Two summers ago when Aunt Freda died, David and I stopped in Worcester, where Sam was living, to pick him up on the way to the funeral in Connecticut.
“I told someone I was going to a funeral,” Sam said as we drove south. “And he said he’d never been to a funeral. ‘What?’ I said. ‘You’re a senior in college and you’ve never been to a funeral? I’ve been a pall bearer like six times.'”
Eric came from a close family, with small generations. His mother had four siblings, and of the five in that generation, only two had children, five total, and of those five, again only two had children, again totaling five. Three generations of five meant that my children, two of the third set of five, had numerous great aunts and uncles who were like grandparents. Every trip to Connecticut to visit Eric’s parents included all these aunts and uncles who’d never had children of their own. Adrienne and Sam were like grandchildren to them, and family gatherings and festivals and parties were rich with an older generation, full of love and delight in watching our children grow up.
But the other side of that richness is the loss. Over the past 30 years, we’ve lost ten close relatives, and only Natalie, Eric’s mother, is left. Last Wednesday morning, Natalie’s brother Ben didn’t show up at schul as usual, didn’t make his usual morning calls, and his phone was continually busy. Burton, Eric’s cousin, went over to his house and saw through the window that Ben was sitting slumped in his reading chair. The newspaper was scattered on the floor and the phone was off the hook.
The funeral was Friday, early, because the burial couldn’t be done on Thanksgiving, the funeral home said they wouldn’t do it. To obey religious law, the burial needed to be completed before mid-day, which the Rabbi determined meant 11:35. So at 6:00 a.m. I was scraping ice off my car to make driving peep holes, and got on the road.
When I pulled into the funeral home, the men in dark coats were waiting. “Are you going to the cemetery?” When I said yes they had me pull my car into line, gave me an orange tag for my rear view mirror, and put a suction cup flag on my car. “Funeral,” it announced, black letters on orange. After the service, we made the familiar drive, headlights on high beams, emergency flashers blinking, through New Haven, across the harbor, to the cemetery in East Haven.
As we drove down the narrow lane with the fenced cemetery on either side, I watched the head stones flashing behind the iron fence rails. The clouds that had produced ice up north and rain in New Haven were lifting. Cars were turning in the muddy circle at the end of the lane and coming back towards me, pulling over to park heading back out to the main road. Cars in, cars out, fence rails slipping by black and straight, dark faced stones carved with name, Hebrew and Stars of David, people getting out of cars and walking through the gate to the small tent next to the new grave. I took Natalie’s hand and helped her to a seat.
After Aunt Fagel’s funeral, the year before Eric died, I said to him, “You introduced me to all these old people in your family who I love and now they’re all dying. It’s hard to lose so many people.”
“Ah,” he said. “But they weren’t old when I brought them into your life.”