78. Jesse and Esther
Jesse was my motherís only sibling, six years her senior. He was eighty-nine and in the end simply decided to give up eating. Well, maybe itís not so simple. The end came in 2004. He had just come out of a five month sojourn in the hospital.
My mother, Esther, could not be bothered with driving the seventy-three miles to the King Solomon Cemetery in Clifton, New Jersey. She would not have gone had I not volunteered to take the day off from work to drive her. My cousin Ellen, who assured Esther it would be okay if she didnít come, sounded grateful when I called to say we would be there. I explained I was a bit uncomfortable about attending, because I had the impression Uncle Jesse disliked me and would not have wanted me there. Ellen didnít disagree, but chuckled and said he could be difficult. So Esther and I, together with Ms Keogh, my cherished companion, went to Jesseís funeral.
I had previously told my mother I didnít want her to say anything disrespectful about her brother while we were within a mile of the cemetery. She promised she wouldnít, was insulted that I thought she didnít know how to behave.
Meanwhile, during the long drive north, we tolerated the tiresome retellings of various injuries she suffered at the hands of her brother, stories we had heard hundreds of times. For example, she retold the story of how she won a giant crayon in school. She never had a crayon before and was thrilled. She was all of six years old. Jesse was twelve. Jesse insisted on the rights of the first born male to be given half the crayon, perhaps not putting it in exactly those terms. In any case, little Esther refused, until Jesse brought it to the attention of their mother. Their mother defended his privilege. Jesse broke the crayon in two, taking for himself the larger portion. Esther never forgave him. She held such grudges her entire life and that was just the earliest example. She made the drive tedious and imbued the occasion with the wrong sentiment.
Anyone who met my mother for the first time, was usually impressed with her vitality. She saw to it that everybody ate. If she knew beforehand what you liked, she would see to it that she had it on hand before you arrived. She could be an excellent host and if you didnít eat, she was certain she was doing something wrong. Despite her focus on food, Esther herself remained slender her entire adult life. This fit her uncommon sense of style, her excellent taste in clothes.
Esther had a fantastic sense of interior decorating, yet did not have a good sense of decorum. She could be inappropriate and unintentionally discourteous. She launched into public tantrums with my father. She didnít perceive herself to be rude, but she was a self-absorbed narcissist, an incessant talker, who never let anybody else finish a sentence. Men tolerated it because she was attractive. Women either learned to talk over her or sat quietly regarding her as an entertainment. When it came to solemn affairs, Esther would prattle away, gossiping and laughing, even making snide remarks when she thought no one else could hear. She was a very critical woman, but only behind other peopleís backs. Her husband and children she could criticize to their face and publicly. Still, thinking no one else could hear rarely spared her, being hard of hearing, perhaps effectively deaf later in life. She was loud despite her inadequate hearing aid. Her whispers could be heard a room away.
Even if no one else did hear, she was utterly indifferent to my own sensitivity, forgetting her promise and bitterly complaining about her brother while we were in the cemetery. ďNo one can hear,Ē she said, ďweíre in the car.Ē She was in the car. I was standing alongside the car, the door wide opened, and she speaking especially loud to be certain I could hear.
There wouldnít be many mourners. Besides the three of us, my cousin, her husband, their only daughter, there were only two other guests, a friend of my cousinís and an acquaintance from my cousinís synagogue. We were early, but Jesse was late. If I remember correctly, the hearse had a flat tire.
We waited for the procession of vehicles to arrive, taking shelter from the rain in a reception building. Esther began gabbing to the only other early arrival, the member from my cousinís congregation.
Since I had forbidden my mother from disrespecting her brother while we were within a mile of the cemetery, she diverted her pent up vitriol disrespecting my father, dead ten years at the time. She began by confirming with me that my father, Louis, had been buried at the very edge of a local cemetery. Then she explained how she recently learned that in the Jewish tradition prostitutes (are there Jewish prostitutes?) were buried at the cemeteryís edge. She turned to this stranger and asked if she knew if this was true. The woman replied, ďI donít know, but my entire family is buried along the edge of the cemetery.Ē My mother changed the subject.
That wasnít the worst moment. The worst moment came later, when we were invited to take the shovel to toss a bit of dirt on to the coffin that was finally resting at the bottom of the grave. When it was Estherís turn, she made a big show in front of everybody of pushing past her brotherís grave to reach the grave on the far side. The attendant tried to redirect her, thinking she was confused, but she shoved past him. This was the grave of my beloved Aunt Florence, Jesseís saintly wife, adored by all of us; she died nine years earlier. My mother wanted to place ďtwoĒ stones on Florenceís grave - remembrance. She did genuinely love her sister-in-law more than her own brother, but she could have done this act of memorial at any other time and not when everybody was focused on her.
Satisfied at displaying her affection for her sister-in-law, Esther then turned her attention to the reason we were there. She took a big shovelful of dirt, so much as to have trouble lifting it, and threw it sideways with indifference into the grave. Having made this important demonstration of her feelings, she moved out of the way for the next person. It never occurred to her that her display might hurt the feelings of the living.
During the ceremony I stood apart from the others. I had multiple reasons. First, I didnít want to be next to my embarrassing mother. Second, I didnít believe I should have been there because I donít think Uncle Jesse would have wished it. Third, I wanted to be alone with my own thoughts. I was sad about his death on many different levels. I never actually hated the man and always suspected there were good parts to him, the fault being in my understanding. After all, Florence married him, and their only daughter and only granddaughter turned out splendid and exceptional. I even once met a friend of his who only had high praise for Jesse. Jesse had reasons to dislike me. I talked back when he had insulted me. Also, I was my fatherís son and he never much liked my father. He recognized my father for being the rascal and con that he was. Uncle Jesse never knew me and I never knew him.
I took a turn to toss dirt into my uncleís grave, but I waited until the others were finished and had stepped away. I didnít want to make a show of my feelings. I didnít want to use the shovel, it was too insular to the meaning of the experience. The dirt was actually mud and later was hard to clean off my hands with my handkerchief, yet I would not have had it any other way.
I stood over the grave and looked down at Uncle Jesseís plain pine box. It had no brass ornaments, not even handles or hinges. Nor is a Jewish coffin supposed to have such things. There was only the wood Magen David on the casket. Ah, but the casket had been stained, was a lovely mahogany tone. I dropped the mud into the grave and it hit the Magen David like a stone knocking it off. Very embarrassing, but I donít think anyone else saw.
Esther started in again about her brother as we piled into the car. I, rather forcefully, reminded her of the earlier promise. When we had driven a mile from the cemetery, I announced it so that she could relax her imagined self-restraint.
A few years after the funeral, I had begged Esther for one nice story about her brother. It took some thought, searching deep into the past, but she remembered when her mother used to braid her long auburn hair. Little Esther didnít want her hair long; she wanted it fashionably shorter. Her mother kept putting her off, saying she would soon give her the money to have her hair cut, but it never came. Eventually, her brother came forward with the money to have her hair cut, saying their mother was never really going to allow it. Perhaps Jesse was only trying to get his little sister in trouble, but my mother remembered it as a kind act. After I had learned that story, whenever Esther began to retell one of her contemptuous stories of her brother, I made a point of interrupting it and reminding her of the timeÖ.
Selected Suburban Soliloquies, the best of Mr Bentzman's earlier series of Snakeskin essays, is available as a book or as an ebook, from Amazon and elsewhere.