Almost ten years ago, we cremated my dad’s body. Then buried the boxed and bagged ashes at a cemetery in a woodsy Jewish cemetery in Queens, New York. Our family plot is right next to the gravel road that roams through the cemetery. When we gather for the anniversaries, we stand in the road and have to shuffle closer to the grass when a car drives slowly by, careful not to step on dad or grandpa’s grave marker.
I don’t much like cemeteries. Places to embalm our dead. They take up land so we can hold onto each year in remembrance. These tracts of the dead stretch out for miles upon miles. We have homeless people who sleep in squalor on the street while dead bodies are buried on acres of useable land. It betrays logic. Cemeteries are places of emotion and finance. How much does it cost a family each year to keep the grass trim above their beloved’s body, locked in that tomb? I don’t know what my dad thought of cemeteries, but I don’t think he much cared for them.
He wanted his ashes scattered over Walton Lake in upstate New York near the family summer-house, where as a kid he spent many summers fishing and swimming. That lake was special to him. He felt a freedom when he was at the lake, and a peace of mind that was rare in his life.
Instead, we took his boxed and bagged ashes, dug a hole in the ground at the family plot and buried ‘him’ there. It’s actually fairly impressive what a small container a body fits into once it’s lost itself.
What good is that headstone in that cemetery in Queens for those of us who lives so far away? It is an absent memorial. lf this physical memorial didn’t exist, the focus could be anywhere – perhaps floating free in the weedy waters of Walton Lake.
But now he is now static, fixed, in a far-away location. Embedded there is a concrete symbol. I’m somewhat resentful that there is this specific location stuck in my mind as related to him. We aren’t required to go there to mourn, but kind of like what photographs do to a memory, a headstone does to the grieving.
One of the weird things I noticed the other day about missing my dad is that my life is pretty good.
I have this dog. She’s a pug. Never thought I’d ever like a little dog, but this snorting, snarfling, pudgy, little creature had wiggles and sneezed her way into my heart. I want to send my dad her funny pictures and laugh with him at her odd amusing ways. When I took pictures of her at my friends St. Patrick’s day party, I thought about how hard he would have laughed at her picture with the Buddha statue. We would have joked about the Zen of Pugs.
After a number of years of working towards a career goal, I have a job that I love. When I wake up in the morning, I actually look forward to going to work. I consider myself lucky. Earlier today, I was making up stories of what I’d tell my younger self. I wanted to tell her to listen to your dad. He had some things that made a lot of sense – now listen to them! He would be so proud of me, and so terribly happy to know that I am so enjoying my life. When I got my first cell phone, my dad and I talked every day. It was New Technology and it enabled us to be connected like we never could before. It was so cool! When the iPhone first came out, all I could think about was how excited he would have been playing with one. Where I work, we have dictation computers for the doctors. When I first encountered these a few years ago, I remembered my dad struggling with early voice-to-text software. He knew it had promise, but it wasn’t at a usable point then.
It’s an odd feeling missing someone and being terribly sad that they are gone, while at the same time feeling satisfied and happy with a wonderful life that you want to tell them all about.
We usually had about a month off school for Winter break when I was a kid. I imagine my mom got pretty tired of me after a while and was probably relieved when she could ship me off to stay with my pop for a week or two.
We never had a tree at my dad’s place, and usually I spent those holidays with him and my paternal grandparents in Brooklyn. If there was overlap in dates, we celebrated Hanukkah. I got yummy melty chocolately gold coins, scarfed grandma’s homemade matzoh ball soup and stuffed myself on latkes.
One of my favorite things to do during those holiday visits was to get in the car with pop to go look at the decorated houses. We would drive up one street and down the next, commenting and oohing and ahhing at the lovely, sparkly Christmasy homes.
It never occurred to me what a Jew from Brooklyn felt about these ecstatic displays. I am Jewish by birth, but not so much by practice, and at my mom’s we had a big Christmas tree and went caroling each year. My dad, however, was raised in a fairly traditional (non-Orthodox) Jewish household.
During those tours he and I did through the neighborhoods, I wonder if he felt like an outsider, peering in to someone else’s philosophy, stealing visions of another’s ritual?
My memory is that he loved the Christmas lights as much as I did. The lit-up houses were wondrous and sentimental, festive and enchanting. We were two kids with big eyes thrilled at the beautiful spectacle.