A Digital Search for the Long-Dead Grandmother I Never Knew

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Social media has made the world more open and connected, especially if you’re interested in live updates on toddlers belonging to the kid who tied your shoelaces together in sixth-grade gym class. But if it’s a member of the Greatest Generation you’re trying to find, you may as well be shouting into a cave. A recent Pew survey found that only 37 percent of adults aged 80 or older use the Internet. Sylvia’s long-lost brother, if he’s out there somewhere, probably isn’t in that minority. The yellowed scratchings in her tiny, old address book simply aren’t a match for the deluge of human data on today’s Internet. Maybe he’d died decades ago after all.

But my efforts weren’t entirely without reward. Thumbing through that same address book several summers ago, my mom found another curious entry: A Clarence and Marvin Feldman, each paired with a Cleveland address. Sylvia once had cousins in Ohio, mom knew; the names must belong to them. Were they still there? By coincidence, I was already planning a trip through Ohio for an unrelated research project. I set about combing through online directories again and emailed half a dozen elderly Jewish men. I landed on some professional profiles. There was Marvin Feldman the finance broker, Marvin Feldman the resource economist, Marvin Feldman the attorney who’d been practicing since the 1950s. My email was brief, its subject line questioning: “Marvin Feldman from Cleveland?”

Three days later, the attorney replied. He described an uncle. The uncle’s daughter, Sylvia. His first cousin. Names matched. There was a phone number. “I would welcome a call from you.”

So I called. It was confirmed: This man, a vague scribble in a 1950s address book conjured suddenly to life, was my 81-year-old first cousin twice-removed—the only relative of Sylvia’s whose existence in this century I could seem to confirm. Sylvia’s notes and diaries and life seemed suddenly more real. Her family existed, traceable somewhere in the digital ether!

Zach Schonfeld

Plans were set: I would soon be driving to Ohio with a friend; Marvin and his wife wanted to meet me; how about they take us out to dinner? Of course, I said, and when we arrived at their Cleveland streetcar suburb, they were beaming at the opportunity to meet these out-of-town youngsters who’d contacted them entirely out of nowhere. Marvin and his wife had no children or grandchildren of their own, we soon learned. It was strange to realize I’d appeared seemingly out of nowhere like some visiting surrogate grandchild, but stranger still to see the obvious delight Marvin and Alva took in this materialization: They would take me out to the Cleveland Skating Club, the unspoken agreement seemed to be, and feed me and fuss over my portions as if they’d been my kindly Jewish grandparents all along. Observing from afar, you’d think that’s who they were, if not for my sharp questioning and the obsessive notes I was keeping in a reporter’s notebook. This was my only chance to hear about Sylvia’s family. I needed to take a full report.

Except there wasn’t much to tell. Marvin had met Sylvia only once or twice. He’d heard about her illness, though not much, and knew nothing of what became of Irving. It was his brother, by then deceased, who’d corresponded with her. So instead I learned about Sylvia’s father—Marvin’s uncle—and his many brothers—my great-great-uncles—who had perished in the Holocaust, and about the Polish town they’d come from.

“I’ve talked more about your family tonight than I have in 40 years,” Marvin told me. Then the subject shifted. I learned about his life, his health ailments, his law career, his favorite handicap parking spots in town, but mostly, he and his wife wanted to know about me. It’s a strange thing, contacting an estranged blood relative out of the blue and crossing state lines to meet them weeks later; they could be understood for wanting to know who I was, what I was studying in college, how I spent my free time. As any grandparents would, they took obvious pleasure in the most mundane details of my life. I had come a long way expecting to learn much about the grandmother I never knew, but so many years had passed and there I was instead, telling this man and his wife about a grandson they’d never had.

That was something, too.

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Zach Schonfeld is a writer and reporter for Newsweek. He lives in New York.

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