My grandmother set me up with a cute, Jewish girl. We had a lot in common—including our family tree.
It was springtime in Minneapolis four years ago when my grandmother Cogie called with an important message: “There’s a girl,” she said.
Cogie’s worldview derived from Noah’s ark, in that she believed people were unequivocally happier in pairs. She’d been worried about me because I’d recently broken up with my girlfriend of seven years and had since been moping around with a collection of Camus’ essays in hand, expounding on the problem of existence.
“She’s blonde,” Cogie said. “She’s Jewish. She’s 21. She’s very cute. She’s very cute. She’s an actress and has been in plays at the Guthrie, I think. She’s an artist, Max.” I, too, was an artist, in that I waited tables to make rent and occasionally wrote album reviews for websites that no longer exist. “I thought maybe you two might be a good match for each other.”
The girl’s name was Rachel. Then Cogie told me her last name, and I recognized it immediately. Twenty years earlier, I’d gone to kindergarten with Rachel’s older brother, and we’d become friends because his great-aunt was also my great-aunt—an exciting revelation for two 6-year-olds. But that meant that Rachel, like her brother, was my second cousin.
“Just take her number,” Cogie said, “and think about it.”
In the next 24 hours I received three voice-mails. Two were from Cogie, asking if I’d called Rachel yet. The third was from Tudie, the great-aunt Rachel and I had in common.
I hadn’t spoken to Tudie since her husband—my grandfather’s brother—had passed away the previous winter. During the following year Cogie lunched with her often, attempting not to replace my great-uncle but to help Tudie at least be part of a pair. Like Cogie, Tudie was sub-petite and dressed almost exclusively in shades that fell between cream and beige. Both were in their late seventies, but at family events, as they spoke about grandchildren and mutual memories, they could, at times, seem to be exchanging dark, valuable gossip the way teenagers do.
“I just want you to know,” Tudie said when I called her back, “that you are not related to Rachel.” She explained that my father’s uncle had married Rachel’s mother’s aunt (that is, Tudie herself), so the only link between Rachel and me was through marriage. “There’s no blood connection,” Tudie went on. “I’ve talked with her twice and she’s very amenable to a phone call. And she’s just so cute.”
I didn’t like that my love life was being commandeered by women called Cogie and Tudie, neither of whom cleared five feet in socks. But I was hoping to find someone companionable, and Rachel was purportedly amenable and cute, and I began to consider whether I could disregard that she was my cousin, albeit by marriage. For months I wavered, deeming the situation a little too bizarre, but my kinfolk—admirably—did not lose hope.
At Rosh Hashanah dinner that year, Cogie pulled me into an empty bedroom and shut the door. “I have something for you,” she said.
From her purse she pulled out a Ziploc baggie, inside of which was an index card. On it she’d copied a family tree. I was placed in the center of the card (which she didn’t remove from the baggie), and with her fingernail Cogie traced my lineage up through my father and grandfather, then over toward Tudie, and finally down to Rachel, whose name was all the way over on the card’s left margin, the R partially cut off.
“You see,” Cogie said. “There’s really no connection at all.”
“But we’re on the same tree!” I said.
“I think you’d be passing up something that could be special.”
Then she produced a second Ziploc from her purse. This one contained a clipping from the front page of the Star Tribune’s “Entertainment” section. A large picture of a blonde-haired, sad-faced young actress—Rachel—dressed as some brooding Chekhovian peasant pressed against the plastic.
“You see?” Cogie said.
“I see,” I said, suddenly willing to disregard my earlier hesitance.
I picked Rachel up at her apartment in Minneapolis’ warehouse district, on the west bank of the Mississippi River. With her long blonde hair and slender build, she looked nothing like anyone I was related to. I moved my server apron and wine opener from the passenger seat to the back seat floor. The car filled quickly with Rachel’s scent—something like dusty roses. “This is kind of weird, right?” she said, and that instantly endeared her to me.
The wine bar we were going to was only a few blocks away, and Rachel suggested that we park in her building’s guest garage. After five minutes searching for a spot, we determined that the lot was full and decided just to drive to the bar. The parking there was even worse—there were lines for meters two cars deep—and we circled the block a few times. “Instead of going out, we could just spend the whole night parking,” I said. Rachel did not, as I remember, laugh at my very good joke.
At the bar she told me about the acting program she was in at the University of Minnesota and about her work as a volunteer digging wells in Africa. She lacked the forced exuberance of most performers I knew, and I was thankful. She was a touch wholesome; she said she’d never smoked a cigarette, which put me off for some reason I have yet to define. I made fun of our waitress for having opened our bottle of wine incorrectly—this was to convey to Rachel that I wasn’t attracted to our waitress and also because, like many of my coworkers, I’d developed an arrogance about proper table service. I didn’t tell Rachel that, just weeks before, I’d been turned down for a job at that very bar.
Throughout the conversation the words cubism, post-modern, and integrity all came up—served from both my side and hers, we volleyed back and forth. We did our best to acknowledge and diminish our possible familial connection, as if shrugging off a foul ball. I asked about her brother whom I’d gone to kindergarten with, she asked about Cogie, and we sipped nervously at our wine. Earlier in the year, Rachel had broken up with her boyfriend, whom she’d lived with, and this was her first date since then, too. We finished a bottle of chardonnay, and I walked her home. Outside her door we hugged and exchanged kisses on the cheek.
I thought how Rachel seemed like a girl for whom I could see myself washing dishes un-complainingly, and this and other domestic fantasies entered my imagination with progressive speed over the next few days. At some point I looked up cousin on Wikipedia and determined we were only slightly more closely connected than Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt—they were fifth cousins (by blood) who had, of course, married.
Archie Gottesman got New Yorkers to love a storage company. Can she get Jews to love being Jewish?