At the Gravesite
Standing in front of Dad’s grave I shivered, not from the autumn wind slashing through the New Jersey countryside but from reading the last line on his tombstone.
November 22, 1902 – December 23, 1972
I am as old now as Dad was when he died.
That got me thinking. I never gave much attention to the dates that bracketed Dad’s life. The anniversary of his death was based on the Jewish calendar, a lunar one, and it changed from year to year, never matching the English dates. I compensated for my uncertainty over when to honor the anniversary of his death by buying several twenty-four-hour Yahrzeit candles and lighting them a few days before and after Christmas—ironic, for a Jew—to make sure I got the date at least approximately right.
That’s all I did, though. I didn’t attend a synagogue to say Kaddish in his memory. I hadn’t visited his gravesite since his burial, either. I had a good excuse if Dad’s spirit—or a Rabbi, even God—asked why: “I live in California. Too far away and expensive for just a half-hour visit to a grave.” My excuse did double-duty for Mom, too, buried next to Dad.
Today, though, I made it to the cemetery. Travelling to a conference in Boston, and with a long layover at Newark Airport for the connecting flight, I was as close to Mom and Dad’s final resting place as I would ever get. Having shirked my religious obligations all these years, and with nothing better to do except hang around an airport, I thought visiting their graves would be a mitzvah that might make up for my years of neglect.
According to the sketchy tourist map at the Hertz counter, the cemetery was about a half-hour drive away. I could make it easily in the three hours I had between flights. A thirty-mile trip on the Turnpike was better than breathing recycled air.
At the gravesite, I silently read the inscribed highlights of Dad’s life:
Keeper of the Sabbath
The lines used up all the space on the tombstone, a granite slab almost as tall as I.
I imagined what might be carved on my headstone (although I planned to be cremated):
Taught on the Jewish High Holidays
Did Not Fast on Yom Kippur
Never Joined a Synagogue
Did Not Believe In God, Heaven, or Souls
Loved BLT Sandwiches
I glanced at Mom’s adjoining headstone, dead four years before Dad, and read a parallel set of credits. Only the gender differed.
I turned my gaze back to Dad’s inscription. The fact that my father’s age at death matched my age continued to intrigue me.
The opening lines of the Sh’ma came unexpectedly to mind. I had learned the six words affirming the oneness of God by heart more than sixty years ago. To my surprise, the fragment triggered a memory of the kaddish, but only the first line. “Ysigadel…”
To make up for the shortened prayer I added a few more lines–to myself–to Dad’s résumé:
Never Finished Grade School
Immigrated to the U.S.
Learned English In Night School
Feeling somewhat playful, perhaps to counteract the solemnity of the moment, I added a few more lines to my imaginary Vita.
Speaker at Local, National, and International Conferences (with Honoraria)
Presenter Of Papers at Regional Meetings (Invited)
Full Professor (Tenured)
Winner Of Distinguished Researcher Prize (Twice)
Author (Six Books)
Teaching Of The Year Award (Local And State)
(Mental inventories are not limited by available space.)
Hmm. To be fair, what else could I say about Dad?
Member of the Carpenter’s Union
Not much, I thought. I did come up, though, with a few more kudos for my fantasy tombstone to match Dad’s:
Hands Dusted With Chalk
Fingers Smudged With Ink
Arm Sore From Grading Exams
Eyes Blurred From Marking Papers
Hah! What kinds of funny things can I say about Dad?
Fanatical Gin Player
Enthusiastic Viewer of TV Wrestling
No. Delete that. Gotta respect the dead, especially if it’s your father. A few more things about myself, though:
Assigned Homework Over Christmas Break
Nah, those are not things I want to be remembered for. Hold it. I remembered something important. (I put it in small print–mentally, that is–to make sure it fit my imaginary tombstone.)
President of Professional Organization, 1991-92
Anything more? Blank. Why the hell am I doing this? It’s silly. What am I trying to prove? I looked at my watch. I should be getting back to the airport.
I stepped aside a few paces, stood in front of Mom’s grave, and hurriedly recited the first lines of the Kaddish and Sh’ma. As I turned to leave, I noticed an elderly lady at a nearby grave pluck a pebble from the ground and place it gently on top of a tombstone. Aha. I almost forgot. I have to record my visit in heaven’s notebook. I chuckled. Better make sure the stone is heavy enough to keep Dad’s spirit from rising and spooking me for forgetting the Kaddish, skipping “shul on shabbos,” or eating those treif BLT’s. I dug two rocks out of the earth and dropped them on the edges of my father and mother’s tombstones.
The sky had grown grayer, the wind stronger and cold. I pulled up the collar of my jacket and hurried back to the car. A bouquet of white carnations I had bought at a shop in a small town on the way to the cemetery lay on the front seat. Something else I forgot.
At the airport terminal I checked the schedule board for my connecting flight, walked to the waiting area at my gate, and speculated on the many differences between Dad and me.
Had I become a professor to avoid doing hard and dirty work? So I wouldn’t have to wheel and deal to get a job or be paid what I was owed on time? Had I become an academic only to disprove the myth that Jews are only interested in making money, or to confirm the stereotype that Jews are smart? Or did I honestly hope to influence the younger generation?
I looked out the wide window facing the empty expanse of the landing field stretching in front of the waiting area, stared at the lights that guided the arriving planes into the airport and the departing twinkles of distant flights speeding off into the distance, and continued to mull over my choice of occupation. Was it simply a matter of chance, of drifting into my field because a professor in a freshman introductory course had given me the only “A”?
I heard my flight being called on the loudspeaker, grabbed my briefcase, walked to the departure gate, and asked myself: What sorts of questions will my children ask at my grave?