by Marlene Olin
They sat shoulder to shoulder in the synagogue. The rabbi rocked on his heels, chanting the ancient prayers. Behind him, a wooden cabinet housed the sacred scrolls. In front of him sat the casket. Flanking it on the right and the left were horseshoe-shaped wreaths woven with hydrangeas. Martha liked blue hydrangeas. These were white. Anyone who truly knew her would have known that she liked blue.
Sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows. A stream of dust motes followed. And there in the last row, behind the out-of-town cousins, hidden by the creditors waiting to be paid, out of sight of the caregivers hoping to be acknowledged in Martha's will, sat the three mourners.
Though there was extra room in the pew, their elbows almost touched. They were strangers. Their eyes faced forward. Their feet were heavily planted on the floor. Rapt, they listened breathlessly. The rabbi was young, thin, boyish. Swallowed by an enormous prayer shawl, he struggled to find the right words.
"Martha Blatburg lived a long life. A very long life."
She had outlived her few remaining friends. Her husband Isaac, may he rest in peace, had barely tolerated her temper. Her children had been alienated by her verbal abuse. Those who knew her well, who drove her to doctor's appointments and cooked her food, who bathed her like a baby and rubbed lotion on her back, took care of her because they were paid to. Kindness, they knew, was a cultivated habit. Like saying please and thank you. Like taking your dirty shoes off by the door.
"When she was a child," said the Rabbi, "Martha developed rheumatic fever. No one, least of all Martha, thought she was going to live quite this long."
The three mourners shifted in their seats. The one closest to the aisle fished a handkerchief from his pocket. Manny Behar was an accountant. He had filed tax returns for Martha and her deceased husband for the last fifty years. He was used to attending funerals. Six months earlier, his wife Rose had passed on. It was a blessing really. A day after her eightieth birthday, she went to sleep and never woke up.
Rose was an early riser. Usually Manny opened his eyes to an empty depression in the bed. A pot of decaf would be percolating in the kitchen. The newspaper would be laid on the table. But that morning she lay flat on her back with her mouth gaping like a fish. Her lips had already grayed. Her hands had begun to turn cold. And he knew at that moment that something inside him had died, too. Like a clogged artery, a part of him ceased to function. And now, months later, he sat in the synagogue once more. He let the cadence of the singsong words, the liquid Hebrew melodies wash over him. He saw his wife’s face on their wedding day. He remembered the softness of her skin. And a pain as real and as malignant as a tumor returned.
Next to him sat Harvey Saperstein. Harvey was young enough to be Manny's son. His father had been Isaac Blatburg's business partner for close to thirty years. Vague memories shifted in and out of Harvey's head. A raucous laugh. The scent of cigarette smoke. A woman wearing a fox stole. He didn't know which memories were real and which were simply the Polaroid pictures tucked inside his father's desk or covering his mother's mirror. Martha and Isaac, Isaac and Martha. Clowning with his parent's. Vacationing with his parents. Drinking with his parents. Now all four were dead.
"A gift," said the rabbi. "She was given a gift."
As hard as he tried, Harvey couldn't remember a single conversation he had with the Blatburgs. Nor could he remember his parents' speaking of them fondly. Their relationship seemed to be based on need, on business, on getting the job done.
Shirley, call Martha on the phone, would you? Shirley, find some room in the calendar for the Blatburgs.
Harvey's father lived to work. There was never time for baseball practice, for award ceremonies, for driving him to college on that very first day.
Schmoozing, he called it. His father needed to do some schmoozing.
And when he wasn't schmoozing, Harvey's father was at the office. When he wasn't at the office, he was at the track. A man's got to follow his instincts, his father would tell them. A man's got to follow his gut to get ahead.
"You know what's wrong with the world?" his father would bellow. "It's filled with small people. Small people who think small and act small." Then he'd take a nicotine-stained finger and poke him in the ribs.
"Martha," said the rabbi, "was a woman of strong opinions. A woman who didn't hesitate to make her feelings known."
"You know what your problem is?" said his father. His breath was boozy. The pointed finger shook as he spoke. "You think you're special. That's what your problem is."
The problem with dying, Harvey realized, was that death shut doors. When there's life, there's hope. Hope that people will change. Hope that people will learn to love. Death is a thief. It robs you of possibilities. It silences apologies. It deprives you of your dreams.
Harvey's shoulders jerked up and down. Sobs wracked his body. Snot ran down his nose.
“We stand before God humbled,” said the rabbi. "Devoid of pride and cleansed of shame."
Suddenly Harvey's clothes felt too big. He fingered his face expecting to find blooms of acne. He was back in junior high, walking the hollow corridors, shrinking from whispers and taunts. Then wafting from the air-conditioning ducts, he heard his father's voice once more. It felt so near and real that Harvey looked up. And there he was. A ghost in a leisure suit, sucking on a Lucky Strike, blowing a ring of smoke in his direction.
"Get a grip, for God's sake. And stop crying! You're embarrassing yourself and you're embarrassing me. You're an embarrassment to the whole fucking world."
Next to Harvey sat Lillian Wilmer. Powdered cheeks. Rivulets of running mascara. Like a mime, her mouth stayed shut. Only her hands moved. They were busy hands. Her fingers ran up and down the pages of the prayer book. She hiked her pantyhose. She organized her purse. Lillian was constitutionally unable to sit still.
Her house was across the street from the Blatbergs’. She and her husband had poured every penny of their savings into their home. "The neighborhood is worth it," she told her husband. "They're the best public schools in town." How they slaved to pay the mortgage, to keep the cars in the driveway polished to a shine, to wash their windows, to mow the huge lawn. "This house," she told her husband, "is an investment. An investment in the future. Our children's future. Our future."
"This house," said her husband, "will suck us dry."
The minute the children left for college, Lillian's husband left too. Now she was sixty-years-old and alone, her life as forsaken as an empty cupboard. Martha always had the nicest hydrangeas on the block. How Lillian envied those hydrangeas.
"Let us bow our heads in prayer," said the rabbi, "as we remember Martha and those loved ones no longer with us."
Silence filled the great room. The thermostat was set on high and above their heads a pendant lit with holy light swung. The scent of suits left too long in the closet hovered. And from the back row, the three mourners out-cried them all.
When the rabbi finished, when all the words were emptied and every empty word was shared, he slowly worked his way down the center aisle. He shook every hand. He kissed every cheek. But when he reached the final pew, he paused. Standing on the pulpit, the rabbi had witnessed their great grief. And he realized that even old ladies who cheat at canasta and berate the help have redeeming qualities. God, in his infinite wisdom, accepts all into his fold.
He gripped Manny by the shoulder. “With time, the pain of your loss will heal,” said the rabbi.
“I filled out her W-2s,” said the accountant.
The rabbi glanced at Harvey.
“To me she was a snapshot,” said the business partner’s son. “A snapshot sitting on a shelf.”
Then the rabbi reached across the two men and grabbed Lillian’s wrist.
“Her hydrangeas,” said her neighbor, “were the color of the sky.”
Long after the sanctuary cleared, the three of them remained. One grieved his past, the other his present, while a woman feared for her future. They sobbed and they wept, listening for that still small voice, hoping that one day they too would be offered redemption.