Issue 4, Autumn 2007

Here Lies Colette
by Paul Vidich


The first time I buried my mother it was a cold Thursday in January.  A light crust of old snow covered the frozen ground at Greenwood cemetery and the workmen from Trenton had to jack-hammer the earth to accommodate her simple pine coffin.  I wondered if she’d chosen to die on the coldest day of the year knowing how difficult it would be to get her into the ground.

My breath froze through the scarf and I covered my bulky overcoat with a prayer shawl.  My wife Amy shivered at my side.  The rabbi, who wore gloves and a ski cap over his ears, hurried through the traditional prayer for peace for the departed soul, “El Malei Rachamim sho-khein…” I had trouble following the words.  What little Hebrew I knew I had learned as an adult and each word that I didn’t recognize reminded me of what I should have learned as a child.  Of course, I blamed her for that.

I cast an eye on mother’s friends who stood on the other side of the grave, having invited themselves.  The women wore saffron-colored saris under wool shawls, stood close together for warmth and wept quietly, and the men, in turbans, beards and thin slippers, fingered Hindu prayer beads.  I found it hard to accept her friends, these followers of Swami Sivananda.  One of these non-Jews, a young man I knew only as Darshan, had pinned the torn black keryiah ribbon to his overcoat.  Was that permitted?

So much had happened in the past twenty-four hours.  So many details had fallen on me.  These people who lived in her house, with last names I couldn’t pronounce, they had been useless.  I had to organize everything: the rabbi, the death certificate, newspaper notices, a suitable woman to perform the ritual washing, whom I’d found through the local burial society.  The list went on.  I had done it all dutifully, without complaining, acting like the good son.      

I looked down the hill to the spreading oak tree where my father was buried.  I didn’t know what to think.  I remembered mother telling me that she’d bought two adjoining plots.  It never crossed my mind to confirm the location of her grave. 

Had she meant the graves to be separate?  Was this her way of getting away from her husband?  I pushed that thought out of my mind.  This had to be a mistake.  Perhaps a clerk had incorrectly typed the grave digger’s work order.  I was a product liability trial lawyer so nothing was too strange or improbable.  

What was I to do? 

“….v’nomar amen,” the rabbi concluded closing his prayer book. 

I looked at my brother David who was impatient from having to stand in the cold.  He watched the four pallbearers lower the casket into the hole and hadn’t noticed or didn’t care that our parent’s plots were in different parts of the cemetery.  If I stopped the burial what would I do with her?  Hold her in storage?  I racked my memory.  There was no burial law that governed this situation.  I didn’t have the courage to stop the pallbearers to ask the question only I seemed to have.   David and her friends, those people, were ready to say good-bye so I did nothing.  The coffin hit the bottom of the hole with a thud.

The rabbi handed me a shovel, which he turned over, as the burial ritual required, and I pushed dirt onto the coffin with its backside.  I handed the shovel to David.

One of the followers of Swami Sivananda tossed a bouquet of lilies into the grave.  Darshan played his wood flute and then someone else, I didn’t know if it was a child or an adult, began to sing, “We’ll miss you Sarah.  We’ll miss you Sarah.”  Others joined in, and all at once these people were circling her grave, hands joined, swaying, singing, tossing rose petals.

David and I, and our wives, stepped back and watched.  I was touched by their affection but I couldn’t bring myself to join them.  It wasn’t my ritual.

Our small family group drifted off, and headed down the meandering path to the Pine Street exit, where I had parked my Range Rover.  On the way, I stopped at my father’s grave and placed a stone.

I was not raised in a religious home and I found my faith later in life.  I was drawn to the rituals I remembered from my dead grandfather Morris, an observant cantor and a funny guy, who owned a kosher deli in Brooklyn.  He suffered terribly when his only son, my father, rejected religion utterly, completely, blindly, and took up Bolshevism, which Morris, under his breath, called Bullshevism.  My father had no use for religion and remained obstinately secular until the end. 

I found my faith during the last year of his life when his battle with cancer triggered my quest for answers.  His looming death frightened me.  It wasn’t the dying part that I feared.  I had come to accept his mortality.  But I was afraid that he would recant his atheism on his death bed and look to me for answers.  I knew I couldn’t handle hearing doubt in his voice, or seeing a spark of fear in his eyes.  So, I avoided the topic of God. 

I didn’t discuss religion with mother either. Two months after his death, I remember sitting at breakfast when she announced that she had been initiated by Swami Svananda.  I remember thinking, where did this come from?  How long had that urge been waiting to leap out?  The guru’s life-size photographs went up in the living room and father’s collection of abstract art came down.  Her heirloom Chippendale sofa was moved to the barn to make way for her well-attended Sunday morning satsangs.  My childhood bedroom was made into a dormitory.  She occasionally asked me to come to a satsang but I never did.  At times I wondered why she joined that crazy religion.  At other times I felt left behind.    

“Howard, let’s go,” Amy said to me.  I felt her glove on my shoulder and I looked up into her blue face.   “David is in the car waiting for us.  He had to get away from them.  I’m freezing.”

* * *

I sat shiva in our Manhattan loft.  I briefly contemplated spending time in her old Colonial home in Princeton but I didn’t want to be among those people.  How could I grieve with those photos on the wall?  What would I say to the ex-junkie who meditated in the living room?  Or, the mental patient who claimed to be reincarnated?  I didn’t want to give them, or Darshan, the chance to corner me and ask if they could continue to live in the house.

I grieved at home for seven days, as the custom required.  Amy and I cooked all our own meals.  I turned off my cell phone so I would get calls from the office, wore cotton slippers, prayed, and I covered the bathroom mirrors with a white linen cloth.  On the third night Amy wanted to have sex, but I knew that the week-long mourning prohibited conjugal relations between husband and wife, so when she pressed herself against me I told her to save it.

One morning, I found Amy in the bathroom getting ready to leave to teach her Chaucer class.  She had removed the cloth from the mirror and was admiring her new haircut, which upset me.  I told her that it was disrespectful to my dead mother to look at herself and think vain thoughts.

“Since when did you become this observant?” she asked. 

“It’s just for one week,” I said.    

She frowned.  “She had plenty of time for them, but when did she ever have time for you?”  Amy wiped the cream from her face and applied red lipstick.  “I’ll be happy when you go back to the office.” She added, “David called. He wants to evict them.”

* * *

After a needed pause, I set about selecting a tombstone so I could be finished with the funeral, and done with her.  I set aside my doubts about the location of her grave.  All I could do at that point was arrange a proper memorial.

I asked myself: what tombstone would she choose for herself?  How would she want to be remembered?  I knew that if she were alive she would scoff at the idea of a memorial, but that choice was out of the question.  Her friends, the followers of Swami Sivananda, needed a place to visit that evoked her spirit.  Yes, I had issues with those people but I respected their affection for her.  And, yes, I had reluctantly found a way to appreciate the care Darshan had given in the last months of her cancer when the demands of my job kept me away.  He’d nursed her, fed her, clipped her toenails, and combed her thinning hair.

My first thought was to copy the carved stone slab that graced Colette’s grave in Pere Lachaise Cemetery outside of Paris.  It drew her admirers every year and had become a shrine, collecting flowers and stealing attention from grander monuments nearby.  I had visited the grave on my last vacation in Paris.  While Amy read a student’s dissertation proposal in our room at the Hotel Athene, I took the long cab ride to Boulevard Menilmontant to visit Balzac, Chopin, Wilde and Bernhardt.  But it was Colette’s grave with its simple inscription that inspired me.

For two weeks the idea rattled around in my imagination as the most poetic solution.  Her adoring friends could gaze on her face carved in stone.  Amy expressed horror when I told her.

“You want to turn her into an idol.”

I agreed that it was not a traditional Jewish approach.  There was also the practical problem of finding a stone cutter who would accept the commission. 

It was a Revolutionary War-era cemetery in Lower Manhattan that gave me the idea that I settled on.  I visited a tiny cemetery on West Eleventh Street that was hidden behind a crumbling chest-high stone wall.  There was no plaque describing it, no sign, no hint of what was inside.  A black, wrought-iron gate admitted me.  Several dozen graves were shaded by an old chestnut tree.  Among these remnants of the city’s first community of Portuguese Jews, I found the weathered tombstone of Isaac de Casseres, whose Hebrew inscription I deciphered with the help of a dictionary:

“You who read this heed your life.
One day you will lie here too.”

I was stopped by its eerie message.  From what tradition, I wondered, had come this man’s declaration to future generations?

Upon returning to the loft, I looked through cardboard boxes of personal things I took from her Princeton home.  Inside one box I found the diaries she had diligently kept since her twenties.  It took me two days to summon the courage to open them. I was afraid of what I might find, and I felt like a voyeur reading words she never intended me to see.  I skipped over painful descriptions of her unhappy marriage.  Later journals were filled with secret thoughts on illness and the power of yoga meditation.  I needed a statement profound enough to be etched in stone, and short enough to fit.

David called the next day with disturbing news.

“She bought a small plot.”

“What does that mean?”

Under the cemetery rules, he explained, the plot she occupied was only entitled to a small ground marker.  The ambitious upright tombstone that I wanted to install was permitted on larger plots, but she hadn’t bought one of those.

“But I found the right inscription,” I said.  “It’s sixteen words.”

Unless we were willing to rebury her in a larger plot, we were stuck with a small, flat rectangular stone that could hold her name, and the dates of birth and death.

The cemetery administrator, Mr. Glanz, said he could not consider an exception.  If I wanted a plot to accommodate a tombstone with those sixteen words I would have to disinter her.  Oh, God, I thought.  Here, at last, I had found a way to give her friends a proper memorial and to be done with her.  I wondered if she’d chosen a small plot just to complicate my life.

I got other news from Mr. Glanz.

“The plot your mother’s in, God rest her soul, isn’t a mistake.  She bought it last year.  Paid cash.  You still own the large empty plot next to your father, God keep him in eternal peace.  What do you want to do with it?”

* * *

It rained the morning that I disinterred her.  I stood alone under a large black umbrella and watched workmen through the steady drizzle.  A loud backhoe gouged wet dirt and piled it to one side.  When the coffin was found, a rain-gear suited workman jumped into the hole and fitted straps around the pine box.  It swung in mid-air when it cleared the hole.  Mud clung to the warped wood.

I held a wood stake that someone had driven into the ground as a temporary marker.  It was flat, like a shingle, and her name was painted in neat block letters.  Bouquets of dead flowers left by her visitors were scattered among the disgorged earth. 

Once I made the decision, I acted quickly.  I informed Amy and David, but there was no reason to inform anyone else.

The backhoe carried her coffin down the hill to the spreading oak.

Under the cemetery administrator’s rules I couldn’t sell back her small plot so I was stuck with it.  It was ridiculous but there was nothing I could do.  

I stood under my dripping umbrella and watched the workmen lower her into the new grave.  I felt calm.  Peaceful.  It was fitting that my parents were together again.  This is where she belonged.  Next to him.    

The coffin went back into the ground just as the drizzle turned into sheeting rain.  The gray sky was an ominous black.  Thunder clapped.  Lightning struck the Amtrak rail yard just west of the cemetery.  Workmen hastily lowered her new monument onto a concrete base that had been completed the day before.

I covered her monument with a cloth that I’d brought for the unveiling, but I cut short the private ceremony after hastily chanting a prayer.  At the cemetery exit, I put the makeshift marker I’d found into a garbage can.

* * *

 In the following weeks I gave no thought to her grave.  I assumed that her friends would know that she was relocated but that was wishful thinking.  I had no good reason to make that assumption.

I felt awkward calling the house.  The realtor, a chatty older woman, said four tenants still lived there.  If I called I knew I’d have to listen to their pleas to stay.  I didn’t want to hear that they had no place to go. 

The next day, after speaking to the realtor, I received a hand written letter from Darshan.  Inside, there was a 6x10 color photo of the grave.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  It was her first grave, the empty one.  There was another upright, wood marker.  Her name was printed in large block letters on the shingle.  Dozens of weather-faded cards and letters were pinned to it; chrysanthemum bouquets were artfully arranged at its base.  Incense burned in small clay jars.

God, I thought, what type of shrine is this?

I could hardly hold back my dismay as I read the letter.  Darhsan wrote that he brought new flowers every week, and removed the bouquets when they dried up.  He said he had bought one marker, but had to replace it when it mysteriously disappeared.  Could I send ten dollars to cover the cost?

The letter went on:

“Her friends visit every week.  So do I.  She meant a lot to me.  I know that you meant a lot to her too.  She always admired your big success.  What do you do?

“She was kind to me.  She paid my way from India, and put me through college.  We did simple things together.  She had a kind soul.  I loved your mother.  I pray at her grave every week.  Sometimes I pray for you.”

I put the latter in my lap and reflected on what he’d said.  I tried not to resent his last point.  I wondered if he meant it ironically, but I knew that Darshan didn’t have an ironic bone in his body.  I wondered if Darshan saw something in me that called out for help.  It tired not to think about it.

I considered calling the house, but I demurred.  What would I say?  ‘Oh, by the way, I moved her.  You’re burning incense over an empty grave’.

I showed the letter to Amy.  I wanted her opinion.  She got angry.

“Let them do what they want,” she snapped.  “You can’t stop thinking about her.  It’s been a year and I’m still competing with her. ”

It wasn’t the reaction I expected.

“I’m your wife.  Every night you read her journals.  What are you looking for?  It’s time you thought about me.”

“They were lovers.”

“Lovers?”  Amy was caught off guard. “What makes you think that?”

I pointed at the words in the letter.  “Read this again.”  Calling them lovers deflected Amy’s anger. 

She looked up.  “He says he loved her.  He doesn’t say he made love to her.”

“Of course they were lovers.  He cut her toenails.”  The words unexpectedly came out, as if they had been waiting in the back of my throat.

Amy looked at me incredulously.  “You’re jealous of him.  You’re jealous that she treated him like a son.”

In the following week, during breaks in my busy trial schedule, I returned to Amy’s words.  I had rejected them when she said them.  I found it difficult to admit that I might be jealous.  But in my moments of uncomfortable self-reflection I grudgingly came to think she was right.  I was jealous of these people who she’d brought around herself in some kind of weird extended family.        

* * *

On the first anniversary of the funeral I observed yahrzeit at Greenwood Cemetery.  I had not been back since the disinterment and I came alone.  David was away on business and Amy had a schedule conflict with her Chaucer seminar.  I arrived late in the day stopping first in Princeton to make an unannounced visit to her home.  After parking I went straight to the grave.

There was no sign that her grave was regularly visited, no sign of Colette-like fans.  Her black granite monument commanded solitude. 

At first I resisted the temptation to look up the hill at the site of her first grave, but then I gave into my curiosity and my eyes drifted up to the ridge.  The weak winter sun had fallen behind the hill and dying daylight silhouetted the rows of headstones.  There was no one up there, no celebrants, fans, mourners, no flute music, no laughter, just the eerie quiet of the cemetery.  A cold wind rustling through the high branches of the nearby oak brought me back into the moment.  I placed a stone on her monument. 

I opened my prayer book and started to recite the traditional prayer for the dead.  Unexpectedly, I stopped.  I could not go on.  I looked at her stone, then at his, and then back at hers.  The etched letters of their names stared back at me: Sarah Levin 1933-1999; Michael M. Levin 1932-1986.  In my mind’s eye I saw their faces and I saw myself as a child in our backyard at time when I was still happy.  I began to weep.  Tears streamed down my cheeks.  I sat there in the dark letting out all my bottled-up feelings; I cried for her, for him, for myself, for everything that I had lost and could not reclaim.

* * *

That night I sat next to Amy in bed.  She read a New Yorker short story, I sipped cognac, and stared across the bedroom at nothing in particular, feeling the lingering power of the afternoon’s emotion.

Without looking up from the story Amy asked, “Did you talk to Darshan?  Did you ask him to move out?”

“It wasn’t the right time.  He painted the kitchen.  Empty houses are harder to sell.”

“Tell that to David.  He’s hired a lawyer to evict them.”

“I’ll talk to David.  Darshan will leave when asked.  He’s a reasonable person.”

Abruptly she put down magazine.  She looked over the top of her reading glasses, “When did you become so gracious?”

I resisted the temptation to be sarcastic.  “Remember what you told me before I left.  You said that I had to let go.  That I’d never know what was in her heart.  I’d answer one question only to find another question.  When I answered it there’d be another.  And another.  I’d never get to the end….Do you remember that?”

“Of course.”

“Well, today, I let go.  Today I buried her.”

She looked at me.  When I said nothing more she returned to her short story.