BY CHANA SHAPIRO / AJT //
Ten of us stood at my mother-in-law’s grave, waiting for the “unveiling” of a flat, brass plaque, the only type of marker allowed at the Long Island cemetery.
It had been sunny only a few minutes earlier, but now dark clouds loomed, and the wind blew with crazy fury. My husband, Zvi, was officiating, and our small group of family and friends shivered, as he spoke.
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We huddled around the newly-laid marker, trying to hear him over the deafening wind.
The weather was hardest on Zvi’s Uncle Morris and his wife, Aunt Frieda, the last remaining relatives of my mother-in-law’s generation.
Strong gusts pushed their frail bodies back and forth. I was worried about them, but at the same time, I thought that the raw weather was just right: reflecting the close of my mother-in-laws passage, the wild, dark wind was a perfect setting for such a dramatic moment.
A year after the funeral, this was the final meeting of her life and afterlife.
Earlier, as we waited for the unveiling to begin, my friend, Joyce, and I talked about our own beloved parents, whom we had recently buried. Feeling our own loss, mixed with longing and remorse, this unveiling was a catalyst for renewed grieving.
At this graveside, our hearts broke again and we couldn’t stop crying.
As my husband spoke, we were slowly distracted by a steady stream of cars arriving for a nearby graveside funeral. Joyce and I should have been paying attention to our own ceremony, but all the noise and movement, coupled with the wind, made it hard to concentrate.
There must have been a hundred people there, most of them waiting impatiently and talking loudly. Then a dark green Jaguar pulled up, and an energetic fellow, wearing a tweed jacket and matching cap, emerged.
The crowd readily complied as he, the coolest rabbi we had ever seen, efficiently managed the crowd and began the funeral. His group became silent and respectful as he spoke, and Joyce and I refocused our attention on our own service.
The intense wind was causing Aunt Frieda great distress. She worked hard to keep a tight grip on her beautiful head scarf, but every once in a while a strong gust almost managed to snatch it from her head.
Uncle Morris put his arm around her, anchoring the back of the scarf. That worked well until it was time to place stones on my mother-in-law’s grave marker.
As the eldest member of our group, Uncle Morris stepped forward first. He bent to pick up a couple of rocks, and Aunt Frieda moved forward with him. The loosening of their dual-hold on her scarf allowed the wind to carry it away.
The scarf flew thrillingly through the air and landed on the windshield of the nearby Jaguar. Aunt Frieda was beside herself: she needed that scarf, but she wasn’t’ going to be the one to go into foreign territory to get it.
She gave Uncle Morris the look. Resolutely, he headed for the scarf.
As the scarf was flying through the air and landing on the Jaguar, Joyce and I (who had already sobbed our way through several dozen tissues), caught each other’s eye. It was a foolish move – our tears soon turned into barely suppressed laughter.
And we weren’t the only ones. Both sets of transfixed mourners watched, then, quick as a wink, Tweed Rabbi took a few bounding leaps, swept the scarf from his car, and deftly handed it to Uncle Morris, who gallantly presented it to his wife.
Uncle Morris looked like a hero, Aunt Frieda embraced her husband and theatrically recovered her head, and the Tweed Rabbi continued his service. Many of us were already laughing; now it was all we could do to keep from clapping.
With the passing of that moment, the wind suddenly subsided, and the sun reappeared. It was a beautiful day, after all.
My husband, who had managed to keep the service going during the entire disturbance, thanked everyone for coming, and after a few minutes we headed home. In the car we talked about how close we felt to our departed parents at times like this, and we even believed their spirits hovered with us.
Would they understand that the mourners were caught off-guard and couldn’t help laughing amidst such solemnity?
I recalled sitting shiva for my father. My mother, siblings and I were inconsolable, and we were positive that we would never be able to have fun again. On the third day of that week, however, as we sat together and told great stories about our father, we laughed. We sensed our father’s presence there with us, enjoying our reminiscences and laughing at the funny ones with us.
Now, as we left the gravesite, my husband and I figured that his mother, who appreciated irony and always enjoyed a good visual joke, had probably gotten a long-overdue laugh at her own unveiling.
As for Uncle Morris and Aunt Frieda, they told the story of the soaring scarf for years, but when they told it, the color of the Rabbi’s Jaguar was bright red.
A Footnote: The above narrative happened a long time ago, but I often think of it during the Yizkor service. Every family has its own unending saga, and I love hearing and telling all the favorite stories, which tend to surface during the High Holy Day period. Many of the stories are amazing and surprising, many are unbearably sad, and many – I’m happy to say – are absolutely hilarious.