Every so often, I bump up against other Bay Area Sussmans. A few months back at the symphony, I nearly was handed the tickets of one Dina Sussman (who had much better seats than I did), and twice my yoga studio has confused me with a Sarah Sussman. There are also a few local male Sussmans — most notably former San Francisco Chronicle editor Peter Y. Sussman and former KGO meteorologist Brian Sussman — whose names always prompt people to ask, Are you related?
In the case of the amiable and telegenic Brian Sussman, I sometimes would quip, “He’s my ex-husband” — mostly to see the looks on people’s faces or hear their thoughts, which generally alternated between “But he’s so cute!” and “I can totally see why you divorced him.”
But most of the time when people ask if I’m related to Brian, or Peter, or Dina, I just say no. I do this because I view the question the same way I view “How are you?” — which is to say, as perfunctory, rhetorical and not worthy of elaboration.
Occasionally, however, when I sense that the mood or timing is right, I give the honest answer: I may very well be related to this or that Sussman — I just don’t know it.
The mystery of “Is she or isn’t she?” goes back to my grandfather, one Jacob Sussman, who, as I understand it, came over on the boat from Romania with my grandmother, one Anna Liebowitz, sometime around 1919 or 1920. Whether they came as a couple or met on the boat, I don’t know.
What I do know is that by the time they got to Ellis Island, Anna was pregnant with my father. Jacob, who I can only assume lost interest in his little Romanian peasant girl when he saw what the New World had to offer in the way of women, hit the road and never looked back.
Chalk it up to pluck or necessity, but the two did all right. My grandmother, who encased herself in a Yiddish-speaking world, took a job as a seamstress and raised my dad solo in a fourth-floor walkup in the Bronx. At one point, she sent my father to an orphanage for Jewish boys, but that didn’t last long. Ultimately, my father got a scholarship to CCNY and a good job. She got a garish amber ring and a mink coat.
But it wasn’t until my dad was in his mid-50s, years after his mother had died, that we learned the truth about Jacob. Until then, my father had been told that his father had died, tragically and nobly, shortly before my father was born.
The revelation was the outcome of a family drama in which relatives who were angry at my dad let loose with what they thought would be the ultimate insult: that my grandmother and grandfather never married. “You’ll be interested to hear that I’m a bastard,” my father said at the time, chuckling. “But maybe everyone already knew that.”
That wedding ring she always wore? The name change from Leibowitz? The tragic death of Jacob? Let’s just say that, as I assume is true of all families, they were the mythologies we lived by.
But as it turned out, they weren’t the mythologies we needed to sustain us. That my grandmother hadn’t married my grandfather, that my father was, as they used to euphemistically call it, an “OW” (out of wedlock) child, did nothing to change my long-standing admiration of my grandmother for raising a mensch like my dad on her own.
So when people ask me if I’m related to some Sussman or another, and I’m in a frame of mind to divulge my OW history, I like to joke that if Jacob (or Jakob or Yakov or whoever he was) Sussman continued to do what he did to my grandmother throughout the United States, I could be related to God knows how many other Sussmans and half-Sussmans.
I would be related, but it wouldn’t change anything. In my head, I’d still be Diane Sussman of Toledo, Ohio, a little girl who absolutely loved her grandfather — David, on the Blumenthal side.
Diane Sussman is a copy editor at j.