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I wanted kids but never had them. Could playing Cupid make up for it?

My legacy, perhaps, is as an amateur matchmaker

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6 min

I had a knack for setting up my friends and family, and enough of the pairs turned into successful marriages that I began to think of myself as an amateur matchmaker.

I introduced my Michigan brother Brian to a New York girlfriend, and after he proposed, she told me, “You’re one of the magic people.” They had four kids in a row — one girl and three boys — just like my parents. I was happy for them, but I was still single. I hated being a relationship fairy who couldn’t find a relationship.

“Your matches earn you a condominium in heaven,” my mother consoled. But I wanted a cohabitor in this lifetime to start my own family. Luckily, my good couples’ karma paid off when a married pal set me up with a tall, curly haired hilarious fellow writer. Six years later, he laughed when his 35-year-old bride wore black.

Grateful I’d found my bashert (Yiddish for destiny), I became a fix-up fanatic, matching up all the solo players I knew, hosting singles soirees and publishing a book sharing advice for finding long-lasting passion. I even appeared on a reality TV show fixing up a famous musician. My services were free, and, like my mother, I served great buffets at parties.

It was easy to be generous when I felt blessed. But then infertility hit. I loved watching what amazing grandparents my folks were. Yet it was difficult seeing the offspring of the couples I’d matched when I couldn’t have kids with the man I adored. I felt like a biological tragedy.

Since my husband was 11 years my senior and our creative careers were in flux, he insisted we were too old and financially unstable to risk extensive fertility treatments or adopt.

Teaching popular nonfiction classes at a nearby university, I was resigned to having students and books, not babies. But when my father — a doctor — kept referring to his kids and grandkids as his lasting legacy, I suddenly feared I’d have nothing to leave the planet but a few hardcovers (that didn’t even sell very well). Turning 50, I felt like a flop.

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At least I was strong and healthy, I told myself. Then, working out, I tore two ligaments in my lower back. Depressed, I could barely walk to classes down urban streets where my legs once sped. A doctor referred me to Kenan, a young physical therapist with an unfamiliar accent. A nosy journalist bored with the tedious exercises, I asked him questions. Learning he was a Bosnian Muslim war survivor exiled from his homeland when he was 12 knocked the edge off my self-pity.

“You should write about your past,” I told him, fascinated.

“Don’t remember much,” he snapped. “I keep to my chest.”

The next session, Kenan handed me 43 pages that had poured out of him. It ended with the memory of his mother trying to record the dramatic saga of how they’d survived. She’d died of cancer before finishing. After I helped him publish an essay, he sat in my publishing seminar, where a literary agent offered to represent him.

“I work full time. English isn’t my first tongue. Never wrote anything but patient reports,” Kenan worried.

I became Kenan’s ongoing patient, teacher, co-author and Jewish mom. Shy and a little closed off emotionally, he was clear he didn’t want me to try my matchmaking habit on him. He focused on fixing my spine; I fixed his grammar and punctuation.

When he told me he’d left his homeland before he was old enough to date, I mirrored his young male voice and wrote “I never kissed a girl from home.” The lament embarrassed him, as did the dazzling author photo I snapped of him in a light blue shirt on my roof against the New York skyline. I didn’t tell him that publicly announcing what you want was one of my secret strategies to attract love. Indeed, that kiss-less line and photograph led to many female fans.

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Mirela, a Sarajevan beauty, messaged Kenan on social media, moved by the traumas he’d shared in his memoir that she’d also struggled to overcome.

“What are you waiting for? Get on a plane!” I pushed, his personal yenta.

When they married three years ago, I took partial credit for the match, adding it to the duets and families who were together because of me. (“You have 30 kids but no stretch marks,” a friend quipped.) As I embraced my position as a professor and wrote more serious books — including a new Bosnia chronicle with Kenan — my matchmaking receded.

After my husband’s knee surgery, Kenan became his physical therapist, too. He and Mirela felt like kin, especially when they moved two blocks from us during the pandemic, with all our blood relatives living far away. We were overjoyed to learn they were having a baby.

In August, Kenan met my brother Brian on his visit to help his youngest son, Abe, move into his New York University dorm. “If I hadn’t picked NYU, you wouldn’t be born,” I told my nephew, explaining how an NYU professor had recommended the job where I’d met his mom. This bright, handsome college kid seemed like a miraculous byproduct of a good deed decades before.

After losing my father four years ago, it felt poignant to see his youngest grandson studying pre-med at his alma mater, following in his footsteps.

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Before they left town, my husband and I took Brian out for his birthday to a nearby cafe, assuming Abe would be too busy with school orientation to come.

“I’m not in the position to turn down a free meal,” Abe joked. I suspected his generous heart wouldn’t allow him to miss his dad’s big day.

Halfway through Brian’s birthday dinner, Kenan texted me a picture. His newborn son.

Lukman arrived on the same day that Brian had entered the universe. Coincidentally, both also came out feet first.

We toasted Brian and Lukman’s shared birthday, along with Abe following my father’s footsteps.

I looked at my husband wistfully, wishing we’d had children together.

“Abe and Lukman wouldn’t be alive without you,” he whispered.

Riding home in a rainstorm before a hurricane hit, it seemed like a message from the universe that my matchmaking sideline might be my legacy, as if there were many ways to bring life into the world.

Susan Shapiro is the author of “The Book Bible” and co-author, with Kenan Trebincevic, of “The Bosnia List” and “World in Between.”

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