by: Eileen Pollack on February 15th, 2014 | 5 Comments »
Until last May, I had never visited the cemetery where my mother’s parents lie buried. My grandfather died before I was born. My grandmother helped to raise me; I loved her dearly, but she died while I was living abroad, and I didn’t attend her funeral. All I knew was that the cemetery was called Mount Zion, one of those never-ending seas of graves you glimpse to one side of the BQE or the LIE as you are hurrying to LaGuardia.
“Promise me you’ll never go there,” my mother said. She seemed to believe that if I attempted to find it, I would end up lost, or dead, or both. But how could I live my life without once visiting my grandparents’ graves? And how could I die without knowing I had said goodbye to my beloved Grandma Pauline? Every time I traveled to New York, I vowed I would find Mount Zion. And every time, I had too much to do, or I chickened out.
Then my mother turned eighty-six, and her Parkinson’s got so bad she couldn’t last much longer. Despite her fear for my safety, I was fairly sure she would want to know that her parents’ graves were still well tended. When I googled “Mount Zion,” I discovered that all I needed to do was take two subways and a bus. Oddly, the directions came with a review, as if the cemetery were a restaurant or Broadway show. “Waste of fuckin’ space,” was the considered judgment.
From the website, I also learned that Mount Zion had been established nearly 120 years ago to the day I was due to go, in what was then a rural expanse of Queens. Its seventy-eight acres provided space for 210,000 dead Jews, including Lorenz Hart, the five-foot-tall closeted homosexual alcoholic who gave the world some of its most romantic love songs, and Nathaniel West, author of Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust, two of America’s grimmest yet most moving novels. But most of the Jews buried at Mount Zion were working-class immigrants, their plots divided among burial societies whose membership was determined by which village in Europe the person’s family came from, or the labor union or political faction to which he or she belonged. For the most part, these were secular lefties who had little patience for their parents’ traditional religious observance. People joined burial societies not so much because they wanted to know that their bodies would be properly cleansed and shrouded, but so their survivors wouldn’t be impoverished by a funeral. Being buried at Mount Zion might not assure eternal life, but, as the president of one society put it, those who remained would “do everything in their power to prevent the name of a member from being erased from the memory of the living.”
And so, two days before May Day, 2013, I took two subways to Queens Plaza, then stood in the rain to wait for the Q67 bus, which, I had been told, would take me to Mount Zion. As I rode, I watched neighborhoods of modest two-story buildings give way to a wasteland of factories, warehouses, distribution centers, and steel-and-concrete structures whose purpose I could not identify. In one lot, red and black Coca-Cola trucks stretched forever; in another, Hazmat vehicles. Living as I do in Michigan, I couldn’t help but be amazed that these factories and warehouses still were operational. When the bus let me off, I passed an auto-body shop redolent with the smell of paint, then another fenced-in lot protecting endless rows of NYPD vehicles. Hovering overhead, a giant bloodstained 1-800-Cop-Shot billboard promised a reward to anyone providing information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone who had shot a cop.
And there, beyond the gates of Mount Zion, thousands of dowdy tombstones rose on gloomy knolls, dwarfed by the ominous waste-disposal facility sprawled across the hill above them. Staring up at those smokestacks, I couldn’t help but think that the Jews buried in these plots had had the good sense to immigrate to America rather than remain in Europe to be incinerated in Nazi ovens. I also was reminded of the reviewer who had condemned these acres as wasted space; the furnaces seemed to be biding their time until someone hatched a plan to dispose of all these idle dead to make way for some more lucrative enterprise.
In the main office, a nice middle-aged woman in a brassy beehive-shag provided me with a map. “See?” she said. “Your grandparents are buried in the plot for the Young Friends Pleasure and Benefit Society.” Really? I said, marveling at the name. She also revealed that the cemetery held a monument to the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, fifteen or twenty of whom lay within its walls. The monument was located just up the road from The Young Friends Pleasure and Benefit Society, in the section for the much more popular Workmen’s Circle.
I set out in the rain. Not a single blossoming tree or flower brightened my way. The only relief was provided by the photographs of the dead that had been burned into the porcelain on some of the stones, startling me with this evidence of what impressive hats the women wore after they gave up their sheitels, how amazingly assimilated these immigrants had grown in such a short time, how many of them died so young.
Then, there it was, Path 31, and off to the right, the arch spanning the entrance to the YOUNG FRIENDS PLEASURE & BEN. SOC. Searching for my grandparents’ stones was like making my way through a crowded party, trying to find two people I used to know well but wasn’t certain I would recognize. Finally, I found them: Joshua Davidson, who died on November 29, 1946, age 64 years, and Pauline (Pesha) Davidson, Beloved Wife, Devoted Mother, Grandmother, Great-Grandmother, who died May 12, 1979, at 91. Standing before their graves, I experienced the satisfaction that rewards anyone who finds the treasure he or she sets out to find. More than that, I felt as if I had glimpsed my grandparents in their native surroundings—not the cemetery, but a room filled with the tired but happy members of the Young Friends Pleasure and Benefit Society.
My grandmother wasn’t a beauty, but I had seen a photograph of her as a young woman, posed in one of those enormous hats, and she gave off the same aura of self-effacing warmth and generosity that I recalled from when I knew her. From her earliest years, she had worked in a sweatshop, sewing buttons on ladies’ coats, and even though my grandfather was a widower with two young sons, he must have seemed a catch—he had gotten a degree from Cooper Union (which, from the time of its inception until a few days before my visit to Mount Zion, had charged its students no tuition) and found a job as a patent agent. Although my grandmother was a conventionally religious Jew, my grandfather was a freethinking Mason (a Jewish Mason!) and a card-carrying member of the Socialist Labor Party. My grandmother would light the candles on Friday nights, and when my grandfather got home from work, he would lick his fingers and pinch them out.
Working in a patent office, he enjoyed regaling my mother with predictions of the rocket ships that would change Buck Rogers from fantasy to reality, and the magic box that would bring into your living room not only the actors’ voices, but also their images. And yet, he could predict his early death from the clogged heart that seems to run in our family; when he died, my grandmother was forced to go back to work, selling women’s hats at Macy’s, and my mother resigned herself to continuing her secretarial career, at least until she married.
I inherited my grandfather’s scientific mind; I don’t believe that a dead person’s bones can hear what a living person says. And yet, I stood in the rain, telling my grandmother how much I missed her, how sorry I was that I hadn’t understood why she asked the same questions over and over, how I wish I hadn’t lost my temper. I told her that her youngest child, my mother, had had a good life, but now she was dying. I thought of the way my grandmother, who hated to startle my mother awake for school, would slip my mother’s socks on her feet to wake her. I thought of my mother’s feet now, and how I sometimes sat beside her in the nursing home massaging her gnarled toes. I told my grandmother that I would be sure to slip my mother’s socks gently on her feet before we buried her.
And then I told my grandfather that, like him, his great-grandson was a Socialist. “He’s like a twenty-first century Joe Hill,” I said, picketing what needed to be picketed, occupying what needed to be occupied. In July, when Ann Arbor fills with tourists eager to buy art at Art Fair, my son sits for hours beneath a banner that reads ASK ME ABOUT SOCIALISM. “Everyone thinks he’s nuts,” I said. And yet, if not for all the crazy socialists and labor radicals buried around New York, who knew but that millions of Americans would still be stitching away their lives in filthy, crowded, windowless sweatshops. When I teach courses on Jewish-American literature, I remind my students that most Jews who immigrated to America were lefties. You would think they would take this fact for granted. But many of them seem surprised, if only because so many older Jews strike them as so conservative.
I stood there in the rain and cried. Then I took out a pair of scissors and tended the graves. My grandparents’ cozy plot—barely the width of a double bed—was mounded with a neat coverlet of ivy. A few wild onions had sprouted around the edges. Scallions had been among my grandmother’s favorite foods, so I allowed those weeds to flourish. But an ugly, spiked vine was invading the plot, so sticky and stubborn, I almost felt as if it were trying to pull me under.
I couldn’t find any pebbles to leave on my grandparents’ graves, so I used fragments of an older stone. I don’t know why the gesture mattered. Who would ever come here to notice? Then again, who would visit my grave? I was fifty-six and single. I had only one child. If he didn’t think it was important to return to whatever cemetery might hold my remains, who would? Maybe the message I was sending was not to my grandparents, but to my son.
Finally, I said goodbye and went in search of the Workmen’s Circle plot. The rain was really coming down, and I hurried past a large, water-stained monument with a single name, GREIF, as if the inhabitants of this city were so beaten down by their sorrow, they couldn’t even label their pain correctly.
I had known for years about the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, which had occupied the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of a building in what is now Greenwich Village. On March 25, 1911, just before quitting time, a fire broke out in a bin of fabric. Most of the exits were locked. The one rickety fire escape collapsed under the weight of the twenty girls who tried to climb down it. The 146 victims, most of them Jewish and Italian seamstresses between sixteen and twenty-three, either died in the blaze or jumped screaming to their deaths.
What I hadn’t known was that the tragedy sparked three days of protests, after which the Workmen’s Circle, a Jewish fraternal organization, erected a monument to the fifteen or twenty victims who were buried at Mount Zion. The longest living survivor, Rose Rosenfeld Freedman, was later buried here, too. She had been hired at sixteen to fill a position vacated by a worker suspected of union organizing. A few years later, when the fire started, Rose was working on the ninth floor. Unable to escape by running down the fiery stairs, unwilling to follow the girls who were jumping to their deaths, Rose made her way to the tenth floor “to see what the executives were doing.” But the executives had already fled. Pulling her long skirts above her face, Rose ran up a smoky stairwell to the roof, where a fireman carried her to safety. Although she had once enjoyed the independence of earning her own wages, the fire convinced her to go to college. She found a job with the Cunard cruise line, then married and raised a family. She lived to be 107 and spent most of that very long life fighting for workers’ rights.
“Hundred forty-six people in a half an hour,” she once said. “I have always tears in my eyes when I think. It should never have happened. The executives with a couple of steps could have opened the door. But they thought they were better than the working people. It’s not fair because material, money is more important here than everything. That’s the biggest mistake — that a person doesn’t count much when he hasn’t got money. What good is a rich man and he hasn’t got a heart? I don’t pretend. I feel it. Still.”
Searching for Rose Rosenfeld Freeman’s grave, I couldn’t help but think of the news I had woken to that morning. In Bangladesh, rescue parties were shifting through the wreckage of the eight-story building that had collapsed on the 3000 garment workers who had been laboring inside. Already, the dead numbered more than four hundred; eventually, the toll would rise above one thousand. As Bangladeshis by the thousands rioted to protest the abysmal conditions in their country’s factories, rescuers worked frantically to save a woman named Shaheena, who was trapped the building’s bowels. Just as the rescuers were about to free the Bangladeshi version of Rose Rosenfeld, the electric saw they were using threw off a spark that set fire to the rolls and scraps of fabric that surrounded her. After she died, the rescuers gave up hope of finding anyone else alive (they eventually did pull one more miracle-survivor from the wreckage, but that morning, the news was as grim and hopeless as the weather).
The woman in the main office at Mount Zion had said that when I went looking for the Workmen’s Circle plot, I should keep my eyes open for two statues whose arms were raised to form an arch. What she hadn’t said was that the statues had been vandalized. The young male worker stood to one side of the gate, a hammer in his right arm, his left arm amputated at the elbow. The young female worker held a Lady Liberty torch in her left arm; her right arm, raised to meet her brother’s, had been snapped off at the wrist. The distance between the stumps was greater than two arms’ lengths, so the workers must have been holding something between their hands. A banner? Some object that marked the triumph of the workers of the world, who had finally managed to unite?
Beside the statue of the man stood a small granite slab inscribed with the following tribute: “We remember the victims of this tragic event and strive to achieve safe working conditions and dignity for all in a shenere un a besere velt—a better and more beautiful world.” I admired that the workers who had erected this slab hadn’t confined their sympathy to their fellow Jews, or even their fellow New Yorkers, but had expressed their desire to create a better, more beautiful world. I doubted they would be pleased to learn that their fight for better wages and safer conditions had led to their jobs getting shipped overseas so that laborers in Bangladesh could suffer much the same danger and hardship that they—our grandparents—had found to be intolerable.
By the time I left, the factories were letting out. The Q67 filled with dark-skinned workers, some of them quiet with fatigue, others carrying on in languages I could not identify. Then everyone got off, except for a kind Hispanic man who seemed very concerned that I find the subway back to Manhattan, where I obviously belonged.
Two days later, in a nursing home outside Philadelphia, I told my mother about my trip, rightly predicting that once the adventure was in the past, she would be comforted to know that her parents’ graves were receiving the perpetual care for which she paid. I asked if she remembered Joshua and Pauline receiving any pleasure from the Young Friends society, or only the benefit of a decent burial, and she said of course, they used to get dressed up and go out to society events all the time. I showed her the photos I had snapped on my cell phone, and my mother, who rarely bestows compliments on anyone, remarked that her father would have been proud to know my son, a remark that lessened the sting of the derogatory jibes he has suffered sitting beneath his ASK ME ABOUT SOCIALISM banner.
After the visit, as my brother and sister and I sat around discussing the inevitable arrangements we would need to make to have our mother buried beside our father, my brother said that he already had told his kids to just burn him up and put his ashes in a box. I suppose that I understand his sentiments. But I can’t help thinking that burials are worth the expense, and that cemeteries aren’t wastes of space. Even with real estate so expensive, there are reasons to dedicate acres to the dead. How else are we to be reminded of who our ancestors were, if only one or two generations earlier? Where else can we erect perpetual monuments to our Greif? And where else but a cemetery can we be inspired to rededicate ourselves to experiencing the few pleasures our lives afford, even as we work to bring about a benefit for our survivors, a shenere un a besere velt for all?
Eileen Pollack is the author of two novels, Breaking and Entering, published in 2012 by Four Way Books, and Paradise, New York, published in 1998 by Temple University Press. She has also published two collections of short fiction, The Rabbi in the Attic and In the Mouth