Visiting the Family
By Mitchell S. Block
Uncle Aaron’s brain was no longer much for details. As he approached 80, his once-sharp memory began to come and go, He was constantly getting confused --- missing connections --- much like the electric trolley cars he used to drive through Brooklyn to Prospect Park. Clanging merrily down the street one moment, and stopped on the tracks, the overhead wire disconnected from the power source, the next.
So, each year in the six years since my father’s death, Jerry and I would head down from Connecticut during the Jewish New Year to drive my mother, and my Aunt Lilly and Uncle Aaron, to the cemetery on Long Island for their annual family visit. My father was there, buried next to my mother’s parents, who were just a few steps away from my grandmother’s parents, Bubbie and Zadie. Not far from Bubbie and Zadie were some of their brothers and sisters. Relatives I only knew from their headstones, their passing recorded long before my birth.
My large Jewish family had surprised me by readily accepting the fact that I was gay. Perhaps it was because Dale, the center of my universe for so many years, had just died of cancer. Perhaps they really were the loving, accepting family they had always claimed to be. Perhaps, my relationship with Jerry, the Midwestern mensch, made it easier to accept. They had immediately welcomed Jerry into the family — my gentile lover who thanked my family members for their kindnesses by bestowing mitzvahs upon them. A good deed was not just a mitzvah. A good deed earned you twenty mitzvahs. To Jerry, mitzvahs were much like green stamps.
In these dozen years, Jerry could have filled a dozen 'mitzvah books' just by driving to this aging cemetery, which also contained my Uncle Aaron’s parents and grandmother. Each year, we would follow Uncle Aaron’s directions down streets named Judah and Ezrah, Monroe and Lincoln, and we would visit our families. Jerry and I would pull weeds and pluck dead leaves from the yews planted over the graves, which were designated --- by round, day-glo orange stickers placed haphazardly on the expensive marble and granite gravestones --- to receive “perpetual care.” It seemed the only perpetual care the graves received was the care we gave during our perpetual visits.
We left my mother’s apartment in Brooklyn at ten o’clock Friday morning to pick up Aunt Lilly and Uncle Aaron who lived just a few minutes away. They were waiting for us at the side entrance to their building, another twenty-five-story brick tower bearing a strong resemblance to my mother’s twenty-five-story brick tower.
Although Aunt Lilly’s spirit hadn’t weakened as she settled solidly into her seventies, her knees had. This year, Jerry had the inspiration to bring along a step stool to make it easier for Lilly to heft her bulk into and out of our butch SUV.
Since giving birth to her first child, my cousin Evie, some fifty years earlier, and then Carol four years later, Aunt Lilly had never been able to reclaim the slender and shapely figure of her youth. She had always made attempts. At all family gatherings, instead of having an entire piece of cake with her coffee, she would only take a sliver. But then, another sliver. And still another sliver.
“It’s only a sliver,” she would say.
The entire family was aware that if Lilly were to reassemble all those slivers, she would have discovered that, more often than not, she consumed at least half a cake.
I would never have described Aunt Lilly as fat, though. No, never fat. More like comfortable. And Uncle Aaron was always com¬fort¬able, as well. They were both exactly as they were supposed to be.
Before their fiftieth wedding anniversary, Aunt Lilly finally stopped dying her hair shoe-polish black. It was now snow-white, just as her mother’s had been, and her eyes were a silvery gray, just like her father's. Uncle Aaron’s hair had changed only slightly in my thirty-nine years. The golden brown horse shoe that ringed his shining pate when he taught me, thirty-three years earlier, to ride a two-wheeler was now a brown and white horse shoe. And he still had the pencil-thin, carefully trimmed, movie star mustache he had adopted in the 1940s.
After setting out the green enameled step stool, to which Lilly laughingly exclaimed, "Oy, Jerry. A gezunt dir in pupik!," and helping Aunt Lilly up into the front seat of the Trooper (if she sat in back she got car sick), I climbed in back with my mother and Uncle Aaron, and we were happily on our way.
“Hadayadoodle, boys?” piped Aaron. “Where are we going?”
“To the cemetery,” Lilly responded with a sigh. "Oy, Aaron."
And to us, she explained, "I must have told him a thousand times this morning where we're going. He's becoming such a farshtopterkop.
"It means his head's stopped up, Jerry," my mother explained and then asked, "Do you know what Lilly said to you before, Jerry? It meant, "Good health, to your belly button."
"Oh, Mimi. Don't be so literal. I just said, ‘thank you.’
"Dramatically," my mother added.
Lilly, being the oldest of the seven siblings in my mother's family, did not learn English until the age of five, when she started school on the Lower East Side. She was shocked when she discovered that the language her parents and the neighbors spoke, Yiddish, was not the language everyone else in New York spoke. She returned from her first day at school furious with my grandparents and told my grandmother that they were no longer allowed to speak Yiddish at home. They were in America and they needed to be American. Lilly grew to speak beautiful, extravagant, and elegant English. But, as she grew older, she seemed to revert more and more to her Yiddish roots.
"So, how are you doing, Aunt Lilly?" I asked.
"How am I doing? Vos zolikh makhen? How should I be doing? I've become an old lady with bad knees And your Uncle Aaron is a little meshugener. But, lomir lebn un lahn! May we live and laugh!" was her reply.
There was surprisingly little traffic on the Belt Parkway that perfect spring morning and in less than twenty minutes we were almost to Long Island.
“Here’s your exit, Jerry,” I directed, knowing what would ensue.
“This isn’t the exit,” chimed my mother.
“Yes, it is,” I insisted, as Jerry signaled and exited the Belt Parkway. “Go left at the stop sign.”
“Don’t you go right here?” she chimed again.
“I thought this wasn’t the exit.” I muttered. And then added, attempting to be more kind, “I’m sure it’s left.”
“Aaron, do we go left or right here?” asked Lilly.
“Where are we going?”
“Oy, Aaron. Where are we going. To the cemetery!” she wailed.
“This is how you get to the cemetery?”
Jerry turned left.
A few minutes later we approached the ornate, iron gates of the Beth David Cemetery. I breathed a sigh of relief; my directions had been correct. Lilly pulled the carefully folded, black yarmulkes out of her purse for the three men to wear. Jerry expertly placed the skullcap on his goyische head. In our years together, Jerry had become more comfortable with Jewish customs than I, the nice Jewish boy.
We drove onto the grounds of the Orthodox cemetery and made our first stop at Grandma, Grandpa, and my father. While my mother and Lilly read the prayers, Jerry and I collected small stones for everyone to leave on the graves. For my father, I found a small gray stone from me and a beautiful smooth white one from Dale, since she would never be able to leave a stone herself. Although I missed her, I was glad she was buried on a beautiful hill in Sheffield, England, and not in this crowded, neglected, old cemetery on Long Island. Someday, I would get back to Sheffield and leave a stone on her grave.
After making the usual rounds, we ended with Uncle Aaron’s parents. He couldn’t remember where they were buried, so Jerry and I reviewed Aaron’s map of the cemetery (a map on which he had carefully marked the location of each new resident over the years) to determine the section to search. We then walked the tightly packed rows of new and old marble gravestones until we found who we were looking for.
Aaron opened the prayer book and began to read. Jerry and I stood respectfully nearby, while my mother and Aunt Lilly stood on his other side about ten feet away.
“Extolled and hallowed be the name of God . . .” began Aaron.
“Mimi, did I tell you I went to Top Tomato yesterday?”
“No. Oh, Lilly, I wish I had known. I need cucumbers.”
“. . . and which He governs according to His righteous will . . .”
“You should have called me. I got the most gorgeous strawberries. Ay-yay-yay. From heaven.”
“. . . come, and His will be done in all . . .”
“Did you notice if they had cucumbers? Oh, Lilly, the bialys! I could kick myself.”
“What?” Lilly asked.
“What a memory I have. Schlucker’s was having a sale on bagels and bialys. I know how much Aaron loves bialys, so I bought you a dozen and put them in the freezer. I was going to bring them upstairs when we picked you up today.”
“. . . May they find grace and mercy before the Lord . . .”
“All right. So they’ll stay in your freezer another day. We’re not going anywhere.”
“I’m getting so forgetful in my old age.”
“. . . and the rest of the righteous males and females that are in Paradise; and let us say, . . ."
“You? You were always forgetful. And, besides, you’re not so old. I’m nine years older. Oy, Aaron. What is he reading?”
“. . . and grandmothers, my uncles and aunts, my . . .”
“Gotenyou,” laughed Aunt Lilly. “Now he’s giving regards to everyone in the old country.”
The two sisters laughed together.
“. . . whether paternal or maternal, who . . .”
“Oy oy oy, Aaron,” Lilly moaned, mostly to us. And then finally commanded, “OK, Aaron. Genug iz ge'nug. Enough is enough. I want to visit Matilda sometime this century.”
“. . . Amen.”
As she climbed back into the car, Lilly asked, “You don’t mind driving to Matilda’s, do you, Jerry? She’s just home from her surgery. And we’re so close. But, I don't want to call her first. You know Matilda. She's such a balaboste. Even sick, she'll want to serve us lunch."
“It’s fine with me,” said Jerry, but then added knowingly, “As long as someone can tell me how to get there.”
“Sure, we can get there,” my mother insisted. “We’re very close.”
“Aaron. Do you remember how to get to Matilda’s from here?” asked Lilly.
“Where are we going?”
“Matilda? Say, you know, she lives close to here.” he commented.
“Oy, Aaron. We know. Do you know how to get there?”
He thought for a moment and then said, “No.”
“We are really close,” I offered. “I’m sure, among the four of us, we’ll be able to figure it out.”
Jerry sighed as we headed for the gates.
“What are we going to do with all those plots?” asked my mother.
“Poppa bought sixteen, didn’t he?” commented Lilly. “Let’s see, there’s Mama and Poppa. And Davie. Aaron and I have our own through the Jewish Center. Mimi, you’ll use the one next to Davie.”
“That’s four,” I offered.
“Silvie has four,” continued Lilly.
“That’s eight,” I added.
“I think Solly and Millie have their own. I don’t know what Matilda’s doing. Maybe she and Paul will use two. Elaine and Hank?” wondered my mother.
“Elaine and Hank. Ikh zol azoy visn fun tsores!" proclaimed Lilly.
Jerry looked to me for a translation. I had no idea.
So, I said so. "I have no idea."
"You understood that?" beamed my mother.
"What Lilly said. It means, 'I have no idea.' Or, literally, it means, 'I should know as little about trouble' — as she knows about what Elaine and Hank will do."
My response, “No, I really had no idea.”
Lilly was still pondering the problem of the excess plots. "Wait!" she boomed. "Mitchell and Jerry can use two!”
There was a stunned silence in the car. We certainly had come a long way. My family truly loved Jerry, and accepted Jerry and me as a couple. But, what would it say on Jerry’s gravestone, I wondered.
I finally responded to Lilly's pronouncement, “Well, I don’t know about that, Aunt Lilly. Do you think the cemetery management would allow it?”
“What’s to allow?” she demanded.
“Well,” I looked at Jerry, who was trying not to laugh. “I mean . . . for one thing . . . Jerry’s not Jewish.”
To which Lilly haughtily proclaimed, “Who’s going to tell? I'm certainly not going to tell!”
We laughed out loud. My mother beamed. And Jerry and I shared a smile as we headed back through the gates into the wilds of suburbia. In search of Aunt Matilda.
“This much I know, Jerry,” I proudly replied. “Just go left out of the cemetery and cross under the parkway.”
About a mile later, Jerry noticed that we were approaching a fork in the road.
“Which way do I go? Saw Mill Road or Hawthorne?”
“I’m not sure,” I hesitantly responded.
“Aaron, which way do we go here?” Lilly called out.
“Where are we going?” Aaron called back.
“Matilda?” he thought for a moment and then, “We’re very close.”
“Oy, Aaron. We know. How do we get there?”
And after another thoughtful pause he responded, “I don’t know.”
“Oh, it’s very close,” offered my mother.
And Jerry half-sang his response, “We have to make a decision.”
I decided to take control. “Just bear right onto Hawthorn.”
As Jerry followed my instructions and headed off to the right on Hawthorn, Aaron quietly sang from the back seat, “You should have taken Sawmill.”
“Now he tells us. Oy, Aaron,” moaned Lilly.
We all just laughed and continued on Hawthorn. After all, we were so close.
We headed down tree-lined streets, through the little towns of old Long Island. The gnarled old trees formed a canopy above the road, shading the stone and brick Tudor-style, storefronts as we passed through each consecutive village.
“Am I supposed to be turning soon?” Jerry asked.
“I think you just stay on this road. God, this is very familiar.” I was lost and was beginning to feel defeated, “We’re so close.”
Lilly agreed, “We’re very close.”
And my mother contributed, “It’s right near here.”
Jerry had lost all hope, “Well, I have no idea where I’m going. So, I need a bit more help.”
Lilly soothed, “We’re so close. Ooh, Mimi, look at all the stores along here. It’s so built up.”
Immediately, my optimism returned. Kennedy Airport was fast approaching on our right. Years before, my brother, Chucky, my parents, and I all visited Dale and her husband Dave, who were living in Germany at the time. We drove to Matilda’s house to leave my father’s car while we were gone. Uncle Paul then gave us a lift to the airport, which was only minutes away. He had taken a shortcut from their house and had come up this exact road.
“There’s the airport on the right,” I almost squealed with excitement, “They’re less than ten minutes from the airport.”
“No they’re not,” my mother argued.
“Sure they are. Remember when Paul drove us to the airport?”
“Paul never drove us to the airport.”
“Sure he did. When we went to Germany.”
“No he didn’t.”
“He did, Ma.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. And he came in from this side, went in the back way. Remember? The traffic was a mess in the airport and Paul refused to let us off early. Dad kept telling him to let us off and we’d walk, but he insisted on doing the complete circle. Then he rear-ended Barry Manilow's limo. He got us to the terminal so late that we couldn’t do any duty-free shopping.”
“Oh, that's right! I had forgotten about that. I was so upset because we couldn’t buy things duty-free! And Dale wanted her Chanel Number 5! What a memory you have. How many years ago was that?"
"Nearly twenty," I answered.
My mother continued, "We never did get to see Barry Manilow, though. Anyway, I'm not so sure that was really his limo."
Lilly laughed, "Mimi, you never told me you ran into Barry Manilow."
"Well, we never saw inside the limo, but the driver said it was him."
Poor Jerry was exasperated, “I need directions,” he begged.
To our right, and as far as the eye could see, was a chain link fence separating our road from the back of the airport. There were rows of hangars and small buildings containing administrative offices. To our left, street after residential street.
I could confidently say, “You go left somewhere up here,” although I could not confidently say exactly where.
“You know,” admitted Lilly, “I get so fartshadet around here.”
“Here! Go left here,” my mother excitedly commanded. But, when Jerry did as he was told, she was deflated, “Oh, now this doesn’t look right.”
Aaron, who had been silent since our first wrong turn, looked around and agreed, “This isn’t their street.”
To which, Lilly replied, “No, but we’re very close.”
“Here. Turn left here, Jerry,” I ordered.
Jerry turned onto a large tree-lined boulevard.
And my mother agreed, “Oh, this is right. Now we just have to look for those big pillars that lead into their street.”
“Pillars?” I disagreed, “I don’t remember pillars.”
“They’re stone,” she replied. “Or brick. White I think. Or gray. There! No, that’s not it.”
“Well, I don’t remember pillars. But, we’re definitely close,” I admitted.
“Here! Turn left here.” My mother was once again certain.
“I can’t.” Jerry was becoming resigned to driving until we ran out of gas. “That’s a one-way street.”
“I don’t think that’s it anyway,” I argued. “Every street along here has pillars at its entrance.”
“Here try this one!” My mother was determined to try them all.
“Shouldn’t we ask directions?” Jerry pleaded.
My mother scoffed, “We don’t need directions. We’re very close.”
We approached a small shopping center on the right. There was a pizza place, a dry cleaner, a video store. And a pay phone! “There’s a phone, Jerry. Turn right here and pull over. I’ll call Matilda.”
“Here’s a quarter.” My mother began to rummage through her purse.
“I’ve got one,” I replied. “What’s Matilda’s number?”
“Ooh, what is it again?” Lilly began, “5-1-6 . . .”
“I don’t need the area code,” I rolled my eyes.
“Here. It’s in here,” my mother said as she handed over her miniature, 25-year-old NY Telephone Company address book.
I left them all at the corner and trotted the 20 feet to the phone booth. I dropped in my quarter and quickly dialed Matilda’s number.
She answered on the first ring.
“Hi, Aunt Matilda. It’s Mitchell. Jerry and I took Lilly, Aaron, and my mother to the cemetery and we thought we’d stop by for a visit. But we got lost. We’re on Merrick Boulevard at a little shopping center. There’s a Rocco’s Pizza Place.”
“Oh,” she laughed, “You’re very close.”
I groaned to myself.
“Just go west on Merrick. When you get to the Jewish Center, turn left. Oliver is the first street on the right. You’re about three minutes away.”
“OK. See you in three minutes,” I hung up and returned to the car.
“You won’t believe how close we are,” I beamed — ignoring Jerry's smiling eye roll. “We’re only three minutes away. Just head west on Merrick.”
“West? Who knows from west?” Lilly teased. “California is west.”
“California?” laughed Aaron, “Hoo boy, are you lost.”
“Just turn around and head the other way,” I told Jerry.
Jerry made a U-turn and, almost immediately, we spotted the Jewish Center.
“There’s where Michael was bar mitzvahed. We go left there,” my mother exclaimed.
Jerry looked toward me for confirmation. I nodded my head and he did as my mother instructed.
“Then it’s your first right, Jerry,” I said.
There were no pillars at the corner of Matilda’s street.
“This isn’t it,” my mother snapped.
“Yes, it is, Ma.”
“There are no brick pillars,” she insisted.
“Ma, look at the sign. It's Oliver Street. That’s Matilda’s street. And, anyway, these are the directions she gave me. There’s a white brick house on the corner. Is that what you were thinking of? Turn right, Jerry.”
“What’s their house number?” Jerry asked.
“I don’t remember,” was my unfortunate reply, “But, it’s on the left. I’ll recognize it.” And then I spotted it, a tired, but still elegant, gray-shingled, ’50s-era, split-level, “There it is.”
Jerry made a U-turn and parked in front of the house.
“This isn’t their house,” insisted my mother.
“Sure it is.” I had already jumped out of the car and was getting the step stool in place for Lilly’s regal exit.
“They don’t have a sidewalk leading to the door. They have flagstones,” my mother argued.
“The flagstones go from the driveway, Ma.”
“No, no, no, this isn’t it.”
“Is this the right house or not?” Jerry pleaded.
And spotting her sister Matilda at the front door, Lilly imperiously took my hand and said, “Of course, it’s the right house. Didn’t we tell you we were close?”
And my mother replied with the chorus, “Very close.”
Written April 1993