Monday, October 12, 2009

Shivas I sat, and some I didn't


Justin lived diagonally across the street from me. He was the oldest of three kids and had a zip line in his front yard.

Even though Justin and I were close in age, we wasn't allowed to play together very often. He had leukemia, and his parents worried about germs. Our neighborhood lacked kids, so this playmate, so close and yet so far, seemed especially tragic.

The summer after we turned eight, Justin went into remission. We built a tree house in the white pine that anchored the zip line and formed a secret club. We tried to get into the Guinness Book of World Records with the longest dandelion chain. We used the car's odometer to measure our cul-de-sac~ 1/10th of a mile (1)~ and tried to run up and down 262 times so we could say we had run a marathon. One day we decided to tie three bikes together and see if the rider in the front could pull the other two bikes. It didn't work. Justin fell off the middle bike and didn't get up. His dad came and carried him home. I never saw him again.

My mom told someone on the phone that Justin's dad, a doctor, had taken him to their country house and was giving him shots of something to keep him comfortable. I didn't even know people in Westchester needed a country house, and thought it sounded eerily similar to the time my grandmother's miniature schnauzer went to live on a farm. A few days later there was more grown-up whispering (2) so I pulled the local papers out of the recycling bin and read them all until I found the obituary.

We didn't go to the funeral or pay a Shiva call. I assumed it was because everyone blamed me.

2) Pammy Rosenblatt's mother:

Pammy was the "it" girl of our Hebrew School's 5th grade. She owned both a pair of Jordache jeans and a pair of Sassoon jeans. Her hair looked exactly like Farrah Fawcett's. She had a double canopy bed and a pool in her backyard. Her mom killed herself on my tenth birthday.

We waited until the third day to pay a Shiva call. (3) My mom brought bakery cookies. It was early spring, but it was warm and all the kids were outside playing ghost in the graveyard. Someone came running out and claimed they saw Pammy's mom in the bedroom where the coats were piled. Pammy started to cry. We left and I never got my turn to be the ghost.

3) Renee Munroe:

My mom's friend died when I was in high school. Cervical cancer. I had known her since I was six; her oldest son and I were in the same class every year from the first through twelfth grade. She used to let us sit in the way back of her Volvo station wagon when it was her turn to drive Hebrew school carpool. Without seat belts. She made jiffy pop while we played Dungeons and Dragons in her kitchen. (4) At her fortieth birthday party someone gave her black knee socks and a garter and I didn't understand the joke.

Her funeral was my first and when it was over, my parents tried to take my sister and I home instead of to the graveside. But all the cars were caravaning from the synagogue and my dad thought if we pulled out the cars behind us would get lost. I watched my mom throw three shovelfuls of dirt into the grave, while the Rabbi explained it was the greatest mitzvah you could do. Because the dead couldn't reciprocate.

We paid a shiva call every single day. On the last day, we joined the family on a walk around the block to symbolize their return to the outside world. I overheard our neighbor, a recent divorcee, ask my mom how long she thought a widower had to wait to date. I didn't understand that either, but for different reasons.

4) Harriet

Harriet was my mother-in-law's best friend for over fifty years. Little known family secret: Harriet dated my father-in-law first, but dumped him when he failed to light her cigarettes. She never got married or had children of her own, so her fridge was covered with pictures of mine. Her funeral was on an ridiculously miserable day; the kind you'd write into a script if you made a movie about a funeral. Noa brought a heart shaped helium balloon to leave at the grave site and we tied it to the back of a folding chair but the wind kept making it smack people in the head so we let it go.

Afterward we went back to Harriet's nephew's house. Most of the people there were men from the synagogue who had come to ensure there was a minyan. Most of them had never met Harriet. I helped Harriet's niece rip the labels off the packages so they wouldn't see the cookies weren't Kosher.

Those are the three shivas I sat, and the one I didn't.

1) And it did not occur to me until this very second that car odometers generally measure any short distance as a 1/10th of a mile.
2) Unlike me, who drags my kids to every deathbed and funeral I can find, my mother tried to shield me from these things. I suspect there's a happy medium. Freud would have a field day.
3) That's when casual acquaintances go, the third day. That way you only have to go once. The first and fourth day are for the closest of friends and then the second and fifth day are for semi-close friends. Hey, I don't make these rules.
4) Shut. Up. I never claimed I was cool in high school.

This post was inspired by This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper. I received my copy for free as part of the Silicon Valley Mom Book Club. All the stories are true, although names were changed, for really no good reason.


the mama bird diaries said...

That was a beautiful post.

Stephanie Meade Gresham said...

when my daughter hears us whispering she comes right out and asks what we're talking about. i wish i had the balls to do that when i was a kid.
we usually say "nunya". i wonder if she'll write a blog about that one day.

lovely post.

Merrily Down the Stream said...

I found you through Mama Bird because your comment about the babysitter cracked me up!
I grew up in the midwest, went to catholic school (I am one of 7) we like to do up the funeral things too. I went to about a million of them I think. We used to say my mother was never happier than when someone had just died. It seemed to really give her a sense of purpose.

Ann's Rants said...

I loved this post. Beautiful.

The Zadge said...

Beautiful. My heart aches for Justin.

country mouse said...

Ditto what mama bird said . . . *sniff*

Anonymous said...

Yeah, this was beautiful. And my heart aches for you, in regards to Justin. How terrible to live with that feeling and never know.

David said...

I'd never heard about the rules regarding what day to attend a shiva. There are so many cultural things I still keep finding out about. Makes me crazy sometimes.

Excellent post.

Sue @ Laundry for Six said...

Wow. Just wow.

Anonymous said...

Your post has brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing these people with me, Amy.

Magpie said...

This is an odd and beautiful post. And moving. It's making me think of a lot of dead people...

Anna See said...

What a beautiful post. I am sorry about these loses, even these many years later. Reading about Justin was heartbreaking.