Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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On a soaking-wet August day I stood under an umbrella in a Jewish cemetery in Paramus, New Jersey. Though the man we were burying hadn’t been particularly observant, the service was Orthodox, and everyone followed protocol: the other women and I huddled to the side while the men lifted the heavy casket.
My relationship to the deceased was hard to define in any orthodox way: Before he’d died peacefully at the age of ninety-six, Sy had been my mother’s late-life, live-in significant other. I was Sy’s not-quite stepdaughter, the mother of his not-quite grandsons. Nearby stood his two daughters, my not-quite stepsisters.
After the men from Sy’s family had lowered the casket, they took up shovels, and I waited for the burial to end, as burials do, with a couple of token shovelfuls of dirt. American funerals protect mourners from work: all those dark-suited men with quiet voices bustling around like Mafiosi, making sure you don’t have to act, or think, on your own. But this ceremony didn’t end there. These male mourners were being called on to perform a complete burial, a real blue-collar job. Sy’s sons-in-law and grandsons and the little round rabbi with the nasal voice all scooped soil into the hole. My cousin and my husband — the not-quite son-in-law — grabbed shovels and joined in.
I wanted to help, too. Digging seemed like an antidote to this disorienting day. It seemed as if it might clear away the vinyl and gasoline smells of the rental car in which we’d spent most of the morning (and would spend another two hours before the afternoon was over) and offset the body’s confusion over meals missed and taken at odd times. I also thought filling a hole in the ground might fill some of the emptiness I was feeling. In the back of my mind, though, I had the vague sense that women aren’t supposed to dig at Orthodox funerals. Or is it just that women can’t be pallbearers? Or is it something about pregnant women avoiding cemeteries? I have just enough basic Judaism to get me through most situations without making a faux pas, but that day I wasn’t sure what was expected — or, rather, not expected — of me.
Sy had come into my mother’s life more than twenty years earlier, not long after the death of my father. You might say that Sy was everything my father wasn’t — or, as my sister and I, then in our early twenties and still snide from adolescence, preferred to say, Sy was nothing that our father had been. My father had possessed a gaze so focused it sometimes seemed as if he could see into the molecules of objects. He’d had a fierce intelligence, a fierce appetite, and an equally fierce temper.
Sy, who was a generation older than my father, used corny expressions like “Hold the phone, Joe,” which made my sister and me wince, as did his tendency to show off his smattering of Italian with a lot of loud ciao bellas and arrivedercis. He carried a musty aura that I associated with Bronx apartments; he called waiters over to retally coffee-shop checks; and he filled our mother’s freezer with homemade stewed fruit, in which he was a great believer.
Of what other high crimes did we convict Sy? His gruff older daughter and her large family were Orthodox, which meant we had bland kosher meals at all our mother’s family gatherings. In his eagerness to be helpful by doing dishes, Sy chipped all our mother’s good china. He seemed dense and easily befuddled, whereas my sister and I saw ourselves as well on the road to becoming discerning sophisticates.
Time passed with the usual mile markers. The last of our grandparents died. My sister and I finished grad school and embarked on careers. My boyfriend with the lovely apricot-colored beard became my groom, and then my white-bearded husband of many years. Our two boys went from being babies in bibs to teenagers with physics homework.
And while I was busy with all of this, something unexpected happened: Sy and I grew close — maybe not quite like a father and daughter, but close in a satisfying and companionable way. The shift occurred so gradually that it’s hard to isolate the turning points. I just know that what had struck me initially as Sy’s grating heartiness later revealed itself to be kindness, curiosity, and infectious good cheer.
I do remember, all too well, that when my first son was born, I insisted that Sy not be called “Grandpa”; that title belonged to my dead father. I felt vindicated by my decision whenever my son cried for me and Sy trotted out his corny expression: “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” (He would pronounce mother “mudder.”) I spent a lot of time wishing my father and my boys could have known each other.
But over time Sy became a proud and devoted grandfather in all but name, even though he had more than enough grandchildren and great-grandchildren of his own to fill his heart. The way he loved my boys was different from the remote, abstract way in which my own grandfather had loved me. Sy would greet them with a hearty hug, but that was just the beginning of his affection. He would watch them and talk to them and soak up their personalities. At first, when he would lean in close to me to share an insight about one of them, I would brace myself for a platitude, but his comments were always right on target, sometimes prescient: “That little one,” he told me once, “he’s going to be a great actor one day.” The little one, now twelve, is indeed the thespian in the house. As a mother, I came to value Sy’s insights because they were objective, not filtered through expectation or wishful thinking.
Sy was not a wealthy man. He was more than happy to use a big blue umbrella emblazoned with “Lovenox (Enoxaparin Sodium Injection),” whatever that may be. He hoarded notepads from hotels, saved the pens that came with his Time subscription, and had a vast array of belongings stamped with the name of the local hospital, where he volunteered. But every year at Hanukkah and on each boy’s birthday, a small check or carefully chosen present would arrive. He gave a wooden abacus to my older son, who likes to figure things out for himself, and a marionette with a face like a mournful gangster to the actor. His last present to them was a pair of good-quality lights for their bikes, for when they ride home after dark.
It takes many shovelfuls of dirt to fill in a coffin-sized trench, even one designed for a short, slender man like Sy. This was good dirt: heavy and dark. Each man planted his shovel back in the mound for the next to take a turn, and the wooden handles poked up like a hardy crop. They were serious, well-balanced, iron-bladed tools. I had been a city dweller for more than twenty years and couldn’t remember the last time I had held one.
I stood under an umbrella with my boys, listening to the occasional grunt of effort and the slurp of a dress shoe sucked from the mud. All the women, even the straight-haired among us, were reaching up to smooth down their frizz. Though the sky darkened further and released a fresh downpour, the day never felt depressing. I tamped down my desire to grab a shovel from the heap and dig. I’ve never liked to make a spectacle or break rules in public. Part of me said to leave it be, to let the men do the dirty work; but another, more progressive, part — the one that insists on carrying my own luggage and opening my own doors — said, Grab a shovel, if that’s what you really want to do.
If I could be a part of Sy’s burial, it might make up for the fact that, when I was younger, I hadn’t been part of his life. Though I had once kept myself separate, I now wanted to stand elbow to elbow with his no-nonsense family and help bury him.
Recently I found a comic essay I’d written for graduate school, and I was shocked to see the way I’d portrayed Sy, barely disguising him as “Morris” and playing him for a fool. I had him describe himself as “a Wolfgang Beethoven man,” and say, “between you and I.” I can’t remember if he actually said these things or not, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Sy wasn’t unintelligent; he just hadn’t been born into lucky circumstances, the way I had. He grew up one of a passel of kids in a top-floor Lower East Side tenement, in an age when it wasn’t yet a given that he and his siblings would all survive to adulthood. He got off easy, with a case of rickets that left his legs slightly weak. For many years he held down two jobs to support his wife and daughters: as a civil servant in the New York City finance department, and as an evening salesman at Saks, where he amassed an impressive wardrobe of musty-smelling but good woolens bought with his employee discount.
Just a few months prior to the funeral, before he came down with a case of pneumonia that would never clear up, I chided Sy gently for not following his doctor’s orders and getting more exercise. “Chele,” he told me, “for so many years I didn’t have a lot of leisure time. And now that I have the time, I don’t want to waste it exercising. All I want to do is catch up on my reading.” He read mostly nonfiction about politics and war and history. When he wasn’t reading, he volunteered not only at the hospital, but also at the symphony, a local charity, and the community college, where he took classes at the Lifetime Learners Institute. The college even gave him an honorary degree.
One of the many qualities I appreciated about Sy was his straightforwardness. He never played games with people or indulged in spreading guilt. He was known to talk a little loud on occasion, but I never heard him yell or complain. Even near the end, when it became clear he would not be leaving the rehab center to return home to my mother’s condo — a realization that must have broken his heart — he didn’t protest. Instead he made friends with the staff.
During the summer that I was commuting from the city to the rehab center, Sy loaned me his car, a little Chevy with hand-crank windows and push-down locks. A decade or two earlier I might have scoffed at its goofy beaded seat cover, but now I appreciated how comfortable and cool it made the seat. The car was compact and efficient and didn’t pretend to be something grander than it was. And it got perfect radio reception, so I was able to sing my way through that long, sad summer.
I’d judged Sy too harshly in the early years of our relationship, and he’d tried too hard to impress me. But we met in the middle, and for a long time we walked the same path. I came to treasure so many things he gave freely: his adoring treatment of my mother, his hearty hugs, his firsthand knowledge of New York City history, his easy rapport with my boys and my husband.
My last visit with Sy took place at the rehab center just a couple of days before he died. My husband, our kids, and I were on our way back — in Sy’s Chevy — from our annual vacation on Cape Cod. While emptying out the refrigerator for the next renters, we had committed the near-criminal act of throwing away an almost-full jar of kosher pickles, because we had no room left in the little car. On the drive back my husband kept saying, “I could sure go for a pickle.” When we arrived at the rehab center, several of Sy’s family members were visiting, and we all gathered around a table in the dining room and watched while a weakened Sy managed to eat half of a tongue sandwich his daughter had brought him from Brooklyn. Then he doubled over in a long coughing fit. When it was over, Sy opened the deli bag, produced a kosher pickle wrapped in wax paper, and gave it to my husband, who hadn’t spoken of his craving since we’d arrived. Somehow Sy knew.
I unsuctioned my sandals from the mud, handed off my umbrella, and grabbed a shovel from the mound. Over and over I made the iron blade bite into the heavy earth, and I flung the dirt into the hole around Sy’s pine coffin. It felt just as good as I’d imagined it would.
And nothing bad happened. The heavens didn’t open — at least, not any more than they already had that morning. No one, not even the bearded rabbi, gasped. Sy’s older daughter, the Orthodox one I had once dismissed as gruff but now knew to be lovable and kind, stood calmly by with her usual circle of younger Orthodox women swirling around her, all of them endearing in their cloche hats to cover their heads. Then I became aware that Sy’s younger, more secular daughter was bawling and trying to get my attention while her aunt held an umbrella over them both and comforted her. It turned out she was crying because she wanted to help bury Sy too, but as his daughter, she felt even more constrained than I had. Eventually, though, she approached the grave and grabbed a free shovel, and as she dug by my side, her tears mixed with laughter.
(A day or two later I would call a rabbi and ask whether there is a rule against women shoveling dirt at funerals. “I don’t know offhand,” he’d say, “but I like the question.” He’d tell me that there is an obscure mystical tradition that forbids women even going to the cemetery, let alone helping fill the grave. He’d also tell me that the Torah says burying someone is an important mitzvah, or good deed, because it’s a favor the person can never repay. But no repayment felt necessary in this case. In the end, neither Sy nor I owed the other anything.)
As I went on shoveling, I got lost in the rhythm and the pleasure of working my muscles, the rare reminder that we are still, first and foremost, creatures of the earth, even here in Paramus, shopping capital of the tri-state area. I dug and dug, and then I handed off my shovel to the next person in line and retrieved my umbrella.
Did I mention that it was big and blue and said, “Lovenox (Enoxaparin Sodium Injection)”?