I was on the Number 4 bus on my way back home to Washington Heights. When the driver turned onto Ft. Washington Avenue, I called my mother. I wanted to know where she had lived when she was a little girl. Jake and I had moved to her old neighborhood over twenty years ago, yet for some reason this was the first time it had ever occurred to me to ask her that question.
She didn’t answer the phone. My mother often didn’t answer her phone; she didn’t hear it, or she didn’t feel like talking to anyone. I kept on dialing her number over and over again all afternoon, into early evening. It wasn’t until Leon Schickman, her accountant, called me at nine that I knew something was wrong. That morning she had missed an appointment with a stockbroker, a friend of his, who had visited her the week before.
“She’s dead,” I told Leon.
“Don’t be ridiculous. She probably just forgot. Old people forget things.”
“Not my mother.”
I went into the kitchen where Jake and I had been eating dinner and told him about my conversation with Leon. “My mother’s dead,” I said.
“Honey, stop, you’re getting way ahead of yourself.”
“I’m going to call Howard Kaplan.”
Boche Kaplan, my mother’s next-door neighbor, was dying of cancer in a cot in her dining room, and her son Howard had taken off work to be with her until the end. I called Boche’s house and asked to speak to Howard, but Boche’s aide, Carmen, said that Howard wasn’t home. When I called him on his cell phone, he told me that he was having dinner with friends in the city and wouldn’t be back for several hours.
“She’s dead,” I told him.
“No she isn’t. You know your mother. She never answers the phone,” he said.
“Ask Carmen to check up on her.”
I called Carmen. I told her where Boche kept the key to our house. “It’s the one attached to a pendant that says, ‘City College 60th Reunion,’” I told her. “Please hurry. I’ll wait for you.”
Carmen was back on the phone a few minutes later. She said that my mother’s car was in the garage and the newspaper was lying on the front stoop.
“Oh no,” I said. “Please go into the house.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t,” she told me. “Call 911.”
I pleaded with her but she refused to change her mind and so I called 911 and ten minutes later I got a call from Police Officer James Patterson, who told me to call him Jim.
“She’s dead, isn’t she?” I said.
But it wasn’t until he said, “I’m sorry to inform you that your mother passed away” that I believed it.
“Where is she?” I asked.
“She’s in the dining room.”
“In the dining room?”
“Yes, in the dining room.”
“Is she on the floor?”
“Yes, she’s on the floor. She looks very peaceful. She looks like she didn’t suffer.”
I realized later that my mother must have died shortly after we got off the phone the night before. She told me that she had just finished laying all her financial documents out on the dining room table in preparation for the meeting with Leon’s friend and that she was going to check to make sure everything was in order before she went to bed. She had recently found out that her stockbroker was a crook, but the shock of having been bilked out of tens of thousands of dollars had been washed away by the excitement of having met Leon’s friend, a lovely young man, who my mother, after tracing the various permutations of his last name, dating back to Ellis Island, had figured out was a distant cousin. She spent an hour sitting with him in the living room, drawing the family tree on a legal-sized pad of yellow paper.
“What should I do?” I asked Officer Patterson.
“We need someone to identify—your mom,” he said, stopping himself from using the word “body.”
“Could you come here, ma’am?” he asked me. “Someone has to identify your mom.”
I explained that I was in a wheelchair at the moment, having recently herniated three disks in my back, and that I would call my older brother and my sister; maybe one of them could come. Ruth, didn’t own a cell phone, and she was nowhere to be found and my brother, Steven, who lived three hours away in Connecticut, told me that it would make more sense for our cousin Amy, who lived nearby, to identify our mother’s body. I took note of the fact that he had said “body.”
Amy called me an hour later to report that she had the situation under control. Amy’s mother Selma, who had died several years ago, had never liked my mother; she hadn’t liked Ruth or me either; she always referred to us as “the beauties,” as though being pretty was something to be ashamed of. But she always came through in an emergency, and Amy was like her in this, and many other respects. Everyone called her “Little Selma.”
“Don’t worry,” she told me. “I won’t leave my Aunt Helene alone. I’ll stay with her until the hearse comes.” Amy had also never liked my mother. But she seemed to be very fond of her now.
“How does she look?” I asked Amy.
“She looks very peaceful. She looks like she didn’t suffer.”
Jake had been sitting on the couch beside me during all this, and after I hung up the phone, he pulled me down to lie next to him. I lay my head on his chest and cried, “My mommy is dead. I don’t have a mommy anymore.”
The arrangement was for Steven to pick me and my rented wheelchair up at my apartment and for Ruth to take the train out to Oceanside. We would meet at the house and from there we would go to the funeral home. I had finally reached Ruth when she got back to her apartment at ten that night.
“It’s finally happened” was how I put it. My mother had always said that Ruth, who had no children and lived alone, would take her death the hardest, but when I asked my sister how she felt, she told me she was too depressed to feel anything.
“Do you want to come over?” I asked her. “You should come over. I don’t want you to be alone. I don’t think you should be alone.”
“I’m okay,” she told me. “Don’t worry about me. How did Steven react?”
“Who knows? You know Steven. He told me we would have to delay the funeral because Adele is in France on business and all the flights out of Europe have been canceled because of the volcano in Iceland.”
“Like Steven would ever in a million years wait for us! He wouldn’t wait a second for us! Not a second!”
“I know. But Mommy worshipped Adele. Maybe she would have wanted us to wait.”
“I can’t believe you’re buying into that kind of bullshit, Maxine! Like it matters what Mommy would have wanted. She’s dead! What does she care if Adele goes to her fucking funeral or not? She doesn’t care about anything now, does she, Maxine? That’s what being dead means. You don’t care about anything anymore! How long does Mommy have to lie there rotting until the daughter she wished she had had instead of us gets back?”
“Steven said there is no telling when the planes will be flying again. Apparently the skies over Europe aren’t safe. Because of the volcano. And Mommy won’t rot. They put her in a refrigerated room.”
“Oh that sounds cozy. To lie freezing to death waiting for her beloved daughter-in-law to come to her funeral. What did either of them ever do for Mommy? Did they do her laundry, Maxine? Did they clean her house? Did they rub lotion on her disgusting dried-up legs? Did they buy the deodorant she didn’t need because she was so fucking old? Did they run up and down the stairs all the fucking time fetching and doing, doing and fetching? Were they her slaves, Maxine? Were the prince and princess her slaves? Did they even love her? Who the fuck knows! Maybe in their puny little way they loved her. But they didn’t love her the way we loved her! Not the way we loved her! We have to put our feet down about this, Maxine, we really do.”
“I think what we need to do is keep the peace. I think that’s the most important thing.” She didn’t answer, and after a while I said, “Ruth? Ruth? Are you there?”
She was crying. “I thought she would live forever,” she said.
Although our brother had treated us with astonishing contempt all our lives, whenever Ruth and I were around him we would fall all over ourselves, trying to ingratiate ourselves to him. We would hate ourselves afterward for being so obsequious (a word I had learned from him—Stop being so obsequious, he once told me.)
On those rare occasions when he would grace us with a response, it usually came in the form of one- or two-word grunts. My mother said it was her fault that Steven hated us. It was the only time I can recall her ever taking the blame for anything. She traced it back to the advent of our birth. She should never have accepted Steven’s offer of his baby blanket, his contribution to the clean-up effort to make the house ready for our arrival. She recalled a moment she and my father took him on trip to Washington without us when he was seven. They were in a traffic jam and he had reached out from the back seat where he was sitting and hugged them both and said how happy he was that the family was together again at last. My mother said that was the last time she could remember ever seeing him happy.
In recent years there had been a gradual, inexplicable shift in Steven’s attitude toward Ruth and me. I was so grateful for any small kindness he showed me that I was ready to forgive him everything. But Ruth wouldn’t forgive him. It isn’t in my sister’s nature to forgive.
After folding up my wheelchair and putting it in the trunk, Jake helped me into Steven’s SUV and soon it was just my brother and me in the front seat of his enormous car.
I asked him how he was, and he said he was okay. He asked how I was, and I told him I was okay. He asked me how Ruth was and I told him she was okay too.
“Last night, when I was talking to Mommy, I told her that I didn’t know when I would see her again, and she said that I could see her at her funeral. That’s kind of ironic, don’t you think?” My mother had just died and here I was struggling to make conversation with my brother. But then it struck me that maybe things were different now; I sensed a kindness, bordering on intimacy, emanating from Steven, something I had never before experienced with him.
“That’s so typical of her, isn’t it?” he said.
We talked about the funeral arrangements and the shiva.
“Mommy said we could sit for just three days instead of the traditional seven,” I told him.
“That’s good. Adele and I will stay in a hotel in Rockville Center.”
There was plenty of room in my mother’s house and I felt hurt that Steven wouldn’t be staying with us.
“When do you think Adele will get here?”
“It could be days,” he said, going into a long explanation about how the skies were filled with these tiny particles of something or other that could get into the planes’ engines and make them crash. Air traffic had been grounded all over the world, leaving millions of passengers stranded. With hotels booked to capacity, people were sleeping in airport terminals, their legs propped up on carry-on luggage. Everyone living near the volcano had been evacuated, yet, oddly enough, not a single person had died.
Except for my mother. My mother was dead and a volcano had erupted to mark the moment.
Ruth was waiting at the house, as arranged, when we arrived, and the three of us went off to the funeral parlor. The undertaker had a funny-looking moustache and a grimness about him that was so extreme it was comical and soon we were all making jokes about his name—John Graves—and his job and about death in general.
He took us on a tour of the coffins, which looked very cozy and inviting. There were coffins made of various grades of wood, coffins with brass and copper handles, coffins with lovely silk, crepe and velvet linings, with matching silk, crepe or velvet pillows, in white, off white and beige, ranging in prices up to ten thousand dollars. We chose the cheapest coffin, a bargain at seven hundred and ninety-five dollars. It was the traditional Jewish coffin, a pine box, with gigantic holes bored into the bottom. Instead of a silk, crepe or velvet pillow there was a paltry pile of straw, which seemed to say, “So this is where you want your beloved mother to spend eternity–in a box that looks as though it had been built for a gigantic hamster?”
It was the coffin our father had been buried in and no doubt the one our mother would have expected to be buried in as well. Not that any of us could have conceived of spending thousands of dollars on a wooden box, for the one thing we all had in common, the one thing our mother had taught her three children, was to be very thrifty.
We told the undertaker we wanted to see her.
“They haven’t had the chance to fix her up yet,” he warned us. “She won’t look her best.”
“I don’t think she’ll mind,” said Steven.
“We want to see her,” Ruth said. “We need proof.”
It was shocking to see how dead she looked. Her mouth was twisted to one side, since she had been lying on her side for almost twenty-four hours before Officer Patterson had found her there.
She looked much better the next day when Ruth and I returned to the funeral home. The mortician had done a very nice job putting her mouth back where it belonged, and covering the bruise above her eyebrow, where her head had hit the dining room floor. Her curly snow-white hair was combed to the side, camouflaging the bald spot she had been complaining about so bitterly for the past several months. I reminded myself I would have to cancel the appointment I had made for her with a sheitel maker in Borough Park. She was wearing pink lipstick, instead of the trademark red of her generation, but Ruth and I agreed it was a becoming shade, nonetheless.
“I think she looks too dead to dress her in clothes,” Ruth said. “It would be like treating her like some kind of dead doll.” We had been thinking of the navy blue-and-white-striped blouse and matching navy blue pants she had bought on a recent search with me through the 80 percent off rack at Kohl’s. I had convinced her to buy three of the blouses in different colors—she looked so adorable in them, and since they were on sale, she had consented, although she said it was ridiculous; she would never live long enough to wear them. Ruth and I agreed on the traditional white shroud, which was what she had chosen for our father.
When we got back to the house we flipped through the names in the address book our mother kept in her night table drawer, most of which had the word DEAD written over them, in big, bold capital letters, so it didn’t take us long to make the phone calls.
Steven went off to make arrangements with the caterer, even though we didn’t know when the funeral was going to be, because of the volcano in Iceland.
“He just wanted to get away from us,” Ruth said.
“But did you notice how nice he’s been?” I asked. “It’s like we’re not a dysfunctional family anymore. We’re functional.”
Then the phone rang. It was Howard Kaplan, telling us that his mother had just died. Ruth and I went next door and we all embraced in tears over Boche’s dead body, grieving for our mothers, who would be forever united in death, whether they liked it or not. We remarked on the strange coincidence of it all: our mothers had lived next door to each other in identical houses and had died less than twenty-four hours apart, in identical dining rooms that were mirror images of one another, my mother’s dining room being on the right side and Boche’s on the left. Our fathers had died within a year of each other. That was another coincidence.
My mother would often speak to me about Boche’s impending death. “Boche is planning her funeral,” she would tell me excitedly on the phone. “Howard went to Gutterman’s today to make the arrangements!” “Howard just bought Boche a death scarf. It cost fifty dollars!”
My mother and Boche claimed to hate each other but they took care of each other, in their way. It was always Boche I called to check up on my mother when she didn’t answer her phone. And it was my mother who had taken Boche on her last visit to the emergency room three months before. Boche had called her in a panic: she had fallen and punctured her trachea and she told my mother to get over to her house right away before the ambulance workers from Nassau Community Hospital had the chance to break down her front door. The only entrance that wasn’t bolted shut was the door to the garage. My mother, in her determination to get the job done, forgot all about her bad back and lifting the heavy door high enough for her to crawl under it, she was there to greet the Emergency Medical Team when it arrived just minutes after she had accomplished her heroic feat.
Ruth and I sat with Howard, waiting for Gutterman’s to arrive with the hearse. The undertaker’s surprise, seeing us there, sitting with Howard, broke through his professional mask.
“Yeah, it’s pretty funny isn’t?” I said to him.
When Howard came home three hours later, we compared notes about our trip to the room with the coffins, and we talked about our mothers. He told us that during those last few weeks when his mother was dying in the living room, she would seek out Helene’s company more and more. Boche said our mother was the only person who didn’t treat her as though she were dead already.
Howard gave us a picture he had taken of them the day before they died. They were sitting at the dining room table, which had been moved to the living room to make space for the hospital bed. Boche, a baseball cap on her bald head, looked every bit the terminal cancer patient she was; as for my mother, she looked very old and very tired. It shocked me to see how old and tired she looked. Maybe that was why she wasn’t smiling the horrible phony smile she invariably wore for photographs. Her arm was slung around her next-door-neighbor’s shoulders. The two of them looked like the very best of friends.
Steven had wanted to have a funeral in a chapel so that he and Adele could invite their friends. It was a custom for their crowd to go to each other’s parents’ funerals. Many of their friends had known my mother, who had visited their lovely home in Litchfield, Connecticut many times. She was always bragging about how much Steven and Adele’s tremendously successful friends admired her. They would tell her that she reminded them of Maude, the character played by Bea Arthur in the sitcom, The Golden Girls, which had been so popular during the seventies.
Ruth and I couldn’t bear the thought of Steven and Adele turning our mother’s funeral into a social event. We imagined their friends standing up one by one, telling anecdotes about some fictitious creature who bore no resemblance to the mother we had known.
“I will not let Mommy be buried with a big, fat lie,” Ruth said.
When we told Steven that we wanted to have a small graveside funeral, just for our immediate family, he said he would think about it. And the next day he called to tell me that he was willing to dispense with the chapel. He didn’t say why he had relented, and I didn’t ask him. But when he said he would have a memorial service for our mother later on, the memory of all those years of Ruth and me being treated like sub-human creatures came crashing down on me and I burst out, “Well don’t bother inviting us to the show.”
“Fine,” he responded. And that was that.
The funeral parlor had given us a list of rabbis and Ruth volunteered to take charge of calling them. She didn’t want our mother eulogized by some anonymous rent-a-rabbi. We were both back at our respective apartments by then, waiting for the ban on the skies to be lifted, and the next day Ruth called, very excited, to tell me she had found a wonderful rabbi: he had presided over the funeral of the father of a neighbor of hers.
“I spent an hour on the phone with him,” she told me. “He wanted to know all about Mommy. All the others cared about was collecting their two hundred fifty bucks. Not Rabbi Greenstein. He wants to talk to all of us. To find out what Mommy was really like. He’s not going to spout the usual bullshit about what a wonderful person the corpse was. I want Mommy’s funeral to be an act of truth, don’t you?”
I agreed with Ruth, although it was hard to imagine how the rabbi could ever tell the truth about our mother.
Later on that night, I called the Rabbi Greenstein. I must have repeated the words, “I loved her, really I did” at least a dozen times.
“I don’t suppose this is the usual thing you hear, or maybe it is,” I said. “I have no idea what you’re going to do with all this. What can I say? I’m sorry, there were many wonderful things about my mother, really there were, but all I can think to tell you now was how horrible she was. Not to everyone. But to me, for sure. Worse even than to Ruth. Maybe she was as bad to my father. She killed my father. Yes, she was worse to him. She didn’t kill me. But then I don’t have a bad heart. I have a good heart, really I do, Rabbi Greenstein. I don’t know why I’m saying all these awful things about my mother.” And then I went on to tell him that she had never approved of a single thing I had ever done; that I couldn’t recall her ever saying a single nice thing about me, or to me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “For some reason I always believed that she loved me. I know she would have preferred to have had a very different set of daughters. My brother’s wife, for example. A successful career woman with impeccable hair.
“Maybe she didn’t love me. She was ashamed of me. I really have no idea what you’re going to do with all this,” I repeated with a little laugh.
“Don’t worry,” the rabbi told me. “I’ll know what to do.”
“I mean she wasn’t all bad. She had many wonderful qualities. Really she did,” I repeated.
”Yes,” Rabbi Greenstein told me. “I know that she did. People are not just one way.”
“I feel guilty about keeping you on the phone so long,” I told him.
“That’s what I’m here for,” said the rabbi. “Talk as much as you want.”
“Why, Rabbi Greenstein. Why?” I asked him.
“Why what, Maxine?” he responded.
“Why was she the way she was? Do you know? Do you have any idea?”
“It wasn’t her fault,” he said. Ruth had told me the rabbi was a psychoanalyst and that, combined with the fact that he had a direct line to God, made me feel that the mystery of my mother was about to be solved at last.
“Why do you think that?” I asked.
“She didn’t get what she needed from her own mother,” he said. “Her mother didn’t love her.”
“Wow. What a concept,” I said, telling him that my mother had worshipped her mother. “I don’t know—it must have been over fifty years since my grandmother died, but she never stopped grieving for her. Her eyes still filled with tears whenever she spoke about her mother. She was always saying how beautiful and elegant she was.”
“That’s why she never stopped grieving,” the rabbi told me. “She never faced up to who her mother really was. All she had was the illusion. She was in limbo.”
It made me feel very sad to think of my poor mother having had a mother who didn’t love her. I longed to take her in my arms and tell her that I loved her, in spite of everything.
The rabbi was waiting for us when Ruth, Steven, Adele and I (in my wheelchair) arrived at the cemetery. I was surprised to see how tiny he was, but aside from that he looked pretty much as I had imagined he would. I had asked him, on the phone, how old he was and he had told me that he was a “man of some years,” and looking at him now I figured he was in his early eighties, and I wondered if he thought about his own death often, and whether his belief in God gave him the strength and courage to face up to it. He was dressed in a dark gray suit that hung loosely on his tiny frame. His hair was thin and white under his yarmulke and there were big pouches under his soulful eyes.
He recited some prayers and pinned little buttons of black ribbons to the raincoats we were all wearing, because the weather forecast had said rain, although it had turned out to be a beautiful sunny day. He tore the ribbons with a razor blade he held in his small wrinkled hands. My brother introduced him to Adele, and explained that their son, who was in England on a Fulbright fellowship, hadn’t been able to get a flight. I wanted to talk to Rabbi Greenstein again; there were so many other things I wanted to ask him, but my brother’s presence made it impossible, so I asked Ruth to wheel me away.
The hearse that held my mother’s coffin had just arrived and Ruth and I went over to it. We told the limousine driver that we wanted to kiss our mother good-bye one last time. He was a big, bald, burly man who looked like a professional wrestler, and after opening up my mother’s coffin, first he lifted Ruth up in his strong arms, and then he lifted me up, and we took turns kissing her.
Then we went to the open grave and speculated about what the rabbi was going to make of what we had told him.
After reciting the usual Hebrew prayers, he recited a psalm in English, which Jake informed me in the car ride back to my mother’s house was the first psalm in the Book of Psalms; I was very moved by it, even though I couldn’t decide whether or not it could be accurately applied to my mother. It spoke of the difference between the righteous, who do not sit in the company of the mockers, and the wicked who are like chaff that the wind bloweth away. Weren’t we all chaff? And where did my mother fit in? She certainly had done more than her share of mocking. Then the rabbi began his eulogy.
“I have spoken at some length with Ruth and Maxine and Steven and his wife, Adele, and I will do my best to try to convey to you the sense of Helene that they expressed to me about their beloved mother,” he began.
“Helene Rosaler was a good, Jewish woman,” he began and then he went on to present Steven and Adele’s version of Mameye, their name for her.
Ruth took hold of my hand, and whispered, “I’m sorry.” The rabbi went on for quite some time about how our mother had welcomed Adele into the family, even though she wasn’t Jewish; how she and Adele would talk almost every day about books they were reading, movies they had seen, and that once a month Steven and Adele would drive down from Connecticut to take her out to her favorite French restaurant. He said that she had been the valedictorian of her high school and had graduated at the top of her class in City College, and how proud she was of being an alumnus of City College; just a year ago she had organized her sixtieth college reunion. He spoke about her volunteer work: she had been an active member of Hadassah; for many years she had recorded books for the blind. Using the Hebrew word for good person Rabbi Greenstein said, “Helene was a tzadeket, a righteous woman. If a friend needed to be driven to the hospital for dialysis or chemotherapy, Helene was the person they knew they could depend on to take them. Helene was also a fun person. She was what is known as the ‘life of the party.’”
Ruth squeezed my hand and I squeezed back. She looked at me, her eyes wide, making no attempt to hide her disgust.
After going on in this vein for a while longer, the rabbi paused for a moment, and with a contemplative nod of his head, he resumed. “But there was also a dark side to Helene.” Ruth shot me a brief eloquent glance.
“Sometimes she would lash out. She would say things that caused pain to people around her. But it was never her intention to inflict harm. There was a deep hurt inside Helene. She might not have known that this hurt existed, but she felt it. This was why sometimes she was unkind to those closest to her. Those words of anger expressed her own hidden pain, but they did not express the deepest part of her.”
After inviting us to repeat the words of another Hebrew prayer, Rabbi Greenstein asked if any of us would like to say something.
Steven was the first to speak. “All I can say is that it is unimaginable to think of the world without my mother in it.” Adele followed him. She went on for a long time, repeating much of what the rabbi had already said, about the books and the movies and the great meals. She said that my mother had always treated her like a daughter.
Ruth was the next to speak. She kept her speech short and cryptic. “I loved you and you loved me and that was enough,” she said.
Then it was my turn. I was sitting with my feet dangling over her grave. I liked sitting there, watching the clumps of dirt dislodge themselves from the ground from the motion of my legs, and drop onto her coffin below. It made me happy to think about the imprint of my lipstick on her cheek and to know that the remnants of my kiss would remain with her for eternity.
“I love you, Mommy and I miss you, Mommy,” I said. “You were so alive, Mommy. It’s so hard to believe you’re dead.” Then, to feed her hungry ego, I embellished the truth, adding, “Everyone is saying how alive you were, Mommy. Everyone. Martin and Amy are saying it, and Gertrude and Joan are saying it, and Steven and Adele are saying it and Ruth and I—we’re saying it too. You were so alive, Mommy. And, Mommy, I want you to know, the way you were. The way you could be sometimes. The things you would say. I want you to know that I know it wasn’t—-I couldn’t think of the word I was searching for, so I said “premeditated,” a stupid choice, I thought at the time. “It wasn’t your fault. And I forgive you.”
Rabbi Greenstein said a final prayer and indicating the shovel stuck in the mound of earth the gravedigger had left behind, he invited us to throw the dirt back into the gigantic hole. Not being able to stand, I sat there, sweeping my arm again and again over the dirt, and it comforted me, watching the little torrents of earth rain down onto my mother’s coffin, six feet below.