QUEENS, NEW YORK
My knees don’t work very well anymore. Neither does my back, or any other part of my body, for that matter.
I bend over slightly as I scan every inch of ground around the edges of my grandparents’ gravesite, hoping to find a tiny stone to place atop the marble slab that bears the surnames of my grandparents and parents. My surname. A part of me is here, I realize, among the tightly squeezed together matzevot, stone markers and monuments, that seem to go on for miles in this cavernous Jewish cemetery next to New York City’s LaGuardia Airport.
The biting wind chills me through despite the sunny day, reminding me that May in New York is a lot like October in California. I snap photo after photo with my iPhone, attempting to capture the gravesite from different angles so that all parts of it may be examined by my mother back in California, who is so concerned that it was not being cared for properly. “They used to send me a bill every two years,” she tells me on the phone across a continent, “but then they stopped sending them.”
The late afternoon sun is raising havoc with my amateur photography efforts, casting shadows of me holding my phone upon nearly every image. I move back a few inches, a bit to the side as I retake photos that didn’t come out very well the first time.
My efforts to find a pebble finally pay off. Despite several attempts, it quickly becomes apparent that I can’t bend over enough to pick up such a tiny object. I find a thin twig of some length nearby, a larger target that I am just able to grasp. I use it as a tool to drag the pebble through the dirt until it is right up against my shoe and I can just reach it. Victorious, I place it atop the large marker with our family names that sits at the rear of the plot.
It looks so lonely. It is the only stone upon the otherwise bare, shiny surface of the marble slab. Nearby, other markers are graced by a half dozen stones of considerably greater size, indicating that many family members have been there to visit recently. It has been more than 30 years since I have been here last, on the occasion of my grandfather’s unveiling, a year after his death. I know perfectly well that no one has visited our family plot in at least 15 years.
I have a hard time explaining to my wife why we place little stones atop big stone markers at Jewish cemeteries. We don’t bring flowers or greenery, I explain, because we believe that we came into this world with nothing and should go out of it in the same way. It’s not about how much money we accumulated or how many adornments others choose to bring to honor us. In death we are all the same, a reminder that in life, too, our similarities far outweigh our differences. Adding a pebble or small stone to a stone marker adds no substance that wasn’t already there. It is a custom, a tradition, that is difficult to explain to anyone who did not grow up with it.
My mother’s parents are buried on a gravesite that holds eight plots, “four in the back and four in the front,” my mother tells me. She herself wishes to be buried there, even though it she lives nearly 3,000 miles away. My father says that, as far as he is concerned, we can stuff him in a gunny sack and throw him in a river. Or have him buried in a veteran’s cemetery. He really doesn’t care. But it is here that he will end up one day, I know. My sisters’ remains will end up in distant states, not here. So it is extremely likely that the four plots at the front of the gravesite, nearest the road, will remain forever vacant, free of stones and ivy, but covered with rich green grass in the summer and piles of snow in the winter.
As for myself, following my visit I confirm to my wife what I have told her for years: I am to be buried near our home in California, not transported on a plane to a city and state in which I have not resided for decades, a place in which I no longer belong, either in life or in death.
I suppose this sums up our few days here in New York: It is clear that I no longer belong here, that whatever ties I once had to this place have long been severed. In upper Manhattan, we happen to pass the hospital where I was born. I point it out to my wife, but it means nothing to me. We eat dinner at what once was my favorite hangout, but now serves as only a vague reminder of a less than halcyon past that may have been real or imagined. “You see that woman eating all by herself at the last stool at the edge of the counter?” I tell my wife. “That was me,” I say. “That was me.”
On the way out of Queens, we are stuck in the perennial traffic jam that is the Cross Bronx Expressway. While my wife drives, I take out my phone and begin composing an email to my parents, uploading photos.
Later, my mother calls me, expressing gratitude for the pics. They are exactly what she wanted to see, she assures me, now confident that the gravesite is indeed being cared for. “You saved me a trip to New York,” she tells me.
“Did you talk to them?” my wife asks me. At first, I think she is referring to my parents. But then I realize she means my grandparents, whose graves we visited today. “Of course not!” I reply. “Why would I talk to dead people?”
That may seem a bit harsh, but my grandmother died when I was five years old and, much to my mother’s chagrin, I barely remember her. My grandfather lived a lot longer, and I had a good relationship with him well into my teenage years. He wanted to see me graduate from college, and that he did. He was there in Albany on my graduation day, passing on rather suddenly about two months later.
I suppose I am not telling the whole truth. I have indeed “talked” with my grandfather on occasion, and have even felt his presence in my life at certain moments. I think of him every year on his birthday, September 7. I am acutely aware that he has influenced my life in more ways than I realize. But it is not on a cold and windy day, in a place where tens of thousands of stone markers are crowded together, in a world of ivy and marble and pebbles, an entire nation away from where I live, work and love my family, that I would go to have a talk with him. That place is no more than a symbol.
For in a real sense, Grandpa will be with me always, wherever I am and wherever I go.