When I was a kid growing up in Claremont, they called me Joey. Hardly anyone does that now, or “Joseph” either. My name is “Joe,” and that suits me fine. Still, “Joey” has a nostalgic ring, reviving memories of friends and relatives, including my aunt in Albany, New York, who called me by that name.
One of my previous articles (“My Cousin Romaine & a Letter from the Old Country,” September 2008) told how my grandmother’s Uncle Bernstein (no one ever mentioned his first name) went back to Poland in 1938, on the eve of the Holocaust, and rescued the teenage daughter of a family member. He was a widower in his 70s, and I left it to the reader’s imagination (as I do once again) how he managed to take her with him back to America. She became my cousin Romaine, and as I wrote in that piece, she lived a long life and performed many “mitzvot” – the Yiddish word for good deeds.
One of those deeds began in the late 1960s. This was at the beginning of the time known as Détente, when relations between the United States and Russia started to thaw. With her husband, Irving, Romaine made the first of several trips from their home on Central Park West in New York City to Russia, taking suitcases filled with clothes, household goods, and gifts for Irving’s relatives – his sister, a government scientist, and her grown son and his family. They lived in an obscure city in the Ural Mountains, a place that Americans did not visit. Clearing customs in Moscow with all those suitcases and then traveling (“schlepping” my grandfather would have called it) by train to this distant city posed major obstacles.
A man named Erastus, a native of Albany, New York and the son of its Mayor, was in charge of the Pan American Airlines Moscow office – an American fluent in Russian and accustomed to dealing with the bureaucracy. Erastus met Romaine and Irving when they first arrived at Sheremetyevo Airport, and he helped them cut through the red tape. Over the course of several visits, my cousin Romaine and her husband became very close to Erastus and his second wife, treating them as the children they never had. Erastus told Romaine that he was from Albany, and Romaine told Erastus she had relatives there.
Meanwhile, back at that time, an interesting lawsuit unfolded in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The issue before the court was whether two young children should live with their mother in the United States, or with their father, an American living in Moscow with his second wife.
One day, shortly after returning from one of her trips to Russia, Romaine called our mutual relative, her cousin and my aunt, the one who lived in Albany, New York. Romaine poured out her heart to my aunt. “This wonderful man, your Mayor’s son, has a terrible problem, and I’m so worried. He’s in the middle of a custody lawsuit, and I don’t know if he has a good lawyer.”
My aunt reassured our mutual cousin. “Don’t worry, Romaine. It’s Joey.”