A Summer Symphony

An unveiling is not a thrill. It’s sad, but also drab. And it’s sort of pro forma. It happens after the Kaddish period ends but before a full year elapses. You recite a psalm. You say “El Maleh Rahamim,” the prayer about God being compassionate. (Bad form to add, “Ha!” — even if in this context that’s what you’re thinking.) If you’ve got a minyan, you say Kaddish. You take off the cloth covering the headstone. (I had imagined Josie whipping it off with a flourish, the way she flamboyantly flings the cover of the challah after she says Hamotzi — like a matador taunting a bull.) That’s it.

To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there’s not much there there. So my family tried to create a more personalized ceremony to say goodbye to my very strange, very funny, very intense father. Like so many others, we wanted to infuse our own sensibilities into age-old Jewish rituals. And the act of creation proved cathartic for all of us.

My mom created the tekes, the ceremony, fashioning a booklet filled with pictures of my dad (sitting oceanside and beaming quietly, doing a crazy-man dance in a tuxedo and keyboard-patterned suspenders), finding a psalm that spoke to her (147, the one about how God heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds, which frankly is the equivalent to me of the Far Side cartoon about what a dog hears: “Blah blah blah blah GINGER blah blah”), using Google’s image search to find clip art online to illustrate the pages.

And just as I had during shiva, I found myself seeking out poems to share. I am not a poetry person, but at this primal, elemental time, I understood as never before why people love poetry. One tiny little shard contains multitudes. I spent many late nights searching online and asking poetry-loving friends on the Internet for advice. If pixels had reams, I’d have gone through reams of pixels. I liked zapping decisively through poems — nope, nope, love it, nope. Death was ragged and slow and messy; this process was blissfully tidy. I liked poems that were quiet and specific, colloquial and funny. Anything with flowery words turned me off. Psalms, as ever, enraged me. Do not talk to me of God’s majesty. When my father died, God was off eating a doughnut.

I sent my mom my favorites. She ended up using several, assigning them to different family members to read. Among them was a Yehuda Amichai poem called “Near the Wall of a House” that included the lines:

A sleepless night that gives others a headachegave me flowersopening beautifully inside my brain.

I have no idea what Amichai meant, but I liked the image, particularly since my dad died from a series of misfires and melting in his brain. Maybe for him, it looked like flowers. I can hope so. The Amichai poem ends on another note of hope:

Love is not the last room: there are othersafter it, the whole length of the corridorthat has no end.

My friend Linda, a published poet herself, found the poem that meant the most to me: Lucille Clifton’s “blessing the boats.” Only 12 lines long, it seems to say everything there is to say about love, faith, loss and the unknown. I’ve read it hundreds of times and cry every time. And it fit. Toward the end of my dad’s life, my parents bought a little condo on a finger of land in Newport, R.I. On one side is the harbor, with dozens of boats of all sizes bobbing in the tides, and on the other side is the bay, with the Newport bridge soaring off in the distance. The place was his greatest joy in life (next to Josie). Dad loved to sit on the front porch at sunset, with a cosmopolitan in hand, watching the sailboats setting out to sea and returning home. So these words resonate:

may youopen your eyes to waterwater waving foreverand may you in your innocencesail through this to that

Then there was the music. My father loved music. When my mom went through his papers after his death, she found a form he’d submitted to the Navy when he’d served during the Vietnam War. (Though he’d requested deployment to Bermuda, he was sent to Quonset Point, R.I. Nice try.) He’d written that if he died in the line of duty, he wanted Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, known as “The Resurrection,” played by a military band at his funeral.

My father had a Mahler obsession. On his office wall was a sketch of the composer, and on his workroom door was a psychedelic pink poster I’d given him from a Harvard orchestra performance of Mahler’s Ninth. Mahler’s symphonies are as oversized as my father’s personality. They go on forever; they require gazillions of instruments, including the odd harmonium and mandolin and glockenspiel; they use multiple soloists, children’s choirs and adult choirs. They rocket from whispery softness to full crashing bombast. They are not subtle; neither was my father. Like my father, Mahler had a bad heart, was obsessed with death and was sure he’d die young. (Like my father, he was right.)

So my brother and his partner brought a CD of Mahler’s “Resurrection” to play (via boombox) at my dad’s grave. “I am from God and will return to God,” the contralto soloist sang as our relatives approached.

In a twist on the Jewish tradition of leaving stones on a grave, my mom copied my Aunt Belleruth’s idea of collecting stones from a place the dead person loved. My Uncle Art had loved Martha’s Vineyard, so Belleruth put rocks from there on his grave in Ohio. A few weeks ago, Mom handed Josie some smooth stones from Newport to bring to the cemetery in Massachusetts. Josie painted one pink for herself, one green for Maxine, and added a chunk of concrete she’d found in our (paved) yard in the East Village and painted blue. “This is a rock,” she insisted. “And it is so we remember Zayde’s fun times at our house.” My cousin Marissa brought some pebbles from Cape Cod, where my grandparents used to have a house; my youngest cousin Daniella, bless her soul, went to the Metropolitan Opera House and nabbed some wee rocks from the front to reflect my dad’s love of opera.

Jonathan expressed himself sartorially. He wore my father’s Siegfried and Roy T-shirt under the seersucker blazer my dad had worn to Andy and Neal’s wedding. My mom laughed delightedly when she saw him.

I had been obsessed with getting to the cemetery on time, worried about whether the kids would be quiet, full of performance anxiety about the Amichai poem (which Mom had irksomely asked me to read in Hebrew). I was not in the moment. So when I took up residence in my actual body again and realized where I was, I felt whapped upside the head. We were in the cemetery. Where old, dead great-grandparent-y types were. Where I had for years been dragged to visit people I never knew or truly cared about. How could my father be here? Then there was the sucker punch of seeing the actual headstone, the finality of words carved into rock, of absent space. Then there was the sight of my mom, struggling to hold herself together. Josie was silent. Max ate a piece of the booklet.

Then we drove back to my mom’s for bagels and kugel (catered, since Mom broke her foot — don’t even ask), after a ceremonial stop at Best Buy so Jonathan could buy my mother a new cordless phone. (He believes in healing through home electronics.) And we ate. Max beamed at my grandmother and Josie got cream cheese in her hair. And they sailed on in their innocence, as I hope my father does, wherever he is.

Email Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.

A Summer Symphony

Recommend this article

A Summer Symphony

Thank you!

This article has been sent!