Sometime during World War I, maybe during the Russian Revolution, their mother died. Their father then left for America, leaving the six behind. Did he abandon them or plan on bringing them over later once he became a citizen? They don’t know. But what they do know is that their uncle, my maternal grandfather, brought the six of them to America.

It was the 1920s when immigration was difficult. It took time and money for my grandfather to get them here, and he did. They always remembered that. My new-found cousin sent me everything, including ship manifests from their voyage to America.

I met a few of the new-found cousins, technically second cousins, a year later at the unveiling of my father’s monument stone. I wasn’t sure what to say to relations I had never met. I filled in for them a few pieces of the missing family tree, mainly the name of my siblings’ spouses and children. We now exchange annual holiday greetings and are Facebook friends. 

Aunt Fannie

My mother was the youngest of five children. In some strange quirk of fate, the oldest, Aunt Fannie, outlived all of her younger siblings. By the 1980s, she was all alone. Her husband had died. She had no children.

She was poor, elderly, living in a deteriorating urban neighborhood. My father, perhaps too hurt by my mother’s death, did not have any contact with her. My wife and I wrote occasional letters to Aunt Fannie; we could have and should have done more. But we were busy with our lives, marriage, career, children.

However, Aunt Fannie was not abandoned. I learned that out of gratitude to their uncle– my maternal grandfather–the cousins took care of his oldest daughter, my Aunt Fannie, for the rest of her life. Debt, repaid.

© 2019 Howard Tanzman

Howard Tanzman is a retired I/T professional living in Chicago, Illinois. He travels the country visiting Presidential Museums and Baseball Stadiums; you can read about his trips at

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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