Fiction: A Few Small Stones
My cousin Alan only calls when there is a death in the family. He is the custodian of our cemetery plot and the first to know. Alan will tell the cemetery workers to “open the grave,” as though beneath the deceptive lid of grass, an empty space is waiting.
This time it is our cousin Florence, who died of a heart attack at 84. I do not drive so Alan suggests we go to the cemetery together. We have not seen each other since the
last funeral. But over 60 years ago, I babysat for him as he toddled around the coffee table, blond ringlets bouncing around his neck, and each mile on the Long Island Expressway takes us back to the past we share.
Alan and I grew up in that cemetery. Some families take pride in a homestead, a farm, but ours struggled to preserve a patch of burial ground. In the 1930s, our grandmother and her six younger siblings, recent immigrants from Poland, started the Feldman Family Organization and bought a cemetery plot on Long Island, New York, with 60 graves. They insisted we Jews own a piece of land from which no one could turn us away.
The family met on the first Saturday of each month in a member’s home. We were so many and of various generations that even as a child I knew the difference between an uncle and a great-uncle, or a second cousin and a first cousin once removed. My grandmother held forth in the living room, her gold watch on a long chain swinging like a pendulum below her waist. Bubbe, a leader at the Bialystoker Home for the Aged and The Workmen’s Circle, kept to her agenda even in a room filled with her boisterous brothers and sisters. Maintaining the cemetery plot might be the first item of business, but the family organization also sent money to an eldest sister in Poland, raised funds for the poor, planned the Hanukkah party and decided when to hold the annual potluck and who would bring what dish. Bubbe embraced the democracy of her adopted country and encouraged debate, but she always got her way.
We children chased one another and hid in unfamiliar rooms and closets. Most of us fell asleep, snuggling among the abandoned coats on the bed, awakening red and overheated and staggering out into the cold night air with imprints of coat buttons on our cheeks. By the time I was 10 or 12, my great-uncles and great-aunts began to die, and I visited our plot again and again, as easy around the gravestones as on the swings at the state park where we went for our picnic every June.
When Alan pulls up in the car, I hand him a hard candy. “Tradition,” I explain.
“My mother used to bring hard candies, too,” he says. My mother and Alan’s were sisters. “It’s going to be a long day.” He clutches the wheel and peers into the rain. “I wonder what they’ll do when I’m not around any more.” Most people in our family die of heart disease, and he has already had open-heart surgery.
“Maybe your son could take over,” I suggest.
“I think Scott’s gone to the cemetery once, for his mom’s funeral. He lives in Santa Barbara. Been there a couple of years.”
“Really? I didn’t know. How long is it since Cynthia died?”
“Eleven years this January,” Alan says, his voice tight. “I feel as though I’ve been robbed.”
“I know what you mean,” I say. “Bob’s gone almost 20.” But it’s my husband who was robbed. I have lived to watch our grandchildren grow up. Cynthia and Bob are buried about 15 feet from each other. In the Jewish tradition, Alan and I will place small stones on their graves today.
When my husband met the family, an uncle asked him for $60 to buy two graves. Bob was 28. “Our first piece of real estate,” he managed to crack as he peeled off the bills.
I would wait until the last minute to tell Bob about a family event. I couldn’t admit to my mother that he didn’t want to go. I should have insisted we were an independent couple with plans of our own, but I was afraid of my mother and Bubbe.
No matter how old I got, they could always make me feel they had left me on the school steps to wait until dark. I was even willing to abandon my husband and go by myself. And now my Bob is spending eternity with relatives he didn’t want to see even one evening a month.
“Our family was so close when we were kids,” I say. “Now our children don’t know one another. You never told me Scott moved. What’s with this strictly funeral relationship we have? Surely we can do better.”
“We used to have fun, didn’t we?” Alan says. “Like that New Year’s when you let me stay up until midnight and we leaned out the window and banged pots and pans against the sill. You were the best babysitter. No one else came close.”
But he doesn’t apologize or promise to call me between deaths.
“And I loved the picnics when the older cousins would let us younger boys run bases,” Alan continues. “Remember those baseball games?”
“Of course. I thought the guys were cute.” They stripped down to their thin, white-ribbed undershirts and, after two hours in the hot sun, they all smelled the same, comforting and strong, like some pungent spice. “And the mothers warmed the babies’ milk bottles on the grill right next to the hot dogs and hamburgers,” I remind Alan.
“Hmm. Not exactly kosher.”
“You know a committee planned the picnics for months. Then one year it poured as hard as today, and at the next meeting, Uncle Herman announced, ‘Next year when we have our picnic, let’s have it on a nice day.’” I imitate his singsong.
Alan laughs. “Did he really say that?”
We drive through the gates toward a miniature skyline of gray monuments, so unlike the green lawns of our childhood. Looking for our plot, we study the changed landmarks. A giant mound of landfill rises at the edge of the cemetery.
“They don’t dump garbage there any more,” Alan says, but I see seagulls circling. The landfill appeared around the time Bob died. As the rabbi spoke over his grave, a yellow dump truck wove up the hill, piling waste and refuse into what must be the highest mountain in Nassau County. It still upsets me, but Bob would have laughed.
“There used to be a lawn right here where we tailgated after unveilings,” Alan says, when we pull over to the Feldman family plot. “Someone always brought a folding bridge table. There was schnapps, apple juice for the children and honey cake.”
“Another kind of picnic.”
“We were kids. What did we know? Everyone who died seemed ancient.”
People are gathering for the service, and Alan and I step into the downpour. I clutch the spokes of my umbrella. I don’t recognize any of the mourners, except Bernie, the husband of the cousin who died, his widowed sister, his grown son and daughter and Alan’s younger brother, whom I hardly know. We are a small family aboveground.
Florence’s coffin sinks downward on its canvas stretcher. The rain strengthens the smell of newly turned loam. The rabbi is asking us to place a shovelful of earth on the casket. A few closer to the grave take their turns, slow and hesitant. The soil is wet and heavy, the shovel hard to lift. I brace myself for the earthen thud and scatter of pebbles that assault the pine box again and again.
I walk along the pathway to my parents’ graves and Bob’s, pass Zayde’s and Bubbe’s and stop to read the names of her brothers and sisters. It is like the roll call she took at family meetings: “all present and accounted for.” I see and hear each of them, talking and gesticulating, treading on one another’s sentences.
Opposite lie some of their children and then, further along, Bubbe’s two daughters and their husbands, Alan’s parents and mine. I pluck a few small stones from the drenched soil and place them on my mother and father’s graves. I turn toward Bob’s and let a pure white pebble slip from my dirt-stained fingers. I want to tell him I am all right, the children and grandchildren, too. Cremation seems the best way to return a body to its natural state. If my own grave wasn’t waiting for me right here under the grass next to Bob, I might choose cremation.
Alan calls my name and I see him waiting at the curb, talking to his brother. At my funeral, Alan can introduce himself and his brother to my children.
“It’s sad,” I say on the drive back, “how the family fell apart. Your parents and mine refused to see each other for 15 years. They only got together because Bubbe was dying. I watched you learn to walk. I used to quote the funny things you said. Our parents stayed mad and I was just a kid and I couldn’t do anything about it.”
Alan presses buttons on the car radio. “That was a long time ago,” he says, barely audible.
“You know my father took yours into his business only as a favor to my mother. He trained him. And then your father started a competing company. He went off with Dad’s top salesman and his biggest customers. Our business suffered and my mom blamed herself.”
“You don’t know the whole story.” He turns off the radio. “We couldn’t forgive your dad. He owed mine $10,000 and never gave it back. My father couldn’t pay for my brother’s bar mitzvah.”
“And you believed him?” I can barely speak. “Does that sound like my father? He supported half the family. Every hard-luck story got a handout.”
“It doesn’t, but…”
I won’t say what I want to. Alan’s dad kept a mistress for years. That is why he had no money for the bar mitzvah. He died in her bed, and Alan identified the body.
And to blame my dad, divide the sisters and keep Alan and me apart for so long? What’s wrong with Alan? How could he trust that cheat and liar?
My face is hot, but Alan’s jaw remains clenched. Stubborn. (He would not blow out his candles to anything but “Jingle Bells” because he hated the birthday song.)
Yet, after Alan and I are gone, that’s it. We’re the only ones left who remember the explosive great-aunt we called “Vesuvius,” the other who knitted sweaters with armholes so tight we couldn’t move, the great-uncle who paid for my mother’s piano lessons, the second cousin who made gefilte fish every Passover in a big metal grinder or our Bubbe who marched through the city streets to demand the vote for women. Bubbe believed the cemetery plot would draw us all together year after year, but soon our family’s cherished piece of earth will fill with distant relatives who won’t know or care about that once-vibrant community of immigrants.
As we approach my corner, the rain lightens and the sky clears. I slam the door and he pulls away with my drenched old umbrella on the floor. I know I’ll never see that umbrella again, and I’ll see Alan only if we both make it to the next death in the family.
Marilyn Ogus Katz was dean of studies at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. This story is part of a forthcoming collection of short stories about a Jewish immigrant family in 1940s New York.