The Litany of Dead Men

 

by

 

Debby Waldman

 

Men don't last long in my family. My father's father, who couldn't hold a job most of his adult life because he was constantly bedridden with bad coughs and congested lungs, died at 45. My father's only brother inherited the cough and the lungs. He was buried at 27. My mother's father, who I remember mostly from home movies, lived to be 60, which may seem like a long time, but my grandmother not only outlived him, she outlived his replacement, a man ten years her junior. I think she figured he'd last longer, being younger and all, but he passed away a few years after the wedding.

My mother, the youngest of five children, became the first widow in her generation when my father, at 37, dropped dead. He was standing in front of a three-way mirror at the clothing store he owned with my mother's only brother, pins in his mouth and a tape measure draped around his neck. He was about to tack up the left cuff of Bill McCarthy's plaid golf pants when he stumbled backwards. Mr. McCarthy grabbed him, but my father fell too fast. He collapsed into a heap, Mr. McCarthy on top of him. A pin started down my father's throat, but he never felt it; he was dead by the time he hit the floor.

I was nine and my sister was eleven and we were made to believe that we were special because our father had died so young. People fussed over us, coddled us, brought us books and cookies and hugged us until we reeked from perfume and cologne, and our cheeks and foreheads looked like lipstick blotters.

"You poor, dear children." I lost track of how many times I heard it, and from whom. All our aunts and uncles showed up at the funeral, the cousins in tow. Within ten years, the aunts would be widows, the cousins without fathers. But at the time we were special for what we didn't have, and they were superior for what they had not yet lost.

Aunt Flossie, my mother's oldest sister, was the next widow. Her husband, my Uncle Max, died in his sleep the night before his fiftieth birthday. He'd been having a nightmare — flailing in his sleep moaning, "Oy, Richard, where did I go wrong?" and Aunt Flossie had to push him back and forth to wake him up ("It was like kneading bread," she told the family later).

"I dreamed Richard dropped out of medical school," Uncle Max told her. "He was turning to religion, he said, and he was wearing one of those robes that priests wear — the kind with the flat white collars."

"Max! Stop talking nonsense!" But Aunt Flossie was worried, more that he might be right (Richard had been having trouble at medical school) than that he was so upset about the dream. Uncle Max had been having nightmares all his life — something to do with too much sugar in his bloodstream. In 28 years of marriage, Aunt Flossie had learned that playing tough worked better than his purple sleeping pills. How was she supposed to know it wasn't going to work this time? After all, he did go back to sleep. But in the morning, when the alarm went off, he didn't respond.

"Max, turn it off," she said, reaching over him to do it herself, certain that the pressure of her body against his would provoke a reaction. He would push her away like he always did when he wasn't ready to get out of bed. But when it became apparent that he wasn't going to wake up, she hugged him close to her. With her free hand, she dialed the hospital, which sent an ambulance roaring through town just as the street lights were going off.

A different sort of crowd turned out for Uncle Max's funeral. "All of these people are so old," I said to my sister as we sat in the funeral parlor, waiting for Aunt Flossie and her children, Richard, Leila, Andrea and Cynthia, to walk down the side aisle as we had done just a year earlier.

"Older than what?"

"Older than the people at Dad's funeral."

"Well of course they're older, Sharon. Uncle Max was older."

"Girls!" My mother leaned over and smacked our hands lightly. She was wearing the black hat and veil from our father's funeral, only this time she had adorned the ensemble with a gold hatpin.

The funeral wasn't going to start for another twenty minutes at least — my mother always insisted on getting places early, even when it was clear we wouldn't have trouble finding a seat. People were still filing in and there wasn't anything to do but talk or look straight ahead, at the coffin, shiny brown and peeking out from under an American flag.

"I didn't know Uncle Max was a soldier," I said to Edith, who was pretending to read the Bible she had found in the book compartment.

"Sharon!" my mother hissed. "Do I have to separate you?" Uncle Max's relatives turned around and looked at us. My mother nodded solemnly and sympathetically at them. When they turned back around she glared at me. I looked past her. My grandmother was beckoning to me, patting the space beside her. I moved quickly.

"You shouldn't come to this," she whispered, pulling my face close to hers. "I told your mother this is no place for a little girl."

I knew that. I'd heard them arguing at Aunt Flossie's. My grandmother didn't want death to have too close a look at me. She was still upset with my mother for letting me go to my father's funeral.

"Gramma, I'm ten now." I squeezed her hand reassuringly. "I have to get used to these things. Death is a part of life, you know." I'd heard my mother say that to her the night before.

"Pshah!" My grandmother put her hand over my mouth, gazed heavenward, shook her head and muttered something Yiddish. It must have been about death and curses, because Uncle Max's relatives stiffened. My mother glared again, but she couldn't move me — I was already at the end of the row.

After Uncle Max there was a lull in family deaths for a few years, but we knew another one was coming because Uncle Harvey, my mother's only brother, the one who ran the clothing store, had come down with prostate cancer. I was eleven when he was diagnosed and thirteen when he died.

"Just like Pa," my mother said, shaking her head, wiping her nose, composing herself before we drove to Aunt Bella's house. "He went just like Pa."

Like I said, I don't remember much about my grandfather other than that he used to push me on the swingset, and even that may be a false memory because I've seen it so many times in the home movie that the real experience has blended into celluloid. But if he died the same way Uncle Harvey did, I don't envy him. At his peak, Uncle Harvey was six-feet-five-inches and weighed about 350 pounds. Even though he owned a men's store, he had to have his suits custom-made. By the time he died, he had shrunk vertically and horizontally. He could no longer stand so we couldn't tell how tall he was. The fat had melted off his body in a peculiar fashion — his middle was doughy but his muscles had disappeared, leaving his arms and legs like sticks. He reminded me of one of those avocado pits my mother was always trying to grow, a ball with toothpicks poking out of it.

With Uncle Harvey gone, the widows outnumbered the married family members four to two — five to two if you gave my grandmother credit. But even though my grandmother had more experience, my mother was the family bereavement expert. She had turned herself into an indispensable widow-reference library, collecting every book on the subject and dispensing information accordingly.

"You've got to get back out there and face reality," she told my Aunt Bella three months after Uncle Harvey was buried, when Aunt Bella was still relying on valium to get through the day.

"But Anne, it's so recent still. It hurts too much. And I've cut down."

"Sure it hurts, Bella," my mother said, inspecting the pill bottle. "You think I don't know that? Ethan left me with two children. Children!" She looked at me. I was thirteen, no longer a child. But I smiled at Aunt Bella anyway, and did my best to look well-adjusted.

"At least Jessica and David and Dory are grown up," my mother went on. "They can take care of themselves, but that's no reason for you to be doping your life away."

I wondered if Aunt Bella was going to cry, but when my mother started to put the pills in a cupboard, she perked up suddenly. "Flush them down the toilet, Anne," she announced. "I don't need them no more."

Aunt Bella went to work at the store, helping the twins, Dory and Jessica. "You'll come work for us too, dear, after you graduate from college," she told me, but I wasn't even in high school yet, and besides, I didn't want to spend the rest of my life dressing other people.

Uncle Harvey had barely been dead a year when we had another funeral, this time for my cousin Brian, who was seventeen. He was the family drug addict. He supplied half his high school with marijuana, and there were rumors that he was getting into cocaine. His parents sent him to one of those fancy detox centers the summer before his junior year in high school, but by Halloween he was at it again, getting high, dealing.

What surprised me about Brian's death was that drugs had nothing to do with it. A beam fell on him as he walked past a construction site en route to his girlfriend's house. Lawyers showed up at Shiva, leaving their cards in the prayerbook, between the 23rd Psalm and the Kaddish.

I wasn't as sad about Brian as I was relieved. I used to have nightmares that his drug trade would drag down the whole family. I'd seen him lurking around the store with his baggies of pot, hoping to attract a customer or two of his own. His whole life was drugs and his electric guitar. He used to tell everyone he was going to be a rock star. After he died, Uncle Zvi and Aunt Fay donated a chunk of their money to Brian's high school to start a scholarship "for a deserving musician."

A couple of years after Brian's funeral Cousin Dory got married to an accountant from one of the Big Ten firms. Uncle Zvi and Uncle Manny walked her down the aisle. Aunt Bella sat in the front row, sniffling and smiling and murmuring Harvey, Harvey ave sholom. My mother handed out tissues.

The two remaining uncles got a workout at the reception, dancing with all the single women. By the time Uncle Manny got to me, his face was red and his voice wheezy. "We don't have to dance," I assured him. "I can't dance anyway."

"Nonsense, Sharon." He pulled me up. I was surprised at how strong he was. "If your father ave sholom was still alive, he'd dance with you. What's an uncle for?"

He guided me to the parquet floor, far from the band. "Let me lead, Sharon," he said, blocking my feet to keep me from moving before he did. "No, no, no. What are you, fifteen now?"

"Sixteen."

He shook his head, his heavy glasses bobbling up and down. "Didn't anyone teach you to dance? What do you do with your boyfriend, drag him around the floor?"

"I don't have a boyfriend, Uncle Manny."

"No boyfriend? The boys must be blind!"

I pinched my lips together and smiled. Uncle Manny always asked me if I had a boyfriend, I always said no, and the conversation always ended with "The boys must be blind!"

The song over, I thanked Uncle Manny for the dance and went back to the table. Edith had just returned from dancing with Dory's new husband's younger brother, a freshman at Harvard. Her face was shiny and her bangs were sticking to her forehead.

"Did Uncle Manny ask if you had a boyfriend?"

"He always asks, Sharon. They all do."

"Why don't they just mind their own business?"

"They think it is their business. Why does it bother you so much?"

"It doesn't bother me. I just wondered."

"If it didn't bother you, you wouldn't wonder." Her voice turned teasing. "And why don't you have a boyfriend?"

"Just shut up, Edith." I threw my napkin at her. "Go wash your face and shut up."

About a month after the wedding, news spread through the family grapevine that Dory was pregnant. "On her honeymoon, if that's not a mitzvah what is?" Aunt Bella said, clapping her hands together, then reaching for a tissue. "If only Harvey ave sholom could have lived for this naches."

David, who was two years older than me, shook his head impatiently and left the room. I followed him into the den, where he began strumming Brian's old guitar, his inheritance.

"So what do you want, a boy or a girl?" I asked.

"I don't care. It's not my kid."

"I know that," I said. "I just wondered."

"I hope it's healthy," he said. "How's that?"

"Very original."

"Well," he asked impatiently, "what do you want?"

"A girl."

"The last thing this family needs is more girls." He turned a tuning peg, plucking the string at the same time so it made a noise that sounded like bzznngg. "Why do you want a girl?"

"If it's a boy it'll die."

He looked at me like I was crazy. "It'll die if it's a girl, too, Professor."

"Not as quickly. There's a curse on the men in this family, or haven't you noticed?"

"I don't know what you're talking about." He strummed a chord. Brian would have been envious.

"Grandpa Jack. Dead at sixty. George. Dead at 55. My father. Dead at 37. Your father. Dead at 48. Uncle Max. Dead at fifty — not even fifty — 49. He didn't even get to open his birthday presents. And Brian. Dead at seventeen. Tell me there's not a pattern there."

"There's not a pattern there."

"You know what I mean, David. I'm right."

"Listen, Squirt,"

"Don't call me that."

"Okay, then just listen. You have a big family, people die. Look at the Kennedys. You think there's a curse on them?"

"Yeah."

"You're crazy."

"I'm right."

At Aunt Phyllis's and Uncle Manny's the next week, the night before Uncle Manny's funeral, David did his best to ignore me. Every time I looked at him he went to a different part of the room and insinuated himself, quite animatedly, into someone's conversation. I know it was petty of me to gloat over the memory of our little chat when everyone was in a state of shock — no one in the family had ever died of an aneurysm — and they were all tippy-toeing around the house whispering things like "so sudden," "blood vessel," "hemorrhage" and "no pain."

Aunt Phyllis was sitting on the couch. Her face was splotchy from crying. My cousins, Matthew and Jefferey, sat beside her, each holding one hand. I nodded sympathy to them, and suddenly Aunt Phyllis reached up and patted my face. "Such a shayna punim," she said. "Uncle Manny's dance partner. He wanted to dance at your wedding, that's what he said to me, 'Phyllis,' he said, 'I'm going to dance at that girl's wedding.'"

Edith nudged me out of the way. "I'm so sorry, Aunt Phyllis," she said. I watched as they hugged for maybe five seconds, until a neighbor showed up to offer condolences. Then my mother sent Edith and me to the kitchen to chop vegetables and slice cheese. We'd been at it for about ten minutes when David poked his head into the kitchen, saw us, apologized profusely and unnecessarily for interrupting, and scuttled out.

"What's his problem?" Edith asked.

"He's embarrassed," I replied.

"About what?"

"That Uncle Manny's death proves I'm right." I paused, waiting for her to ask what I was right about.

She waited for me to finish.

"There's a curse on the men in this family," I said.

"A what?"

"A curse, Edith. I knew you wouldn't believe me. That's why I didn't tell you before."

"So tell me Gilda the Fortune Teller, who has brought this wretched curse upon our family?"

"Stop making fun of me." I carried my carrots and the knife to the other side of the kitchen and began chopping where I didn't have to look at her. She followed me with her knife.

"No, really Share, I want to know about this curse."

I ignored her. Eventually she walked away, shaking her head. Then I had to go to the other side of the kitchen and get more carrots, and while I was there I figured I ought to talk to her.

"How else do you explain all these men dying?" I said.

"They're sick, Sharon. Or old."

"Brian wasn't sick or old." And neither was our father, I thought to myself. There was nothing wrong with him, just that his heart conked out. How did you explain that? But I didn't bother bringing it up. There was no room for curses in Edith's sense of order.

"Besides, Sharon," she went on, "the men aren't really part of our family anyway. Uncle Manny wouldn't be related to us without Aunt Phyllis. Same with Uncle Max. Brian was only half our cousin. And Aunt Bella wasn't really related to Uncle Harvey."

"I never said it had to be blood." I'd never thought about it. But she had a point. Maybe the curse wasn't on the men. Maybe it went through the women, like baldness and hemophilia. Probably the world would be safer for men if my female relatives and I stayed away from them. Maybe I'd known that all along and that's why I'd never had a boyfriend or joined in Spin-the-Bottle games at Jewish Community Center Teen-Time events. The only reason it was safe to dance with my uncles at bar mitzvahs and weddings was that it was too late for them anyway.

I looked at Edith. She shrugged and turned back to her vegetables. It was a self-satisfied gesture, the shrug. That's how she was, always assuming she had the right answer that everything had a logical explanation and she knew what it was. I watched her for a while, her back to me as her right arm moved up and down in an orderly motion. After every vegetable she'd stop and arrange the sticks and slices on a tray, red peppers in one section, green in another, the celery and carrots in neat little piles in between.

"Why bother?" I said.

"Huh?" She turned to face me.

"Why bother making it look all nice and neat when you know it's going to get turned into a big mess as soon as everyone out there gets their hands on it?"

"Because it's what you do, stupid," she said. "Because for the few minutes it looks nice, everyone is happy."

"What difference does it make once it's a mess?"

"Sharon, what's wrong with you tonight?"

"I just asked a question," I said, and she turned away, this time exasperated.

I didn't care though, because I knew something she didn't: it didn't matter, not with vegetables, not with the men in our family. There were some things you couldn't control no matter how tidy you made them look. You put them out there — vegetables on a tray, men and women under a wedding canopy — and they were doomed.

On the mantel in Aunt Phyllis's living room, someone had lit a Yartzeit candle. It was a tall one, the kind that burned for a week. After that, on the anniversary of the person's death, you were supposed to light a smaller one, which burned for 24 hours. The 24-hour models came in little jars, which some people rinsed out and used as juice glasses. My mother thought that was disgusting, but Aunt Bella and Aunt Flossie had entire sets of Yartzeit juice glasses. They’d come of age during the Depression, when my grandparents were so poor the family drank out of Mason jars left over from canning.

"You know," I said to my mother as we were leaving Aunt Phyllis's, "we ought to buy Yartzeit candles by the case. We go through them so often it'd be cheaper that way."

My mother laughed. "Oh Sharon," she said, shaking her head, "You've got your father's sense of humor."

I liked when she said things like that — it made me feel proud, that part of my father was in me without my having tried to put it there, that I could be like him without even having known him well.

But my grandmother, who was hunting for her slippers in the front hall closet, didn't appreciate my joke. She popped up from the pile of shoes she'd been rummaging through and looked quickly toward the ceiling. "Kayn aynhora!" she said in one of those voices that sounds quiet at first, but is really intended to make everyone in the room stop and listen.

Kayn aynhora was supposed to keep away the evil eye. When Edith and I were little and people would say we were beautiful, my grandmother wouldn't say "thank you," she'd say kayn aynhora, lest we grow up ugly, the victims of a spiteful evil eye. And at Dory's wedding, when the best man, a Presbyterian who didn't know any better, said during his toast that he knew Dory and her husband would be married for at least 50 years, my grandmother jumped up and hollered kayn aynhora. The best man never got to finish. Dory cornered him later and apologized for my grandmother. "She's been living in this country for 70 years but she's still full of those odd little Eastern European superstitions," she said. "Don't be upset. You made a beautiful toast."

Now my grandmother was looking at me with horror. Even my mother seemed uncomfortable, although I'd like to think that was because she was embarrassed for laughing.

"It was only a joke," I said. "Doesn't the evil eye have a sense of humor?"

My grandmother covered her eyes with her hands and muttered something Yiddish. My mother said my name in a scolding voice. Edith looked at me disapprovingly.

"What's your problem?" I asked her. "You don't believe in this stuff anyway, remember?"

"At least I know when to keep my mouth shut."

"Girls." My mother pointed toward the door. "Say your goodbyes and let's go."

When my grandmother kissed me, she held me tighter than usual, her way, I think, of keeping the evil eye away a little longer. I wanted to tell her it was okay, it wasn't me the eye was after, or even her, that we were safe and so were all my aunts and my girl cousins. But when I tried to apologize again she waved me away. "No more, no more," she said. "Don't talk about it no more."

"Why not?" I demanded. The words just jumped out of my mouth. I don't know where they came from, but once they were out the question seemed reasonable enough, even if I hadn't phrased it very politely.

"Sharon." My mother was halfway out the door. "We're leaving."

"I'm coming, I'm coming," I said, even though I wasn't going anywhere. My mother would wait for me. She'd be mad and I'd get yelled at, but she wouldn't leave, and I wasn't moving until I found out why my grandmother didn't want me talking about all the dead men, why she didn't want me talking about the truth. They were dead. More of them would die, sure as we were standing here, the night before yet another funeral. What was going to happen was going to happen, whether we talked about it or not.

"Stop being an idiot and get out here," Edith hissed from the steps. "Look what you're doing to Gramma!"

I looked at my grandmother. For a second it appeared as if she were swooning, but then I saw she was only leaning against the side of the closet.

"She's putting on her slippers," I informed Edith, who shook her head at me and went off to the car with my mother. I turned back to my grandmother. "Why can't I talk about it?" I kept my voice quiet, curious, polite. "Why not, Gramma?"

And she looked at me as if I were the most simple-minded person in the world, and said, "Because, Sharon, it ain't nice to talk funny about dead people."

"That's it?" I asked. "That's the only reason?"

She wiggled her hand, beckoned me closer. "There needs to be another?" Her voice seemed stronger and higher and her eyes burned through me, and I knew for sure there was another reason, one that had nothing to do with etiquette and manners. But she couldn't talk about it now, not with my aunts and uncle in the living room, the wax in Uncle Manny's Yartzeit candle barely melted. I shook my head to let her know I understood. Then I kissed her again, quickly, and bolted out the door to where my mother had started the car and Edith was hollering out the passenger window for me to stop wasting my time, to get a move on already.

 

 

 

 

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