When Linda fixed me up with a groupie from Jethro Tull’s summer tour I was Ohio/naïve, nebbishy, and way over my head. Still, this busty Laura Nyro hadn’t met my kind either…so…in late ’69, I’d broken out in a girlfriend.

It was a dime-store romance: Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy gives ring and gets uniform… girl takes ring then girl meets goy… (boy gets hurt), FURLOUGH…And then: a Hollywood ending and Jersey wedding!

I could have lived without the drama– not without the girl. Still, more than any angst of the time, what I cling to most is the clan I’d hooked on to.

My family, you see, was small. (There was Hal and me, our mother, her spouse de jour, Uncle Bob (who didn’t talk to our mother), and Aunt Helen (whom no one spoke with). Yes, we had cousins who loved us, but they were Shaker Heights progeny of wealthy, still-married parents. H and I, from a “broken home,” walked the mean streets of South Euclid. Throw in our dad’s struggles and our mom’s bad ear and it was no wonder that in a family of Ewings, Hal and I were both Cliff Barnes. As such, on December 24, 1972 I didn’t just take a wife— I married a family. And not just any family, mind you…..the Jewish Waltons!

Indoctrination, of course, had begun earlier. Her mom was one of four siblings reared as Jewish pilgrims in eastern Pa. By post time I’d met each with their spouse and kids. (Quickly: What’s 4 x (2 + 3) + Aunt Minnie from Newark with a G-cup minus Uncle Joe plus Uncle Charley?) That’s a lot of stories to learn!

My mind was sharp, but the gray matter was overrun by the myriad of relatives from Stamford to the Island to Farrell to Toronto—all of whom seemingly had a New York accent!

I took notes: Uncle Will lived in Pa but liked the Browns. And it was Aunt Rose that, within seconds of meeting me said I should lose weight. (Editor’s Note: Lil said “she didn’t mean it THAT way.” Aunt Honey wasn’t being pushy (according to Lil) that first night in The City when she bought me a book at Brentano’s and told me not to waste her niece’s best years.

I never once,though needed notes for Uncle Ernie. Fact is, while I’ve loved them all from Day One, clearly he has been my flagship to that family.

It’s funny…I always knew it, but then, again, I never quite knew it. Ben Selzer used to marvel: “There’s nothing in the world that Ernie can’t do.” “Imagine,” he’d go on: “If you have a leak under the sink, Ernie can fix it.” (A rather trite example of his excellence, I thought. So be it. It was always Ben’s “go to” line).

I’ve come to realize, over years, that my uncle’s greatest asset is not his body of accomplishments nor his intellect, nor is it his steadfast reverence of the faith of our Fathers. It is, rather, his devotion to family. Life cycle events have severed marriages, but never family. Never once in fifteen years post-decree did Jamie or Stacy return west without a simple message: “Uncle Ernie asked about you.”

It’s not just me…it’s family. It’s not Ernie either, to be fair. After all these years I’m still learning “LeeandErnie” isn’t one word. They are the Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme of the team. Indeed, the only time I’ve seen them apart was the fateful morning the ladies dragged me to NY’s diamond district.

My father-in-law and I spoke often of the family we’d entered. I never quite appreciated his thing about Ernie and the faucet, but we marveled at them all. Ben Selzer was an easy man to please. Put him in a room with a TV and a ballgame, leave him alone and he was happy. Having said all that, the only time I’d ever really see him jump for joy was at a Yankee loss or a LeeandErnie sighting. He knew, as I came to know, what was special.

I note this now, because of Michael: my son, Michael. At the reent bris, standing with Uncle Ernie, I watched a sturdy new father wade among his mass of instant-relations. On the precipe of familydom, he is the first father in the next generation of his new-found family.

How lucky he is! Does he know it? He has a chance to set the tone…the family tone. In the next years other men will join that group. They’ll marry in to names and faces they’re only now beginning to know. And they’ll look to Michael, my son…as the flagship to the family.

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