Yesterday was the funeral of my aunt, my mother’s older sister. She was 90 years old. The quality of her life for the past 5 has not been good. She had lost her words (aphasia) and had some dementia. Her grandchildren just happened to be visiting Toledo and were able to spend time with her Friday. She actually recognized them. She died the following day.
My aunt was strict and disciplined and sometimes inflexible. She did not mince her words and did not suffer fools well. One always knew where she stood. She was quick to judge. But I grew to appreciate her wit and insightful observation. There was a hard truth to her ability to discern and reveal. Not everybody was able to hear what she had to say.
The funeral was short. The rabbi said a few poignant words. We were all drawn into a distant past. Then we were off to the cemetery. In the funeral procession the car I followed was skittish about going through red lights and stop signs and almost caused several accidents with their timid driving.
My aunt was lowered into her grave with a few prayers and we each shoveled the clay-like clumps of earth on top of her. The echo of the sound of the dirt hitting her coffin was unnerving. Her son-in-law began to feverishly shovel the dirt in and then broke into loud uncontrollable sobs. In the Jewish religion the first shovelfuls should be done with the back of the shovel because we are reluctant to make closure on a life. My aunt’s daughter could not bring herself to lift a shovel.
The cemetery is familiar to me, small and unpretentious. It was the first time my son had attended a funeral (and took an active part as well as one of the pall bearers) and I showed him where different important people in my early years were buried. He already had met many of the people in stories I have shared. My father was an artist and had designed a Leo the Lion logo on top of a pile of books for my uncle Leo’s bookstore. That logo was on Leo’s headstone. I designed the image of hands blessing candles on my grandmother’s stone.
My father’s headstone carries the quote “To thine own self be true and to no man canst thou be untrue.” He said this slightly altered quote from Hamlet all the time. I saw IB brush the stone with the back of his fingers when he thought my back was turned. IB is named after him.
We walked into the small chapel where my father had painted names of those who had donated toward the purchase of the chapel and also painted the names from the windows in the old synagogue which had been scraped away after the synagogue was sold to a baptist church. I remember personally scraping those names off, standing on the altar, because my own father was afraid of heights. I also remember the story of my father talking about how scary it was to go out to the cemetery to paint the names in the chapel. My grandmother (buried next to my aunt) said, “Izzy, it’s not the dead you have to be afraid of. It’s the living.”
Walking through the cemetery, I remembered a world that was smaller, containable, knowable.
When we got to my cousin’s house, there was the pitcher of water next to the front door. We were to rinse our hands of grief before entering the shiva house. Inside the mirrors were covered with black cloth so not only would we not see ourselves, but to prevent shocking the soul of my aunt. If the soul of my aunt were to pass a mirror, she would not be reflected and therefore would realize she was dead. Covering the mirrors gave her soul time to adjust to her new situation.
We ate loads of comfort foods—tuna fish salad, egg salad, mandel bread, noodle kugel, bagels, and lox. We looked through a box of old photographs, newspaper clippings, and letters my aunt had with her in the assisted living home. We laughed at the stories of our youth that the photographs helped to conjure up, remembered old romances, joys, blunders, hurts, awkwardnesses, and pains. It was very intimate. All masks were off.
On the table was a bowl of peeled hard-boiled eggs. We were to eat one to remember the cycle of life. Didn’t really need to. It was staring all of us in the face.