By Jean Zorn
Dwelling on the catastrophes that have overtaken the planet and the nation should hardly leave room for personal grief, but, unfortunately, there is always room for that. Our deepest mourning – the kind for which there is no solace; the kind that we can never hope to fix – is for our friends and family who have died. You don’t get to our age without quite a few holes appearing in what had been the social fabric of your life. Parents have died, of course; for many of us, the entire generation senior to us has gone, leaving us in the forever surprising position of being the oldest members of our families. But, much as we miss that generation, their departure at least begins to feel normal – not forgivable, but normal. The deaths of our own generation – of spouses and siblings and friends – is not normal, and never will be. No one else – no new friend, no new spouse even – can fill the roles they played in our lives and for our souls. One brought light, another joy, all of them brought security and comfort and humor. No one will know us and put up with us and accept us as they did. No one new can share the memories, the ancient jokes, the songs from school and camp and demonstrations, the worry over kids and jobs and growing up and growing on and growing old together.
The excellent prose pieces and poems in this collection dwell on the theme of personal mourning. Like most good art, they focus on the specific in order to inform the general.
You will be sad as you read them, but you will also be lifted out of your sadness, because, in writing so thoughtfully about death and loss, they make of it something sublime.
At the Beach
The wind, a steady current, takes me back to a day after work, standing on a dock the summer I was 16, the wind pulling the stench of fish away from my jeans, my sweatshirt, my white headscarf. I look over the fishing boats, hulls empty, riding high in the bay, proud of my wages.
Tonia’s husband pulls the bag of ashes from his backpack. The wind whips my hair into my mouth and I’m 12, kneeling on the sand striking match after sulfurous match until finally my crumpled ball of inky newsprint, stuffed under a careful lean-to of bone-white driftwood sticks, catches fire.
The gulls’ cries fade and I’m eight, standing on the hard sand squinting up at a green kite with a knotted rag tail rising, diving and rising again. The thin taut line pulls in my hand as sure and steady as a hooked fish.
Tonia’s husband tilts the bag and the wind pulls the heavy grains of ash away to the south in a fast, low cloud. I need to remember this day, to stencil it in my memory next to the dock and the fire and the kite. Clean, sharp, indelible.
Then when I’m far from the beach, far from the screaming gulls, the press of the wind and the smell of the surf, I’ll have those girls, the ones who keep the kite in the air, keep the fire burning, keep working until the long shift is over. They’ll gather around me, not quite touching. They’ll sit with me when I cry until I can hardly breathe, when I miss my friend like you can’t believe.
Terminal Diagnosis – in memory of MZ
poked up in the vegetable bed
is a flag
you can’t quibble with blossoms
snapping awake inside buried bulbs.Or plum trees in the yard
breaking bud in January
faithful inside themselves.
The poisoned human body
walks itself down a dry path
past the hyacinths
unfolding their small green wings
While the ocean shimmers
in three shades of blue.
Her panicky race from death was in the wrong direction. Still wearing the faded jeans and t-shirt she had on when she dropped to the floor and let the phone tumble from her hand, she clung to her leather purse strap, pulled open the heavy door, and hurried past the sanctuary toward the church offices, her vacant eyes searching for the minister. A stranger touched her shoulder. “Could I help you?”
“My father died. I need the minister.”
With the woman’s arm around her, she felt she might survive the day. She had visited her dad in the hospital, then driven five hours home, blackened storm clouds nearly smothering her. As she put her key in her back door, the phone rang. “Dad’s dead” is all her sister had said.
“Come. Wait here in the chapel while I find the minister.”
She sank into the pew and stared at the silver plate behind the altar. Five days earlier she had left a prayer card: “Pray for my father. He has cancer.” She didn’t hear the woman return and startled when she touched her shoulder. “They’re in a financial meeting. The minister will see you when it finishes.” The woman half-smiled as she left.
Anger started as a tiny ball in her stomach, slammed up her arms and chest, and exploded through her skull. She and her ten-year-old son had attended this church every Sunday since her divorce. She had volunteered and tithed. She had never asked for anything. Now she asked for this one thing, in this one moment when she desperately clutched to disappearing faith. She rose, walked past the altar, grabbed her prayer card, ripped it in fourths, and let the pieces fall into the silver plate. She ran from the chapel, past the sanctuary, and shoved the door open, letting it slam behind her.
In the car she crossed her arms over the steering wheel and buried her face, her cries like those of a fatally-wounded deer. How incredibly foolish to think she would find solace in this stark white, cold building.
Within minutes of her phoning him, her ex-husband had stood at her door, their son clinging behind him. He had thrown his arms around her. “I’m so sorry. What can we do? Do you want us to stay?” he whispered too soon to halt her panic. “No, I have to go to the church.”
She had turned them away, that moment relinquished forever.
A Poem for Lois
You are on my fridge door now; I don’t want you there.
I’d so much rather be able to pick up the phone and talk.
Or see you at lunch.
Or in your kitchen, with coffee.
Not upstairs next to your bed, although if I could have
I would have jumped at the chance.Still, you are here in my heart.
And your smile is on my fridge
Dumb place for it to be, right?
Let’s re-write that:
You are on my fridge
But your smile is in my heart.
As are you.
Most of the spaces marked “Reserved for Funeral Procession” in the parking lot were filled. I chose a space further down the lot, not sure if I wanted to be part of the procession. As I walked to the entrance I saw someone, probably a funeral home employee, placing “Funeral” flags on the tops of the cars in the reserved area. The flags, held on by magnets, would give the drivers permission to ignore stop signs, yield signs and traffic signals during the procession to the cemetery.
Another funeral home employee, dressed in a black suit, held the door for me. He welcomed me and indicated the table with a sign-in book for attendees. I signed the name I am better known as. There was a stack of envelopes and a container for Memorial Donations already partly full. A woman, also dressed in all black, handed me a pamphlet, which included a biography of the deceased and the program for the memorial service. She indicated where the receiving line of the bereaved began.
I made my way into the room. All along the walls were tripods holding photos of the deceased with family and friends at events and occasions, all dating back several years. Graduations, weddings, baptisms. Thanksgiving, Christmas. Memorial Day and Fourth of July parades. Historical Society, Community Foundation, church picnics, etc., etc. The deceased was obviously very active and involved at one time.
The line moved slowly past the family members. There were handshakes and hugs with the expressions of sympathy. It was interesting to see the mourners trying to remember names of the attendees, people they probably thought they should have recognized. Two in the receiving line exchanged puzzled glances as I made my way past. Perhaps nametags should have been distributed.
The service was very nice, a standard memorial service. A few family members shared memories of the departed and the years growing up together. The pastor made the usual pronouncements about life after death and entering the gates of Heaven. We stood, we sang, we followed in order behind the ash container, the pastor, and the family, to exit the sanctuary.
The urn was placed in the funeral-home hearse where some family members were seated. The other mourners all moved to their cars and pulled into line behind the hearse.
I watched, sitting in my car, reading the memorial pamphlet. The birth date was correct. The date of death was not. I wondered if the mourners would be horrified to learn that the ashes in the urn are not mine. I took off my blonde wig, tossed it on the back seat, started the engine and pulled out of the lot.
My father went
Down the porch steps
For the last time
Light stopped for him
In an instant
He was gone
The next morning
Another perfect day in June
I drove back
To my house
For the funeral clothes
Black silk dress
But as I drove
High wild screams
Echoed in the car.
I had to pull over
What was that unearthly noise?
It was me
The Irish lament
For the dead
That I never knew
Mourning/Morning: The Beginning
In the first moment after a death occurs, mourning begins; and it is the dawn of your new life, though you may not yet realize it. The world is a different place. Your home is no longer familiar. Nothing that you see fits into what you knew, like a puzzle that has come apart with pieces that no longer fit together. However many hours, days, months or years you waited by your loved one’s sickbed, or if the loss was sudden, your beloved no longer being among the living is at first incomprehensible. Our intellectual brain cannot absorb what has happened; our primitive brain does its best to protect us, and, for a while, we live in denial.
In the Jewish faith we have a mourning period called shiva, which can be observed from one to seven days. At shiva round foods like eggs, bagels, and lentils are served to remind us of the circle of life. Visitors bring meals that are already cooked and easy to serve, as well as cakes, cookies, nuts, candy, and flowers. When my husband died suddenly at the age of 23 on the first day of Passover, considered a holiday of celebration and joy, the coming of spring, shiva was supposed to be truncated. However, instead of observing fewer days, my husband’s modern Orthodox family suspended shiva observance altogether until after the eight days of Passover ended. During the week of Passover the family stayed together and a few close friends came to serve us meals. I was grateful to be secluded in that bubble away from school and work. At night my three-year-old son and I, who was also 23, went home and I hugged him to me and howled, explaining to him the inexplicable.
There were hundreds of people at the funeral of such a young man and since his father was a rabbi and icon in the Jewish community and his mother also held an important position, people from the upper echelon of many religious and educational organizations, students, and friends came to the shiva. Numb and still not comprehending the enormity of the situation and what was to be my future, I asked my rabbi if this happened so I would become a better person. Wise man that he was, he said, “I don’t know.” I still can’t answer that question, but I can say, as have many before me, surviving that loss has made me the person that I am.
Putting Poppy Down
footprints from the driveway,
but cannot remove the indelible imprint
you made on our lives.
I have yet to clean the front door
glass where you sat, nose pressed to the window
and waited, anticipating our return,
your entire body dancing at our arrival.
No barks now, to warn that someone is approaching.
No low growl as you stand between us in the meadow,
warning us of bears in the field.
How you grieved your best friend, Edna cat,
panting all night, your loss as apparent
In your absence, the other cats look around in confusion.
One has taken to sleeping
in the dark recesses of the closet.
There’s a hole in the house.
The earth has shifted,
tilted on its axis,
swirling us closer
to the star you’ve become.
Pennies from Heaven
When George was near to death, she leaned in close so she could feel his breath on her cheek. He whispered to her, Dimes. I will send you dimes.
The memories of her mother mostly etched in black and white, except this: walking hand in hand when they stop suddenly, her mother bending to pick up the small copper circles on the sidewalk, saying: Look, pennies from heaven.
After her father died, her mother’s voice changed. It took on the whining noise of a broken fan, reverberating with loss. It was not long before her mother, too, was gone.
Elizabeth, older now, a grown woman, knelt whenever she saw the pennies, thin fingers sliding under them, prying them up. She took to thinking the pennies were messages from her parents, encouraging her. She could survive no matter how hard things got, they seemed to say.
And sometimes things got pretty hard – her first marriage to a man she thought she loved, putting him through college until the lies, the drinking, and the debts overwhelmed her. It was not easy, but she found the courage to divorce him.
After she married George, he took great joy in giving her pennies that he found, laughing as he handed them to her, saying: Look, I found a message from your parents. She loved him more for that. When she doubted him, doubted herself, he told her she could do things. She learned to play the complicated Schubert duet with him on the piano in the living room. She sailed with him, even though she was afraid of the water, learning to love those quiet afternoons on the northern lake when the water was a Caribbean blue and she had him all to herself.
One week after he died, they told her she had to sell the boat, told her she was not really its captain nor could she ever be. They told her to be sensible. You don’t know what you are doing, they said. And they were right; she didn’t.
She spread the papers across the dining room table where they waited, insidious and ominous, unknowable: payments on the Audi, the car he said they could afford; credit card bills, page after page listing things she had not remembered they bought; password codes jotted on scraps of paper in George’s tiny handwriting, codes that withheld their magic, refusing to unlock their power for her.
She sorted through his clothes, cleaning and organizing as a way of coping, trying to face her existence without him – the endless mornings alone, no companionable outings to the farmers’ market or trips for garden mulch or birdseed for the feeder. Haunted by her loneliness, she cried at unexpected moments.
She smoothed her hand over his soft shirts, the scent of him lingering. She slipped her fingers into the pockets to make sure they were empty, and then she felt it, a piece of paper. She withdrew a neatly folded ten-dollar bill.
She smoothed the folds, laughing out loud at this lavish, lovable man, who wanted her to believe in herself. Georgie, dimes would have been fine.
White stargazer lilies around Daddy’s casket.
I wept when I peeked at his frozen features and pale eyelids. I wondered if he knew how much I loved him, how desolate I felt. I grasped his fingers, hoping he’d hug me like he always did when I needed comfort.
But Daddy wouldn’t move.
I clenched my hands and didn’t wash them for days after the funeral, no matter how much Mommy coaxed.
Pink carnations grasped in Billy’s fist.
He held them out to me during a field trip in sixth grade. I smiled and stroked their petals, ignoring the flecks of dirt clinging to the roots. I didn’t ask him where he got them. Flowers were happy. I was happy. I liked Billy and he liked me back.
Blue orchids in the corsage Billy pinned on my pink grad dress.
We danced and whirled and laughed and kissed. The stickpin came loose, and the corsage fell to the floor. Toes and heels trampled and tore at it. I cried, but Billy held me close to brush the tears from my cheeks.
Red roses in my bridal bouquet.
Friends and relatives wished us well. Billy and I danced and whirled and laughed and kissed. Then we slipped away from the reception as soon as we could, eager to begin the next chapter of our life.
Passion flowers of white and mauve next to champagne on the nightstand.
Billy popped the cork. We reminisced about the wedding reception. Giggled. Shivered in the embrace of nervous anticipation. The champagne turned flat, and the ice melted while we explored and caressed. I learned why Eve lusted after Adam, why Cinderella wanted the prince, why Cleopatra yearned for Mark Antony.
Baby’s breath beside my bed in the maternity ward.
A tiny human lay in my arms. Delicate fingers clutched mine the way I had clutched Daddy’s. I wept. For Daddy. For my uncertainty. Could I ever be the mother my little girl needed?
Yellow dandelions in Alyssa’s fist after her first day of preschool.
“Here,” she said, “I picked them special just for you.” I tousled her curls and hefted her onto my hip. She protested, “I’m too big, Mommy.” She wiggled down and dragged a chair to the sink while I arranged her bestest fwowers in a crystal bud vase. She giggled and swiped at the dirt on her cheeks as she stared at the rainbow sparkles sprinkled by the sun against the wall.
Fleurs-de-lis of gold embossed on the diary Alyssa bought me for Mother’s Day.
I traced the intricate patterns with my fingertips and promised to write in it every day. She smiled. “I love you, Mom. I’ll love you ’til all the stars are gone from the sky.”
Pink petunias next to my hospital bed.
“Where’s Billy? Where’s Alyssa?” The nurse wouldn’t answer, averting her gaze and bustling about as though she hadn’t heard. But when my doctor entered the room, I read the sorrow in his eyes.
I wailed into the emptiness while I tugged the blanket to my chin. Why couldn’t it have been me who died in the crash? The vase of petunias toppled to the floor and shattered.
Delphiniums of blue in two funeral wreaths.
The flowers blurred before my eyes as I listened to the minister and gazed at the photos on the caskets. I collapsed to my knees. My world lay in those satin-lined prisons. Father and daughter now slept together in death.
But I couldn’t sleep.
White stargazer lilies around my head.
The bubbles in the bathtub were almost gone. I reached for the sleeping pills, and my tears mingled with the warm water.
I removed the lid, poured the pills into my hand, and took a deep breath.
The faces of my husband and daughter ghosted the mist on the mirror.
Yellow dandelions and pink carnations in my hand.
The decades have left me with a bowed body and a wrinkled face. Every spring I lay my favorite flowers in the green grass blanketing my loved ones, and I promise to love them ’til all the stars are gone from the sky.
which when I was young seemed embarrassingly large.
I was born in the middle of the Depression,
and almost all my friends had one sibling at most.
My family, of course, was Catholic.
Now seven seems too few.
Three of us are dead.
One doesn’t speak to two of us,
and all of us are getting old.
Only three made it to what may have been
the last big family gathering,
the wedding of one of my grandchildren,
far from anybody’s home.
One of my siblings calls me on my birthday.
I call her on hers.
Two years ago three called.
the corner of my eye stands a cheerful
ceramic goat, mostly white because
Barbara, whose 4-H project this was,
never finished painting it. Golden horns
and tall green grass, a yellow bell, a brown
collar are the only parts completed.
Actual goats were a 4-H project, too.
Though surrounded by spreading suburbs,
we lived on a farm, so she was entitled.
She started with a cantankerous French
Alpine named Abby, who begat Buttercup,
Clover, Daisy, and Emily. Abby
had been a rodeo goat in an earlier
life. She once proved she knew no fear
of horses by standing off a herd and its
stallion in the farm across the road.
I have a photograph of Barbara with Daisy
or Emily in her arms and a delighted grin
on her face as she emerged from the shed
where they were born. I have a memory
of her, wearing a white shirt, white pants,
and a serious expression, as she showed one
of the goats at the county fair. I don’t think
any of them ever won anything, but as I say,
I have the memory, better than a prize.
Raizel does not like to leave her apartment during the long cold season. She sits perched at the window sill, torn bits of challah portioned beside her on the ledge, waiting for her feathered friends. A robin’s-egg blue pashmina drapes loosely across her thin shoulders.
On the Esplanade below, her neighbour Malka is carrying grocery bags on her way back from St-Viateur. It’s almost Shabbat, and Malka is hurrying home to prepare the flanken, matzo ball soup, and lokshen kugel. Raizel, on the other hand, makes cholent. She has everything she needs. Sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less.
Before Abe died, Raizel would prepare a proper erev Shabbat meal; never went without kreplach or tzimmes. Now she doesn’t even light the candles. There’s no one to say the Brachah with, no one to make Kiddush. It’s all too quiet. She goes to bed early. When the children call, she’s taken the phone off the hook; doesn’t want them to know she’s alone in the dark.
In the morning, Raizel props open the bay window and rolls over the heavy oak chair, the one Abe sat in for sixty-two years preparing client accounts and tax returns, its threadbare cushion still warm. She picks up the binoculars, placing her elbows firmly on the ledge, and straightens her arthritic back. The air is fresh. A light snow is falling. The parade of black-capped chickadees, blue jays, and purple finches remains hidden until she drizzles sesame seeds and the bread along the sill. But this morning she is looking elsewhere. They will have to wait.
Scanning the park, past the wrought iron fencing and its pointy spires, and past the rose garden buried under tufts of snow, she spots Malka. And Chaim, trailing close behind. A pleasure to see him. Raizel first began to notice Chaim only after her daughter bought her the binoculars, “to give her something to look at,” her daughter had said, “since she was refusing to go out.”
At first, Raizel thought she must be imagining things, thought maybe she should call Dr. Lipschitz to make an appointment. But no, it was him. Chaim would swoop down close behind Malka a few feet off the ground, his arms gently flapping, like a midnight black crow. He would accompany Malka as she walked along the stone pathway, always just as far as the gate leading onto Fairmont Avenue. And he would be dressed for the season; pastel peach plumage in summer and shimmering black feathers fringed with pointy barbs in winter; how did he know?
Raizel and Abe had gone to Chaim’s funeral, they went to the shiva, they consoled Malka and her children; there was no doubt, Chaim was gone. But now, here, there he was, fawning over Malka all over again, her constant companion. Raizel had been curious how it was that Malka couldn’t see Chaim, didn’t seem to even know he was there. No hidden smile, no look back at him, no small wave. Nothing. So, it was strange when Malka began spending so much time promenading around in the park, no matter the weather or time of day.
Raizel felt a little chilled. She had been watching them for nearly an hour. She pushed the window closed and began to set the table for lunch. Cholent. It would warm her up. Before sitting down to eat, Raizel picked up the binoculars again and scanned the apartment. Would she be so lucky? Would it be one or two for lunch today?
Turn on the Moon
My father, an only child, had told me it was somewhat of a lonely life. He encouraged me to not give up; he had a feeling there would be another baby. And why wouldn’t I believe him? As a little girl, I thought he had special powers. Every night I would quip, “Daddy, please turn on the moon! “And he always did, just for me at dusk, switch on the moon. I truly hoped his words would be as believable now as they were when I was five.
My first miscarriage happened at four weeks. There was nothing that resembled anything discernible, but this second miscarriage was different. I could see what my body had tried to develop but couldn’t. First time miscarriages were common; second time ones usually signaled a problem. I come from a fertile family. My one aunt had two sets of twins and another aunt had one set of twins. My mom joked that she got pregnant when my dad simply walked past her. My sister became pregnant on the pill, twice. I didn’t understand –Why couldn’t I have another child?
Mourning a miscarriage is to talk about the dreams for a future that would never be, to remember the due dates of those never to be born. My sister became pregnant several months after my last miscarriage. Our babies would have been only several months apart, would have gone to school together, graduated together. I have watched her son as he has grown into a young man and think what life might have held for mine. My first miscarriage would have been born the week my dad died – the ending of one life, the beginning of another.
I have come a long way from that woman who fled to the doctor’s office with the orange Tupperware container holding the remnants of a failed pregnancy soaking in rubbing alcohol. It was my mother who urged me to accept the truth that there would not be another baby. “You are missing out on the little girl you already have. Don’t obsess over what you don’t have. We can’t all be like the Walton family.”
I also feared what God was telling me – His plans and not mine.
I remember long ago taking a ride in upstate New York on a beautiful late summer day. Our car was suddenly surrounded by hundreds of birds; it was as if we were a part of the flock. The birds shifted above us, forming a canopy over our car, escorting us down the two-lane road. The birds floated against the auburn, burnt sky scalloped with clouds shaped like dragons. Maybe that is what frightened them away, for they left us as quickly as they had appeared. Mother Nature had given us a beautiful once-in-a-lifetime-show. I realized that God too had given me once-in-a–lifetime experiences: a moon turned on by a magical switch and one perfect, precious daughter.
After All These Years
The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch,
is due October 3rd.
This twelve-ounce bag of classic American salad
that I bought at Walmart
will be best if eaten by October 3rd.
My AT&T bill is due by October 3rd.
My new Visa bill will be emailed to me on October 3rd.
I haven’t checked the date on the milk yet,
but if it’s best by October 3rd, I won’t be surprised.
Oh, I know that October 3rd is just one day out of 365 days every year.
I know that October 3rd has nothing against me.
It doesn’t mean to offend.
After all these years,
I’m no longer startled into tears
every single time
I see this date.
But I’m not neutral.
I do try to take it in my stride,
but October 3rd
the day that
It’s a cliché to say of someone, “She never met a stranger.” In your case, throughout your life, it was true. You’d strike up conversations with folks anywhere and anytime, never shying away from difficult subject matter.
That table of Florida crackers talking shit about your president? You’d set them straight and call them “misguided, Fox News-watching crackers.” Packed elevator? You’d let loose, and exercise your humor muscles, asking, “Who farted?” or, “Who grabbed my ass?” Doctor’s office waiting room? You’d lighten the mood with such gems as, “Chronic flatulence, and you?” or, “Have you seen my specimen cup?”
It was your way of approaching the world and all its pain. You’d come into the world on the cusp of the Great Depression and, from the very beginning, you saw it as your goal in life to lighten your immigrant parents’ moods, please them, make them proud. You were their guiding light.
A brilliant student like your brother before you, you were also athletic, strong, long-legged, broad-shouldered, tall “for a girl.” You didn’t fit the traditional mold of femininity, yet you were bubbly, popular, the go-to girl for advice and guidance – in high school, college, and graduate school.
It surprised no one, then, that you became a guidance counselor, and chose to work with junior and senior high school students. Perhaps that’s where you learned your best comic material. But it’s also where you guarded your secret.
You were a guidance counselor in a public high school in Miami, at a time when what you were – a woman who loved another woman – was not only unacceptable, it was illegal. Had anyone known you were anything other than “a gal who hadn’t yet met the right fella,” your career, your life’s work, would have been over.
There were those who knew, of course, but held their tongues – for most of them had something to hide as well. The judge, the surgeon, the professor, the pilot – they joined you and your other “women friends,” buying land in the mountains of North Carolina, building cabins, spending summers together. You were safe, you were a community; you all belonged, you could be who you were. Those friendships survived decades, and weathered illnesses, breakups, death.
And when we lost you, we didn’t mourn your death; we celebrated your life – and those who came before you and after you. We remembered those who paved the way, just like you, and we honored your courage. What we did mourn, however, was the small-mindedness, the judgment, the divisiveness, the anger of those who could not accept you for what you were, the whole of you: a daughter of the Depression, a guidance counselor, a woman who loved another woman. You were my treasured aunt, my guiding light; I miss you, and I honor you.
For my aunt, Betty Ann Lippke, May 20, 1930 – November 11, 2011