When I was a kid, funerals were my favorite gatherings. Strangers would appear at the door, bearing platters of smartly folded cold cuts and pretty pink boxes of pastries. When they heard I was Judy’s girl, they’d look at me and ask my age. “How can that be?“ they’d ask accusingly, which always confused me. Why would I lie about my age when there were better things to lie about?
These strangers would then turn to my mother and accuse her too: “Six years? We haven’t seen each other in six years?!” But instead of defending herself, my mother would hug them.
The strangers would then whisper, “How’s She/He holding up?” My mother would point, and we’d all turn our heads. There She/He would be, the surviving spouse, son or daughter, surrounded by attentive ears as if it were story time at the library.
Oh, but it was story time, with everyone taking turns telling tales that made people laugh, cry, cry, laugh. I’d observe and think, “What’s with these people?”
Over time and the course of numerous funerals, I learned that these strangers, indeed tribes, were family. Via bonds and tethers, we were connected, and via funerals, we reconnected.
The first funeral I attended was for my 97-year-old great-grandmother, Babu. I was five and didn’t think she was particularly great. She spoke only Yiddish, wore thick glasses and was missing a leg (diabetes, I later learned). She gave me the creeps.
Next up, Grandpa Al, who dropped dead on the street while pushing his hot dog cart through Manhattan. Turns out, he wasn’t my grandfather but the man my Grandma Dora took up with when she could no longer stand her alcoholic husband (aka Grandpa Benjamin, who died before I was born.)
My family didn’t like Grandpa Al and had to scavenge for good things to say about him.
“Well, he did take her to Florida that time,” they recalled. Florida wasn’t Paris, of course, but it was a big deal for a woman who had lived in shtetls all of her life: one in Eastern Europe, the other in the overcrowded Jewish slums of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Florida had been her one and only vacation.
I was about eight when Grandpa Al died. I remember walking over to Grandma in the funeral parlor and her pulling me to her ample bosom.
Let me say here that like many Old World grandmas, she was all bosom. Only when she wore a belt could I locate her waist. And so when she pulled me to her and squeezed tightly it was as if I were being sucked between couch pillows. I couldn’t breathe. I panicked. I started to cry.
Finally, she let go, and when saw my tears, she cupped my face. “Ah, kinder, kinder. It’s okay to cry. You loved him too.”
Next up: Uncle Harry, the kind of uncle you kiss hello and goodbye and forget in-between.
At family gatherings hosted by Aunt Mollie, his wife, he’d sit at one end of the long table, its seats crammed with three generations talking over each other. Aunt Mollie would sit at the opposite end of the table, close to the kitchen, so she could ferry platters to the raucous masses.
Somehow, amidst the shouting, Aunt Molly could make out everything her husband said, and she would scream, “Shut up, Harry!” Poor Uncle Harry. He couldn’t even say, “Pass the salt” or “How ‘bout them Yankees?” without getting yelled at.
I was surprised, therefore, when Aunt Mollie wailed at his funeral; you’d think she’d be happy now that he had finally shut up.
But people are like that, I’ve since learned. Something about grief balances relationships. What they once hated about someone loses its potency. What they once loved sharpens, cutting their hearts in two.
Cousin Barbara, Grandma Dora, Uncle Victor, Uncle Jack, Grandma Ida; my father. No longer a child, I was no longer an observer but a participant, mourning with the grownups and sometimes even helping with funeral arrangements. I came to understand the undertow of grief. How, when people die, they take a piece of you with them. Sometimes this is sad, other times a relief, which makes death — and life — so very complicated.
Last weekend, I went to a memorial service for a friend’s husband. It was held in the small country church he attended as a child and where his ancestors are buried; he’ll be in good company.
A few people stood up and shared memories that made us smile. But I am old enough now to know that memories aren’t enough. They can’t lie next to you at night. They don’t snore or buy milk on the way home. They don’t remember your birthday; they can’t comfort you when your heart shatters. My friend was going home alone. At some point, we all are alone.
When I got home, I swapped my black pants and heels for jeans and sneakers. I ran an errand. I thought about my friend and how I might help fill the vacuum in her life. There is little I can do, of course — except to appear at her door bearing smartly folded cold cuts and pink boxes of pastries, to sit beside her for story time.