I cracked one eyelid. My cousin’s fiancee, Lyell, peered back at me from the front seat of the car. Over the speakers, I could hear a percussive beat and repeated chants of “duro.“
“You speak Spanish, right?” he asked me.
Clearly, I couldn’t avoid a conversation by pretending to sleep. I opened the other eye and eased myself upright against the backrest. “Yeah.”
“What does this song say?”
I raised an eyebrow. “You want me to translate a reggaeton song?” I tilted my head toward Lyell’s mother in the driver’s seat. “Now?”
A sheepish grin crossed Lyell’s face. “Oh, maybe not in the car.”
Lyell’s mother, Laurie, piped up. “I knew it was something nasty!”
The five of us—Lyell, Laurie, my brother, my cousin, and I—zoomed up the Long Island Expressway toward Manhattan from New Montefiore Cemetery in West Babylon.
I had seen this drive coming. Two weeks prior, my mother texted me that Grandma had been transferred to the hospital.
By age 95, Grandma had done her part for the family. She had assembled airplanes in a concentration camp in Poland, survived the Holocaust, sneaked into Germany with my Grandpa, given birth to my mother, emigrated to the U.S., and had two more daughters. They settled in the Bronx, where they stayed for a few decades before starting their eventual migration to South Florida.
Grandma and Grandpa’s tenant’s daughter from back in the Bronx accompanied us to the cemetery, as did my mother’s and my eldest aunt’s best friends. Grandma’s youngest daughter, Ilese (eye-LEES), died young a long time ago, but Ilese’s childhood best friend became part of the family and joined us at the cemetery, too.
For years, Grandma had been on the way out. Her hearing, never great since her days underneath airplanes, had gone completely. She fluctuated in what she remembered, lamented the loss of her friends and family, and subsisted on strawberries, Chips Ahoy cookies, and (I joked) the stubborn internal directive to outlive every. last. Nazi.
I guess she got tired of the cookies, or decided that outliving the Nazis is our job now, or realized that she could police our hairstyles and makeup more effectively from the afterlife than from her condo in Boca.
So she took her leave. They called her Bernice here in the United States, but that was an Americanization of her given name—Blima (BLEE-ma). Yiddish for flower.
Grandma would force feed you her Jewish food until you yelled at her to stop, at which point she’d give you a tiny break and then keep at it. While you were visiting, you needed to stay in her line of sight at all times. If you didn’t, a story got attached to you. While my mother took a walk, Grandma said she was out meeting men. While my uncle took out the trash, Grandma said he was out meeting women—or gambling.
She drank coffee from a mug with the word “BOSS” on it. She’d hold it up to show us. “That’s me. The Boss.” Then she’d shake her fist.
The insurance company called her Bernice. Maybe a few friends called her Blima. But not her aides, and not family. We called her “Boss.” Or Wilde Blima (VIL-da BLEE-ma). Wildflower.
The day I flew into New York, my mom, aunt, and cousins met with the rabbi to prepare for the funeral service.
The rabbi had never met Grandma, so they told him stories—about how she taught my uncle to use a VCR, about how she could fix anything.
My cousin Tracey showed him a few of the 300 videos on her phone. She has six videos of Grandma singing the same Yiddish song. She has three videos of Grandma spreading jam on pancakes at restaurants and eating them like tacos as I try (unsuccessfully) to rectify the situation. She has a video of Grandma talking about the time our lesbian family friends showed her their shmeckel (we think she means their dildo). She shrugs and holds out her arms. “Vai are you showing me this? I know vat it looks like! I have seen this many times!“
After I landed at JFK, endured some kind of crisis with the A Train, and finally made it to my aunt’s house in Manhattan, we reviewed my Grandpa’s memoir.
Before he died in 2007, Grandma’s husband narrated his life into a collection of audio cassettes. My mother transcribed them, and they live at my aunt’s house in a spiral-bound tome. My cousin Lyssa turned to a bookmarked page and began to read Grandpa’s musings on his grandchildren—on us.
He talked about how smart we were, how hard we studied, and how we called him all the time. He mentioned that my brother and I had chickens.
This was true. When I was in the eighth grade, my younger brother carted home two baby chicks from an Easter celebration at his school. Upon meeting them during a visit, Grandma fell in love. After that, every single time we called her, she would ask “How are the chickens?”
This went on for years. See, the thing is, chickens don’t live forever. So when one inevitably died, my brother and I received strict instructions not to upset Grandma.
So we lied.
“How are the chickens, Chelsea?”
“Oh, Grandma, they’re just great!”
At some point, somebody blurted out to Grandma the complete and utter farce that our dead chickens had spawned chicks. Not a huge problem, all told…until we found out Grandma was coming for a visit.
So my father carted us to a nearby feedlot, where we picked out four baby chicks to put in our coop so it wouldn’t look like we had lied. It worked, but long after Grandma had left, and even after I had left for college, these emergency coverup chickens occupied the coop behind our house.
After the memoir, we reviewed the emergency department report.
Grandma’s heart stopped. Her aide called 911. They got there in 9 minutes—far too long, for a 95 year old. Somehow, they got her heart started again, but she arrived at the hospital in a coma.
My aunt Cynthia flew down. Nurses. Waiting. Hysterics about the DNR. “Why wasn’t it posted on the refrigerator?” the doctor demands to know. “Doesn’t everyone know the DNR is supposed to be posted on the refrigerator?” (Dude, no one knows that. Also, you want us to remove Grandma’s family photos to post a medical document on her fridge? Are you and I picturing the same woman?)
Eventually, they disconnected the respirator and warned Cynthia that it would be five or ten minutes. True to form, Grandma held out for four and a half days. Cynthia says “I kept telling her ‘It’s time to go home and make supper for Daddy.’ Finally, she listened to me.”
I picture Grandma spending those days arguing with a spirit.
If death is the act of surrendering to our maker’s grace, of course Grandma would take some convincing. That woman didn’t surrender to anyone.
We used to take her shopping at department stores near her home. In her later years, she didn’t always recognize her home when the car returned. My cousins would try to drag her out of the car. “Grandma! We’re home! Come out of the car!”
“This is not my home, and I am not getting out.”
Then she’d stiffen her legs, making herself too long to be pulled out of the car door.
Grandma remained physically strong her whole life. On the day of Grandpa’s funeral she trucked all the way across a deli, impervious to all four grandchildren holding her back, our shoes sliding along the checkered floor, so she could dote on a stranger’s newborn baby.
So when she went rigid in that car, there was nothing to do but wait for her to relent.
Those last four and a half days, I suspect her soul went rigid. “I’m not getting out. Are you kidding me?”
She took that spirit to task for all of it. For taking her mother and grandmother, her brothers and sisters. For the Holocaust. For swiping her youngest daughter. To be frank, I can’t imagine what that spirit could have said to get her to go at all. I picture that spirit tugging and pleading, with hair askew and bags under their eyes. In the end, maybe the spirit just waited her out like we did.
Finally, while my mom and my aunt prepared the house for shiva the next day, my cousins and I prepared Grandma’s pocket book.
Grandma carried the damn thing everywhere. Any photo where you can see her hands, you can see her clutching that purse. She would read you the riot act if you tried to carry it for her. So what did we find in the precious pocket book?
We found about a hundred clean(ish) but crumpled tissues spread throughout all four pockets. Three nail files. Two lipsticks—bright red. A small change collection in a stocking. Some more loose change and a couple more stockings. A chocolate wrapper. A single rubber glove. A piece of paper that read “Daughter: Cynthia,” along with Cyn’s cell phone number. We also found $57 in cash.
We decided to put back everything except for about half the tissues, and we changed the amount of cash to $18—chai, a sacred number in Judaism that represents life. The next day, we’d put the pocketbook in the casket along with a stuffed bear and a baby doll that Grandma liked. We also picked out photos to send in the casket with Grandma. Photos of us. Photos of her friends. Photos where Tracey had put Snapchat filters on Grandma’s face.
Actually, scratch the Snapchat filters. Grandma didn’t like these. “Who is this?” she’d demand, holding up a picture of herself with some dog ears and a pixelated tongue sticking out. The one with the backwards baseball cap and the graffiti whiskers had to go, too. We did put in the nicest one—a filter that added a modest, red flower to Grandma’s hair, above her right ear.
The last time I attended a burial at New Montefiore, it was Grandpa’s. I was 17.
Things feel different now. In less than four months, I’ll be 30. Maybe it’s the crappy sleep I got last night, or maybe it’s the lingering ache in my back from getting too ambitious at crossfit a few days ago, but I feel uncomfortably aware of the passage of time on my body between Grandpa’s funeral and Grandma’s.
For the first time in six or seven years, I worry about whether I’m on schedule to do all the things I need to do before I end up wherever they are. My definition of “all the things” has changed. In my early twenties, I worried about accomplishing enough. Now, I worry about spreading enough grace. I wonder whether that’s a petty thing to be thinking about here, now, among these headstones.
At a Jewish funeral, the persons closest to the deceased wear a ripped ribbon to represent externalizing some of their pain.
At this one, that meant my mom and her sister. The ribbon made an awful sound when the rabbi ripped it. He says it does that by design.
He delivered a eulogy. He had clearly listened and taken notes the day before. Then he offered the small crowd a chance to tell stories. My uncle went first. Then I told the chicken story. Grandma’s tenant’s daughter spoke about how Grandma yelled at her just like she yelled at her own daughters. She inspired Cyn’s downstairs neighbor to talk about the time she cooked all day and then invited Cyn’s family for dinner. The moment Grandma saw her, she chastised her. “You got to fix your hair!”
My aunt and my mother went first to shovel some dirt onto the casket, then the rest of us. It’s a mitzvah (MITS-va) to do so—a good deed, in Jewish parlance. We covered the top of the casket with dirt, then formed two lines of support with our bodies for my mother and aunt to walk between, back to the cars.
Shortly thereafter, we zoomed back towards Manhattan while I attempted (unsuccessfully) to feign a nap before the shiva.
After a death, mourners in the Jewish tradition set aside time (traditionally 7 days, shiva in Hebrew, though some do a shorter period nowadays) to grieve and receive visitors.
There are about eight thousand shiva customs, which families follow or don’t follow to their taste. Cyn’s family is reform (a denomination of Judaism focused more on ethical development than adherence to rituals), but Grandma came from an older, more conservative tradition. So we boiled eggs to represent the circle of life and placed a pitcher by the door for folks to wash their hands. We considered covering the mirrors to remind mourners that they have no obligation to put on a pretty face today. But Cyn’s house has many mirrors. “We didn’t do it for Grandpa’s shiva,” my cousin reminded my aunt. “I think Grandma would want us to leave the mirrors uncovered, so we can check our hair and lipstick.”
So we sit and mourn.
People come in and out of the house. Many bring food; mostly desserts. Cookies and cakes pile high on the credenza near the dining table. Some show up empty-handed and treat the event like a party. They expect to be fed; they expect to be introduced around. The rabbi told us that we shouldn’t feel obligated to entertain our guests today, but he’s not here to tell them that. We do our best. It’s exhausting. Thank goodness for those guests who weave their way through the space, trying to help. They clean up the kitchen and throw away garbage. They set out more food when things run out. They ask my mom, my aunt, my cousins, and me if we need anything. It doesn’t escape my notice that slightly more than half of the guests are men, but every single one of the the helpers are women.
I hear the clock strike eight.
Whew. That means shiva is over for the night. Now all these guests can go home, leaving just my aunt and a few close friends to sip their coffees and gossip about the living. To ease back toward normalcy.
My aunt also hears the clock strike eight. She doesn’t share my relief. She wrinkles her forehead. “Was that the grandfather clock? That thing hasn’t worked in years.”
Lyssa inspects the clock and shrugs. It must have been a fluke. Maybe the stampede of guests managed to jostle the clock’s components back into their places, just for tonight.
But that’s not what my cousin says. She grins at her mother. “Grandma stopped by to fix one last thing.”