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for October 13, 2004

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A Day In the Life
by Your Diva, Robin Pastorio-Newman

One day you answer the phone and one of your relatives says, "Bad news, darling. Your Ex's father passed away. There'll be a funeral. We're all going." You're well-adjusted about your divorce. Your family members have your Ex on speed dial. You exchange Christmas presents with your Ex's girlfriend. This very modern construct is tested to within an inch of its tensile strength when your whole family contemplates funeral traditions it doesn't share, because in fact, every branch of your very leafy family tree practices or ignores a different religion. What are you going to do for a casserole?
At first, you react with confidence. It's a funeral. You take something in a covered dish to the house so the grieving family doesn't have to cook. Everyone is born knowing this, and plans accordingly. It's why every kitchen in America, no matter how Spartan, contains a white CorningWare dish circa 1972 with a blue flower pattern, and you know you have one.
This is the Jewish side of your family; the Anglicans, Catholics and Episcopalians have questions. The Quakers and Baptists are out of town and the Unitarians are peacefully protesting something; they took wads of bail money so you don't expect to field their queries. You know they'll remember the kind gentleman in a meadow somewhere under the stars. It's charming, really. Anyway, when the phone calls start, everyone wants to know about dietary laws, where the family's sitting shiva, and who's making the rules. Suddenly, you're less sure of yourself. You call your friend Mamie, who though well-versed in all things historical and cultural, describes herself as "a bad Jew." You ask, "What would you bring?" Mamie says, "Anything dairy. A dessert. Ben Affleck."
"How about turkey tenderloin plus some vegetables on a platter?"
"Perfect," she says. "Wait. Do you know where they'll be sitting shiva?"
"Not yet."
"Find out. Your sisters-in-law may have something tricky up their three-quarter sleeves."
Oh boy. Now you have to call your Number One Sister-In-Law and ask the questions your family's asking you. Where? What? At her house, and she keeps a kosher kitchen, which you suddenly remember being in stark contrast to your kitchen, where the peckish visitor could always get a ham and cheese sandwich. Whoopsie! This calls for a change of strategy, and half a dozen more phone calls, because nothing cooked at most homes will enter the kosher household. It's a good thing plenty of reputable services deliver kosher kitchen-compatible fruit baskets, and your family is entirely conversant in the use of credit cards. Ah, diplomacy! You're not done with cultural translation issues yet. You're standing in a packed chapel at Beth Israel Cemetery in Woodbridge, NJ when you realize the last five funerals you attended were for heroin-addicted local rock stars. Those were sour social affairs, attended by friends disappointed in the deceased. By contrast, this is a celebration of a kind and generous man's life, with hilarious speeches by red-eyed family members - by which the Catholics are surprised because they expect sorrow and sore knees. The service ended with the playing of Alan Sherman's "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!" at which the assembled laughed out loud and dabbed trickling tears. It was Dad's favorite and he took any opportunity to warble it. Your Darling, Your Diva, Your One True Love handed out leopard pattern tissues and kissed about a hundred moist cheeks.
Walking toward the gravesite, someone whispered, "What do the little rocks on the headstones mean?"
"Visits and attention to the dead. Flowers wilt and die."
"What about the plain pine casket?"
"Back to the earth, post haste."
When Christians die, Jews get confused when confronted with an open casket. Christians get used to the idea their loved one's dead by looking at the body twice a day during viewing hours for as long as the decedent's popularity permits. Jews wrap the dead in a white shroud, bury them immediately and sit on wooden boxes for a week. There's no hint of pancake makeup anywhere. Jews have a different technique for getting used to the loss. Our statuesque Episcopalian sister sidled near us at the gravesite and whispered, "This part of the tradition chafes a bit." Mourners were performing a good deed by volunteering to throw a shovelful of dirt on the casket. Our Catholic relatives had already made quiet, albeit hasty, exits. Like any culture's traditions related to death, the open casket or the flying dirt take getting used to, if one is not.
One thing everyone had in common: it's all over but the storytelling. Everyone knows a life was well lived when the stories end in laughter.

©2004 Robin Pastorio-Newman

All material ©2001-2014 Sean Carolan, except as noted.


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