I wrote this after visiting a cemetery with my four-year-old girl, Stella.
There is fascination and there is obsession. Between the two is a line. It may or may not be a thin line. But there is a point, a line, a point along a line, a line of infinite points, across which fascination – which is healthy – becomes obsession – which is not. The subject now is death. The fascination is hers. The obsession is his.
They are now in his apartment, a two-room attic studio on the third floor of a nondescript house on the harder edge of a transitional neighborhood. Down the street is more residential, but his house is on the corner, closer to the business district: a pub, a few convenience stores, a deep-discount supermarket that stocks brand-name seconds and brands that have never advertised themselves anywhere. Just beyond that on the other side of the street is a strip club that is one more knifing away from being closed for good. Amateur night was three nights ago, but he’s not interested – the girls are probably only four years older than his older daughter.
His house, then, is a demarcation point, signifying the split between residential and commercial areas.
He is with his younger daughter, Stella, nearly five, nearly a decade younger than her sister. The difference in age can be explained largely by the mismatched libidos of he and his soon-to-be-ex-wife. Like the lottery commercials say, you have to play to win. Not much chance they’d get pregnant having sex half a dozen times a year. And yes, boom, one day when they least expected it, they got lucky. But luck is relative. Money was already tight, the marriage already in trouble. Tension grew. Eventually, she wanted him out of their bedroom. So he slept in the den for more than a year before finding the cheapest apartment available that was close to his kids.
The wall in the den against which the futon couch that served as his bed stood abutted the bedroom he used to share with his wife. That wall was a demarcation. It separated man and wife; it was a physical symbol of the distance between them.
Now, the older daughter is at school. The wife is working. He is alone with Stella. He is thinking of what they can do together. Just a mile from his apartment is an old Jewish cemetery where his paternal great-grandparents are buried. He decides they should visit. He likes to visit them anyway.
They get ready to leave. She is excited. When she gets excited, she jumps up and down. He tells her she can’t be do that in his apartment. Why? Because there are other people living underneath them. The sound disturbs them. It’s not like her house where the whole place is hers. Here, the floor distinguishes between one tenant and another. It is another demarcation, a boundary of personal space in a place that is only partly private.
They go out his door, down the back staircase, through the side door of the house, and onto a short paved path to the sidewalk. They cross the street to his car and drive to the cemetery. They arrive quickly. The cemetery is small, smaller than a supermarket. The stones are old and covered in a mix of words and symbols, English text and Hebrew text, mold, moss, and lichen. His great-grandparents, Max and Rose, are in the rear. As they walk, Stella starts to skip ahead.
No running, he tells her. Why? It’s not respectful, he says. What do you mean? A cemetery is a place to think about your loved ones who are gone. We don’t run or play here because it can disturb other people. It disturbs the sanctity (he thinks but does not say because she won’t know what the word means). You mean it’s like in your apartment, she asks, why I can’t jump on the floor because I’ll disturb the people downstairs?
He smiles. Yes, it’s the same. You don’t want to disturb the people downstairs. People like Max and Rose, downstairs permanently. The ground, this ground itself, is a demarcation between the living and the dead. And so they walk on to Max and Rose’s resting place, and there he begins to tell her about them.
What’s going on up there?
Someone’s up there, Max. Who is it?
What do you think, I have eyes in my skull? How am I supposed to know who’s up there?
It’s two voices, a man and a girl.
OK, so now you know. It’s a man and a girl.
We’ve been here many years, you longer than me, when have we ever heard a little girl?
How do you know it’s a girl? Maybe it’s just a bird?
Oh sure, so a man and a bird are standing above us talking to each other. Smart, Max, you’re really smart.
Well, what difference does it make? It’s not like they’re digging us up.
I just want to know who’s visiting us. Very few people come to this lousy little cemetery at all and I’ve never heard a girl come to us. Now go find out who they are.
Rose, I’d love to go see who they are for you, really I would. But you see, I’m dead.
Excuses! Send your spirit form up there and take a look.
All right, all right. You want I should scare them away?
No, you schmuck! Be invisible. Just take a peek and let me know who’s up there. Gevalt!
Twenty-seven years she outlived me. Twenty-seven years I had peace and quiet.
I heard that!
OK, let’s see, activate spirit form, turn invisible, float out of the box, up through the ground; WHOA, that sun is bright! Now who do we have here? Ah, it’s him again. Nice boy, a real mensch. Doesn’t forget his elders. But who’s this little cutie? With red hair no less! Who had red hair? Must be his daughter. He’s reading our Hebrew names to her. Mordecai and Raisel. Telling her our journey from Pinsk, Russia, to Chelsea, Massachusetts. Little more than 100 years ago now. Well, anyway, no threat to us. Time to report back to the boss.
He never knew Max, but Rose lived to be 101, long enough to dance the hora at his bar mitzvah and well beyond that. Three years ago, a chance glance at an envelope of documents he’d been given by his aunt a few years earlier revealed Max’s naturalization certificate. It had the date and place of Max’s birth, the date he left the old country, the name of the ship he sailed on, and the date he arrived at Ellis Island. As it turned out, the following year would mark Max’s centennial anniversary of coming to America.
Intrigued by the discovery, he announced to his family that he was going to research Max’s story and asked their help in setting up a commemoration on or near the anniversary of Max’s arrival. He interviewed great aunts and uncles, did research online, and gradually pieced together the story. The czar was conscripting Jews into his army, though otherwise denying them basic rights. Max’s brother left for America and having received word that he was OK, the man known officially as Morche Rubacha soon decided he should go, too.
By that time, Max and Rose were married and had two children – one of whom was Stella’s great-grandfather, Harry. Yet Rose also was pregnant with a third child. Still, a distant Max was preferable to a dead Max, so he went. When he got to New York, his plan was to live with his brother. He had a little difficulty finding him, though, because his brother had changed his last name from Rubacha to Rubin. Max followed suit, also ditching Morche and Mordecai for the simple and quintessentially American “Max”.
Max was a carpenter by trade, and the following year the Great Chelsea Fire of April 12, 1908, destroyed most of the inner urban suburb of Boston. Assuming there would be plenty of work for him, Max left his brother and New York and relocated to Chelsea. Three years later, Rose and their three children finally came to America and rejoined him. They quickly built their family to an eventual 11 children. Longevity being a Rubin trait (actually, it was from Rose’s side, given she outlived Max by nearly three decades), Stella’s father had many primary information sources at his disposal. Interestingly, it was only in beginning his research that his own father told him that Max and Rose were buried a short drive from his house. From that time, he had been a regular visitor.
It’s the blond guy again, with his daughter. Oy, such a shayna punim. And a gingit, too!
You mean, Jason? He’s Harry’s grandson. Paul is his father. I tell you that every time.
OK, so his name is Jason. Look, I was dead before he came. I had a hard enough time remembering my own children’s names.
So what’s with the redhead?
Nothing. She’s cute. A little kid. The red hair must be from your side.
I don’t remember any redheads in my family. Must be from Paul’s wife’s side.
Mildred, you remember, but you don’t remember Jason?
Mildred was alive when I was alive!
Yes, but they have the same coloring. Her mother’s people were from Austria.
They have gingits in Austria?
Well, they’re very fair.
And what? We discriminate? Ho ho ho!
You’re not funny, Max, you’re not funny. You weren’t funny then. You’re not funny now.
Oh, no Rose. That was funny. That was funny!
Longevity had its limits, though. When he was only one year old, his sister, Donna, died of leukemia. She was only seven. Paul and Mildred were devastated, especially Mildred, who could not endure any mention of Donna and would not allow any photos of her to be displayed. He has no memory of her – did not, in fact, know about her until he was about five or six and a friend relayed what he’d been told by his parents – yet he has always felt guilty about having been a needy toddler during a time when his parents were intensely mourning. Surely, he feels, there must have been a pall cast over the house, an interruption in the blissful focus of a deepening parent-child bond.
He never felt unloved, but he did feel loss. His mother became overprotective and he complied with her wishes never to wander far, at least until he was a teenager. If he so much as sneezed, his mother would chase him with a thermometer. When he was older, if he stayed out late, she stayed up late. Yet starting when he was in grade school, night thoughts of death – of laying within a closed coffin forever – brought terrors he could not subdue on his own. He went when he was younger into his parents’ bed; as he got older, he used drugs to clear his mind of the scary images.
In his adolescence he hit upon a new strategy, that Donna was his guardian angel. Close calls on the ball field, fevers that broke, even a rough airplane ride that unnerved even the seasoned flight attendants but landed safely were all evidence that she was watching out for him. Yet still, death was always the enemy. The eternal finality of death was an idea to be fought.
As a young man out of college, hitting the great incline of life, he was moved by being present at a relative’s funeral. He realized that funerals calmed him, gave life meaning even if it settled no great questions about death. The eulogies told him that lives well lived are well-remembered. The rituals brought dignity to the transition from the known world of the living to the unknowable world beyond. Even pure expressions of grief – the clutched tissues of which there never are enough to stem the streams of tears, the babbled words and wails of an elderly spouse now alone – impressed him.
He began attending any funeral or burial in his social circle. He began frequenting cemeteries, visiting and communing with his own lost loved ones. He took comfort in being close to death, but always on the safe side of it. Always he could walk away.
And then he became a parent, and life and death took on new meaning to him. He had to be alive for his children, and yet his love for them was so deep and strong that he knew he would take a bullet for them, would stand in front of a racing car to protect them. He had a fantasy that someone would try to abduct one of his daughters, he would catch the fiend and beat his skull open on the sidewalk. That was how he could adequately express his love for them.
But he did more. He talked to them about his mother, now dead. About Donna. About his grandparents. About Max and Rose. The older one was sensitive and it was kept from her that cemeteries contain dead bodies. But the younger one seized life and knowledge. She knew already, no doubt the older one told her. But she wasn’t scared. She was fascinated. Curious. She wanted to play where dead bodies lay. So she joined him there.
She amazed him. For a long time, he blamed her birth on his financial and marital troubles. But her unceasingly wide-eyed enthusiasm for life captivated him. She may indeed have been the last straw that ended her parents’ marriage, but it was a doomed marriage anyway. She made it possible for them to move on with their lives with less stress, anger, and misery. She made him see that things could be better, that the future was less hopeless and scary. That life was still worth living – and for her sake, to keep on living was essential.
She, then, was herself a demarcation. A demarcation between a painful past and a hopeful future. Between a fear of death and a new appreciation for life.
So, what are they talking about?
How do you ask such a question? I would strangle you if you weren’t already dead, you aggravate me so much. Jason and the girl, of course!
He’s telling her my story, what else?
Your story, huh? Your story? Your story is not such a story. You came here in a boat. You lived with your brother. You moved to find work. When were you planning on sending for me? After a while I couldn’t wait anymore. I came, not alone, but with three children! Did he mention that?
Yes, he mentioned it. He’s a good kid, may God keep him on that side for many years to come.
It’s good that he tells our story. He’s a real mensch that one. As long as he tells our story, we live. He should know that. He should know that you’re never really dead until you’re forgotten. And you’re never fully alive until you know your history. He should know that.
He knows, Rose. He knows.