Jan/Feb 2011 Nonfiction

My Father-in-Law's Funeral

by B.P. Greenbaum

Hannah Weinstein told your mother to make sure the hearst drove by the synagogue on the way to the grave so that your father could say good-bye. Hannah had the distinction of being raised as a Hasidic Jew and knew this was the proper thing to do. No one else, including me, thought of this. Your father had died. I didn't think he would care.

She also suggested they bury the prayer books with him—because he would have liked to have them, yes, and because one wasn't allowed to get rid of them any other way.

"It's a big hole, Louise, plenty of room," she said. "You should tell them."

Your mother looked at her with eyes the color of icebergs, the texture of tundra. She nodded politely, and I knew she would tell them nothing. She wouldn't call. The arrangements were finished. Hannah kept making suggestions, not seeming to notice that your mother had mentally left the room.

When Hannah talked of white fish salad, your mother returned. I sat on the orange couch, listening. Everyone else had gone to the mall. You needed to buy our ten-year-old son a tie because he didn't have one without snowmen on it, and a snowman tie didn't seem appropriate for either the occasion or the month of August.

You returned alone. Everyone else had gone back to the hotel to go swimming. You asked your mother why there was no service at the synagogue. Your father had been a religious man.

"He wanted it this way," she said. "This way we only have to cry once."

I did not believe this. I recognized your mother's economy and said nothing. She always made the arrangements. We'd done nothing since arriving. There was nothing left to do. There hadn't been anything to do for a long, long time.

You father entered the nursing home about a year before when his legs had stopped working. Your mother made the arrangements then, too. She met a Rabbi the day Dad had arrived who told her not to come too often. It made things harder. So she didn't go often. After a month or two, it was as if he were already dead.

Not six months before going into the nursing home, Dad told the Doctor that your Mother wasn't really your mother but a replacement from the Army. He didn't know what they'd done with the real Louise, but this wasn't her. This one had moved him. The house looked the same—exactly the same, but it wasn't. It was a new house, and she'd moved him into it without even asking him if he'd wanted to move. Was this fair? He wanted to know. The Doctor took him off lithium for the first time in thirty years. Parkinson's, he said. Creative delusions, I said. If you're going to have them, shouldn't they be intriguing?

At the cemetery, the posse of six Jewish World War II veterans stood in the back behind me, the synagogue people next to them on the right, and the family in front. The funeral folks had provided a single row of folding chairs. The two gravediggers stood just beyond the mound. They were smoking. Living, dead. I felt vastly outnumbered: alive and Christian. Sweat ran down my back. You sat down with your brother and your sister and your mother. Both his brothers sat down, too.

The 85-year-old rabbi got up holding a file folder at least four inches thick, filled with yellowed frayed papers. He couldn't lift it above belt level.

"See this," he said. "These are all the records I have for this life, this great life here that we've come to celebrate. Look at this!"

In time with a tune we couldn't hear, the file rose and fell, rose and fell until his arm was clearly expended. "Just look at this." It seemed to be the only thing he could think of to say, so he said it a few more times before he shook his head and headed back to his chair. It took him a long time to sit down.

You had to say something, and you had to go first. The mouth of earth opened behind you, the pile beside it, the casket suspended over the hole like a sifting bed. You said, "This is usually my father's job, to say things at gatherings. No one will ever be as good at this as he was." You looked up in your dark blue suit and your face that just turned fifty, and for a moment you looked at us. You looked at me. You looked at our children. You looked at our son's new red and gray striped tie already pulling away from the collar, and your voice broke like a wave on a rock. You caught it quickly, and it slid liquidly back again.

Your brother went next. I don't remember what he said. I wasn't listening.

The Canter sang then, his voice licking the Hebrew as if it were his wife's neck, his eyes closed, his breath the only thing here hotter than the afternoon air.

The gravediggers lowered your father into the ground using these little levers they turned simultaneously. The mechanisms squeaked like cartoon mice. A cigarette dangled from the young digger's mouth.

Then we all turned to the mound of dirt. This was new for me. We don't have visible dirt in Christian burials. Our dirt hides under Astroturf or behind tents. We never get to see people cranked down, lowered into the ground. I had never put dirt on anyone before.

My sister-in-law tried to fill a shovel while wearing a pair of white stiletto sandals that cost more than everything my family collectively wore. I know this because she told me. The monetary value of her ensemble actually represented about a tenth of a percent of the GNP for a small province in the former Soviet Union. I know this because she told me. This was how she practiced math with her daughter.

The 85-year-old Rabbi finally helped her with the toe of his brown wingtip. The effort on his part proved enormous. Afterward, it took him about five minutes to straighten out his leg.

We filled our shovels. I used to shovel horseshit for a living, and you had actually dug graves. For us this was easy. Solid Jersey clay. It sounded like rain on plastic when it hit the coffin.

The tallest Jewish war Veteran fell backward in a motion resembling a dropped six-foot long two-by-four. He lay prostrate on the ground. I watched him fall but wasn't close enough to do anything remotely heroic. By the time I moved, several people had flocked forward. "He has diabetes, you know," someone said as if that explained all possibility, and someone else sighed. It was hot. We'd been standing for a long time.

The people who huddled near him compared doctoral degrees. The PhD's were summarily dismissed. The Doctor of Philosophy looked dispossessed. The newly formed committee selected the gynecologist after reviewing a menu that included an ophthalmologist, podiatrist, and family practitioner. My sister-in-law happened to be the family practitioner, but she was already so annoyed, she didn't want any further complications for the rest of the day. An amazing amount of chocolate appeared upon demand, all of it melted.

The ambulance arrived accompanied by two unhurried police cars. All the uniformed newcomers nodded one by one to anyone who looked them in the eye. None of us could leave until they moved the ambulance, but it felt fitting to wait for the last man down. They loaded him up, and we left slowly, casually.

Back at the house, the luncheon could have fed 60 people. Hannah ordered it and paid for it. I know this because she told me. But only 20 people came back for white fish salad, Atlantic smoked nova, cream cheese, and bagels trimmed in kippers. There was a man with the face of a herring no one seemed to know. No booze. No wine. No stories. No tears. My sister-in-law took her shoes off and argued with her daughter about the nucleic composition of fish oil. My kids ate bagels and talked about going to see the kittens newly born across the street. My 13-year-old daughter arranged my son's new necktie on his forehead, Indian style. I told them to go and see the kittens, but they were back a minute later. The lady who owned them wasn't home.

Later, back at the hotel, you negotiated a grief rate, a hot topic of discussion at lunch that varied from a 20 to 30 percent discount, depending upon whom you spoke to. I stuffed the refrigerator with fish we'd taken back with us in doggie bags, knowing full well we'd throw it out the next day. Tomorrow you would stay here. You would sit Shiva with your mother because no one else would. You would sit with the old men, and you hoped there'd be a minion.

We ordered pay per view. A movie we'd seen before but wanted to watch again because we wouldn't have to pay much attention, and the sound would fill up the empty spaces in the room.

I hung up your jacket and looked at the torn black ribbon they'd pinned on the center on your lapel. You told me it symbolized grief expressed with the ripping of cloth. But now, it wasn't practical to rend your own clothes. They'd done it for you in advance. I thought again of economic grief.

In my mind, I could still see the mound rising coolly from the earth. I remembered that in the distance, within an easy walk of where we stood, there'd been another tent with a single row of chairs and a fresh mound open to the August sky. About the same number of people stood there, the same age, a mirror image of us—well, at least until our tall guy fell over.

But it could have been us over there wondering if we all were in the right place. How would we know if we weren't? How many lines of chairs and little tents were there today dotting the flat face of New Jersey? Would it have made any difference?

I don't know. I do know I was glad to be there when your voice broke, when for one little moment somebody, without economy, grieved for an old man who needed to die.


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