Stones of Memory, Part One, by David Schultz
The funeral director pointed at Grandma Hannah’s casket as it slid from the hearse. He said to me, “Morrie, please take hold of the handle.” Choosing me to replace the pallbearer who was out sick seemed okay because I was Grandma Hannah’s favorite grandchild; of course, they would not choose Pa – he was too old. I took hold of the handle, which felt cold despite its being all wood as the burial law requires. But the whole affair didn’t sit right with me. My Grandma in a box, and I would carry her that way?
Pines and tulip-poplars over and around us bordered the path we walked toward the gravesite. Looking up, I saw, fluttering in those leafy trees, a brownish-black thing shaped like my violin case. The owl sat soundless on the branch of a tufted pine against a curtain of eggshell cloud and seemed to be looking down at our group. I thought maybe he or she lived watching funerals and maybe kept silent out of respect.
End-of-life flowers from the tulip-poplars lay strewn over our path. It surprised me that they wafted a scent like cucumber in this place that was home only to graves. Their odor reminded me of Grandma’s dessert of cucumber, raisins, clove and cinnamon that she called compote. That sweet, nearly touchable, warm scent made the funeral feel more unreal to me.
When we were nearly at the grave, the bearer I walked behind slipped on some of the blossoms. The coffin tore from my hands – all our bearer hands — and landed at an angle inside the pit. Looking into the emptiness, I saw Grandma’s favorite shawl, the Russian one she had brought on the ship to America in the late 1920s — a shawl patterned with blue and pale-yellow flowers.
Pa, who limped, reached the grave a bit after the rest of us. He knelt on its edge for a few moments, then managed to lower himself to waist-height atop the coffin. I imagined that Grandma could have stood up, brushed herself off, addressed us all with “Children, we’re going home,” and mentioned the wonderful lunch she had planned for us. Also, I’d have wanted her to tweak my cheek and ask me to play a portion of the Brahms C-major violin sonata that I was practicing for my recital.
Back at the funeral home Pa had said to me in Yiddish, “Morrie, the globe has turned upside down for me.” Hearing that, I was sure that we would not work together again very soon. The screened porch was our sanctum where he sketched harmonies on a collapsible blackboard for me to play. He had concertized with the cello in Saint Petersburg, so I benefited from his professional musicianship. Grandma had made the porch a private place for just Pa and me: “Morrie, who knows, maybe you’ll play in Carnegie Hall some day.”
Shimon and Elly Beller were distant relatives that I met for the first time that day. They walked with the rest of us from the parking lot to the gravesite. Overhearing their conversation about their bolt-cloth business and the contributions they made to their synagogue, I realized that Shimon’s pinky ring with the tiger-eye rubies was not a toy from a cereal-box. He turned his double-chin to me, then to his wife:
“Ell, how come people take kids like him to a funeral? Are they meshugeh?”
Elly lifted her black half-veil, flashed a one-second smile in my direction and cuddled herself against his arm.
“Quiet, Shimmy,” she said, “he’s standing here.”
“Ell, years ago my father the rov – he should rest in peace – didn’t let me go to any funeral because I was too young. One time he told me to put on my tallit and say the prayers from our house for an uncle’s funeral, so why should we do different now?”
When we were all assembled at the grave, Shimmy walked to the edge. He called to Pa down in the pit, “Hey, no touching inside the box, it’s a sin.”
Pa, who had been a drum major in the Czar’s army, called back, “Mister, who made you boss here?” I liked that. A yellowed photo he once gave me shows him in the middle of a wide street, in front of the drummers, punctuating the battalion’s shouts of “Glory!” to Czar Alexander III with his baton.
I saw a white splotch on the shoulder of Shimon’s camel hair coat – maybe the owl had gotten him. I tried to keep a smile off my face, telling myself he was an adult.
When Pa lifted himself out of the pit, I did not see Grandma’s Star of David necklace in his hand anymore. The six pegs in the cover of the coffin had loosened during its fall, and now, having enough space in the grave, two workers climbed down to press them back into their holes. I wondered if Grandma heard the sound, only inches above her.
Rabbi Fried spoke to our group:
“Yesterday God took his daughter Hannah Leah back to him.” He mentioned a half dozen qualities — but not her funny side, the side I liked most. For instance, one day, before a recital I was going to play, she made my favorite dish: egg noodles, cottage cheese, peas and cinnamon. She wore her Russian shawl while I stood close to her at the stove.
“Morrie, your peas are black,” she said.
“Don’t you see them black in the pot, my Wunderkind son?” (She called me “son” I think, partly because my parents had died.)
I felt confused.
“Are the peas black, Ma?”
“Of course not, — they’re the same green ones you shelled. Not like the black gumballs you chewed while you were practicing.”
“Back when I was a little boy.”
“My big son.” she said, the top of her head reaching only to below my chest as she hugged me.
I sat down at the table, on the chair opposite Pa’s. Grandma straightened the tablecloth and served me a perfect lunch. She even served me ice cream for dessert. Then she went and brought a scissor.
“Sit still,” she said, “I’m going to trim your waves, Morrie. The audience should see your face to go with your name on the program.”
A dog appeared from between two gravestones about ten yards from our group and stood still, looking at us, whining. I had an urge to call to it but felt that would not be appropriate in this place. The dog came closer and rested its nose on the earth around Grandma’s grave. Shimon shambled toward it, waving his arms. The dog snarled at him. Shimon crouched to pick something up, probably a stone, and raised it over his head. I hoped he would not throw it at the dog. A whistle sounded from somewhere. The dog turned and trotted away. Shimon returned to our group.
“I could fix that animal real good,” he said to Elly, panting.
“Are you’re being a braggart, my darling?”
“A bragger. Yeah, they want me to sell the business out cheap, but I’m not giving up that way. Not your Shimon.” He flourished a heavy fist.
A cemetery worker threw a switch and Grandma’s coffin, which was suspended by ropes above the pit, started downward. Then it stopped and hung in the air. Workers bustled to free it by hand. I moved toward them, but before I could realize what was happening, it was moving again. When it reached pit bottom, Rabbi Fried said that anybody who wished could throw a shovelful of earth onto the coffin. I could not make myself throw earth onto Grandma. Two workers shoveled more earth into the pit. When they finished the job, I ached at only seeing earth down there.
Rabbi Freed chanted the mourner’s prayer.
At the prayer’s end, Pa spoke my name, “Morrie,” while his hand circled my wrist. At my parents’ double-funeral I had stood at their graves and cried until my Aunt Deborah, Pa’s daughter, wrapped her arms around me. But today I forced myself not to make a sound, mainly for Pa’s sake.
I heard a voice behind me and turned.
I’m needing some stones,” Shimon was saying to a grave worker who held a shovel.
“I got none, like I told ya, mister,” the worker said.
“Jews leave a visitor-stone on the grave, so how come you got none?
“I know, but I got no more. I gave ‘em to everybody who wanted stones.”
The look on Shimon’s face told me he thought the man was negligent or maybe lying.
A second worker pulled a handful of stones from his overalls.
“’Here, ya can have ‘em,” he said, extending them to Shimon.
“That’s better,” Shimon said. He took all the stones and placed them on the edge of Grandma’s grave. I picked up a small blue stone from the ground and left it on the grave.
I walked to Rabbi Fried’s car behind Shimon and Elly. The tailpipe belched clouds of smoke in a steady rhythm. Sitting in the car and hearing the rain that had just begun to fall, I thought, Things that seem sure to last, to continue moving steadily, in a steady rhythm, always stop — nothing goes on unchanged — nothing. When my mother and father were in the hospital after their accident, someone in a white suit told my Aunt and me out in the hall that their vital signs were encouraging. A little while later he returned and told her that the signs had weakened. He came back a last time and told us, “They went really fast, without much pain.” That day, I didn’t stop sobbing until past midnight, looking through my bedroom window at a full moon.
Rabbi Fried drove us home with me sitting behind him and Elly next to me. Pa and my Aunt rode in another car. The rain and wind surged — brown and rusty leaves slapped at my window. I saw my parents and Grandma’s faces in some of them. The word “forlorn” had dug into my mind; I had been telling it to myself while we waited for the limo that would bring us to the cemetery. Out in the wind, Pa had told me he was “farloyren” – lost. He had seemed to be chewing on something, but we hadn’t yet eaten a thing that day. While we were standing next to the coffin, he reached out to touch my face but only got my skullcap. I reached into my pockets for some sesame squares left over from my confirmation, but my fingers only touched some crumbly, boiled chickpeas. I felt it might be insulting if I offered them, so I didn’t take them out. But I had wanted badly to give him something… something.
“Rabbi, they let the box fall – such lousy workers!” Shimon, who was sitting next to Rabbi Fried in the car, growled through the monogrammed handkerchief he held over his nose. “I got this bolt-cloth business, Rabbi, in a big warehouse. My workers do fork-lifting, storing, rollup, rollout, everything, and I pay them decent, believe me. But when bad workers give me aggravation, I tell them take a long walk. Finished.”
“I see, Mr. Beller,” Rabbi said.
“Specially I don’t like screw-ups in my contracts from the government.”
“Do you think the world needs all those war contracts, Mr. Beller?”
“Right. But now I got leftover goods big-time in the warehouse. Wise-guys in the business want me to sell it cheap – cheap for them. You got to know your business, Rabbi. Anyway, who’s gonna talk to them funeral home people?”
“About what, Mr. Beller?”
“They let the box drop because they used a kid – on the cheap!”
Rabbi took one hand off the steering wheel and raised it. “Please, Mr. Beller.”
Shimon turned to me. “You got lots of curls,” he said with a put-on smile.
“Shush, Shimmy,” Elly said. “Maybe his mother liked it. And he plays the violin.”
Shimon targeted me again. “You play any good? My daughter got a full piano scholarship to Julliard.”
I might have told him that I had been studying with a virtuoso since age six and had a Town Hall recital coming up. But I figured that this might only make him louder and more distracting. I pulled a little bag of licorice out of my coat, put a piece into my mouth, and offered the bag to Elly.
“It’s kosher,” I said.
She thanked me, took two pieces and offered one to Shimon.
“It’s kosher?” he said.
“Of course it is, Shimmy,” she said. “Morton just told us that.”
He unwrapped the piece and threw the cellophane out of the window, keeping the licorice in his hand.
Elly said to him, “It will sweeten your bad taste, Shimmy.”
I didn’t see what he did with the piece of licorice.
Tune in next week for Part Two.