January 17, 2014
It was time to make peace with my mother.
Ten years, three shrinks, and a busted marriage had gone by since we last spoke. By my family's standards that is not considered a long time not to speak to each other, but I was trying to put all the pieces together as I approached my fortieth birthday, and this was a piece that I couldn't do without.
I have uncles who are grandfathers who have not spoken to each other since their teens and a couple of cousins going on twenty years of hostilities and even better than that I have a great uncle and aunt, Ruth and Meyer, married forty seven years who have not spoken to each other since their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary party. And they still live together. And they still eat their meals together that she cooks; and they still go to family functions together.
No one in the family knew that I wasn't speaking to my mother. If they did they would turn hostile and probably stop speaking to me. What else? Understand their logic now — it is a way of life (so to speak) to stop speaking to another family member, but unacceptable and quite shameful if that family member is a dead person. We consider it the norm to speak to the dead on a continuing basis.
How could you! After all that woman did for you! Inexcusable! Ignorant! Insulting! You should be ashamed! What possible reason could you have? She......... gave up everything for you .......devoted her life to you.........went without so you could have.......... sacrificed ......... .....sacrificed!.
The psychologists made me see that I had a right to be angry at the guilt trip she laid on me. I did realize that I was carrying this silent treatment on longer than I should; but, look at it this way, when I finally came to understand her, it was too late. She had been dead for years.
My mother had chosen to live in poverty — she didn't have to. I got her an apartment in a good neighborhood but she refused to move and continued to complain about the rats and roaches where she did live. I gave her money but she would only put it in the bank in my name I found out later. She lived my adult life as she lived my childhood — as a martyr. It was not enough for her to do without — she felt the need to let me know there wasn't enough food for her when we ate, or enough money for clothes for her when we needed school clothes.
It's one thing to confront someone face to face and get it over with, but it takes much longer to confront the dead.
Looking back, what the hell choice did I have? Not much. So I stopped speaking to her until I could get over my anger that I didn't even know I had until I visited my first therapist. I thought that she was a saint to have done without so her children could have. The fact is that I went through three shrinks trying to understand and with each successive shrink I only got angrier. My anger finally started to subside when I stopped therapy.
How does one stop talking to the dead? Easy, there are ways. When others around you speak of the person, just don't join in. Ignore birthdays and deathdays. It is not necessary to speak ill of or belittle the dead — tune out—ignore. That is how I handled her. I showed her. If she were alive she'd be begging for my forgiveness.
My family takes great pride in visiting graves and planting flowers. If I wasn't speaking to her I wasn't going to visit her. I refused to yield to hypocrisy. It made perfect sense to me. No conversations — no visits. That's it.
After all these years of not talking to Mom I decided that enough was enough. I had a right to my anger but now I wanted a clean slate. And like a benevolent despot I would grant her amnesty as a birthday present to myself. She wouldn't be the only recipient of my largess but certainly the most important. Once the decision to patch things up and forgive her was made, I knew that it had to be in person.
It wasn't quite that easy. I had not been to Bridgeport for years and when I arrived I couldn't find the cemetery. It had been ten years since my last cemetery visit but I knew Bridgeport. After all, no one gets lost in the place they grew up in.
At first I found it amusing but not after I drove around lost for an hour and a half. Finally I saw a set of rusted gates and gravestones with Stars of David. I parked the car and walked in.
There were a few people, mostly older, near graves and across the way I saw two men, Hasidim, with long black coats and beards, walking. They were bowing as they walked - each with his hands behind his back, a caricature of the other. I walked the sidewalk reading the stones—
MIRSKY...ROSEN...SIMON...LEVINE...PINSKY.....BELOVED HUSBAND.....FAITHFUL WIFE......LOVING SON.....DARLING DAUGHTER.........FATHER AND GRANDFATHER ....HUSBAND AND WIFE........BELLSKY........ SHERMAN.......RATTNER........ MIRSCH..... MORRIS..........
It shouldn't have taken me forty-five minutes to figure it out, but it did. This was not my mother's cemetery. Not an uncle or grandparent of mine in the lot. Wrong place. Ashamed, I drove off. Fifteen minutes later I saw another Jewish cemetery and not a moment too soon. I was having trouble catching my breath. I had opened the car windows and was taking big gulps of air as I drove. The first throbs of a headache began to take hold.
I sped through the stone pillars and came to a screeching halt as a bearded, black coated man absentmindedly walked in front of my car. Quickly I opened the door and then suddenly feeling exhausted I slowly pulled myself from the seat and leaned against my car panting. I started to walk along a path but stopped when I noticed a pair of familiar rusted gates across the cemetery. I spun around and saw the two Hasids looking my way. I got back in my car and backed out leaving a trail of burnt rubber. It wasn't enough to pick the wrong cemetery once — I had to do it twice. This time from the back way.
By the time I found another Jewish cemetery I was a wreck.
This was not the same cemetery but again it was the wrong one and I drove off. Close to panic I drove and while stopped at a red light I saw a deli with a Hebrew National Hot Dog sign in the window. I went in to ask directions. It was lunchtime and crowded and the men behind the counter were frantically making sandwiches and impatiently taking orders.
"Next," the counterman barked at me. I only wanted information but I ordered a combo, corned beef, lean, and brisket, not so lean, on rye with mustard and a potato knish.
"Here or to go?" he asked.
"What else?" he asked handing my lunch to me.
"Where's the cemetery?" I asked.
"A wise guy,” he said. "This city is lousy with cemeteries."
"I'm looking for the Jewish Cemetery," I told him and he asks "Which one?"
Too embarrassed to tell him that I couldn't find my mother I started to tell him a made-up story about a dead aunt, two cousins from Trenton and . . . he stopped me with a raised hand. "Around the corner is the Loyalty Cemetery. Maybe you are looking for that one?"
Instantly recognizing the name I asked for and I got specific directions, paid for lunch and left. As I pulled up to the cemetery I remembered it. Of course, the little caretaker's cottage, the black iron fence, the hill in the background. It took only ten minutes of looking to find Mom's grave. There was no one else in the cemetery except for three black-coated bearded men converging on me from different directions. Slowly, they walked, as if they were in a slow-walking contest with each other.
I looked down at her headstone. "Hi, Mom," I said and took out my sandwich. I stood still with the sandwich in one hand dangling by my side and the knish in the other. Now, at a loss for words, I did what I had always done when I fought with my mother — I apologized. "I'm sorry, Mom," I said. "I'm really sorry. I forgive you and want you to know that I'm not angry anymore. You did the best you could. I realize that now." I began to cry. Sandwich and knish at my sides I stood crying. The longer I cried, the more I cried. The knish crumpled into pieces as I stood in front of her stone.
I had expected a catharsis but felt none. "I said I'm sorry. Why don't you answer me?" I yelled at her grave. "You always punished me by not talking. Stop punishing me. Enough is enough."
Drained and ready to go I angrily stuffed the sandwich back in the bag and picked up a small rock to put on her headstone. There were no others there and its loneliness made me cry even more. I began to hyperventilate. I dumped the food out on her grave and kneeled down and breathed into the bag. I was catching my breath, but the smell of pickles and corned beef made me nauseous.
I picked up the sandwich, stuffed it into my coat pocket and still crying turned to go back to the car. "I love you, Mom,” I said. "You said you never believed it, but it's true."
I looked up and between me and my car were the three Hasidim, standing quietly watching. As I walked, one of them broke rank and came over to me. He was holding a prayer book and asked in a heavy accent if he could say a prayer over the grave for my loved one. I stared at him in silence. "There is no charge,” he said, "but a donation is expected and would be appreciated."
"What are you saying?" I asked him and he repeated his offer only this time he made it seem that if I really cared about the dead person I would hire him to say a prayer. "You hang out here selling prayers? That's your job? What kind of vultures are you? What makes you think God will listen to your prayer more than mine?"
"It's the time of year," he said softly, backing away. "It's not my job, it's a service. God listens to us all."
I pulled out a twenty-dollar bill and pointed to the closest grave. ROSENZWEIG 1904-1966. "Here." I told him, "Pray over Rosenzweig. If I like how you do it I'll hire you for my mother." He turned to go but I grabbed his arm and spun him around. "Pray goddammit! Here's your money, vulture." I pushed it into his hand.
He opened the prayer book and with eyes closed started to murmur the Kaddish.
"I can't hear you!" I yelled in his ear like his drill sergeant. "Louder! I can't hear you! E-NUN-CI-ATE!"
He slowed his speech and the Kaddish became recognizable. "Yisgadal va Yiskadash...." His voice rose. "Enough! That's good enough. How much for a month? Answer me. Dammit. How much for a month? For my mother."
He stared at me silently and the other two Hasids walked over as I pulled him by the arm to my mother's grave. I walked back around them and pushed them until all of us were standing in front of the grave.
"Mom you said I never cared. Look at what I bought you. Three Rabbis, Mom. Three Rabbis — no waiting. Is this a son? I ask you, Mom. Is this a son who loves his mother? Is this a son that forgives his mother?"
All three men had the same don't mess with the crazy man look. "How much?" I demanded. "Every day for a month. How much? All three of you. How much? Answer me!"
They didn't answer but stood motionless, each holding his prayer book in front of him with head bowed. I pulled money out of my pants pocket and without counting stuffed some into each of their coat pockets. It was a lot of money and they never even looked at it. "I want you here praying every day at this time for a month," I told them. "I’ll be back—you can count on it, and if I don't find the three of you with my mother you’ll be sorry. Do you understand?" They remained motionless. "Pray!" I stood behind them. "Pray! Pray now!"
As their heads started to bob slowly in prayer to the rhythmic Kaddish chant I looked down between them, at my mother’s grave. "Don't ever say I didn't care, Mom," my voice rising above the chanter’s voices. As I walked towards the car, listening to the Hasids in the background, I pulled the crushed sandwich from my pocket and took a bite.