The Notebook

Notebook

My wife and I visited my parents shortly before Thanksgiving.  “I don’t want to make you sad,” was how my mother opened a conversation at breakfast one morning.  I knew what was coming.

My father just turned 85 and my mother will be doing likewise about three months from now.  Dad is nonchalant about getting older; his philosophy has always been that “it’s better than the alternative.”  My mother, on the other hand, seems a bit obsessed about her funeral arrangements.

Mom has a notebook detailing her last wishes, and on this occasion, she wished to inform me that she has updated it.  And also that she’s made a second copy in case something happens to the first.  It’s starting to feel a little creepy.

Now, I know that many will find my mother’s initiative admirable.  I would tend to agree if her instructions had something to do with, say, disposition of her assets (she says she doesn’t have a will) or even what type of casket to use or what music to play at her funeral.

No such luck.

My mother doesn’t care about any of that stuff.  She says that no one but immediate family would attend her funeral anyway, so there’s no sense in spending money for a lot of worthless nonsense.

Mom’s funeral notebooks are primarily devoted to the minutia of how to have her body transported from California to her family burial plot in New York City.  I’m talking about which airline to use, which funeral home to call on this end, which funeral home to call in New York, how to contact the cemetery to have them open a gravesite.

Sigh.

When I try to make sense of this, I remind myself that there is plenty of precedent going back millennia.  After all, the Children of Israel honored Joseph’s wishes to bring his bones up from Egypt to be buried in the Promised Land.  And that involved forty years of wandering in the desert, not making a reservation with United.  But still.  Is this really necessary, parents of mine?  Yes, I know, Mom, you want to be buried next to your mother.  I get it.  Um, I think.  Uh, why exactly do you insist on staying in California if you wish to spend eternity in New York?

I’m glad that my parents no longer have to deal with the winter weather that they so dislike, but really, why would an octogenarian elect to reside nearly 3,000 miles away from his or her final resting place of choice?  To me, it’s simple.  I have resided in California for nearly a quarter of a century, and here I will be buried.  If California is good enough for me to live in, it’s certainly a good enough location for my headstone.  I doubt that I will ever move anywhere else, but if I do, then just bury my carcass there in the local cemetery, please.  Don’t even think of transporting my decomposing corpse on a final plane ride to a location thousands of miles away.  That’s both insane and insulting.

As for my parents, they made New York their home for the first sixty years of their lives.  In my opinion, if they want to spend eternity there, then they had no business moving to California.  I think my uncle got it right.  He lived down the street from us in New York, and at the age of 92, he’s still there.

What’s even crazier is that Mom has mentioned more than once that, were she terminally ill, she would attempt to travel to New York City so that she could breathe her last in close proximity to the cemetery.

There just isn’t a lot I can say when Mom starts in with this kind of talk and her notebooks.  Yes, I assure her, I’ll honor your final wishes.  Yes, I know it’s paid for.  Yes, I’m glad that you have informed my sisters (since they will likely be doing most of the heavy lifting anyway).

Arguably, my father goes to the opposite extreme.  When Dad is asked about his final wishes, he often says something about stuffing his body into a sack and throwing it in the river.

Maybe he’s on to something.

 

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The Dead Place

Fort Lauderdale Cemetery

POMPANO BEACH, FLORIDA

I seem to have lost my bearings, both as to space and time.  Funny how traveling can do that.  Once you’re out of your regular routine, it can be hard to remember what day it is or where you are.  For me, this effect has been compounded by the fact that I developed flulike symptoms somewhere around the Carolinas.  Upon our arrival in Florida, I more or less collapsed in our hotel room bed, sending my wife off to visit the friend she came to see.  I slept most of the day while they took a day trip down to Key West.  Only in the cool breeze of the evening did I venture outside to sit on one of the deck chairs overlooking the hotel pool.

Everything is so white here:  The furniture, the cars, the blinding midday sun.  It’s a Florida thing, I’m told, everything is white to reflect the intense sunlight.

For years, Florida’s Gold Coast has struck me as “the dead place.”  If you believe in hell, the climate here will give you a preview of coming attractions.  Not long ago, my father reminded me of a book he read years ago, Dying in the Sun, about retirees who leave the Northeast and Midwest to live their golden years in South Florida, endure illnesses, and be buried there.

Dad loves gallows humor.  He tells me that the only topics of conversation when you run into a fellow geezer in South Florida are:

  • Where you went to eat and did you go “early bird”
  • What the doctor said
  • “You hear who died?”

After an absence of a quarter of a century, I again find myself in the land of the dead.

South Florida. U.S. 1, known locally as Federal Highway. Late night Denny’s run.

“Got any fresh decaf?” I ask the server before I even sit down.

“I can make you a fresh pot, honey,” she replies before waddling off to the kitchen.

My wife and I peruse the menu and I spy our server sitting side saddle at a booth a few feet across the room. “You ready yet?” she calls out to us, not making a move in our direction. The poor woman weighs about as much as I do. The place is nearly empty, so she must be taking an opportunity for a moment’s rest. I can see how it would be tough for her to stand on her feet for an entire shift. Still, my wife is appalled at what passes for customer service in this place.

We attempt to put together our orders.

“Got any soup?”

“Nope, we throw it out at 10:00.”

“I’ll have oatmeal…”

“Nope, we only have it until 2:00.”

“Grits?”

“Nope.”

“Well then I’ll have a toasted bagel.”

“Nope. Only in the mornings. You can have an English muffin.”

It seems that the Grand Slam has become the Grand Strike Out.

We are used to good service at Denny’s all over the country, so we are unpleasantly surprised. We soon learn that this is not an anomaly. A few nights later, in Grants, New Mexico, I order potatoes and get rice. I order broccoli that arrives so cold, it is obvious that it is just out of the freezer, having seen insufficient time in the microwave. Getting a refill on my coffee is next to impossible. It is clear that customer service is not a priority. Disgusted, we give the remainder of our gift card to an elderly couple on our way out.  Denny’s had been crossed off our list.

But tonight, something else is on my mind.  It could be the combination of being sick and the weird feeling of being in a strange environment that was once familiar, decades ago.  After visiting the graves of one set of grandparents in New York City earlier during this trip, we have now stopped at the graves of my other set of grandparents, my Dad’s folks, near Fort Lauderdale. I had been to the cemetery in Queens many times as a kid with my parents, had a horribly emotional experience at my grandfather’s funeral when I was 21, and last set foot in the place at his unveiling, some 35 years ago. Aside from the stone bench being moved, a curb being installed and the cemetery having become even more crowded than it used to be, I found that not much had changed in the intervening decades. Back in the sixties and seventies, my parents would drag us out there a couple of times each year. I’d bring a siddur (prayer book) and read the Kaddish in the original Aramaic while my mother cleared the graves of loose greenery and then just sat there while my sisters, my father and myself grew increasingly restless and impatient. I was too young to appreciate Mom’s grief over her mother’s loss.

But here in Florida, this was different. For one thing, I did not attend either funeral and had never been to the graves before. For another, this was a mausoleum rather than a traditional six-feet-under burial site (although there were plenty of those on the grounds, too). I expected the graves to be indoors, in a building, but they were not. I knew the bodies had been cemented into a wall, but I did not expect the wall to be outdoors!

The elderly, chatty clerk at the desk in the tiny super air conditioned office of our hotel in Deerfield Beach insisted on drawing me a map of how to get to the cemetery.  It was not as if he was intimately familiar with the place; it’s just that he tried to map it on Google and couldn’t get his printer to cooperate when I informed him that I had to go because my wife was impatiently waiting for me in the car.  Not wanting to let me escape without assistance (a reflection of his kindness, as I could have mapped the route on my phone in a fraction of the time), he settled for a low-tech solution by consulting the map on his computer screen and hand drawing a facsimile therefrom.  His directions turned out to be perfect.

When my wife pulled up to the curb near an open door to the cemetery office, I stepped inside only to find that this was the location of a funeral.  I was sent around to the other side of the building.  There, we were told to pull into the rabbi’s space to wait for an employee who could assist us.  A woman emerged a few minutes later, spoke with us through the car window and then went back inside to retrieve a form.  I was to write down the names of the deceased.  The employee left and returned a few minutes later, stating that there were multiple people buried there with the same names.  She asked me for my grandparents’ dates of birth or death.  I wasn’t sure about my grandparents’ DOB, but I knew my grandfather had died in 1996.  When she next returned with a map of the property, the employee informed me that I had erred, that Grandpa had actually died in 1992.  This came as a surprise to me, as he and I had one of our best conversations in 1993, when my grandparents traveled to New York to be with my father during his surgery.  The depth of incompetence possible in customer service never ceases to amaze me.

Following the map, we drove as close as we could get to the block section where my grandparents’ remains are entombed.  I still had a little way to go on foot, negotiating the block numbers in the blazing South Florida midday heat, remaining in the shade as much as possible.  My grandparents’ marker was located on the top row of a mausoleum block stacked six high.  I found a nearby bench from which I could crane my head to read the writing high above me.  The marker (matzevah, as we call it in Hebrew) was unremarkable.  It contained my grandparents’ years of birth and death, not even full dates.  Not a word of Hebrew was in evidence, not even their Jewish names.  As disappointing as I found this, I suppose it reflects the reality of the situation:  Neither one had a religious bone in their bodies.  (And Grandpa, in fact, openly disdained and ridiculed religion of any type.)  There were two standard icons in the corners, a Star of David and a menorah, just like on hundreds of other nearby stones.  A cookie cutter memorial.  Except, I noted, for some brief descriptive information.  Grandpa was etched in stone as “a loyal friend” (Note to self:  Ask Dad about this.  This is a side of Grandpa with which I am totally unfamiliar.) and Grandma was “a beautiful, gracious lady.”  Gag.  As if this weren’t bad enough, the lower edge of the stone read “in love forever.”  While I initially found the sappiness intolerably saccharine, thinking about this for a few days left me with a sense of veritas.  My grandparents remained quite solicitous of each other into their elder years and, I had to admit, did indeed remain in love with each other all their lives.

And I am pleased to report that, cemetery office weirdos notwithstanding, the stone did indeed list the correct year of my grandfather’s death, 1996.  It’s hard to believe that twenty years have already elapsed since then.

Summer, 1996.  I am out of work (again) and living with my sister’s family in Boston.  I have developed a serious internet addiction that involves volunteering for AOL, staying online all night and sleeping during the day.  I am on a 14.4K dialup connection, due to which my family can’t get through to us late at night with the news of my grandfather’s death.  My brother-in-law in California IMs me to have my sister call our parents at once.  Mom and Dad offer to pay for a plane ticket for me to fly to Florida for the funeral, but I decline.  The thought of flying makes me incredibly anxious, exacerbating my panic disorder.  If I just stay here in Boston and don’t think about it, I’ll be alright, I tell myself.  I don’t feel emotionally stable enough to travel to a funeral 1,500 miles away.  I will crumple, I know, perhaps have one of my hyperventilation episodes like I did at my other grandfather’s funeral in 1980, and just make it worse for everyone.  I don’t think about how I might feel 20 years later.

I bid adieu to my grandparents’ graves, pick myself up off the bench and walk back to the air conditioned shelter of our car as quickly as I can.  I do not know how people manage to live in such a hellacious climate.  The sweat pours off my face and neck and I know I need a drink of cold water immediately.  As I open the car door, the blast of refrigerated air is as welcome relief as a man could ask for.

We’re done here.  Let’s go home to California.

 

 

Don’t Go Begging for Money When I’m Dead. Please!

My wife informed me yesterday that someone on Facebook is seeking donations for an online memorial to honor a deceased relative.

I do not even pretend to understand how this song goes.  I plead ignorance as to what constitutes an online memorial and why it is necessary to collect money for it.  I am guessing that there is some connection between the online memorial and the dear departed’s family offline.  Perhaps funds are required to pay for the funeral of the deceased or to help the family cope with final medical bills or a loss of the family breadwinner’s income.

This reminds me of a phenomenon that I have often witnessed in both northern and southern California (but not in my native New York):  Children and adults waving signs at intersections and street corners advertising homespun car washes being held to raise funds to pay for the funeral of a deceased family member.  Typically, the entire family, from kids to grandparents, is out there in a store’s parking lot with buckets, rags and squeegee bottles filled with liquid soap.  Whether the sponge-and-rag crew does a good job or not is almost beside the point.  What really matters is the one holding the sign and the kid jumping up and down and waving his arms to attract the attention of captive audiences stopped at the red light.  A common prop is an enlarged photo of the deceased mounted on a sheet of cardboard.

I can’t help but think that the dead guy (or woman) must be turning over in his or her grave with embarrassment.  Oh, wait, I almost forgot — they’re not even in their graves yet.  That’s what the car wash is supposed to pay for.

I wonder where they keep the corpse in the meantime.  Is she still stuck at the morgue waiting to be claimed by the family?  Or maybe stashed in someone’s garage?  Every time I pass one of those U-Store-It places, I wonder whether they’ve ever found a body swathed in a shroud in the back corner of Unit 72.  I can see the employees chatting in the front office now.  “I say, Bertie, what do you suppose is that rank odor wafting out of Unit 72?  You don’t fancy there’s cheese fermenting in there, now do you, bloke?”

Calling the story writers of Storage Wars:  I think you’ve got your next plot development nailed down.  I can see it now.  During the auction, Dave Hester can yell “Nooooooope!” while Barry Weiss falls off his golf cart when he passes out from the fumes and Jarrod and Brandi bicker about how much to bid and whether a coffin would be likely to sell in their store.  Fade to the car wash on the corner with the sign twirler displaying a photo of the dead guy.

But seriously, I can’t think of anything more tacky than raising money for a funeral.  Well, maybe the decorations in fancy script affixed to the rear windows of automobiles:  In Loving Memory of David, March 18, 1952 – July 21, 1993.  Rest in peace, Daddy!”  Someone ought to start marketing these.  Just think, now you can always have your loved one’s headstone with you where’er you may roam!

It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for cash-strapped families who are faced with the sudden death of a loved one.  But the whole car wash thing is nothing but a form of begging.  I don’t see families with the chamois as any different than the panhandler with the styrofoam cup.

So what’s the answer?  What’s an impoverished family to do when a family member suddenly casts off this mortal coil?  In days gone by, I believe that churches stepped in to provide the deceased with a decent burial.  But today, so many are not affiliated with any house of worship, and local churches tend to be so cash-strapped as to be without the means to offer such generous gestures.

Of course, this was less of an issue in the past, when funerals didn’t cost $10,000 or more.  By the time you add up the costs of the casket, the embalming, the beautician, the burial plot, the headstone and the clergy, you’re talking about a lot more money than most of us have in a savings account or a coffee can.

I once asked my father what the morgue does with corpses that no one claims.  He told me that in New York City, where he grew up, the deceased would be interred in a pauper’s grave on Hart Island in Long Island Sound.  Many thousands are buried there in mass graves dug with prison labor.  Not exactly what a loving family aspires to, but it caters to the needs of the destitute and those without families.

I have no idea what northern California’s equivalent of Hart Island might be, but I will tell you this:  When I’m dead, whatever you do, do not go begging total strangers for money for my funeral.

As for my father, he tells me that when he passes on we should tie him up in a burlap sack and throw him in the ocean.

Um, need your car washed, mister?

 

Legacy

cemetery

On Sunday, I attended a funeral for someone who I did not have the privilege to know.  She was the mother of one of our neighbors, the woman who lives just across the fence from the parsonage.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to watch the health of a parent fail so dramatically, but I feel encouraged about all the things that were done right.  The neighbor’s mom died at home, not in some sterile, faceless hospital or nursing home.  She spent her last days surrounded by the ones she loved.  There were nurses who came in to help and to teach her caretakers how to use the medical equipment and feeding tubes that became necessary.  And even when the funeral home people came to collect her body, they did so with dignity and, yes, caring.  Unable to get her out on a stretcher, the funeral director carried her out, gently, in his arms.

Funerals tend to be all about memories and associations; we tell stories from our loved one’s life, look at photos and reflect upon the ways in which we are better people for having known the one who has been taken from us.

But we also reflect on our own mortality.  At a funeral, we are faced with the fact that one of these days it will be our turn, our photos up there on the easel, our stories being laughed and cried over friends and family.

A funeral can help us turn introspective.  What will we leave as a legacy when it’s our turn to go?  If we’re not too happy about what we see in the mirror, we may wonder whether there’s still time to change, to become the kind of people we really want to be.

When we clean out the house of the departed, there are always knick-knacks and mementos to distribute, small tokens that may sit on a shelf to remind us of a loved one for years to come, or may be packed away in a closet to bring out on special occasions.

Is that all that remains of us after all the trials and tribulations of a lifetime?  We hope that our influence and values will affect others positively long after we’re gone.  I think of my grandfather, who had a profound influence on me when I was growing up.  More than thirty years after his passing, I still remember his birthday every year and think of him often in the little things, such as when I find myself saying the same things he used to say.  But who will remember him when I am gone?  I have no children of my own, and my sisters’ children never had the opportunity to meet him.  I think of my oldest nephew (whose name is somewhat similar to my grandfather’s) and doubt that he knows anything about his great-granddad.

Maybe I need to sit down with him and his sister and tell them some stories, bring out some photos.  While there’s still time.

When we attend a funeral, it’s not about us; it’s about the one who we lost and whose memory we are now honoring.  But as we hold hands and sing the hymns, we cannot help but reflect on the great chain of family and our place in it as time marches on, l’dor va’dor, from generation to generation. 

In My Father’s House

house

MADERA

My father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?  John 14:2 (NIV)

I began writing this blog six months ago.  In that short time, I have attended three family funerals.

The third funeral was for my wife’s cousin, who passed away unexpectedly in his early forties after suffering from many medical problems for most of his life.  The service was held on Saturday morning in a rented hall.  We made the eight-hour drive on Friday and stayed over with my parents, who live about half an hour away.

My golden-voiced nephew sang two songs, the deceased’s sister gave a moving eulogy and we all leafed through a memory book full of pictures and poems.  The preacher’s message began with the above verse from the New Testament, emphasizing not only that Ricky had gone to a much better place than we can ever hope for on earth, but also that he had gone on ahead to prepare a place for us in advance of the day when it is our turn to join him.

We unfolded tables and chairs, and we shared sandwiches and macaroni salad while we reconnected with family and friends.  We caught up on the lives of children and grandchildren and we found out who’s getting married, who’s sick, who lost their job.  Cell phone numbers and email addresses were exchanged, Facebook friend requests were made.  My immediate family drove over to see my parents; dinner plans were finalized.

In the middle of the night, I awoke in one of the several usually empty bedrooms in my parents’ house.  It took me a minute to remember where I was.  I did not grow up here; my parents lived in New York for most of their lives and had this house built when they retired to California two decades ago.  The house sits in a development many miles to the west of town, bordering the rangeland where the cattle munch hay contentedly and the waving grass extending as far as the eye can see reminds one of Kansas or Texas.  If I listen closely, I will hear a horse neighing or a rooster crowing or one of the bulls next door mooing.  In the evenings, my parents drag folding chairs out of the garage and sit in the driveway, enjoying the cool breezes and the nightly star show.

I haul myself out of bed and pad around on the pink and blue carpeting.  I walk from room to room, stepping on the throw rugs in the living room and family room and on the marble flooring in the entryway and the tile floor in the kitchen.  I sit down on the love seat, on my father’s overstuffed chair, on the straight-backed oak chair over by the wood stove that is never used anymore.  I look over the wall hangings — the framed sheep and horse prints, my mother’s oil paintings and her shell mosaic, my parents’ college and graduate school diplomas.

I once lived here for nine months.  It was not a happy time of my life.  I had just moved back to California following a short stint in New England, and I couldn’t find a job.  As if being out of work and broke wasn’t bad enough, I got sick.  And we had one of the worst winters the Central Valley had seen in years, with torrential rain and widespread flooding.  Then I found work two counties away and started commuting 3½ hours a day.

No, I do not have good memories of this house.  Could I ever live here again?  My parents will be 80 years old in just a few months.  We already have a big party planned for my father’s birthday.  How much longer will they be able to live here?  My parents have 2½ acres of grass and trees that have to be mowed and watered.  They are forever planting something or pulling something up.  They take the pickup to town and come back with loads of bricks, lumber, potting soil, fertilizer.  When the weather turns cold or rainy, my mother can be found working on one of her two sewing machines or sitting on the couch knitting, always with the radio on, tuned to her news and politically conservative talk shows.  My father will be in the office, looking at old cars on the internet or watching BBC productions on the little TV with the sound up loud.

My father has recurring growths on his now nearly bald head; he keeps having them removed.  Now he’s got one on his leg that needs to be treated.  He claims he can still mow the whole property as long as he has a cold beer afterward.  I can’t fault my parents for living the life of their choice, but I can see that this can’t go on forever.

Sometimes, late at night, my wife and I will start talking about what we can do to help our aging parents.  When we leave the desert this fall, we will be moving in with my mother-in-law.  But what of my parents out in the country?  A funeral makes one think about things that are normally banished from our minds.  What if one of my parents dies in the next few years, moving on to prepare a place for us in the better world to come?  Surely we can’t leave the other parent alone.  Would we ever considering living there, out in the middle of nowhere?  That house and property is too much work for two people, much less for one.  Would the house be sold, the surviving parent coming to live with us up north?

I think of these things as I move about in the stillness of the night, the familiar and the unfamiliar merging and separating as we stand on the cusp and peer over the edge.

My father’s house has many rooms.

 

Funeral for a Cousin

Lisa

SACRAMENTO

She once traveled the world as a backup singer and dancer for the rapper MC Hammer.  And she was my wife’s cousin.  That’s about all I knew.

I am told that I had met her a couple of times at birthday parties and barbecues, but if I am to be honest, I must admit that I don’t remember.  The personnel of my wife’s large extended family continues to roll around in my noggin and come out as a ball of mush.  I have to ask, and ask again, and ask yet again about which side of the family this is and whose ex-, step-, grand-, great- auntie or cousin twice removed this one is.  I get confused.

The leaflet on the table in the antechamber bore a photo of her reclining in what must have been a wedding dress, silky white fabric that went on for miles.  The surname was hyphenated, reflecting the Filipino and Hispanic heritages of herself and of her husband.  And as the chapel began to fill up, the faces were black and white and every shade of brown, coffee and gold.  There were three young ladies with long blonde hair seated in the third row, looking as if they were plucked right out of Central Casting.  There were afros and crew cuts, mohawks and bald pates, young and old, local and far-flung, believers and non-believers, all connected in some way to Lisa’s life and there to remember, grieve and celebrate.

The staff began escorting visitors to seats, urging the early birds to scoot over and make room for the latecomers, to squeeze just one more person into each pew.  People were standing in the back, the lobby was full and still they kept streaming in through the door.  Clearly, this was someone very special who they were here for, someone who had touched many hundreds of lives and would never be forgotten.

I did not know you.  I am here as a neutral party to support my wife.  But as my sister-in-law, two of my nephews, my niece and her baby daughter filed into the pew in front of us, I began to feel the glow of being held tightly within the bosom of my family.  I found myself wishing my parents could have made the trip.

And as the family and friends who came up to the lectern and with trembling hands and voices took the microphone to tearfully recount memories of happy days, strivings and successes, proud milestones and stories both quirky and funny, without fanfare I slipped the folded handkerchief out of my pocket.