(This I Believe, 2013)
I believe people should make arrangements for their “final rest” before they die and not leave everything to their kids, especially if their kids happen to be my brothers and me. This is what happened when my parents decided to pop off, my mother’s words, not mine. To add insult to injury, the weather was lousy.
My father worked until the month before he died, suffering an ultimately fatal stroke on the Long Island Rail Road, on his way to Manhattan. He had taken my two brothers and me out to lunch, separately, and told us that he wanted to be cremated and dispersed—bake and shake, as it were. So when the time came, we had a wonderful gathering at Gutterman’s, the family funeral home (it was founded by friends of my grandfather), filled with stories, readings and music,. My father’s coffin was a plain pine box, which my mother suggested we drape with the hammer and sickle. My mother spoke brilliantly about the strength of Dad’s mother, Rose, who got two toddlers and an infant from Ukraine to Pittsburgh on her own.
In the next weeks, I learned that my dad had a secret life. He was a gregarious sort, making all manner of friends on the train, many of whom sold annuities. He never told anyone, least of all my mother. After his death, the bucks started pouring in. “Another ten thousand,” my mother would shriek into the phone, without as much as a “hello, I know I’m interrupting you while you are on a newspaper deadline.” I began to believe my father had a second family, most likely with a woman of color, and I finally had a sister. While my father’s second life played in my fantasies, my brother called to say “Daddy’s in the closet.” “Daddy’s gay?” I said, the only logical comment. “No, he’s in the closet. In a box.”
My mother, beginning the steady emotional and physical decline that would culminate in her own death five years later, was unable to retrieve my father’s ashes and arrange for dispersal, so Michael got them and put them on the floor of his closet. And there they stayed, amid the dust bunnies and galoshes.
Five years and two months later, my mother died of a massive heart attack just hours after bypass surgery in her leg. I believe she was so universally despised by the hospital staff—she had punched a nurse—that they probably ignored any calls for help. She died December 29, 1998. She left no instructions.
It was okay when my father died because he was going to be cremated. My mother didn’t like the idea, but we kids outweighed her vote. But my mother wasn’t the cremation sort. She was to be planted, but where? And there was the problem of my father. I supposed they should be together. But we’re Jewish and Jewish cemeteries don’t do ashes. And, it was New Year’s Eve, and everything was closed.
Since I was the only daughter, my brothers said, “You do it. We’ll pay.”
Thanks to Gutterman’s, I bought sight (or site, get it?) unseen two plots at New Montefiore cemetery in Pinelawn, in Suffolk County, on Cemetery Row aka Wellwood Avenue. My mother got a big hole and my dad got a little one—Mom on the aisle and Dad inside, just like at the Philharmonic.
Now the story gets scary. My relationship with my mother by the end was quite sour so I wanted to get her “taken care of” with all due speed. On January 3, the weather stunk.
An ice storm was barreling down on the area and the night before the burial, with word that the Long Island Expressway was likely to be closed due to dangerous conditions, my brother Michael called, suggesting we postpone. “Dad doesn’t want to go. He likes it here.”
I told my brother I hated him and added that I would put Dad’s box and Mother’s casket on a sled and pull it to the cemetery if I had to. Luckily the hearse made it through. But only my brothers, a few friends and two of my mother’s former students showed up.
I go every year to visit my parents. My son places a shell from Cape Cod on the headstone and I give them an update on the family. They tell me they’re lonely out there. All the mishpucha are in Queens.
I tell them they could have been there too, if they only had made plans.