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“The yahrtzeit candle would come out for my sister’s yahrtzeit, but they never told me what it was,” she said. Eventually Mandel pieced together the stories she overheard and the references to the “accident” her relatives assumed she knew about. She finally learned the complete truth from her parents when she asked for their permission to fly to Florida as a teen. Her parents never flew themselves, but they reluctantly allowed her to go.
Mandel had to process that her own life was meant to be, she writes, her family’s “salvation,” the salve on the burn. Her relationship with her parents was tangled up in their truncated attachment to Donna. Adding to the pain, Mandel’s parents often talked about how perfect Donna was, a daunting memory for a spirited girl to live up to.
Mandel’s presence was “alternately a blessing and a painful reminder” to her parents, she writes in “Replacement Child.” Up until her father’s death, his love mostly came across as fretful and overprotective rather than affectionate. Mandel wrote that her father’s attitude influenced her, leading her into a series of failed marriages and relationships with men.
“It’s true we marry our mothers and fathers in some sense,” she writes of her ex-husband, Steven. “His emotional distance drew me to him like a long-lost relative.”
The book is filled with Jewish references. The day of the crash, a few neighborhood children came over to the house so that Florence could help them practice for a skit they would perform at Temple Beth El — a pedestrian moment in a life that was about to be shattered.
The funeral for Donna, which Florence and Linda were too ill to attend, as well as three b’nai mitzvot — Linda’s, Mandel’s, and later, Mandel’s son’s — signify the family’s perseverance after the crash, milestones along its journey. “The party had a carnival feel, a kind of wild abandon,” Mandel writes of her own bat mitzvah, while her sister Linda’s was a tearful affair. Mandel learned Hebrew because her mother wanted someone in the family to recite the Kaddish she didn’t know how to say for her dead daughter.
In writing her book, Mandel pieced together the story of the day of the crash through painstaking research: newspaper clippings, photos, public records, interviews with friends and other survivors.
“The difficult part of it was, I wasn’t there for any of it — the accident, the plane crash, my sister and her surgeries when she was very little, or even the years when I was young and didn’t know,” she said. “How do you structure something from the past but really be true to what happened?”