My wife tells me she cannot believe what writers have to do. They must bare their souls, score their psyches raw and place what is inside, outside, on paper, in an artistic manner. And we must make it sound as though it was effortless and fun.
True enough. That’s the fun part. I think every writer is an exhibitionist to some degree and, perhaps, a bit of a masochist. Or martyr. Or minister. The act of writing, for me, must be sacred.
It also takes bravery to be a writer. This observation comes not from me but, again, from my esteemed helpmate, my goddess incarnate, she who is the Joy of the Universe and Queen of Creation: my wife.
She states she cannot imagine the difficulty of having scraped the emotion from the soul and then putting it out in public where the people will not only read of our own exterior and interior lives but those of others as well and then judge how artfully or entertainingly we have rendered them. How do we not hurt feelings, bruise hearts, hide that cause which is private while making public the effects? How do writers not end up either ineffective, with a social network intact, or effective and read but friendless and lonely? How do we not alienate our families and friends?
Who says we don’t?
I have struggled with this. How much to say? What to leave out? How does an essayist balance narrative with personal relationships? I have no idea but know I will struggle with this again and again in essay after essay. I expose what I need but leave out what does not move the concept forward, support the idea, make more clear the conceit and reality I wish the reader to experience.
But my idea of what needs to be exposed and what does not may be fully different than that of the person suffering the exposure. As a family member or friend is feeling left naked in the wind while I am thinking I did nothing more than describe his hat.
I am going to be brave now. It’s all I know to do. I’m sorry.
* * * * * * *
When I die I want to be dropped off a cliff.
Or left in a forest. That would be fine as well. Throw a party. Say what you will. Cry, laugh. Recall anything I might have done of worth. Remember anything I might have done or said that made you smile. Please forget any act or utterance of mine which might have caused hurt or pain as you’ll know it was not done of meanness or cruelty, but of the ignorance we all share as the fallible humans we are.
Make no marker. If my deeds are of worth, people will remember them. And the hunt to find my grave or remains may prove quite a cottage industry. On the other hand, if I have left nothing of worth no one will look for me. If I am not memorable, no marker will make me so.
* * * * * * *
It is Thursday night. The phone rings twice. Lee, my wife, answers it. It is late, nearly ten-thirty at night, and seldom does the house phone ring at any time but still less at this hour. Anyone we want to talk with has our cell numbers. Those phones are off now and this call is either a wrong number or important.
“It was your father. It sounds serious. He wants you to call him.” I do.
“I wanted you to know your grandmother is in the hospital. She is catatonic and the funeral will be anywhere from two days from now to two weeks. I’d like for you to be there”
I expect to hear more of her condition but he talks only of the funeral. I will be there and tell him so. I will go for him. There is no other reason.
A day passes and I look at my calendar, mark all the days a funeral would be an inconvenience. In the next two weeks is statewide testing at our school on that Monday and Tuesday and then two days of the same the week after. A writing conference the next weekend. I will miss what I miss but would rather not. I’d rather not go at all.
Monday comes and I ask about the bereavement policy of our school board. There is none. One takes sick leave. I fill out the forms in advance and leave them with the secretary. She gives me her home number in case I find, in the night or early morning, the need to drive south to Delray instead of to work or, when away, if I need to let them know I need extra days. Candy asks if I don’t want to leave now, to be there when my grandmother dies. No. That is not necessary. I don’t explain. She is kind, soft and I would guess knew her grandmother well.
Wednesday morning. Early and I am at school, as usual, by eight-fifteen. Monday was the first day of statewide testing. All day. Tuesday was the second. The next day for testing is the Monday to follow and finally I have the chance to teach. I have planned to introduce the concepts of archetypes and archetypal themes, characters and symbols and have the students search these out in a film before delving into written literature. I am teaching the first of five classes today and have barely finished one day of a four day lesson when my phone rings.
My wife has called, the front office secretary tells me, and it is important I call her back. Lee never calls me at work. I know what this is and, excusing myself to my students, call her. My grandmother died at eight-fifteen that morning.
I pause, wait, nothing. I expected not to feel much but nothing was much less than anticipated. There just wasn’t anything there. I say thank you, tell her I’m going to go to the office and let them know I need to leave as soon as is practical. I tell her I love her and put down the phone. My students are listening. The bell for second period rings and I leave the room, as the students do, to find the assistant principal.
Arrangements are quickly made and the AP, a kind, helpful soul, follows me back to my class where students are waiting outside my door. They know something must be up. We enter, I gather my things while I hurriedly discuss with Mr. Kaminski how to explain the lesson, written on the board, to the sub. I know I will have to redo this. He tells me not to worry and I grab my things and leave.
Off to my son’s high school five minutes away. I check him out and we head home to pack. We have no funeral clothes. What we have will do. Black dungarees, a black shirt and shoes for me, the same for Alek. All into bags. Bags into the truck. Truck onto the road south. It is barely edging toward eleven in the morning.
We drive. Alek asks me for no stories of her. He knows there are few to hear and he has heard them all. He has met her on a few occasions, his great-grandmother, but she knew little about him. She would talk to us continuously of her other grandchildren, the wonders they had produced and challenges over which they had prevailed. Alek would listen, politely. Always politely, quietly. She once offered him ten dollars to talk. What did he have to say? That is his memory of her. He is her second great-grandchild.
When my daughter was born, in 1985, my grandmother grilled my wife. There is no other word for it. It was the type of questioning often reserved for congressional hearings or associated with cop movies where the suspect sits, uncomfortable, in an interrogation room, under a bright bare bulb. What did she need, how much are such things? How hard was I working and why didn’t we have enough? In the end, she sent my grandfather out to the car to get the checkbook, wrote for a moment, enclosed it in a card, put it into an envelope and sealed, it handing it immediately to Lee. It was one hundred dollars. The total Sef received over time, given in one lump sum. All she’d ever give for her first great-grandchild.
My father would insist I visit, and we did. He would ask me to call and always I did, whether asked or not. The conversations were short, brusque. I would ask questions and she might answer or not. She would ask how we all were and the response to all my answers were either “That’s nice” for things that had gone well or “well, what can you expect” for anything that had not. As the years passed I learned never to mention anything that was not perfect and the conversations became deep with lies and facades.
“Call,” my father would say and then would tell me all about the land and buildings, the factory owned by my grandmother. He would explain of the inheritance and how much I could expect. That is one of my earliest memories involving her, in truth: his talk of inheritance and wills and the wrangling among him, his elder sister and younger brother.
I expected no inheritance. I never did. But I called and visited anyway because it was right to do so. I brought the children against their protests to sit in the uncomfortable, hard chairs, avoid the expensive antiques.
I do have some earlier memories of her and my grandfather. Some. I think of these as we drive to Delray on 95 and then the turnpike. The long childhood drive from New Jersey. Perth Amboy or Somerset. Interminable to a four year old, a five year old. Up to Rockland County, New York. To a large house on a hill. Steep, shallow slate steps up to a door on a wide porch. A kitchen door that swung either way. A closet with a door in the back and, behind that door, steep steps of stone through a narrow wood stairwell leading up to the attic and books. I sat up there, thinking I was in a secret place. It smelled of mold from the wooden walls, from the slate steps, the books. Moist and dank like a cave. Dark and quiet above the house feeling I was beneath it all. Today, I recognize that scent, that specific smell of mold from old books and wood. I smell it in caves. It is a comfort I cannot express and I don’t understand coming from the deepest part of the human brain, deep from the limbic system, the scent is warm and comfortable. My most fond memory of my grandmother is the smell of mold.
It was in this house, my mother told me again and again, she was offered ten thousand dollars to stop dating my father. Perhaps she should have taken it. It was in this house my aunt, my father’s older sister, accused my mother of wanting nothing from them but money. A strange accusation considering she could have taken the ten thousand and still dated my father but did not. My mother responded by slapping her.
That is all I know of that house.
My grandmother came from Austria. That is nearly all I know of my grandmother. She had money. She owned a furniture factory and she came from Austria.
At some point they moved to Israel. Then they moved to Delray, Florida, into a condo. My father would go up often on errands of a surreptitious nature. Anytime my grandfather wanted to buy something, he would have to ferret the money away and slip it to my father. Then my father would buy it and bring it over as a gift. A computer. A boombox. All were ‘gifts’ from my father.
If I were out with my father, regardless of the reason or destination, I would have to be quiet if my grandparents called on the cell phone. I do not know why this is. My father would mouth silent words. I cannot see well enough to read lips. He would not repeat what he said, ever, in any audible form so still I have no idea what he was telling me.
If we, my father and I, my parents and I, all of us and my children – regardless of the combination – if my father was there and we were going out to dinner, to a store, and his parents called, he would lie about our location or destination. He would tell me later his mother was never to know we spent money. How did she think my father’s house was furnished? Where did she think the multiple matching computers or identical matching half-dozen cell phones and the latest of whatever gadget was hot came from? She could not know money was spent and any money spent was a secret. Things purchased for my grandfather became tangible constant lies. Their condo was full of them. Nothing was his unless it was a gift.
Their relationships seemed always to contain this evasion. My father and his father. My father and grandfather and grandmother. Grandmother and grandfather. By extension, myself and my grandparents. Money was a thing to be hidden, not spoken of above a whisper. In their world, if you showed you had money, people would give you less. If you admitted to having spent any, they would withhold their gifts. From grandfather to father and I was expected to take my part.
We continue driving south passing the Palm Beach County line. West Palm Beach, Boynton Beach and it’s time to call my father and ask where to meet. Get off on Atlantic, left, Military trail, left. Look for the post office, left. Into High Point. Second stop sign, left, right. I call my daughter as she asked. She wants to go, for her grandfather. For her grandmother and for me but not for anyone else. She will not go until she knows I am there. I call her and she drives over from not far away. Boca Raton to Delray. From the mouth of the rat to the place of the kings. What does not sound better in Spanish?
I have parked but I do not know which condo it is. There are eight. Four in one section and four in another at right angles. All identical at this reasonable distance. I call my father to have him come out. I see him emerge from a corner unit and immediately begin to mouth words I cannot see.
He seems ok. I hug him and we enter the condo.
Once in I start to say hello. So does Alek. One by one. There is my uncle and his wife, Miral, a woman I have always liked. There is my aunt, Suki. There are some people I do not know. There is my mother. There is Erica, the caretaker, asking people if they want coffee, looking more after my mother than seems anyone else, Erika is the most animated person in the room and, other than my mother and myself, her French accent is the only speech that does not sound like New York.
There is my grandfather in the corner. My father is in the hallway mouthing words. I think he is telling me to say hello to everyone. Who can tell?
There is talk of the Rabbi. Talk of the Cantor. Who will do the service? My uncle is in from New Jersey. My aunt from Israel. My parents from down the road. Arrangements? No, it seems little has been done. A Cantor has been called. Or a Rabbi. I hear both terms over and over and she is due to arrive soon, was met with last night and is coming to help make arrangements.
They should be simple. A Jewish body is watched until it is in the ground. Prayers are said over it. My aunt and uncle are discussing the rules and traditions. I know as much about these as my uncle, more than my aunt who claims to know all and makes up what she does not, usually with a fanciful mixture of myth and absurdity.
Some rabbis will not do the service because the body is not being buried in a completely Jewish cemetery. Problems, problems. I hear there is no casket available. I ask about this, knowing better. No casket is needed. The body is washed and watched by the shomer. It may be watched by family as well. Within twenty-four hours it is in the ground unless that places it on the Sabbath. Then two days. A burial shroud is used or a plain box with holes in the bottom so the body can touch the Earth.
One of the people I do not know states how disgusting that is. “But worms will touch the body!” Exactly. Don’t hold on. Back to the Earth, back to dust.
My aunt talks about not holding on to the body, saying again and again, dust to dust, dust to dust.
So what is the problem with the casket? None needed. A plain one at best. We can build one from wood at a local lumber store. No nails may be used as it all has to disintegrate and decompose. Joints and glue. The casket was ordered? It is gold coloured says my grandfather. It has to have a crown.
I am confused at the mix of steadfast faux tradition and disregard of the same. The discussion continues.
It won’t touch the ground anyway, says my aunt. The casket will be in concrete, sealed. My father says it is watertight. An non-embalmed body in a fancy wooden box in a sealed, water-tight concrete underground vault.
Why underground then, I ask.
“A Jew has to be buried underground.” This I know.
My aunt continues to tell me, over and over, dust to dust, dust to dust. She’ll have trouble getting there in an underground set of Chinese boxes.
Why are they having trouble finding a rabbi?
My daughter arrives. She says her hellos. People ask me if this is my wife.
She whispers to me asking where the body is. Is it in the bedroom? No. But who is watching it? Strangers, I say. People paid to watch.
My aunt and uncle talk in Hebrew. No one understands them. The make their purpose obvious: they talk in Hebrew, these two native citizens of the United States, so no one will understand them. They talk and point.
My uncle says he needs to cover the mirrors. Shiva lasts seven days and during this time the relations closest to the deceased do not shave, shower, groom or care for themselves. Food is brought in for them, cooked for them. All their time, for seven days, is spent thinking of themselves and their relation to the deceased. This is a breather. Time off from the cares of the world for the sons and daughters, the siblings, the spouse, the parents of the deceased. They sit on stools, tell stories, sleep, think.
Mirrors are covered so they may not be vain, seeing themselves unkempt, uncombed, unshaven.
My aunt immediately looks at my daughter, thinking she knows little and tells her the mirrors must be covered because the soul will wander the house and get confused. She has melded Hebrew burial traditions with feng shui and my daughter tells her she is pretty sure it has to do with vanity and grieving.
The walls are mirrored.
We are waiting for the rabbi to arrive. Or the cantor. I hear both words mentioned again and again and do not know which to expect. It doesn’t matter as either can perform a funeral by Jewish and state laws. She arrives and is asked to take a seat.
She introduces herself and is referred to as rabbi. She is middle aged, well spoken, conservatively dressed and states she is a cantor. This is perfect, I think. The prayers will be sung instead of read, as they should be, as they were meant to be. She begins to detail plans. She is interrupted, in Hebrew.
My aunt and uncle are speaking Hebrew to talk to each in purposeful exclusion. My daughter, next to me, has remarked on the rudeness of this. This time it was ineffective. The cantor joined into the conversation. She is answered in English and my daughter whispers to me again noticing the proof these jaunts into Hebrew are no lapses but purposeful asides in front of their guests. My son has moved to the corner of the room, watching, quiet.
They have a problem with her – she is not a rabbi and the cantor explains she can do a service as well by tradition and law. Not in an orthodox service is the quick retort by my aunt. The cantor mentions their service is not orthodox. It is not in a Jewish cemetery, the body is in a fancy casket, it is in a vault. The conversation is fully, only, between my aunt and the cantor. Next to me, to my right, is my father. My uncle is across the small room next to my aunt. Next to my aunt, facing her, is the cantor. She is saying this:
“There are rules and then there are ways around the rules if you don’t like them. In my tradition we do not pretend to follow the rule and then find a way around it. We follow it or we don’t. This is not an Orthodox funeral. I am qualified. I have already done four this week so if you don’t want me to do this that is fine. You simply have to tell me. Now, if there is another reason you are not comfortable using me, please tell me now.”
“You are a woman.”
What does that have to do with it, is what the cantor asks. No matter. She stands and thanks them. She is upset. They knew she was a woman. They spoke with her on the phone. They knew she was a cantor or thought she was. At any point they could have called and confirmed her position in the religious community.
“I can give you the names of some other people you might be interested in asking but I would not wait.”
“Where are you going?” My aunt motions her to a seat again. “We don’t charge for seats.”
“You have made it clear you do not want me to perform this so there is no reason for me to be here.”
“Please, have a seat,” answers my aunt, slowly. “Let us figure this out.”
She sits again. They talk a while longer. It becomes clear the funeral will not be tomorrow. It will be the day after. Friday morning at eleven. I excuse myself stating I need to get something from my truck and walk out the door, into the parking lot.
Soon I am followed by my daughter. She asks me if I really needed something from my truck. She knows the answer. I walk over to my truck box, open it, pull out a box of my business cards and remove a quarter inch, ten or fifteen cards.
“See? I needed these,” I say, holding them up and smiling at her. My daughter is shrewd and there is nothing she does not see through.
My son comes walking out. He says they are nuts. He has never seen anyone treated so rudely. This is a bad example for him.
I want to apologize to her, for this treatment. I am use to it. She may not be. We wait.
Soon, we walk back to the condo and the open door.
I hear, as I approach, my aunt. “When do we need to let you know by if we decide to use you?”
“By the time I leave here. I’m not a yo yo.” The cantor gets up and walks toward the door.
“No no. Have a seat. We want to know what to expect when we find a rabbi.”
“You’ll have to ask them,“ she says and does not stop, walks by us as she exits, heads into the parking lot to find her car.
“I’m sorry,” I say to her back as she passes.
She keeps walking. “They’re nuts,” she responds, continuing on. Obviously she is not use to being treated this way and she has lost some of the composure she came in with. She slows and turns. Looks at me.
“You can see why I don’t visit often.”
She walks to her car a few feet away and gets in. “I can fully understand it” she says and shuts the door. We turn towards the condo.
Inside they are complaining she misrepresented herself as a rabbi, that a cantor would not do. I take my seat as before, so does Sef. Alek takes a seat as well. I listen.
Over to my father, to my right, I lean. I whisper no one has taken into account what my grandmother would have wanted. They argue, but not one person asks this question. He agrees this is a good point and asks me to say something. I tell him I’d rather not. I’d rather he say it. If I say it, there will be yelling.
“What?” asks my aunt. She has been prattling on in Hebrew but can’t abide being left out of a conversation. My father tells her, tells everyone I have made a good point. That we should listen. I state, aloud, I’d rather not.
“Speak,” she says. “We want to listen.” I am prodded and finally do.
“I do not hear anyone asking or talking about what grandma would have wanted. You are arguing over a rabbi while letting other traditions go. As you argue, the time to burial gets longer and longer. What did she want? What does grandpa want?
My aunt responds, loudly. She talks about how things are in Israel and still this has no bearing, seems to prove my point. No casket, she says. In 24 hours, she says. She says it is – and here she tosses in a Hebrew phrase – and then continues to talk in English but it makes no sense, disjointed as it is by a set of words I do not understand.
“Wait. I do not understand Hebrew. If you are going to talk to me it has to be in English.”
“I am speaking English. I didn’t speak in Hebrew.” She is raising her voice steadily with each sentence.
“Excuse me, but one thing I do know is English and that was not English.” Here I repeat the words in sounds as close as I can. My Uncle says she did not notice she used it, use to it as she is.
“That’s fine,” I say. “That I understand, but please don’t dismiss what I’ve said. Consider that if I said you did, I probably know English from Hebrew.”
She continues to talk, loudly, about Hebrew. Sometimes in Hebrew. No one says anything. I look at my father and say, aloud, “This is why I didn’t want to say anything.” I get up. It is about four in the afternoon. I have had enough.
Outside, myself, my children, we talk about where to go for dinner. My father follows and plans are made for dinner. All I want is quiet and a salad. Really, just the quiet would do.
Lee calls. She has arranged to be here tomorrow and should arrive by eleven. My mother will need her. I know this. Will I? Doubtful. Doubtful.
The next morning I wake early from my daughter’s couch, dress, walk. I eat breakfast, vegetable juice and herring I picked up the night before. Alek has eggs. My daughter has taken off the day. I call my father to find what time I should head up to Delray.
He’ll call me back soon. In a half hour. He is closing on a house, finalizing a contract. I’m not sure. I am supposed to wait.
We do. An hour. Two hours. It is nearing noon. We get ourselves ready to go. Repeated phonecalls are not answered and we leave.
A half hour later, nearing my grandfather’s condo, my phone rings. I am turning into the complex. You are leaving there? I’m just arriving? Why didn’t you call and tell me? No I’m not going to turn around and meet you at your house. That’s an hour the other way now. I hate driving here.
I pull in and we walk up to the condo. My father is outside. He is mouthing something. I think it has to do with going out for dinner but not telling anyone. Why? We don’t need to eat? Oh, with my brother and Amy. Why the secrecy?
Inside the house has been wrapped like a large roast from a butcher shop. It is all white paper on every mirrored surface. White butcher paper to the left and right. White butcher paper behind me. Directly in front of me, the glass cupboard reflects the entire room and I see myself, my children.
I say hello to everyone, hug my mother, my grandfather. There are people here I did not meet yesterday. People my age, younger. My cousins Duvid and Rom. Duvid comes over to say hello and introduces me to his wife, Arial, a gloriously charming and delightful woman. She is an acupuncturist in Hoboken and I know Lee will wish to meet her. Duvid is introduced to Sef and Alek. Erika asks if we want anything. Yesterday the coffee had no caffeine. Today, she whispers, she made caffeinated. Indeed, yes, please.
Sef, Alek, Duvid and I talk about music. He is a guitarist and has an artist’s soul. We discuss playing alone versus playing with and how sharing musical space is so hard for some who emphasizes personal ability over art. He and Alek discuss rock and Arial and I gab about New York, medicine, organic foods, health. She is a pleasure to talk with. They both are. I haven’t seen Duvid in nearly a decade. Before that, once. It was an afternoon when I diligently worked at convincing him he did not need his pacifier.
Duvid and Rom are not the cousins I hear of all the time. They are not the ones I was regaled about, compared to, measured against. There is no resistance here. We trade emails, phone numbers. Look at the butcher shop walls.
“It looks like we could sell add space. Or we should all autograph it.”
There is agreement. I pull out my pen write, tiny, at the very top corner in a space of less than half an inch “Adam was here.”
From a foot away, it is hard to see it as anything but a mark on the stark white. My uncle walks over, looks up and says, “Discrete.” It is. My name. Inobtrusive. Hardly there. Apparently easy to forget.
The day wears on and groups have formed. The siblings are off in corners discussing wills and arrangements. It seems continuous but more so regarding the disbursal of money, the purchase of the building than the burial of the body. Through this I hear snippets but try to not listen. Each person having received forty-two thousand, grandkids getting this or that, grandpa’s new Lexus immediately switched with one of the kids for his old one.
Through it all one person has not stayed long in any group. Everyone seems to know him but me and my kids. Irwin.
He appears to be in his seventies. Tall, broad, white-haired. He seems nice. He seems gentle. Who is he, I ask. Grandma’s brother married a girl, she died. This was their son. Soon after, he married his sister-in-law and then, sometime later, the brother died. Does that make Irwin my cousin? I think so. He talks with my parents before coming over to me. We speak. He seems oblique in his questions though fully friendly and comforting in a way no one else has been. He alone either does not know there is nothing to comfort or he alone needs comforting and has generalized that to me. To all.
The day moves on and we cousins talk more. No other cousins will be coming in. I shall not meet any of those I am held in comparison to. They will not come.
The funeral is at eleven tomorrow. We are asked to meet here at nine as that is when the limo arriving. I am not the only one asking why we’re all meeting here if the limo will only hold the siblings and husband. Most of us state we’ll be at the cemetery by eleven.
Evening is coming. It is nearly five and my daughter is hungry. My son is hungry. I probably am as well. My father mouths something and I tell him he’ll have to break tradition and at least whisper instead. He tells me they will leave first and then we can leave but don’t make it look suspicious. That we’ll have dinner with ‘your brother’ and Amy. They leave.
What is long enough to not look suspicious? What else am I supposed to do and what is wrong with going out to eat with my brother? There is no food in the house so everyone here is going out, as far as I can see. Frankly, no one seems to care.
A few minutes later my cell phone rings. It is my father giving me instructions. I ask, “Which way do I drive?” and immediately he tells me, “Don’t use the word drive.”
I have walked toward the front window. Out of earshot? Probably not.
He tells me, “If you use the word drive, they’ll know you’re going somewhere. Walk over to the window.”
“How did I get here? Of course I’m driving. Do you think someone will decipher a diabolical dinner plan from me asking what direction to drive, considering I don’t live here and drove two hours from Palm Bay?”
“I’m going to call Dana and find out where they want to go. I’ll call you back. Stay put ‘till then.”
We say our goodbyes and leave. In the car I call Dana. My father wants us to drive to his house and go from there because he wants to cruise around and look for a place we’d all like. That sounds like a warmed up version of Hell; Ft. Lauderdale traffic, back seat car-sickness and squabbling over what place is healthy and what place not. I suggest just picking a place and meeting. We agree this is a far better option and he suggests The Cheesecake factory. Just tell me where it is. Where? That far? What time?
Sawgrass Mills; third largest mall in the US. From the air it is shaped like an alligator. From the inside it is shaped like a mall. We are a bit early. We find the Cheesecake Factory and I walk inside to use the restroom leaving Alek and Sef outside in the courtyard of the Oasis section next to the Blue Dolphin entrance or the Pink Flamingo lot or something like that. When I come out everyone is there, gabbing about who was there today. I ask, “So what was up with Duvid getting married and no one getting an invitation?” Several people gasp ‘Oh Geeze” and my brother says that’s why he doesn’t give them any more than a hello and a goodbye.
“We just finished talking about that” he says.
“I’m sorry. How the hell was I supposed to know? It was an innocent question. They way people run lives in that (I am careful to say ‘that’) family I figured their wedding was the last thing under their control. I’m careful not to judge intent. I was just curious.”
“Well I don’t want to talk about it,” is his immediate reply.
Lee and I eloped. Actually, we reverse eloped. My parents said they’d throw us a wedding if her parents weren’t invited. Her parents said they’d throw a wedding if I wasn’t invited. We waited for a weekend both sets were out of town and got married.
There wasn’t even an announcement for my brothers. Not that I recall. I never thought about that. Not until now.
We hear our last name and file in.
It is eight-thirty in the morning. I am putting on the best I have and so is Alek. I had dress black pants, but Alek needed a pair for something and by the end of the evening he had ripped them beyond repair. Sef’s best is much better. South Florida has far better thrift stores.
We are into her car, feeling late at ten-o’clock. Driving up 95, we exit at Hypoluxo Road, go too far by three miles into Lantana, turn around, find the correct road and the cemetery with its length directly boarding the highway. It is ten-thirty. We have not eaten and drive a mile the opposite direction looking for something I want but should not have. A bagel.
We finally come across a Dunkin Donuts and, in a place you would think would be rife with delis, it is the best we have found. Inside. It is crowded to its seeming capacity on this Friday morning and we each get coffee. I get a bran muffin, not giving in to my wants, and each of the kids gets their bagel. Dana calls. How far away is it? What road is it on? Join us, I say. We are five minutes away but there seems to be too little time and we finish our breakfast and drive back to the cemetery.
Pulling in at ten ‘till eleven I see no cars we recognize. I park by the tent, as directed. The first tent. There are three. When my father said “We’ll be at the tent,” I knew that would be problematic. I asked which tent and he told me there would be only one. One? “Do they only burry one person a day?” I asked. This was a fair question asked in an unfair way, I grant. But this was the man who once hit me for insisting he was wrong when I asked what flavour ice cream was with no flavoring added. “Vanilla,” I was told. I said vanilla was a flavour. Wouldn’t it taste just like milk? For some reason that deserved my being slapped. I learned to ask questions in unfair ways.
We walked and found workers, asked them where Tritt was and they pointed to the large building close to the wall that divided those who had already found death from the eight lanes of those speeding toward it.
We walked. We entered. Lee called. She had called several times that morning, while we were waking, showering, dressing, to tell us she would be late, each time keeping me on the phone as I tried to rise, shower or dress, telling me in great detail why she would not be there on time. Finally, I said it was ok. She had no need to call to tell me she would be late as a device to take-up time so she would be late. It was a trip, for her, of just over one and a half hours.
So she called Sef. Sef was not as charitable and told her squarely if she got off the phone and stopped complaining about being late, she’d have been on her way. But what does she wear? It doesn’t matter. Bring clothes for later, yes.
Now we are waiting at five minutes to eleven and Lee tells me where she is, that she may be late. I let her know she is fewer than five minutes away and I will wait for her. Two men in black suits tell me the ‘family’ is in the office and will enter together. More people arrive. Lee arrives, hugs me and, walking the long hall between the twenty-foot walls of vaults, we go in.
In the front of the hall is an ornate, gold-toned casket. To the right of it, in the corner, is the lectern. There are seven rows of seats and ten seats to a row. The first row is empty, the second mostly full, the third, full from the far end halfway in. Behind, they are empty. In the last of the half-full row is my brother and we take our seats – I, next to my brother and Lee next to me. Alek and Sef sit in front of us with their second cousins.
I look for my mother and do not see her. Then, I do, at the end of the second row, thin, in a cap, small and frail, she looks to be a little boy. Next to her is Erica.
There is talking, quiet laughter, joking. Is she missed? It is hard to say. Not by her grandchildren, it would seem. At least not by all. Not by her great-grandchildren.
The two men in the black suits enter and ask all to stand for the family. We do and they enter, single file, my grandfather at the lead, on a cane, then my aunt, uncle and my father, last. They sit. We sit. The Rabbi enters.
He is dressed in black, black and black topped with a wide-brimmed black fedora. Behind the lectern he stands and starts by opening his mouth and pausing, says he did not know the deceased, pauses, looks at his notecard, and says, slowly, “Mrs. Tritts.”
He is corrected by a voice from the assembled. “Tritt.” But there are four Mrs. Tritts in the room: three living. One Mrs. Tritt not present. One Mrs. Tritt to be and one Miss. Tritt. I look around and see I am not the only person to notice this. I look at Lee and, turning, find her eyes instantly.
He continues to call her Mrs. Tritt, eulogizing five women in one. He talks to us about her being a daughter of the Jews and his sister and, therefore, knows her just the same. His sister, Mrs. Tritt. He starts with the prayers.
He reads them in English quickly. So quickly I can barely follow. He then says them in Hebrew because, he tells us, the soul understands its native language best. He says them at a speed that is ferocious and fluid so there are no divisions between the words, no melody, no rhythm. These are prayers and he says them as though they are a pharmaceutical insert, skimming out loud in search of some hidden important information. They are songs he reads like dosage instructions. He reads from the Song of Songs even faster as though there is a schedule to keep and melody would only serve to slow things down, beauty would only get in the way.
He calls up Irwin to give a eulogy. He has cards, prepared, he says, so he would not falter. He means it. He means everything he says and it is all beautiful. He doesn’t look at the cards, cries, talks about that which is lost, how good and kind she was, his love for his aunt, the matriarch of the family, her strength, her support. He means every word and I hold tears but they are not for her. They are not for her.
I turn and Lee is looking at me. She quietly says she has no idea who he is talking about but it isn’t the woman she knew. It isn’t the woman I know either. Not at all. She holds my hand. Irwin steps from the lectern, shaking his head. “I just loved her, is all. I just loved her,” as he moves to his seat. And the service ends.
The two men in black tell us it is time. We are to move to the graveside, at the tent. The family can take the limousine. The kids and I walk with Lee and Erica pushing my mother in turns. In two minutes we are at the grass and across a short field of six by twelve inch bronze plaques laid flat upon the ground, marking the heads of graves.
In the green field is a reflection of stark gray marble slabs longer each than a body, wider than a coffin, nine widths long and two across: an interruption of cloud in the grass. All but the last one, the side close to us. It is open and concrete. Next to it, the tent. About fifty feet further to the right a dull yellow backhoe. On the grass, attached to its shovel, by four taut chains, is a concrete slab and next to it, a marble one: another cloudy hole in the green earth. And all around, six by twelve bronze place-markers of people who were.
My mother stays at the roadside with Erica. We walk to the tent. There are folding chairs beneath it, three rows of six, and they sit on several pieces of plywood. Everyone sits. In the front row, my grandfather, aunt, uncle and my father.
The casket arrives on a draped cart pushed by men in blue workshirts. The cart is positioned over the open bunker and the drapes hide the hole beneath. The rabbi starts rapidly again and a switch is moved on the cart. The coffin descends slowly to settle into the pit.
Sef has stayed with me the entire time. My son, no further than arm’s reach. Lee at my side. My brother close. They all retreat. Lee tells me she is going to go stay by my mother, that she needs her and I have no doubt she is right.
I am by the grave, by myself except for the workers. Watching.
They move mechanisms at the wheels and the cart unlocks itself from the grave, is pulled away. The rabbi continues, holds a baggy of dirt from Israel that the daughter of Zion be buried in Jewish soil, in Florida, in this bunker, covered in marble. The workers leave.
The two men in black tell me I must move. Those seated under the tent, milling, pacing, they must move. The tent must move as well. The backhoe rumbling, suddenly, and the slab is leaving the ground, swinging from the bucket by its chains.
The tent is picked up and walked by its four corners, the chairs are taken away and I help fold them. The plywood is relocated from the graveside to in front of the backhoe tracks. More plywood, uncovered as the top sheets are removed, are relocated as well, making a narrow road for the tracks from where it sits to the vault.
I look into the hole. It is not right that she is not buried, that the full measure of soil there is only a baggy of Holyland. There is no shovel. There is no pile of soil. I ask the rabbi, “Is it alright if I throw some dirt in? It doesn’t feel right if I don’t.” His answer is, “Of course. “
I crouch over the grave, look down, reach to my right and grab a handful of sandy soil, talk quietly, drop grit as I speak.
“I don’t know why you never treated us the way you treated everyone else. Apparently you were very good to many people. I don’t understand. But I thank you for what you did give me. You showed me how not to treat people. I know how to be good and kind because you showed me what it was like when someone isn’t. How much it hurts. And thank you. If not for you, I wouldn’t have Sef or Alek. Here. Here is the only dirt in your grave by a relative. Just me. Goodbye.”
And with that, my handful rains down. I stand up, stand back as the men in the black suits ask me to watch out. Here comes the slab.
As I back up, Irwin comes up to me. I think of his words. My eyes begin to tear. “Everyone will miss her,” he says, and puts his hand on my shoulder.
I am surprised to be talking to him. I am surprised to be crying.
“That’s not why I’m crying.” I say this and am shocked I have spoken but more so over what words have come out, that I am being honest. I continue as he looks at me. “I hear how good she was to everyone and how wonderful and I want to know how come I was cheated out of that. Why did she treat us so badly? Why did everyone get this loving grandmother and we got nothing. I’m crying for me. Not her.”
He apologizes to me. He means it. Not for how I feel, but for his lack of understanding, for her. He continues. “I don’t know why she treated you the way she did. She wasn’t like that with anyone else but you and your brother and your mother. Your mother is a wonderful person. I know her and Franky a long time and I never understood it.” This he says shaking his head. “It was unfair and I never understood it.”
I appreciate this and he leaves me with a hug. My tears become sparse as my brother approaches to me. Irwin spoke with him as well and the conversation, while ending the same way, started quite differently. He had no idea who we were. We were never mentioned. Not by the grandparents. Not by my parents. Not in his memory.
He was amazed to see not because he was surprised at our presence but at our existence. After stepping on that with my brother, he was kind enough not to repeat it to me. That I found out later is of no consequence to his kindness and I will always appreciate his candor and restraint in a time of such difficulty for him.
I am shocked. How does a parent not mention their children? In forty-two years? My tears dry. They are used up. I am empty and, suddenly, much more alone.
The backhoe is over the grave, the lid, swinging, guided by workers, descends and my father talks to the men in the black suits about the guarantee of water-tightness of the vault. They explain there is no such guarantee. There never was one and especially not in Florida. Gaskets? No. Seal? No. His face drops. He wants her sealed and safe. Permanent.
I think fallout shelter. I think Ziplock. Tupperware.
One blue workshirt leans over to adjust the top so it lowers just right. He jumps into the vault to undo the chains and the backhoe retreats, beeping.
As it does, the driver misses the plywood and runs over plaque after plaque, hitting the corners, pressing them into the ground as it pops cadi-corners in to the air one after another until the row becomes a line of bronze diagonals. I had been doing my best not to step on the head-plaques.
Now comes the marble cover. It too is brought over at the expense of plaques and noise and I watch it put into place, positioned perfectly before I walk away. All is done.
Erica will drive the van back. My mother will ride with Lee. I have the kids. All back to my grandfather’s house. Twelve-thirty.
Once back, Erica is busy putting the food out, all cakes and sweets. I was told I need not bring anything. Nothing was needed or wanted. Food is supposed to be supplied for the people sitting shiva. I should have brought food anyway.
Here are cakes. Cookies. Breads and crackers. No food to sustain. Here are also cardboard boxes printed to look like wooden benches for the family to sit on. Within the hour my father has crushed one under him. Cakes, cookies and breads.
My brother walks by me, asks quickly, quietly for whom the funeral we attended was for. He did not know that woman either. He walks on.
We talk. I introduce my wife to Arial and they talk shop at the table about their practices, laws, medicine and get along well. There is wine and my aunt drinks one, two three cups nearly immediately. I know this because she counted them out loud and had five within the next two hours. It showed.
Erica is busy, stays busy, out of the way. The siblings have moved to the far, deep corner of the kitchen and are discussing in hushes. We talk with the cousins. There are others.
Soon, my aunt is drunk, the conversation is loud, my wife and children are hungry. It is nearly five in the afternoon. I say my goodbyes. Hug my mother, my father. Take my cousin’s email addresses and phone numbers, thank Irwin and say goodbye to Erica. We head to Lee’s sisters where we will spend the night.
We change. Where to go for dinner? The Whale’s Rib in Lighthouse Point, but five minutes away from the house. It is crowded, inexpensive, comfortable and, I think, what we need this evening. We sit, wait for our table and talk.
I ask Lee questions. I ask how parents neglect to ever tell relatives about their children, how a grandparent treats some grandchildren well and leaves others ignored.
I tell her, today, I feel cut loose. Today, I have less of a family behind me. Today, less of a family in my past, that fewer people care. I feel I was deluded. I feel the family I have chosen, a blessing, and those I was born with… I do not finish. I do not know how I feel. Maybe I do and don’t want to say.
I know my father as weak. Did he ever talk about the lack of parity? He seemed, always, to simply accept all as it was, to question nothing his family did. Perhaps this is unfair. I don’t know. I have been undefended, unmentioned, unknown. As though I was not there.
We sit. Lee talks to me and I am glad of it. I listen closely and ask her to write down what she has told me. I want to see it, to read it, again and again. To know it was not just me. She did and I include it here. It is a bit more than I had anticipated. It is unedited.
I felt I needed to add my two cents to your essay. I was a participant also.
How sad for her. How much hate can cheat you out of life. This poor, ignorant woman who was afraid her daughter-in-law was after her money cheated herself out of life’s joys and died bitter and hating. Although she lived to a very ripe old age of 94, she cheated herself from knowing and loving not only her grandchildren, but her great-grandchildren. How horribly sad for her. In her worry about being robbed, she not only cheated herself, but three generations behind her. She cheated my husband and his brother from having a grandmother who loved them. They also cheated themselves out of knowing their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. How sad is that?
My children, her great-grandchildren, who are lucky enough to know their great-grandparents, do not like them. They are duly compensated however in having the loving grandparents that my husband and his brother do not.
So who did she hurt with her hate? Let’s see…. Her son, his wife and their two sons. But the list does not end here. It also includes others in the family who are baffled by this hatred. The non understanding that was prevalent at her funeral. Questions unanswered as to why this had occurred.
Uneasiness all around by the few other friends and family members who showed up.
I think there were six of them.
Erica was not in the kitchen the entire time. Part of the time she spent with Lee. Upset, she needed someone to talk with, to vent to. She knows Lee. Lee is not part of the family. Not by blood. Erica knows how she feels and Lee is safe.
Erica is angry. She ranted on and on about how the brother and sister treat my father like a dog. Dog is the word she used. Over and over. As we wait near the bar, Lee goes on, more and more. She needs this off her, out of her.
Erica was there when grandmother died. She was there for her last words.
Grandpa came near. To him she says, “I always knew you’d steal my money.”
And then, “Get away from me, you bastard.”
And she died.
There is a break at the bar. They have Guinness on tap. It is four dollars and a quarter a pint. Four and a quarter and far too many calories. I don’t actually need this. I order one.
The cliff is always closer than it appears
Posted by Adam Byrn “Adamus” Tritt
Labels: Culture, Family, philosophy, Social
My dear, dear friend… I weep for you.
My Grandma Wills talked too much, all the time. She made jam and jelly and gave amazing cookie smelling hugs at the drop of a hat.
My Grandma Deemy was the cool travelling grandma. She was always going on trips to exotic places and bringing us back neat presents. She is the grandma who always came for Xmas until she got to old to travel. At that point I packed up my kids and travelled out to visit her every summer until she died.
My Great Grandma Davis was small and flexible. She was a bit scary because she was so old, yet she could stand on her hands at age 93 and do complete splits like a gymnast. I thought she was embarassing when I was 10 but I worshipped the ground she walked on because she was so danged interesting.
That’s all the grandmom’s I knew, but they were all worth having around. I am so SO sorry that you had such a sucky grandma. This is something I’m glad we didn’t have in common cause mine were stellar and amazing and it still hurts every day that they’re gone. Share them with me.
Love from your Twin
Carolan Ivey said…
Thank you, Adamus. What an incredible story (and so very well written). It always amazes me what people will do to other people and how terribly they will treat others. It’s just inexcusable! — Chris (MrPher)
It sucks to have such a grandmother. While mine wasn’t wealthy, she was just as nasty. I was not sad when she passed, other than I did not get to leave high school to travel to CA for the week my mother was gone. How is that for a callous teen?
I have two memories of my grandmother. The first being crushed when I met her, looking for a loving grandma like my friends had, I was greated with, “Fat thing aren’t you?” Always great words for a 7 year old.
The other memory was visiting my aunt when grandmother was too feable to live on her own any further. I saw her twice on that trip and she never said a word to any of my family other than my mother.
I don’t know the story, and probably never will. It doesn’t matter. As your wife so eloquently put it, a hate filled life hurts the hater much more than the person rejected. The rejection doesn’t envelope your life, the hate does and leaves one bitter and alone.
Dan from GoaD
I keep reading this, again and again in total disbelief, and I was there!!!!! The experience was too surreal for the brain to interpret.
Hello dear friend….
I am saddened to read of your Grandmother’s loss…and also saddened not that she died but that she never really lived. I hope you are well. My love to Lee and the kids.
A horrible memory, beautifully written. You have true talent. Thank you for sharing.
I weep, for the loving grandmother you never had. It is one thing to grow up not having or knowing family, but to know such bitterness from the family you do have is a hundred times worse. I am glad that you have built such a loving, caring family with your wife, and have broken the cycle your grandfather and father were in.
Indigo Bunting said…