Uncle Aaron’s brain was no longer much for details. As he approached 80, his once-sharp memory had begun to come and go, He was constantly getting confused — missing connections — much like the electric trolley cars he used to drive through Brooklyn to Prospect Park. Clanging merrily down the street one moment, and stopped on the tracks, the overhead wire disconnected from the power source, the next.
So, each year in the five years since my father’s death, Jerry and I would head down from Connecticut during the Jewish New Year to drive my mother, and my Aunt Lilly and Uncle Aaron, to the cemetery on Long Island for their annual family visit. My father was there, buried next to my mother’s parents, who were just a few steps away from my grandmother’s parents, Bubbie and Zadie. Not far from Bubbie and Zadie were some of their brothers and sisters. Relatives I only knew from their headstones, their passing recorded long before my birth.
My large extended family had surprised me by readily accepting the fact that I was gay. Perhaps it was because my sister Dale, the center of my universe for so many years, had just died of cancer at the time that I came out. Perhaps, my relationship with Jerry, the Midwestern mensch with the Yankee blue-blood pedigree, made it easier to accept. They had immediately welcomed Jerry into the family — my gentile lover who thanked my family members for their kindnesses by bestowing mitzvahs upon them. To Jerry, a mitzvah was not simply a good deed. To Jerry, when you did a good deed you earned multiple mitzvahs. To Jerry, mitzvahs were collected much like green stamps.
In these five years, Jerry could have filled a dozen ‘mitzvah books’ just by driving to this aging cemetery, which also contained my Uncle Aaron’s parents and grandmother. Each year, we would follow Uncle Aaron’s directions down cemetery lanes named Judah and Ezrah, Monroe and Lincoln, and we would visit our families. Jerry and I would pull weeds and pluck dead leaves from the yews planted over the graves, which were designated — by round, day-glo orange stickers placed haphazardly on the expensive marble and granite gravestones — to receive “perpetual care.”
We left my mother’s apartment in Brooklyn at ten o’clock Friday morning to pick up Aunt Lilly and Uncle Aaron who lived just a few minutes away. They were waiting for us at the side entrance to their building, another 25-story brick tower bearing a strong resemblance to my mother’s 25-story brick tower.
Although Aunt Lilly’s spirit hadn’t weakened as she settled solidly into her seventies, her knees had. This year, Jerry had the inspiration to bring along a step stool to make it easier for Lilly to heft her bulk into and out of our butch SUV.
|I’LL ONLY HAVE A SLIVER.
Since giving birth to her first child some 50 years earlier and her second four years later, Aunt Lilly had never been able to reclaim the slender and shapely figure of her youth. She had always made attempts. At all family gatherings, instead of having an entire piece of cake with her coffee, she would only take a sliver. But then, another sliver. And still another sliver.
“It’s only a sliver,” she would say.
We all knew if Lilly could reassemble all those slivers, she would have discovered that, more often than not, she had consumed half a cake.
I would never have described Aunt Lilly as fat, though. No, never fat. More like comfortable. And Uncle Aaron was always comfortable, as well. They were both exactly as they were supposed to be.
Before their 50th wedding anniversary, Aunt Lilly finally stopped dying her hair shoe-polish black. It was now snow-white, just as her mother’s had been, and her eyes were a silvery gray, just like her father’s. Uncle Aaron’s hair had changed only slightly in my 38 years. The golden brown horse shoe that ringed his shining pate when he taught me, 31 years earlier, to ride a two-wheeler was now a brown and white horse shoe. And he still had the pencil-thin, carefully trimmed, movie star mustache he had adopted in the 1940s.
After setting out the green enameled step stool, to which Lilly laughingly exclaimed, “Oy, Jerry. A gezunt dir in pupik!,” and helping Aunt Lilly up into the front seat of the Trooper (if she sat in back she got car sick), I climbed in back with my mother and Uncle Aaron, and we were happily on our way.
“Hadayadoodle, boys?” piped Aaron. “Where are we going?”
“To the cemetery,” Lilly responded with a sigh. “Oy, Aaron.”
And to us, she explained, “I must have told him a thousand times this morning where we’re going. He’s becoming such a farshtopterkop.
“It means his head’s stopped up, Jerry,” my mother explained and then asked, “Do you know what Lilly said to you before, Jerry? It meant, “Good health, to your belly button.”
“Oh, Mimi. Don’t be so literal. I just said, ‘thank you.’
“Very dramatically,” my mother added.
Lilly, being the eldest of the seven siblings in my mother’s family, did not learn English until the age of five, when she started school on the Lower East Side. She was shocked when she discovered that the language her parents and the neighbors spoke, Yiddish, was not the language everyone else in New York spoke. She returned from her first day at school furious with my grandparents and told my grandmother that they were no longer allowed to speak Yiddish at home. They were in America and they needed to be American. Lilly grew to speak beautiful, extravagant, elegant, and sophisticated English. But, as she grew older, she seemed to revert more and more to her Yiddish roots.
“So, how are you doing, Aunt Lilly?” I asked.
“How am I doing? Vos zolikh makhen? How should I be doing? I’ve become an old lady with bad knees. And your Uncle Aaron is a little meshugener. But, we’re doing OK.”
There was surprisingly little traffic on the Belt Parkway that perfect spring morning and in less than 20 minutes we had crossed into Long Island.
“Here’s your exit, Jerry,” I directed, knowing what would ensue.
“This isn’t the exit,” chimed my mother.
“Yes, it is,” I insisted, as Jerry signaled and exited the Belt Parkway. “Go left at the stop sign.”
“Don’t you go right here?” she chimed again.
“I thought this wasn’t the exit.” I muttered. And then added, attempting to be more kind, “I’m sure it’s left.”
“Aaron, do we go left or right here?” asked Lilly.
“Where are we going?”
“Oy, Aaron. Where are we going. To the cemetery!” she wailed.
“This is how you get to the cemetery?”
Jerry turned left.
A few minutes later we approached the ornate, iron gates of the Beth David Cemetery. I breathed a sigh of relief; my directions had been correct. Lilly pulled the carefully folded, black yarmulkes out of her purse for the three men to wear. Jerry expertly placed the skullcap on his goyische head. In our years together, Jerry had become more comfortable with Jewish customs than I, the supposedly nice Jewish boy.
We drove onto the grounds of the Orthodox cemetery and made our first stop at my grandparents and my father. While my mother and Lilly read the prayers, Jerry and I collected small stones for everyone to leave on the graves. For my father, I found a small gray stone from me and a beautiful smooth white one from Dale, since she would never be able to leave a stone herself. Although I missed her, I was glad she was buried on a beautiful hill in Sheffield, England, and not in this crowded, neglected, old cemetery on Long Island. Someday, I would get back to Sheffield and leave a stone on her grave.
After making the usual rounds, we ended with Uncle Aaron’s parents. He could no longer remember where they were buried, so Jerry and I reviewed Aaron’s map of the cemetery (a map on which he had carefully marked the location of each new resident over the years) to determine the section to search. We then walked the tightly packed rows of new and old marble gravestones until we found who we were looking for.
Aaron opened the prayer book and read aloud. Jerry and I stood respectfully nearby, while my mother and Aunt Lilly stood on his other side about 20 feet away.
“Extolled and hallowed be the name of God …” began Aaron.
“Mimi, did I tell you I went to Top Tomato yesterday?”
“No. Oh, Lilly, I wish I had known. I need cucumbers.”
“… and which He governs according to His righteous will …”
“You should have called me. I got the most gorgeous strawberries. Ay-yay-yay. From heaven.”
“… come, and His will be done in all …”
|A BIALY. NOT A BAGEL. NOT AN ONION ROLL.
“Did you notice if they had cucumbers? Oh, Lilly, the bialys! I could kick myself.”
“What?” Lilly asked.
“What a memory I have. Schlucker’s was having a sale on bagels and bialys. I know how much Aaron loves bialys, so I bought you a dozen and put them in the freezer. I was going to bring them upstairs when we picked you up today.”
“… May they find grace and mercy before the Lord …”
“All right. So they’ll stay in your freezer another day. We’re not going anywhere.”
“I’m getting so forgetful in my old age.”
“… and the rest of the righteous males and females that are in Paradise; and let us say, …”
“You? When were you not forgetful? And don’t talk to me about old. Oy, Aaron. What is he reading?”
“… and grandmothers, my uncles and aunts, my …”
“Gotenyou,” laughed Lilly. “Now he’s giving regards to everyone in the old country.”
The two sisters laughed together.
“… whether paternal or maternal, who …”
“Oy oy oy, Aaron,” Lilly moaned, mostly to us. And then finally commanded, “OK, Aaron. Genug iz ge’nug. Enough is enough. I want to visit Matilda sometime this century.”
As she climbed back into the car, Lilly asked, “You don’t mind driving to Matilda’s, do you, Jerry? She’s just home from her surgery. And we’re so close. But, I don’t want to call her first. That Matilda. She’s such a balaboste. Even sick, she’ll want to serve us lunch.”
“It’s fine with me,” said Jerry, but then added knowingly, “As long as someone can tell me how to get there.”
“Sure, we can get there,” my mother insisted. “We’re very close.”
“Aaron. Do you remember how to get to Matilda’s from here?” asked Lilly.
“Where are we going?”
“Matilda? You know, she lives close to here.” he commented.
“Oy, Aaron. We know. Do you know how to get there?”
He thought for a moment and then said, “No.”
“We are really close,” I offered. “I’m sure, among the four of us, we’ll be able to figure it out.”
|THE WILDS OF SUBURBIA
Jerry sighed as we headed for the gates.
“What are we going to do with all those plots?” asked my mother.
“Poppa bought 16, didn’t he?” commented Lilly. “Let’s see, there’s Mama and Poppa. And Davie. Aaron and I have our own through the Jewish Center. Mimi, you’ll use the one next to Davie.”
“That’s four,” I offered.
“Silvie has four,” continued Lilly.
“That’s eight,” I added.
“I think Sam and Iris have their own. I don’t know what Matilda’s doing. Maybe she and Paul will use two. Gloria and Conrad?” my mother wondered.
“Gloria and Conrad. Ikh zol azoy visn fun tsores!” proclaimed Lilly.
Jerry looked to me for a translation. I had no idea.
So, I said so. “I have no idea.”
“You understood that?” beamed my proud mother.
“What Lilly said. It means, ‘I have no idea.’ Or, literally, it means, ‘I should know as little about trouble’ — as I know about what Gloria and Conrad will do.”
My response, “No, I really had no idea.”
Lilly was still pondering the problem of the excess plots. “Wait!” she boomed. “Mitchell and Jerry can use two!”
There was a stunned silence in the car. We certainly had come a long way. But, what would it say on Jerry’s gravestone, I wondered. Beloved Lover? Gay & Goy?
I finally responded to Lilly’s pronouncement, “Well, I don’t know about that, Aunt Lilly. Do you think the cemetery management would allow it?”
“What’s to allow?” she demanded.
“Well,” I looked at Jerry, who was trying not to laugh. “I mean … for one thing … well … Jerry’s not Jewish.”
To which Lilly haughtily proclaimed, “Who’s going to tell? I’m certainly not going to tell!”
And we headed back through the gates and out into the wilds of suburbia. In search of Aunt Matilda.
Still to Come:
How we survived our suburban sojourn without a map (and with hardly a clue).