“Do you need to go?” my younger sister asks as we hug hello in front of the cemetery’s office. “The bathroom’s around the side of the building.”
We are gathering for my father’s unveiling, the traditional Jewish ceremony within a year of death during which the newly placed tombstone is literally unveiled of a sheath of cloth. Okay, we pushed the date a little beyond one year, but for my father Judaism was more about habit than a divine system of beliefs.
We linger until most of our group arrives—the route to my father’s grave is convoluted—but eventually we are pressed to move on by the cemetery employees managing traffic. A New York cemetery on Sunday suffers internal traffic jams as well as lost souls.
We reassemble graveside and await the stragglers to arrive. My brother’s ex greets me, “How was the traffic?”
“Not bad,” I reply, not really wanting to talk traffic.
“The Southern State was bad,” he tells me. “A lot of beach traffic.”
My pseudo-stepsister, the daughter of my father’s lady friend of thirty years, is talking about her mother’s funeral. Like my father’s, her mother’s body had been wrapped, according to tradition, in gauze. “I always feel like she’s looking down on me, saying ‘What, you couldn’t bury me in a nice pantsuit?’”
Finally, all assembled in our Sabbath best on an unusually hot June day, we begin. Our young, round rent-a-rabbi, sweating profusely, begins with the customary prayers, which none of us understand because they’re in Hebrew. Then the man who never knew my father begins to speak of him.
“I have read many words inscribed on tombstones, but I have never seen these particular words. These words tell me much about the man: ‘honest, caring, giving.’ These words tell me Irving was a real mensch. And that is why, a year later, I see such a group willing to schlep all the way out here to show their love and respect one more time.”
Such a group the rabbi must see: my father’s four aging children; my older sister’s companion in a wheelchair, partially paralyzed since a stroke; my brother’s ex, who has brought his mother; and my obviously goy husband. Three of four grandchildren are attendant—their Jewish heritage obviously diluted. My mother, who left my father almost forty years earlier, has come. And my pseudo-stepsister and her husband have brought Mary, the heavily accented, partially deaf woman from Haiti, who home health care, and perhaps the divine, had sent to my father when his infirmities demanded round-the-clock assistance.
At the end of the service we all scour the ground for a pebble; to place one on the headstone of the deceased is another tradition. Let this be an important lesson—pebbles in a Jewish cemetery are a hot commodity, so plan ahead and bring one from home.
My younger son, in tears, clings to me.
“Why are you crying?” my mother asks him. “Are you thinking about your own mortality?”
“No mom,” I seem to have to explain. “He’s sad.”
Some of us wander behind my father’s stone to visit his parents’ graves. Now on a cemetery outing, we decide to visit my father’s sister’s grave. She passed away only weeks before the unveiling. My two older siblings, who had attended her funeral, head off in opposite directions. I don’t know how each of us decides whom to follow—probably a decision borne of proximity—but I follow my older sister.
“He’s going the wrong way,” she asserts with annoyance. I look over my shoulder and see my brother motioning for us to follow him. “This way,” he insists.
Eventually all paths lead to the graves—my aunt, her husband, and their only son. My older son arrives with my brother—he has shed his dress shirt and boasts his sleeveless muscle shirt.
Once back at the cars we rearrange the passengers and all drive a distance to a restaurant–bar that is in view of our old home in Rockaway. We had decided our father would have liked the setting—sitting on a deck over the bay in which he spent hours fishing without success.
My younger sister anxiously rearranges tables to claim them.
My niece maximizes the distance between her and her mother. “I wish she would calm down. She’s driving me crazy.”
“This is miserable,” my brother complains. “How could it be this hot? It’s only June.”
The heavily accented waitress, more accustomed to drunken diners, grows impatient with our deliberations over the menu. “Whaddayagonnahave?” she prods.
Other guests arrive, most wearing shorts. An old friend refuses to eat; instead, she recounts how she’s been violently ill all week from food poisoning. Our oldest guest, in her nineties, has been told we are getting together for a party because funerals make her too sad. She comes up to me, inches from my face, and asks “So what have you been doing to feed your soul?” I lose sight of my younger son and find him at the bar, where I’m told he’s ordered a martini, shaken not stirred. The bartender thinks he’s cute, so she has served him a Shirley Temple instead.
The hot afternoon wears on. Finally, all soaked with sweat, a few of us with frayed nerves, we begin to say our farewells.
I don’t know what others may think of the rag-tag assembly in remembrance of my father, but I know it would have suited him. He accepted his unconventional, extended family, and he welcomed our friends. He was honest, caring, and giving. A man who struggled to read, who worked with his hands, who scantly made a living, and who spent years with limited mobility and eventually blindness could raise a minyan any day of the week of those who truly loved him.
Mensch: (Yiddish) a decent human being, a good and honorable person
Schlep: (Yiddish) to haul something or oneself
Minyan: (Hebrew) quorum necessary for religious services