Recently reconnected to me, my cousin Candace grew up in Atlanta and has lived in Birmingham, Alabama, for over 30 years.
Candace’s mom, Etta Haberman, and my bio-dad were close siblings. A few years older, Candace has vivid memories of my childhood before I had the language to process them myself. True to the lineage of Haberman women from which we hail, she is sometimes “too much and over-the-top” to many. It’s both a jinx and a charm to have curious, passionate Haberman blood running through our veins. And not surprisingly, I recognize many of her idiosyncrasies from looking in the mirror.
It seems like eons since I’ve been Natalie Haberman to the outside world. Keeping my daughters’ last name when their dad and I split up was a matter of practicality. Although commonplace now, they didn’t have the awkwardness of a different last name at school. Becoming Ladd shortened my mouthful of a name from six syllables to four. And, life became easier in subtle ways.
Haberman is a recognizable Jewish surname. The double-takes stopped when I became Natalie Ladd, instead of Natalie Haberman. With such a WASPish new name, I moved more lightly through the world and hoped my daughters would too. But I also made damn sure they knew who and what we were and we embraced it proudly.
Back to Candace. Our political views are polar. She’s a Trumpublican and when she begged me not to become “woke” I told her it was too late. She says, “All Lives Matter,” rants about the border, and questions man’s contribution to climate change. While sincerely appreciative of other cultures she harbors fear of change to her American way of life. We are both staunch supporters of Israel as a Jewish homeland, but she’s more hawkish and I’m a fan of diplomacy and a two-state solution. Like most good, kind, caring people, Candace doesn’t think she’s racist or biased. And I didn’t have the energy to explain that sadly, just by growing up in privileged white America, we both are by default. It would have been the tipping point, turning a lively discussion into a full-blown argument.
Aside from getting to know my cousin better, the only thing I wanted to do in Birmingham was go on a Civil Rights tour. Saying she had never been, she bought us tickets to a first-class tour hosted by a guide with history professor-like expertise. He factually explained every stop, landmark, and marker. Later that evening, Candace shared she was surprised to learn the Birmingham police not only coordinated and cooperated with the Ku Klux Klan, but many of them actually were the KKK.
While on the tour, I closed my eyes outside the Sixth Street Baptist Church believing I could smell freshly detonated bombs, feel the pain of blasting water hoses on my skin, and marvel at the courage of the children marchers. I imagined hearing police dogs barking in the park just a block away. When our guide took us past a beautiful old synagogue, I was transported back to April 28, 1958, when 54 sticks of dynamite were placed outside Birmingham’s Temple Beth-El in a bombing attempt. According to police, the burning fuses were doused by heavy rainfall, preventing the dynamite from exploding. They later said the detonation was the work of Bobby Frank Cherry, the same out-of-state, bomb-expert Klansman for hire that blew up the Sixth Street Baptist Church, among other churches and Black-owned homes.
Emotionally drained from the tour, Candace treated me to dinner — at Atomic Seafood and Oysters (chef/owner Adam Evans, who won the 2022 James Beard Best Chef in the South Award, proved he earned it with a thick duck fat-poached swordfish steak). Over dessert, I told her how much I appreciate her endless generosity and passion for what she believes. After a second round of cocktails, she modestly shared that she donates to many different causes, from Native American education to orphanages to animal welfare operations. With her love of animals, I’m surprised there’s a stray dog within ten miles of the Mason-Dixon line.
Facts are I’d never have befriended Candace, much less love her so deeply if she wasn’t a Haberman. But luckily, she is. And what’s deep in her heart and soul is also deep in mine.
So, moving forward you’ll see me here as Natalie Haberman-Ladd. Yes, it’s a mouthful but I’m thankful for my unique DNA imprint and the freedom to be who I truly am. We can’t pretend antisemitism and racial hate aren’t alive in today’s America, but I look forward to seeing Cousin Candace soon and will forever cherish the Civil Rights Tour that changed both of our lives.
Natalie Haberman Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at [email protected].