I received a call Friday night that my grandmother, Bess, had died in her home in Florida. She was 96. She’d been declining slowly for several years. A wound that developed on her leg two years ago took a long time to heal. Walking had become more and more difficult, even with a cane. And she’d been steadily losing weight for some time, so much that with her bony frame and large wig, she’d begun to look like a lollipop. But her health took a dramatic turn for the worse when her husband, Bob, died, earlier this year. They’d been married for 74-and-a-half years. She didn’t know how to live without him.
I flew to Florida to attend the funeral, leaving my husband and nine-month-old son behind. The service was at the Star of David cemetery. It was the third or fourth time I’d been there in the last 10 years. I knew the exact location of sanctuary, the ante-room next door, the bathroom, and the rabbi’s chamber, where immediate members of the family go for a private prayer with the rabbi. I was in there once, 10 years ago, when my father died.
My grandmother lay in her casket in the sanctuary as the guests began to fill the ante-room next door. Close relatives were allowed to go into the sanctuary to see her one last time before they closed up the casket. For Jews, seeing the body of a loved one is a mixed bag. We’re not used to viewing the deceased. We bury our dead quickly. The casket is usually closed. There is no wake. So when we’re given the opportunity to see the body, we want to say goodbye, but any tender thoughts are often interrupted by, “Holy shit! It’s a dead body. This is surreal. Wow, a dead body.”
My grandmother looked unnaturally healthy. Plastic. Her face was a peachy-flesh color, like a Barbie doll. She wore her signature stripe of blue-green eye shadow and frosted wig, which was perfectly coiffed, but the skin around her mouth looked like it had been stretched, like a drum. A pronounced mole she always had just above the center of her lip now sat above the right side of her mouth.
A large memorial candle in a wrought iron stand burned next to the casket. As we stood over it, my cousin, Cory, accidentally knocked into the candle, extinguishing the flame. The candle was relit and the casket was closed.
Moments later, Cory’s sister, Shari, arrived. She had been given the wrong time to show up. When she was told the casket had already been closed, she was almost in tears. Shari had a particularly close relationship with my grandmother as her family had moved into my grandparents’ house when Shari’s mother, Florie — who was my grandmother’s eldest daughter — divorced her first husband. But as life sometimes takes funny turns, Florie predeceased her mother, and it was not she who was here to grieve my grandmother but her ex-husband, Ira. His presence escaped no one, particularly because he forgot to turn off his cell phone, and it rang several times during the service.
Five people read eulogies, all portraying my grandmother as a woman who selflessly gave and gave, opening her home on Long Island and then her condo in Florida — once they moved down there — to anyone who needed it. There was her Aunt, from the Ukraine; her parents, after her mother had a stroke; her cousin Ricky, when his mother, Bertha, found the task of being a single mother too burdensome; her cousin from Argentina and his wife, neither of whom she’d ever met; and her son Lewis’ best friend, Bob, because he needed a place to live after his mother died and his father sold their family house.
During his eulogy, Lewis told a story of how he and his friend, Dean, were playing with his chemistry set in my grandparents’ basement, and Dean began lighting matches and flicking them into a pantry. A lit match landed on a wooden shelf and started a fire. Lewis said by the time they got up the stairs, they could see the smoke coming through the floorboards on the first floor of the house. You could tell that he’d told that part of the story, and the part about Dean running home and hiding in his bedroom, time and time again. Dean’s father apparently set fire to their own family home on several occasions. It was burnt to the ground years later, though it’s unclear whether Dean’s family was still living there at the time. As for my grandparents’ house, there was so much smoke damage, they all had to live in a motel for several months while their home was renovated. While staying in the motel, Lewis said he met Chubby Checker, who was playing at a nearby beach club, and he got the singer’s autograph.
For decades, my grandmother and grandfather were the undisputed heads of the family, the king and queen of the Seder table. While they began passing off some of their leadership duties years ago – my grandmother hadn’t cooked a whole Seder meal in years, and my grandfather no longer led the service — they remained the heads of our clan, like a mafia don who steps down but still makes all the decisions. Their loss has left a vacuum.
After the service, we all drove to the grave site, which was a gaping hole in the ground about six feet deep, wedged in between the graves of my grandfather and my Aunt Florie. Beneath the surface, you could see the hole was lined with concrete on every side, creating a concrete box into which the wooden casket would be deposited. At ground level, all one saw was a large hole surrounded by a metal frame that resembled scaffolding, which would be used to lower my grandmother’s casket into the ground. Sheets of plywood covered with green astro turf surrounded the hole. But the astro turf obscured the edges where the plywood overlapped, or where the plywood ended and the soft ground began, making it easy for someone to lose their footing and fall in the hole. But everyone tread carefully, and most people kept their distance from the hole anyway. It had poured while we were inside the funeral parlor. As the rabbi read the Mourner’s Kaddish, water dripped from the edge of the astro turf into the hole.
When the rabbi was done, the casket was lowered into the ground, and we all walked over to a bucket of dirt and one by one, grabbed a handful and dropped it onto my grandmother’s coffin below.
“I hate that sound,” my brother said, referring to the sound of the dirt as it hit the casket.
“I sort of like it,” I said. “It makes everything sink in.”
As we walked back to the car, I watched the cemetery workers remove the metal scaffolding and roll up the astro turf. Unadorned, the hole in the ground was exposed for what it was: just a hole in the ground that now contained my grandmother. Bright orange flowers appeared to have grown at the edge of the grass that ran along the hole, but I realized it was residual spray paint that had been used to delineate my grandmother’s plot, so the cemetery workers would know where to dig.
After the funeral, everyone went back to the home of my mother’s sister, Marsha, where there were platters of bagels and cream cheese and lox. My mother and her siblings held court as a parade of friends and relatives came through to pay their respects. That evening, another food tray was brought out, this time with brisket and potatoes and asparagus. The leftover bagels and lox were also put out again. Most of the visitors were gone at that point, and the grieving family members sat down to eat dinner. But as night fell, more visitors started to show up, and some grabbed plates and walked over to the platters of brisket and bagels and began taking food.
“Put the food away. Now!” my Aunt Marsha’s husband, Bob, barked at his daughters. “It’s supposed to be for the family.”
His daughters quickly gathered up the platters, resealing them with plastic wrap and putting them into a refrigerator in the garage. My mother’s friend, Rochelle, had come to visit and was holding a plate with a bagel and a dollop of cream cheese when the platter of lox in front of her was whisked away. My uncle Bob was holding it over by the sink, trying to cover it with cellophane. I snatched a few slices of lox just before he sealed it shut.
This ritual was repeated after every meal, where platters of food would be put out and before all of the grieving family members could even get to them, they were whisked away and resealed, so that visitors didn’t eat any of it. In the days that followed, my Uncle Bob would yell at my mother because her friends did not contribute any food platters, and my mother would yell back at him that he had no right to say that. My Aunt Marsha would run into her room crying, doors would slam and the family would turn their grief into anger, as many families do.
I left after two days and returned to my own small family. It was the longest I had been without my son, Eddie, since he was born last February. When they met me at the airport, I grabbed Eddie and held him in my arms. He had just woken up and his body felt limp and soft, like warm dough. Our little reunion was a stark contrast to my mother and her sister, whom I knew would be going to their mother’s apartment that week to sort out all of her belongings. Few things bring home the fact that a loved one is gone than being able to go through their most personal possessions with impunity.
My grandmother had a screened-in porch at the back of her condo in Florida that was unusable for much of the time they lived there. My Aunt Florie lived in it for four years after she got divorced from her second husband. When she moved out, my grandfather began using it as a workshop, where he stored tools and a pile of broken vacuum cleaners he hoped to fix. The room was finally cleared out about a year ago and the condo association repaired a leak in the roof. My mother’s partner then repaired the sheetrock that had been damaged, and about a month ago, it was ready for my grandmother to use. The porch faced the tree-lined inner courtyard of the condo complex. A few paths wound through it that people used to get to the pool and the clubhouse. For decades, my grandmother would talk about how she just wanted to be able to sit in her screen porch and look out the window at the plants and the people walking by. But when it was finally ready to use last month, she said, “I’m not ready.” For the next several weeks, she maintained she wasn’t ready to go out there. She died last week without ever having used it. Perhaps she was so used to making room for others, existing in the small spaces left over, that when more room opened up it made her uncomfortable, like a bird that remains in his cage even if the door is left open. Either that or she was so used to having her husband’s vacuum cleaners in there, seeing the room without them was confirmation that he was gone.
My grandmother’s nephew, Joel, wrote a eulogy for her that was emailed to scores of family members, most of whom were unable to attend the funeral. In it, he talked about my grandparents’ generosity, and how they never turned away any one, not even a dog called Vixen that Shari and her brothers brought home. He mentioned how my grandmother never forgot to send out a birthday or anniversary card — despite having four children, 15 grandchildren, and 24 great grandchildren – because she always kept a list of those dates pinned to her refrigerator. And he recounted the giant Chanukah party we had at their house one year, where there were so many presents, they had to be piled into a grocery cart in order to carry them into the living room to be doled out.
The email prompted Ben, the son of Bess’ brother, Harry, to respond. And then Seth, the son of Ben, sent a response. Soon, there was a comment from Lewis, the son of Bess and Bob, and David, the son of Steven, who is the son of Bess’ brother, Nat. At last count, there were 47 responses to Joel’s original email, some writing letters of introduction, others promising to organize a Chanukah party, as the family closed ranks to try to fill the void.