05 June 2014

Your Mother's Is Better

Mourning, we sometimes forget, can be a heavy fog, dulling perception and the precise measure of things.

My father's date of death, for instance:  March 22, 1983.  I seem remember everything that happened that day, a cold spring afternoon, just this side of winter.  In the repetition of the telling, my pen drifts across a page in my favorite lecture; I get distracted and head home; my uncle has driven up to Madison from Milwaukee to break the news and I know the moment I see him.  I hastily pack and travel home to my family.  I remember the dull, beige brush at the side of the highway;  the cool condensation on the car window; a hug from my sisters; silence and confusion from my younger brother.

But now, when I look down at the only artifact left over from those grim first few days, a small yellowed document that had been taped to the bottom of the urn which held my dad's cremated remains, I'm surprised to see that we didn't do the nasty deed until a full six days after he died.  It's not that we cremated him that alters my perception of the past--but that I have virtually no memory of the days that followed his death but one:  the trip to the funeral home with my siblings and uncle; the shopping for a casket; my sister's moral objection to burying dad against his wishes (he had wanted to be cremated); and the spontaneous, unanimous agreement that his wish would be fulfilled.
Six whole days of what?  Where did they go?  Hung, like an invisible tapestry with a one word message:  Loss.

After the funeral, at my uncle's house, my dad's brother made a special request to hold on to the remains for a while, keep them up on the mantel.  It bothered me on one hand; on the other, they were brothers, after all, sons of the same mother, my beloved grandmother, whose own heavy, depressive nature was counterbalanced by her soft skin, her beautiful smile, her ample breast, and her delicious cooking.

Grandma fed me sour kugel and sweet blintzes in a wasted effort to fatten me up.  As a kid my dad and I would go pick up my grandparents for meals at our house (followed by bridge) on most Saturdays and Sundays and while Dad and Grandpa sat in the front of his Olds Cutlass, I snuggled in the back with Grandma, being fed warm kugel, by hand.  "You're a Jew," she'd say.  And I'd nod obediently.
At Grandpa's funeral their apartment was loaded with people--family, friends, neighbors, patients and colleagues from Grandpa's medical practice--and food.  All kinds.  My grandma, who was devastated, depressed and nearly suicidal from the loss, poked her head into the kitchen at one point to explain to my mother and aunt as they scrambled to bake another kugel, that it required large curd cottage cheese.  What do shiksas know?

It's amazing what one remembers.

Anyway, within six years grandma was gone and four years later we lost Dad to his heart attack.  When my uncle asked to hold the ashes, it seemed like the right thing to do.  Until he lost them.  Each spring I'd roll into town for a family gathering, call him up, pay a visit, and ask for the ashes back.  I had become more serious about Jewish observance and felt a deep need to inter them, to get them into the ground beside his ancestors.  (Shortly after 2000, when he retired to the south, my uncle found the urn, delivered them to my sister, and we were finally able to bury Dad's ashes.)   I had come to believe, as I still do, that the dislocation his mother knew--a refugee from Kopyl, Minsk in 1903, a town ultimately obliterated by the Nazis in 1942, all 2500 of its inhabitants killed--was the tapestry of Loss that hung over her life.  And that America, as wonderful as it was, represented not what could be but what was.  Then.  Over there.  The hallowed ground of the cemeteries in Milwaukee, where those immigrants from Minsk and Pinsk are buried, meant the world to her.  It meant she came from somewhere.  Had roots.  Had a story to tell.

As a kid I'd follow her there with Dad.  We'd plant flowers.  Sit in the car under a tree.  Get lineages right.  But mostly Grandma would remain silent.  Present in her loss.

Without a doubt this was a burden that was too much for my dad or uncle to bear.  They took themselves seriously as Jews but never paid too much mind to the rules.  And for them, first generation, the call of America was the music that animated their souls.  And luckily for me, food was the fuel that made their engines run.

When Dad and Mom split up, I'd spend weekends with Dad and each Friday we'd go to Benji's Deli, the East Side Eden of Milwaukee's Jews.  We'd order blintzes, or hoppel poppel, watch a game on the tv, and talk to Dad's cousins who we'd often see eating there as well.  There parents were either dead or aging, too, and so the restaurant became a kind of mysterious memory salon, where souls and recipes hovered, benevolently, on those who had come to eat and remember.

About the blintzes, of course, Dad always said what you'd expect a good son to say:  "It's not as good as my mother's."

We buried dad's ashes on a hill overlooking Miller Park, where the Brewers now play.  And nearly thirty years later, and forty since their divorce, we laid Mom to rest nearby.

Through the fog of mourning and memory I recall this well:  At Dad's funeral my brother-in-law told a story about how Dad, who lived in regret of his own behavior and wished he could take Mom back, used to go to their house for Sunday dinner and that my sister would make my dad's favorite meal that Mom made--meat loaf.  "It's good," he'd say to my sister, "but your mother's is better."

Last night, inspired by Tablet's recipe page and my recent trip to Russ & Daughter's Cafe, I made a chopped salad and homemade blintzes for Shavuot.
Rachel and the girls seemed to genuinely like it and I have to say it turned out well.  Grandma would have been proud.  "What did you learn today, son?" she may have asked.  With blintzes, trout, beets, eggs and red onions in the air, and yahrzeit candles scattering with ease the fog of mourning, I might have said, "We Jews mourn and remember and observe and eat better than anybody."

Good boy.

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