It was my mother’s standard Guilt Call.
“Did you go to Aunt Mona’s barbecue yesterday?”
“No, Mom. You know what I think about Aunt Mona after what she said. And did. No. I. Did. Not. Go.”
“Did Alana go? Or your Jeffrey?”
“No. I did not go. My daughter did not go. My husband did not go. We. Stayed. Home.”
“Oh, I’m so glad!” she whispered, and then burst into tears.
Now, whenever Mom calls, I pull out this crossword puzzle book, and start working on a page.
Keeps me calm and unconcerned. I don’t rise to guilt bait. But I put my pen down and left 24-Across alone.
“Why are you glad?”
“I am sitting.”
“Maybe lie down. I have to tell you something.”
“Go ahead, Mom.”
“It’s bad news, sweetie.”
“Tell me, Mom.”
“At the barbecue, everyone else was there, it was a beautiful day for it, it’s still nice out—”
“Mom, you’re in Ottawa, not here.”
“It’s a weather system, it’s nice here too.”
“Is that the bad news?”
“No. Don’t be funny. Well, at the barbecue, when Uncle Bernie said that the steaks were ready—
steaks! They got them from that great butcher—Schwartz? Stein? What’s his name?”
“Okay, they had steaks—“
“And Aunt Mona came to get them, and she had a small plate of shrimps for the grill, which was risky, since Uncle George is such good friends with the rabbi—”
“So the rabbi came by and excommunicated everyone?”
“No! Stop being funny. This is very sad.”
“The expensive steaks were bad?”
“No! Let me talk. Stop interrupting.”
“All right, Mom. I’m sorry. Go on.”
“Well, it was a barbecue. You know about propane?”
“Jeff and I have a gas barbecue.”
“Never, never use it. Never again.”
“Well, maybe it was the shrimps. They have an oil, I don’t know, but maybe…”
“When Uncle Bernie and Aunt Mona were standing over the grill, taking the steaks off, putting the shrimps on, and the tiny green peppers, and the new butter and cream corn—”
“Mom, not the whole menu.”
“Well, she told me what she was serving when she called on Thursday. She was really hoping that all three of you would come. This time. For a special occasion.”
“Thanks, Mom. Go on.”
“When they were doing that, whoosh!”
“Whoosh? There was a wind?”
“No, the flames from the grill went whoosh in their faces. They fell down, they were covered in flames. They were screaming. I don’t even want to think about what– Then Joey went to help Aunt Mona, he got burned, too.”
“Omigod, are they in the hospital? How bad are their burns? Are they alive? Omigod.”
“I don’t want to say.”
“I don’t want to say.”
“Mom, which hospital are they in? I’ll go and see them.”
“They’re not at a hospital. They’re at Sternthals’ Chapel.”
“They’re—they’re at Sternthals’. All of them? Uncle Bernie, Aunt Mona, and Joey?”
“No, not Joey. He’s at the ICU at Memorial.”
“Oh, poor Joey! I’ll go tomorrow—”
“When it whooshed, it whooshed enough to reach that lovely garden tent—remember it from their fiftieth anniversary party? It had the brown mesh curtains with the silk shell tiebacks, and when they put in all those little bistro tables, it seated I don’t know how many, it was special order—”
“The tent caught fire? Mom, who was in the tent?”
“Well, not you. But Aunt Celie and Uncle Morris, Uncle George and Aunt Sheila, Cousin Beth and Jason and their twins, Aunt Sandra and Uncle Martin, little Sara and Joe and their girls, Uncle Simon and big Sara, Delta the hippie and her friend Sala, Tiffany and Mark and their babies, and Morty and his new friend, what’s her name.”
“Mom, who got hurt? Did everyone get out?”
“Uncle Morris was in his wheelchair. He’s gone. Uncle Simon is in ICU, who knows? They found Delta face down under a bistro table, who knows why? Big Sara is gone. Aunt Sandra is on Valium, doctor’s orders this time.”
“And the twins, the girls, the babies?”
“Beth got all the little ones out.”
“And it was hard to get out, all those little tables pushed together. She did it. She’s a hero.”
“Aunt Celie called me and went over and over what happened. Over and over. It’s horrible.”
“Mom, I’m here. Should I see Aunt Celie and Joey and the others?”
“No, not yet. They’re in shock. Wait.”
“Wait for what?”
“The first funerals are Sunday.”
“Are you coming in? The bedroom’s ready.”
“Sweetie, I can’t. My doctor says I can’t travel.”
“Even by car?”
“Not over an hour.”
Next day, back from the dry cleaner’s with black dress, black pantsuit, black blazer and pants, I saw the message light flashing.
Mom. “Rabbi Stolz won’t be at Aunt Mona’s and Uncle Bernie’s funerals! He’s sending the assistant rabbi!”
I called her back. “Mom, why not?”
“Joey was so upset, he mentioned the shrimps.”
“Why did he mention the shrimps?”
“He was upset. Of course he was upset. He’s burned, his parents are gone. The rabbi should understand!”
“The rabbi is being petty. A rabbi should care for his parishioners, no matter what.”
“Congregants. Parishioners are for a parish, a church, not a synagogue.”
“Okay. Should I call the rabbi?”
“Tell him she was sisterhood president twice before he came. And Israel Bonds division leader—no, that was Bernie. Tell him all that!”
“Do you want to call him?”
“No, you do it, dear.”
So I called Rabbi Stolz, whom I don’t like, to get him to honor Aunt Mona, whom I couldn’t stand. I said to myself, lawyers do this all the time.
I was on the phone with the rabbi, and speaking as Mona Goldman’s grieving niece, for ten minutes. It didn’t work.
Mom again. “Did you say what I told you to say?”
“Yes, and more – about what she did on the holidays and with the Hebrew School.”
“You didn’t say enough, or he would have changed his mind.”
“Mom, you try him.”
Mom again. “That man should never have become a rabbi.”
Later, Mom again. “Speak to Uncle George—he’s telling Joey that his parents were bad Jews.”
“Well, um, the shrimps. Uncle George is—”
“And he says that Sternthals’ isn’t kosher enough; he’s not coming to the funeral or the cemetery.”
So I spoke to Uncle George, which was as much fun as I thought it was going to be.
First came the ten-minute lecture on dietary laws. (“Do you know why shrimps are not kosher? Do you? Do you know what shrimps eat? They eat dirt. Garbage. You eat them, you’re eating garbage.”) Then came the ten-minute lecture on family loyalty. (“All that aside, I noticed you and your family didn’t come to their special barbecue. They invited you, I know. I can only assume that all three of you came down with the Asian flu. And I saw your husband in his office last week, so it must have come on suddenly. Did you have to go to Emergency?”)
After that (and before I took that Advil that was calling my name), I took a deep breath and asked him, for my mother’s sake, to go to the funerals. “You don’t go to any family events.You’re not one to talk.”
“Not for me, Uncle George. For my mother. She can’t travel. She wants you to go. She considers you the head of the family.”
“After Bernie, the man with the shrimps, goes, she says I’m the head of the family. Are you going to the funerals?”
“Of course, Uncle George. For my mother, and Joey.”
“You’re not coming down with the flu again? I think I might have caught it.”
“Please, Uncle George. For my mother. For Joey and his family.”
“I’ll think about it.”
After the Advil, I called Mom.
“He said yes? He was so upset when I spoke to him. But you’re his favourite niece.”
“Really? Um. He might come. He said that he’d think about it.”
“Thank you. The family has to stick together at a horrible time like this.”
So Sunday we all got into our Basic Black lightweight wools and drove to Sternthals’ early for the funerals for Aunt Mona (ten-thirty, ladies first) and Uncle Bernie (eleven o’clock) – partly to go to the family room, partly to get a good parking spot. We hugged just about everybody who’d been at the barbecue and survived; it was like a very strange family reunion. Joey was all bandaged and silent. I thought that Aunt Sandra glared at me, but Jeff said that it was my imagination. Alana skipped out to the bathroom.
When we headed into the very hot chapel (“Sternthals’ apologizes for the air-conditioning problems”), we saw Uncle George sitting in the front row near the aisle, frowning straight ahead. Black suit, ebony cane, his own prayer book. Success, Mom. He’s here.
Ten-thirty hit. The place was packed. The mourners came in. The assistant rabbi and the cantor arrived. We stood up.
So did Uncle George. He heaved himself out of his seat, took his cane and his prayer book, and did a military about-face.
I think I heard him say, “This is not kosher.” I think he muttered “Shrimps!” as he marched down the aisle to the exit. I think I heard someone else tsk, “At a horrible time like this?”
The next Mom call would be difficult.
The rabbi and cantor tried to pretend that Uncle George had been overcome with grief (or the flu). They paused, and started the singing and eulogies after he left.
Aunt Mona was a woman of valour, a leader among women, and an excellent cook.
Half an hour later, Uncle Bernie was a pillar of the community, a businessman whose word was his bond.
Grandchildren spoke and cried.The rabbi reminded everyone that this was an occasion to celebrate, that one rejoiced when a ship came into harbor, not when it left on its stormy journey. He reminded everyone of this twice, once for Aunt Mona and once for Uncle Bernie.
We followed the limousines to the cemetery (and we needed the air conditioning and the time alone) and as we got close to the grave sites, Jeff looked to the right and said, “Isn’t that Uncle George over there in the next section?”
I looked and said, “No, he wouldn’t.”
“Oh yes, he would.”
Alana said, “I think that what happened was sad and horrible, but your relatives need their own series. Interesting funerals, Mom.”
We stood and listened to the cantor singing and the rabbi helping the mourners pray. We hugged Joey and the rest again. We threw in our shovelsful of dirt. It was still very hot out. Everyone got back into their limousines. We got back into our car and breathed cool air.
Alana looked at a clump of tastefully planted bushes nearby. “Uncle George is still out there. Watching us leave. You’re not supposed to walk on the graves, right? What’s he doing with his cane?”
We didn’t watch what he did. Alana said that a security guard was chasing Uncle George, and Jeff and I decided that it was time to go home. Alana went to see a friend. Jeff found us whiskey.
After we recovered from that episode, I waited for the summons to the next set of funerals.
The call came from Mom the next day. At 7 a.m. Before my coffee. Not a good time for me.
“They went to the wrong place!” Wailing.
“They went to hell?” All right, maybe I shouldn’t have said that. But relatives. And no coffee.
A screech. “What a horrible thing to say! Of course not Hell. Delta, Uncle Morris, Big Sara – those lovely people? How can you say that? But everyone that we thought was at Sternthals’ – they should have been at Sternthals’ – they got sent… somewhere else.”
“Where did they go, Mom?”
“They went to Sturgeons’. All the rest of them. Bad paperwork. I can’t believe it.”
“The crematorium? Are you serious?”
“Yes, I’m serious. They were cremated. It’s horrible. Cremated. Just ashes. Nothing to bury. It’s so sad.”
“Mom, they were dead. It was sad already. We can bury the ashes in the little urns.”
“I know who did this. I know it. George. He’s a bitter, bitter man. I’m going to call him and tell him what I think of him.”
“Mom, don’t. You don’t know for sure, and even if you did—”
Next call. “He’s worse than I thought. All he did was laugh, and yell ‘Shrimps!’”
“Please, Mom, leave things alone.”
“I want you to order a stone with all their names so I can put it on my balcony.”
“On your balcon—Mom, why would you put it on your balcony?”
“Next to the geraniums. There’s room.”
“Mom, tombstones are big. And heavy. And expensive. And you have a little balcony.”
“Or here’s a better idea! We’ll put the stone in your garden. And we can have the names of all our family on it, even Uncle Bernie and Aunt Mona.”
Nonononono. Not my garden, thanks. Wasn’t I on 42-Down? Right.
“Mom, I think it would be something that Joey might want in his garden. Maybe you can ask him. When he’s, uh, better.”
“Oh, that’s a thought. You could call him.”
“No, Mom, it was your idea, and you should suggest it.”
She thought that was a good idea. She sent love to Jeff and Alana. She hung up.
I sat there, twitching. Should I call Sternthals’? Sturgeons’?
No. I need to finish this crossword puzzle. Now.
There were no calls for a few hours. The Advils were working. And then—
“I’m coming to be with you, sweetie. You sound so sad when I call, and I feel guilty that I left it all for you to do. I just spoke to my doctor, he says I can go for a short trip. I found a flight on that airline with the funny name. Meet me at the airport tomorrow afternoon, I’ll check the time on my ticket.”
We picked her up. We had supper at the picnic table in the backyard. Grilled vegetables. Hamburgers.
Mom, with her plastic baggie of pills, her fold-up walker, and a brochure from Everlasting Hebrew Memorials sticking out of her summer purse, looked happy.
But suspicious. “This isn’t barbecued, is it?”
“Yes, but look, it’s a hibachi with charcoal briquettes, Mom. Jeff didn’t use the gas barbecue.”
Mom put down her fork. “Jeff, promise me you won’t use the hibachi again. Never, never again. Doctors say that charcoal barbecues cause cancer.”