Lamp Shade Tower at Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art


Thanksgiving used to be my favorite holiday. No services, no matzah, clear guidelines on menu planning. For many years a joyful gathering of family and/or friends. But holidays in general are a challenge when your kids are far-flung and when you’ve moved around a bit later in life. Where you move people you meet have established traditions either with their own families or others, and it can even be hard to find people to invite to our home. This year I decided to circumvent any potential Thanksgiving angst and trauma by going away. Not that we hadn’t BEEN away this year (or any other year), but about August we began to make plans. Eli suggested a car trip to Carmel or Palm Desert. I got a British Air sale email and said Glasgow. I really wanted to see my Cousin Hannah, AND I wanted to avoid Thanksgiving so much that I said, “Let’s go where there’s NO Thanksgiving.” I didn’t want to feel badly going out to dinner alone, watching others enjoy their families.

Glasgow, Scotland, in November? Not exactly a garden spot when you’ve left Wisconsin and moved to California. But that’s where Hannah lives, and she’s 91 and not exactly running around traveling anymore. We’d been to Glasgow before–a few days one January after a very cold week in London–and Eli was not keen on another British Isles winter wonderland vacation. Remarkably, as we often despair of why we own a timeshare, we were able to get an exchange week in Marbella, Spain, to tack onto a few days in grey, chilly, sopping Glasgow. (Stay tuned for post on Spain.)

But, as penetrating as the rain and cold were, the visit was warm, welcoming and worthwhile.

Who is Cousin Hannah, and how do I come to have relatives in Scotland?

Dinner with Cousins Hannah and Eliot in Glasgow

My grandfather (my  mother’s father, who died when I was under three) came from Poland. His mother had brothers who’d emigrated from there to Glasgow (maybe 130 years ago) and started a jewelry business. I suspect it wasn’t exactly the Tiffany’s of the north (pawnshop and loans come to mind), but my great-grandmother was encouraged by her brothers to send her sons, just after their Bar Mitzvahs, to live and work with the uncles. There were originally five sons,  but I believe that Hannah’s father and my grandfather were the only two who went to Scotland. Hannah’s father stayed and had a family, but my grandfather came to the US after a few years in Scotland, still not even 20 years old. (Imagine our kids uprooting themselves and making these moves to the New World all alone, probably never to see their parents again. My other grandfather came on his own as a teen-ager, too, as did so many of that generation.) My grandfather’s time in Scotland made an impact: my mother used to say that her father spoke Yiddish with a Scottish accent.

So, Hannah is my mother’s first cousin, a year older than my mother, who died in 2008, would have been. The two of  them traveled together a few times over the years, including a tour to China. Even at 91 Hannah retains vestiges of the stunning chic she had then and, of course, her charming, cultivated accent. (Many people in Scotland are impossible to understand, but to hear Hannah you’d think you’re listening to Helen Mirren.)

Although she’s a bit forgetful, it was great to visit with Hannah. I brought her a photo I had of an old lady, who I thought was my great-grandmother in Poland, sitting with a youngish man, both of them surrounded by three middle-aged women standing behind them. Hannah verified that the man was her father, who returned to Poland to visit the family after several years in Glasgow. We assume that the three women were the aunts presumably killed in the Holocaust. They were grandmothers by the time of World War II, and they and their families totally vanished. I don’t know their married names, and attempts I’ve made to trace via alternate spellings of the family name (Cukert? in Poland, Suckert in Scotland, Zuckert in the US) have failed. Hannah thanked me over and over for bringing the photo, which she didn’t remember ever seeing. She’s not in a position to enlighten me too much on family history, as–memory issues aside–her father died when she was only ten years old.

While in Glasgow we did a little sightseeing of places we hadn’t seen the first time, including a tour of the historic Glasgow School of Art, designed by the notable architect, Charles Rennie McInstosh. Hannah’s son, Eliot, is Director of Finance & Resources there. We also toured the new Riverside Museum, which is a museum of transportation–a bit of a mishmosh, but interesting–and the Gallery of Modern Art, incongruously housed in an iconic historic edifice built in 1775. One evening we heard the Chief Rabbi of the UK, Sir Jonathan Sacks (LORD Sacks, if you please), speak. It’s hard to imagine a similar post in the US–one rabbi purporting to be the spokesman for the entire Jewish community–but to be a LORD! It was simply an informal Wednesday night lecture at a synagogue, not a religious service, and a paltry crowd of 100 at most. One striking note was that everyone stood up when Lord Sacks walked into the room and again when he departed from the lectern. Cousin Eliot told us this is customary whenever any rabbi enters an assemblage. Another anomaly.

The Cukerts (sp?) in Warsaw, 19??: My great-grandmother with Uncle David (Hannah's father) and the three sisters presumed perished in the Holocaust. Their names were Sarah, Esther and Leah. I'm named for Leah.

Hannah thanked us for coming to see her. I thanked her for her hospitality and for the lasting connection to my mother and departed family.  I’m so thankful we could take this trip.

It was one of the most memorable Thanksgivings ever–without Thanksgiving.

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