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Cutting Family Ties

The cards my Christian paternal grandparents sent me as a child came with small checks—and a hidden agenda

Rebecca Klempner
April 30, 2013
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos rook76/Shutterstock
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos rook76/Shutterstock
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos rook76/Shutterstock
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos rook76/Shutterstock

I learned of my grandfather’s death through an Internet search.

I had been estranged from my paternal grandparents for more than a decade, but four years ago, I decided that the time had come to reconnect; they were getting old, and I longed to share some family news with them—I was expecting another child. I didn’t have a current address or phone number for them, so I entered my grandfather’s full name into a search engine, hoping to find contact information.

Instead, I found an obituary. He had died of a stroke two months earlier.

Stunned, I continued to read the notice of his death. My father, uncle, aunt, cousins, and great-aunts and uncles appeared on the list of surviving relatives. But there was no mention of my twin sister or myself. We had been obliterated.

The next morning, I called my best friend from college and cried wretched tears as the story poured out. “They want to erase our existence,” I complained.

She was sympathetic but candid: “How can you complain when you removed them from your life,” my friend replied, “just like they removed you from theirs?”

My parents split up when I was 4 years old. To describe their divorce as “acrimonious” would be an understatement. Raised first in the Congregationalist Church and then in the United Church of Christ, my father underwent an Orthodox conversion to Judaism during his marriage to my mother, who is Jewish; after their divorce, however, he gave up both Judaism and Christianity. He became a follower of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and took a Hindi name.

After my mother won full custody, my sister and I visited with my father only sporadically. He occasionally sent exotic gifts from his extensive world travels but remained distant from our everyday lives. My mother continued to raise us Jewish in a traditional, though not Orthodox, home, and her Jewish parents played an integral role in our childhood.

My sister and I stayed in regular but infrequent contact with our paternal grandparents. They sent cards at birthdays and at the holiday season, typed in precise black letters on Christmas cards decorated with holly and pine trees. Usually my grandmother enclosed a small check, five-dollar bill, or gift certificate. My sister and I found the Christmas cards annoying, yet somehow amusing. Didn’t they understand that we were Jewish? Nonetheless, we sent our grandparents thank-you notes for their cards and gifts.

During our father’s last court-mandated visit, when we were 7, my sister and I spent time with his parents. Before our arrival, my grandmother had spread a familiar tablecloth on their table. It had been sent to them by my other set of grandparents three years previously; my mother’s parents had bought it in Israel while visiting us during our ill-fated attempt to make aliyah. Its presence set my sister and me at ease. (An identical one, also purchased by my mother’s parents, now graces my own home.) Seeing our grandparents was the highlight of that visit. We laughed at my grandfather’s terrible puns, admired (with a mixture of fascination and horror) the hunting trophies on the wall, and asked questions about their antique bottle collection. They fed us waffles with ice cream and took us to see the sea lions in Monterey.

But after that, for reasons that were never entirely clear, my grandparents never attempted to see us again. The only contact we had for nearly a decade were those brief letters. I was disappointed. Hadn’t they enjoyed our company? Didn’t they love us?

When I was 16, I set off on a bus trip with my Jewish youth group to the Bay Area—where my grandparents lived. Before I left home, I shared with my mother my intention to contact my father’s parents. She raised no objection, but my sister expressed surprise. Why put any more effort into a relationship that our grandparents had put so little effort into? She had recently decided to stop writing to them.

I decided to forge ahead. The night I arrived in San Francisco, I dialed my grandmother and grandfather with shaking hands.

“Who is it?” asked my grandmother when she answered.

I creaked out my nickname, my voice faltering. “I’m here, in San Francisco.”

“Why are you crying?” she asked.

I wanted to say, I haven’t seen you in nine years, and you’ve never tried to visit me in all that time. Do you still love me? Instead, I answered, “Because I haven’t seen you in a long time. I want to know if you could come visit me at my hotel tomorrow night.” When they arrived, my grandmother’s first words to me were: “You look just like your father.” My grandparents spent less than 25 minutes with me in the hotel lobby, and we never advanced past small talk. After they left, I spent about an hour crying on a friend’s shoulder.

Despite the disappointment of the visit, I was proud of myself. I had taken initiative. I could maintain a relationship with my paternal grandparents independent of my parents and their difficult history. And why shouldn’t I? Half of my genes and half of my heritage came from their side of the family. If we could understand each other, maybe I could understand myself better, too.

Unlike my sister, I continued to correspond with my paternal grandparents throughout the remainder of high school and beyond. In our letters, I shared tidbits about college life or my feelings of inadequacy when I began my Master’s program. I relayed my sister’s news without providing her address. They continued to send small checks for both of us. I forwarded my sister’s to her.

Around when I started graduate school, I learned from one of my grandmother’s letters that my grandfather had suffered a small stroke. She explained that he was recovering the use of his hand and the fluency of his speech, but that it was a slow struggle. With that letter, I recognized that my grandparents would not live forever. I wrote to them later that year that I wanted a closer, more open relationship. This seemed to be the right time to mend fences.

The last week of December, I opened my usual Christmas card from them. On the cover appeared a cardinal with holly in its beak, a typical wintertime scene. Out fluttered two checks—one for me, one to forward to my sister. Within this card, my grandmother enclosed a letter. In addition to a torrent of abuse toward my mother, my grandmother offered a confession: She had continued to keep in touch over the years for one reason—because she had always hoped that my sister and I would convert to Christianity.

My heart broke: I had thought that my father’s parents had kept in touch with me simply because they loved me. When the letter had arrived, it had filled me with hope; now it filled me with hurt.

And I was confused. Never had any member of my father’s family taken us to church, prayed with us, or invited us to celebrate Christian holidays with them, even after my grandfather had increased his commitment to Christianity by becoming an Episcopal priest in 1989. The only hint that they’d prefer it if we would embrace Christianity had been those Christmas cards.

My grandmother’s letter could not have come at a worse time. Long convinced that God had given us the Torah’s commandments, I had decided that I wanted to keep them. By then, I had curtailed most driving on Shabbat and holidays, kept a minimal standard of kashrut, prayed daily, and regularly attended an Orthodox synagogue. I frequented classes about Jewish thought and practice. This path had brought much-needed balance and focus to my life, and the pace of my growth was picking up.

I read my grandmother’s letter—filled with judgment and resentment—in horror. How could a supposedly religious woman of 70-odd years show so little tolerance or forgiveness?

For a few days, I mulled over my response. Eventually, I wrote my grandmother a letter, in which I explained that my Jewish identity had given me the moral compass and taste for charity that she and my grandfather had never demonstrated to me. I explained that my mother and her parents had taught me unconditional love and acceptance, had bent over backward raising me while my father’s side of the family did nothing but send a tiny gift and a card twice a year.

At the close of the letter, I notified my grandmother that I was—at least temporarily—suspending our correspondence. Perhaps in the future, I wrote, I would figure out how to proceed. If that happened, I’d be back in touch.

That was 15 years ago.

As each year passed, I adopted increasingly Orthodox beliefs and practice. Soon, I became engaged. I did not inform my paternal grandparents. From time to time, I contemplated getting in touch but let it drop. As my new household expanded to include three children, I grew too busy. And my husband was uncomfortable with the notion of including my father’s parents in our lives; would they try to indoctrinate our children? I pointed out other Jewish friends who embraced non-Jewish family members but eventually set aside the issue to take care of later.

Later came too late.

The Orthodox lifestyle I’ve embraced has filled my life with goodness and joy. I would choose it all over again, and do, daily. But it has not come without a price. My children have living biological relatives whom they do not know. We know just a smidgen about the history of that side of the family (which includes a Native American great-great grandmother and ancestors who mined the Klondike). Even filling out medical forms can get complicated. For example, I know very little of my grandparents’ medical history.

I told my grandparents to wait until I was ready to get in touch with them. “That was the mistake,” a voice in my head insists. Or perhaps I shouldn’t have expected my grandparents’ greater years to equal greater wisdom and character refinement. Or was the mistake expecting them to accept the life I was choosing? Was that unreasonable?

They might not have been able to provide the unconditional love that I craved from them. But I love my non-Jewish grandparents—because they are part of me. Their blood is in my blood; their DNA in my cells. I cannot erase them or pretend they never existed. Their history is mine. And their absence creates a void in my life.

Rebecca Klempner is a wife, mother, and writer in Los Angeles.