What’s in a name? How about a family reunion

Benita Schwartzman and her son, Mark, left, welcomed Rich Lindemon III back into the family circle. Schwartzman is holding a picture of her with her late husband, Alfred. (Hillel Kuttler)

Benita Schwartzman and her son, Mark, left, welcomed Rich Lindemon III back into the family circle. Schwartzman is holding a picture of her with her late husband, Alfred. (Hillel Kuttler)

The “Seeking Kin” column aims to help reunite long-lost relatives and friends.

BALTIMORE (JTA) – For Rich Lindemon III, the brunch for six that Benita Schwartzman hosted in her Baltimore townhouse was a reintroduction to long-lost family and a chance to fill in some gaps.

Lindemon, a mechanical engineer from nearby York, Pa., had long known of the Schwartzmans and remembered them fondly. His late mother, Susan, was Benita’s niece, but except for a brief period in 1981, the families had little contact going back to the late 1960s, when Susan at 17 married Lindemon’s father, Richard Jr., her high school classmate and a Christian.

Susan’s life was marked by tragedy. Her mother, Shirley, abandoned the family when Susan was 7. Susan spent several teenage years living away from home and her father, Bob Cohen, committed suicide in 1985. A dozen years later, by then long divorced and remarried, Susan also committed suicide; she was 49.

Lindemon believes his mother’s marriage at a young age probably represented an opportunity for a fresh start, and that included abandoning her Jewish upbringing. Lindemon and his older sister, Barbara, were raised without religious orientation, but the Catholic family of their stepfather eventually led to the boy’s decision to become baptized.

Now 45, Lindemon is grateful to find his Jewish relatives and stunned at the coincidences that brought them together. To Benita, their reconnection was “bashert,” fated.

An electronic malfunction, a football conversation and a name uttered at the end of a chance encounter were responsible.

It was a frigid November morning. My son and I were heading to downtown Baltimore aboard a trolley to attend the Ravens game against the New York Jets. Lindemon, a Ravens season-ticket holder, was riding the trolley, too, as was his wont on game days, but couldn’t follow his practice of listening to radio sports talk to prime him for the game: The battery on his iPod had died.

So instead he launched into football chatter with the strangers sitting alongside, drawn by my Jets garb.

Fifteen minutes later, the trolley stopped and we descended to the platform at Camden Yards prepared to go our separate ways. During a final handshake we exchanged names. Mine prompted Lindemon to remark that a long-lost cousin was named Hillel. He fumbled for the cousin’s surname.

“Schwartzman,” he blurted.

“Rich,” I said, breaking the handshake and touching his left shoulder, “the guy who gave my son and me the tickets for today’s game is Hillel’s brother, Mark.” Mark Schwartzman, I explained, attends my synagogue.

Lindemon, gazing in disbelief, then offered the names of the Schwartzmans’ parents as his Uncle Alfred and Aunt Benita. Correct, I confirmed, having visited the shiva house upon Alfred’s death in 2006.

The next day, Mark welcomed the news I conveyed. With his agreement, I connected the two, and they took it from there, corresponding by email and arranging the Jan. 26 gathering at Benita’s.

“I haven’t seen you in years, but I remember you,” Lindemon said, stepping in the home in the Pikesville neighborhood and shaking the hand of David, Benita’s youngest son.

Lindemon clearly recalled attending David’s bar mitzvah 33 years ago, even mentioning the delicious food, and visiting the Schwartzmans a few weeks before the rite, when David was practicing his Torah reading and Lindemon swam in the pool.

Benita brought David’s bar mitzvah album to the table, and over bagels and spreads she introduced him to the images of her and Lindemon’s family, although he and his mother did not appear in any photographs. Nor were there photos of Shirley, yet she dominated the brunch conversation.

No one, in fact, knew whether she was even alive. Lindemon mentioned a brief search when he worked at Social Security Administration headquarters, having heard she was employed there, too. He even found Shirley Schwartzman – she’d apparently gone back to her maiden name – in the agency’s directory. But she worked in a building to which he did not have access and he did not pursue the search.

“I was this close to going to the building to find her,” Lindemon said of his grandmother. “I regret it to this day.”

“Don’t regret it,” Benita said. “She didn’t want to be found.”

Lindemon said his mother determined later where Shirley was living.

“She knocked on the door and a voice said, ‘Go away.’ My mother was devastated,” he recalled.

The often-difficult conversation around the Sunday table would encompass a family history that included mental illness, abuse of prescription drugs, teenage pregnancy and spousal abuse, along with suicide, divorce and estrangement.

“Every family has its dysfunction,” Mark Schwartzman said.

The information exchange was matter of fact, the Schwartzmans filling in Lindemon’s gaps – or as many key ones as possible in two hours.

Further opportunities await.

“I’ll have to come back and get all the names and stories,” Lindemon said, putting away the iPad on which he had displayed photos of his own family.

“You’re in our life now. We’re not going to let you get away,” Benita said. “I’m not going to say we’ll keep in touch because that doesn’t [convey] it. We’re blood.”

The next day, Lindemon emailed the relatives he’d just met.

“Words cannot describe the feelings of joy and satisfaction I have, now that I have had the opportunity to sit and learn a little bit more about who I am – where I come from – and who my family is,” he wrote.

“From the moment I walked into Aunt Benita’s house, I immediately felt comfortable, as if I was around true family. You guys aren’t just new friends that I am just making acquaintance with. We really are family and I am grateful to have you.”

(Please email Hillel Kuttler at seekingkin@jta.org if you would like “Seeking Kin” to write about your search for long-lost relatives and friends, please include the principal facts and your contact information in a brief email. “Seeking Kin” is sponsored by Bryna Shuchat and Joshua Landes and family in loving memory of their mother and grandmother, Miriam Shuchat, a lifelong uniter of the Jewish people.)

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