08 February 2013


In July, after the third day of saying Kaddish for Mom, I was wrapping up my tefilin and talit when I noticed an elderly man who I hadn't seen in thirty years:  a distant cousin of my father's who always had a kindly and warm presence during my childhood when I'd see him at family events, at the deli, and through brief waves from his car as he passed our house on his way home from work. 

His cherubic face was set against a dark wooden wall with brass memorial plates bearing names of deceased Milwaukeeans--cousins, friends, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles of those I grew up with.  The image has remained with me.  He hadn't heard about Mom's death til the day after the funeral, he explained.  He had been down in Chicago visiting his grandchildren and when he came back up to town and caught up on his newspaper reading, he saw the death notice.  What a nice lady, he said.  And his face smiled, a kind of bald, glowing levitation, bobbing whimsically among the names of dead behind him.

"I used to stop in and see her at the store," he said.  "I'd lean into her counter and catch up on everything.  And sometimes we'd just talk--which would usually annoy the customers behind me who actually wanted to buy something," he added, laughing.  "She was easy to talk to."

He himself was long retired from retail and expressed a great appreciation for Mom's continuing to work.  She had to, of course--one of her enduring needs that she managed to express as a virtue: a quality I greatly admired.  

On the occasions when we spoke on the phone over the last twenty years, the counter at the store was the source of information from where she got her information--births and deaths; cancers and recoveries; marriages, divorces; failures and triumphs.  One imagined, despite it's over-lit, florescent suburban-malled department store decor (nauseated enough?  should I add the Muzak?) a kind of Town Square ledge or General Store countertop where neighbors shared news that greased the curious minds of every day commerce.

In Mom's mind's eye, I'm certain this imagined setting is what made the work bearable.

Each day this week I have been stopping in to a local business where the family that runs the business is mourning the tragic and untimely death of a brother.  At forty-four, he inexplicably died of a heart attack.  The family is understandably devastated and are doing their best to endure, to mourn, to understand, and also to keep the business going.  Today when I went into the store, customers were buying challahs for Shabbat and other culinary delights and while usually these small transactions elicits smiles and playful small talk, lately there has been a pall hanging above the exchanges, a truly and understandable mournfulness that, in its expression, is shared; and in being shared is, hopefully, a source of relief.

I invited the family to come say Kaddish for their brother, to give life to his memory, to keep him with us.  And promised that in the weeks to come, we'd say his name at our services, talk about him, over transactions like, "Shabbat Shalom" and "how's your health" and "be careful in the snow!"  Tears filled their eyes; challah and money passed hands; customers offered condolences; snow fell outside the window.  

Their heads, slowly shaking in confusion over a life stolen too soon, seemed to float against the storefront glass, the untethered grief of the mourner, finding his way amidst the simple, poetic chaos of a daily life still too strange to fully embrace.  

Like the brass names of those long dead back home, I imagined this brother's name on the storefront glass, his spoken name at Kaddish time tomorrow, those letters penetrating to the heart and soul of eternity.


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