When Friends Become Family

Sometimes your family is made out of people who aren’t related to you, and aren’t required to love you—they just choose to be there for you.

“Whee,” says Cynthia as she whips her motorized shopping cart around the corner, and into the pasta aisle, nearly hitting a customer reaching out for an extra-large box of mac and cheese. I follow closely behind her on my own cart, but without the same ease in maneuvering as this is my first time. Although I’m younger than she, Cynthia thinks scooting around Costco together is hilarious, and since my knees are starting to go, she wants this excursion to be a tutorial for me on to how to ask for, and receive, help.

I first met Cynthia when I took improv classes at the Groundlings in Los Angeles. Later, she was my teacher at ACME Comedy Theater. Cynthia didn’t just teach improv comedy, she herself is a talented comedian/actress. She was a member of the Groundlings, and one of the Comedy Store Players. She’s an expert on improvisation and comedy, and could be tough with her in class criticism. Not all her students had thick enough skin to handle her sometimes brutal honesty, but she was usually nice to me.

I suspect that Cynthia sees some of herself in me as we are both larger women, and she confirms this theory every time she insists that I take her clothes after she’s gone—a suggestion I find both morbid and comforting.

Cynthia has been many things to me since we first met over 20 years ago: she’s been my teacher, my mentor, and now she’s something of a Jewish surrogate mother to me. Although (like me) Cynthia never married or had children of her own, I know she’s always considered her students, her kids. I try not to compare myself to some of Cynthia’s more famous kids like Lisa Kudrow and Conan O’Brien, but then again, I’m the only one to speed around a warehouse store with her.

My actual mother’s reasons for not having me in her life are unclear. I’m lucky I have Cynthia to fill in some of the mothering gaps. If I were in a desperate situation, I would probably reach out to Cynthia before my mother. Sometimes your family is made out of people who aren’t related to you, and aren’t required to love you—they just choose to be there for you.

Once, Cynthia performed a character monologue that I had written based on my mother. The two of them couldn’t be more different. My mother is cold and removed, and Cynthia is passionate about almost everything. The weird thing was Cynthia’s performance turned out to be dead on. Somehow, without meeting my mother, Cynthia was able to capture her essence, though her improvised line of “Shabbat, Shalom,” was pure Cynthia.

“Just call the doctor’s office up and demand they send you the form for a handicap parking pass. Do you want me to do it for you?” Cynthia asks, the words trailing behind her scooter. She isn’t going fast enough for me to eat her dust, but the sound is quickly swallowed up by the conversations of the other shoppers, and the pure mass of the building.

Cynthia has the same disease that ended the life of Evil Knievel. She channels the daredevil as she charges down the overcrowded aisles causing shoppers to flatten themselves against the bulk-item shelving units to avoid getting hit. Surprisingly, no one gets angry at Cynthia—her energy and strong sense of self seems to delight them.

Unlike Cynthia, I was raised without religion or cultural identity. When I was in my late 30s, I discovered a chest full of papers confirming that my grandparents and father were Jewish, and had been forced to flee from Vienna to Shanghai. Long before finding this evidence of a culture I didn’t know I had, I’d been fascinated with all things Jewish. I became especially so, after finding my family’s passports with the red J stamped on them, in the wooden chest.

When I told Cynthia of my Jewish connection, she immediately went to work and got me an invitation to one of her friend’s Shabbat dinners. A few months later that same friend invited me to share a meal in a sukkah (the temporary hut constructed for use during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.) Cynthia was once again instructing me, only this time it was about Judaism instead of improv comedy.

“Delicious,” Cynthia remarks after tasting the special new mango salsa. After finishing the tiny portion, she tosses the paper cup into the overflowing trashcan and is off again.

She soon stops to adjust her oxygen tank that’s nestled in her cart’s basket along with a variety of muffins. “When are you going to let your hair go curly?” She’s been trying to convince me to stop straightening my hair for as long as I’ve known her. When I was growing-up my mother was always trying to get me to cut my hair and remove all of my curls. What is it about mothers and hair?

“It’s curly now,” I say. “It’s just in a topknot so you can’t tell.”

Cynthia shakes her straight auburn hair with the gray stripe down the middle, steps on the accelerator pedal, and makes her way to the pre-prepared foods aisle without commenting.

“Do your two most famous characters, the ones you’re known for at the Groundlings,” I beg.

Not slowing down, she says, “We’re all going to Zucky’s in my car,” which is one of her character’s catch phrases. She may be riding a cart in a warehouse store, but she’s still brilliant, still hilarious. I try to absorb everything she has left to teach me.

“You have dead eyes,” Cynthia said to me in class once.

“OK, how do I fix that? I asked.

Cynthia didn’t really have an answer. She may, even then, have been priming me to switch from pursuing an acting career to focusing on writing. I was determined to be an actress even though I couldn’t even stand to go to auditions. Cynthia just kept nudging me toward being a writer, and even took a novel I wrote to various production companies trying to get them to turn it into a television pilot. Nothing came of it, but it was impressive to see her so supportive and proud of my work.

Cynthia’s grocery list includes some cooked items, and I smell the homey scent of the roasted chickens before we even get to the hot-food section. Everybody seems to want one and the area surrounding them is packed with chicken-pickers. Cynthia asks a man in a tailored shirt if he will get her one of the chickens still sizzling hot in their dome-shaped containers.

“It would be a pleasure to. I will choose you one the finest chicken they have,” he says with a smile and a slight accent. He picks one up, inspects it, puts it down, and grabs another one.

“Oh, that one looks amazing,” Cynthia says as the man proudly offers her a chicken which she places in the basket.

When Cynthia is done with her shopping, and I’ve acclimated to cart riding, we make our way to the check-out area. Cynthia chats easily to the people in front of us, who then offer to unload her cart for her.

“If you let people help you, it will make them feel good,” Cynthia advises me.

She’s right, and I also know that people will be your family if you let them.

Christine Schoenwald has had pieces in The Los Angeles Times, Salon, Purple Clover, Your Tango, XoJane, and is a regular writer forBustle. In her spare time, she performs in spoken word shows all over Los Angeles.

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