Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Smooth Transition

A story told in letters.  To my cousin Alice, Wednesday:

Hi Alice, it looks like my mother is on the way out this weekend. She's unconscious with internal bleeding and zero blood pressure, so it won't be long. I spoke to her yesterday but apparently she's been asleep since we hung up the phone and David left.   So it's peaceful.   Paul and I will come to New York as soon as it's over, and we're organizing details now. If you were able to come down, I'd love to see you then, if that is possible.    xx Denny

Helen Finkelstein Reeve, "Bunny"
October 15, 1923 - January 12, 2012
At 20, in 1943
My mother in 2008, blind, at the Hebrew Home for the Aged
(photograph taken by my cousin Judy)

To my cousins Anne and David, early Thursday morning:

Dear Anne and David,

Perhaps you have heard by now that my mother has passed away. The doctor called me at 11 PM our time. It was peaceful.  Paul and I are flying out on Delta at 6 AM, and will arrive in Newark at 4:30 PM Thursday. We'll stay four nights at the Larchmont Hotel on 11th Street.

My cousin Anne Finkelstein reading her thoughts at the wake, while cousin Alice Chico listens

To the Piffle list, Friday:

Here I am in New York. Dark and rainy as the devil. Sleepless night spent packing and speedily getting an array of low carb food for Peter for while I'm gone (four nights). The cats cried with misery to see us go.  Then two planes, changing in Salt Lake.   Hate indirect flights, but what's the option? Direct LA-NY same day flights are $1000 round trip. Asked about bereavement rates, was told, "We can give you as a bereavement rate...$1000."   Hell with that, the one-stop flight is $500, still bad but better.   Luckily flights were expeditious and smooth, and Salt Lake's mountains and lake were a beautiful sight. Worked on the plane, finished reading and started writing up a manuscript.  I could have turned it back, given the emergency, but can't sleep on planes and didn't like to leave them in the lurch, as there really wasn't time by deadline to reassign the work.

At the wake:  David, Tom, Joanna, Anne

Paul and I landed in Newark, a mere $80 cab ride into the city but we were tired.  Ensconced at our beloved  b & b, the Larchmont, which gave us the fourth night free as it's out of season.   Then we headed directly to my cousin Anne's house, to meet with the Cut Rate Funeral Director. The Hebrew Home had given us a list of places that charged $5000 - $8000 for a funeral, and I was absolutely, fiercely determined not to pay anything in that range. My mother did pay some funeral expense when she went into the Home, but it seems nobody can find a trace of it or what it was for (we're going up there to look into that today, and to pick up her pictures and books). She has a seat in the family plot, so that's good.  I decided against having a service in a chapel in the city, which is what costs in the thousands; we'll do a brief graveside thing with my rabbi cousin presiding.  I would have skipped it but my mother would not have liked that, and I want to strike the exact right balance between being respectful of my mother's Judaism and true to my own atheism and determination to be economical (which she would have appreciated). When I was informed of the death I did say the Shema in accord with childhood training, which I thought was quite remarkable of me to remember.

Alice and me at the wake

Bottom line cost is $1200, but a plain coffin, necessary in Jewish burials, is another $1000 (though the funeral director said he could do it at $500 "for me." (I'll take it up with my rabbi cousin; the standard one included in the $1200 is plain wood but has a little metal trim. Am I seriously obligated to pay $500 real live dollars to get rid of the trim? Come on.)   Refused to pay various expenses like ritual washings and viewings and fancy hearses and Chief Mourner candles and other fal-lals which were thankfully optional. Limousine to the cemetery far out of the city is $350, but unavoidable. There are seven of us in the party (my two cousins Anne and David, their spouses Jim and Tom, Anne's 14-year-old daughter Joanna with her charming red metallic hair and boots, and me and Paul), and after all we can't be going on the subway. 

David, Tom and Anne

But the $2100 won't be all. Oh no, not by a long shot. Today we'll find out the rest. There is Opening the Grave, which may rack up another $1000 or more, and who knows what other surprises lurk in wait.   Hopefully we may find that some of it's covered by what my mother paid in advance. ($1500 I think.) The funeral will be on Sunday, but Saturday night a gathering of relatives will come to Anne's apartment in the city, and that will be the real deal, hopefully rather jolly and wake-like. 

Joanna at almost 15

After concluding the business with the Cut Rate Funeral Director (who was very nice, and said He'd Seen Everything, but had never heard of Jessica Mitford, who, of course, I was channeling), Paul and I went to Viselka's, the all-night Ukrainian place on the Lower East Side for veal goulash and apple strudel.   Paul then hit a gay bar and I returned to the hotel to finish my work.   That done, I now get a  week's Bereavement Leave which will be very welcome after all my efforts. Total cost, flight, hotel, funeral, will certainly not be under five grand. My mother will be rolling in her grave.

   Joanna and cat, Anne and Paul

To Peter, Friday night:

Paul and I were so tired after our trip we slept in till nearly noon today, and then didn't have much time to get up to the Hebrew Home. Luckily, around the corner from the Larchmont is a branch of Murray's Sturgeon Shop, so I got an onion bagel with nova and Paul a bialy with whitefish.   Took the train uptown to the Home. It looked beautiful on the Hudson, as we saw it for the last time. Things went expeditiously.  Saw a Housekeeping man who ushered us into a little Bereaved Room where we sat and ate our bagels and lox while he brought in the five bins of my mother's things.   She had a suitcase and carry bag so we could use them to take what we wanted.  Most of it was clothes, which we donated.   We just gathered up the books and pictures and put them in the carry bag.  Then stopped in the financial office, where we were told she had $162 in her account which would be sent to the administrator.  She had $3 in her wallet so that was our legacy and we'll toast her with a cappuccino. It seems possible that the $1500 she paid for burial she paid to the cemetery itself, so we may not owe them anything. Hope not.

My cousin Judy, with her grandson Haskell, daughter Leah, and Joanna

                                      One of Joanna's cats. 

It was around 5 when we left the home, toting the books and things, and we took the express bus down to 34th and Lex, and a cab partway to [Peter's] parents. It got stuck behind an oil truck so we walked from Lexington. Only had half an hour to see Rut and Vivian but it was nice and we told them all our adventures and showed them my new iPad. We'll go see them tomorrow for breakfast. Then we went to Anne's and enjoyed the evening with them, having Indian takeout food and enjoying Joanna and the cats. I painted my nails sparkly purple with her nail polish. Then we took the bags back to the Larchmont, and sallied out for a walk in the Village. Quite cold, and my knee was hurting, but the walk was nice and we went to Caffe Dante for lovely tea and sublime profiteroles. That place opened in 1915 and is the real thing. Then back to the room and internet. Tomorrow is the wake at Anne's - Alice is coming down from Syracuse and Judy is coming with her family, so it will be really nice.

                                             The High Line

                                       Paul on the High Line

                                     Paul and me on the High Line

                                  Bittersweet growing on the High Line

To the Dove Grey Books list, Friday:

Didn't bring anything to read - had to finish my work on the plane, after which I get a week's bereavement time off.   When I've had a moment, have just been doing email.  Lots of very kind messages, though I didn't have a normal relationship with my mother, and it's not the same sort of loss as most people have under the circumstances.   However it is certainly an epochal sort of feeling. One of my cousins wrote "may you have a smooth transition to the older generation," which made me go "ugh," but I guess it's true! Anyway I put on some of my teenage cousin Joanna's sparkly purple fingernail polish...

Fabulous exhibition at the Met:  "Infinite Jest"

To Peter, Saturday:

This morning Paul and I picked up more Murray's Sturgeon Shop bagels (don't worry, I will indeed bring Pindy and you sturgeon!) and went over to your parents' house to visit and have bagels-and-lox with them.  Afterwards, we felt the need for some fun. Went to the Metropolitan Opera Thrift Shop, where I found a lovely little candle [Fire King Peach Lustre glassware, circa 1950] for $3, exactly my mother's legacy, so I put a candle in it to burn at the wake and it will be her memorial candle.  Then we went to the Met where we vastly enjoyed a MOST fabulous exhibit, Infinite Jest, caricatures and grotesqueries from Leonardo to modern times, concentrating on Gilray and Rowlandson.   It was so good we actually bought the book, so you can enjoy it too:

Obviously not everyone would go to an exhibit on Infinite Jest the day of their mother's wake, but we thought it was pretty much a perfect stroke of ironic genius.  Afterwards there was just time to hurry back down the Larchmont and tidy up, then cab to Anne's. Well, I thought the wake would be good but it was way beyond expectations. No mean people there. Just nice warm sweet ones, all so kind and happy to be together and share memories and relationships. We old ones talked about the crazy ones that came before us and the young ones listened!   My cousin Judy, who was very kind and often visited my mother, was there with her two daughters Nonie and Leah  and one grandson, Haskell, all so warm and congenial.  My cousin Alice came down from Syracuse with her husband Michael and son Jason. There were also David, Tom, Anne, Jim, and Joanna, so a lovely group. There was complete honesty and no saccharinity in the room, as we discussed and wondered not what made my mother crazy (that's easy:  my grandmother) but why my grandmother, othewise a wonderful, sweet woman, acted like that, and the strange dynamics of the family.  How damaged my mother was, but that because of Ezra, David, Anne and the Hebrew Home, she was able to collect her mind and lived a final mellow ten years, giving everyone the chance to get to know what she could be - for her heroism under blindness, indigence, and adversity, could only be praised.   (I always tell how she read all of Trollope on tape in the first year of her blindness.)  David talked about how he went to see her not out of duty but because he enjoyed her company so much, which is exactly what Josh (Ezra's son, who will officiate at the burial tomorrow) said Ezra says. Anne talked about some good times she had with my mother, how bright she was, how she kept her mind, and gave her advice about Joanna.   I thanked them for taking care of her and making it possible for me to make friends and have a peaceful resolution with her; and ended by saying that what everyone said about her made me think I was not so unlucky to have her for a mother after all! 
Afterwards Paul and I finished up at Veselka's where he had a Ukrainian meatball hero and I had matzoh ball soup and a bacon and egg sandwich. Now to bed, the limousine comes for us at 9:30 to take us to the burial.  Paul is horrified that his little Tully is pining for him! Anne's cats are awesomely healthy and strong, all muscular like a pair of leopards; they could not be more different from our louche bohemian languishing cats.

Love, Denny

Me and Paul in Central Park

To the Piffle list, Monday

From Helen:  "It's interesting that most people don't take up the prepaid funeral option, which is really one of the best investment returns available.  My Dad, who was the epitome of organisation, organised and paid for his about 20 years before he died, paying about 30% of what the equivalent current cost was. Where else can you get that sort of return these days?  [It] was easy compared to the problems Denny is having, especially when you have various family members putting their ideas forward. We were able to fall back on "it's what Dad chose", end of argument."

 Oh, dear no, Helen. I'm thankful to report that it wasn't like that at all. This turned out to be the most absolutely beautiful funeral and weekend wake that anybody ever had, and it all ran like such smooth clockwork every single moment, that my mother could have paid and organized it decades ago and it couldn't have been better (and remember she was mentally ill and always struggling to survive, so pre-paying burial was probably the last thing on her mind at any given time. Actually, she did pre-pay $1500 in a burial account at the Hebrew Home, but it turns out she spent it over the years ;-)

The wake was an absolute delight, cousins laughing over memories and analyzing puzzling family influences, the warmest, kindest, happiest evening there ever could be. Then yesterday morning, the seven of us (me and Paul; cousin Anne her husband Jim and teenage daughter Joanna; and cousin David and his partner Tom), went via a smooth limo to the cemetery, where we met my cousin the rabbi's son Josh (also a rabbi). Oh, what a beautiful service he did give us! His father, Ezra, who couldn't come from Florida, sent lovely remarks about my mother's life, and Josh read those, did the Hebrew bits, and also spoke on his own about the life my mother led, as I'd discussed with him. She had essentially "gone sane" and had a most serene life in the Hebrew Home for the past decade, where David and Ezra each visited her weekly. It was all so perfect: it would have been exactly what my mother wanted, everyone there, everything done properly; it was solace to David and cheer to me, and we know that we got the most wonderful funeral and did not get rooked for it. Total charge: $2100, plus $1300 for opening the grave. Affordable; and priceless. What a feeling of rightness.

My mother's legacy - a vintage "Peach Lustre" candle bowl

I should mention that my aunts years ago arranged a place for my mother in the family plot, so that what would have been the really difficult business was indeed all taken care of.   She lies where she wanted to be, beside her favorite aunt, Rae, who was a second (and possibly better) mother to her.  So I guess it was pre-planned in a way.   But we are certainly not going to plan anything for ourselves.   Cheap cremation, over and out. I'd have done that for my mother too, only I wanted to respect her Judaism.   And I did.

 The limo took us back to the city and a lovely lunch, and then we went with Anne for a glorious walk on the High Line!  It is one of her favorite subjects as an artist, and she even has a show going on right now with her High Line paintings: 

                                    Anne Finkelstein's work

Before leaving on Monday afternoon, we met my friend Laurie and had a brisk, bracing, exhilarating walk in the Central Park Ramble.  She is a bird lady who goes twice a day to feed the red cardinals, snow or shine.  Starlings and sparrows flock to her in a thick cloud when they see (or hear?) her coming, and they alight on her hands to be fed.  Yesterday she counted 25 cardinals, and they are the most striking, brilliantly red sight in the bleak park.  Today we saw about a dozen, which seemed like a lot to us, for how many people ever see cardinals in Central Park?

                                       Paul and Laurie, Central Park

After that, we hurried to Chef Ho's Peking Duck to meet some of my dear Hunter friends, Marianne, Peter and Priscilla, for a bounteous and cheery Peking Duck lunch.  From there back to Laurie's to pick up our luggage, and then another $100 ride to Newark Airport. 

The first leg of the trip was fine, but then we got stuck with a four-hour delay in Minneapolis, where the plane was slow coming in from Denver because of de-icing.  Turbulent flight across the Rockies, and we got home after a 14-hour trip door to door, beyond exhausted.

Paul exasperated at airport delay

A timeless expression.  Netsuke.
(Sato Kagura Mask of Usofuki, courtesy of my friend Jennifer)

Dear Josh and dear Ezra,
I am writing to thank you jointly, because you were both there together, for my mother and for me, in the most wonderful and beautiful way possible. Josh, you took so much kind trouble to come and to give my mother a sensitive, understanding and absolutely perfect service. Ezra, you were there in spirit more than I have ever seen anybody be anywhere in spirit before! I do not have words in which to describe it or to thank you enough, but there was a sense of rightness and fitness, and tender respect for my mother, that seemed to shine down warmly over the whole occasion, and was epitomized when Josh spoke of her going to her rest.

For that is what she did. It was hardly even very sad, because she went so peacefully. She spoke to me on the phone last Tuesday as usual, and after David hung up the phone, she went immediately into a deep sleep, and never woke, but passed away without awareness the next day. We were told the news at 11 PM Wednesday Los Angeles time, and I remembered to say the Shema that my grandparents taught me should be said, and we were on a plane at 6 AM.

About my whole time in New York, there was a remarkable sense of peace and closure. The seven of us (me, Paul, Anne, David, Joanna, Jim and Tom) spent more time together than we ever have before, and I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we felt quite magically like a united family, a family of one mind (and it must be said, it felt pretty strange for me to now be the senior member!). We made a get-together at Anne's house, to which the Koppelman cousins, Judy (Celia's daughter), and Alice (Esther's daughter), their children and grandchildren came. It was a beautiful time, just as it should be, the older ones telling the younger ones about people and events of the past, and how they combined together to make the people who were here now. Everyone shared memories about my mother, and reflected on her difficult life and her serene end. Honestly, even though I keep denying religion for myself, I have to acknowledge that there was incontrovertably some divine plan about what happened to her in her last ten years. There can be no other explanation for how she was granted such grace and peace at the end of her life, which included, best of all, her reuniting with me. 

Ezra, you presided over it all, and helped bring her troubled life that very real peace, and if you ever did good in your life, that was a big one. It was remarkable too that you used the exact same words that David did, separately - that you visited my mother because you really enjoyed her. She really was a bright and brave spirit, very much like her father, and both of you helped that spirit to shine and live for awhile, just as it always should. That was why I could not wear the rended cloth that spoke of terrible grief, for to me her ending was truly a joyful one, in which she regained her own self, that for so long had been effaced and in darkness. I believe you both could see this, because that is the wonderful thing about family - you were there always. And for being there at this poignant time, I thank you both, Ezra and Josh, very much. 

Paul and I flew home to Los Angeles last night (long delays, 14 hours of travel, we got in exhausted at 3 AM!) but hope to get together with you again next time we are in New York, probably in October, when I'll be there for a talk.

Love, Denny


A joyous reunion with Peter and the cats.  Little Tully quivered with joy at the sight of her beloved Paul; Marshy was so excited she ran wildly around the house, hitting the walls; and Pindar firmly stalked to my bed, planted herself in the center, and slept with me all night.


Laurel Ann (Austenprose) said...

Diana, thanks for sharing your journey and memories of your trip. I am glad for you and your family that the experience of saying goodbye to your mom was so favorable and memorable.

I must add that when I saw the picture of your niece Joanna in the same expression of the photo of your grandmother, I was taken aback with the similarity. One of those serendipitous moments caught on camera. Please don't burst my balloon and tell me it was staged.

Thanks again for sharing. Family, good and bad, can be so fulfilling for the big event in life, and the little moments that make up great memories.

Vera Nazarian said...

Diana, what a gentle and true picture you've painted, sharing your family and your mother's last peaceful moments and parting with us, thank you!

I felt as tough I too was there in spirit, perched on a spare seat at the family wake, listening to your warm stories. I am so glad your mother found the relief and peace in her later years and that you and she ended on such a solid good note. Jut as it should be, just right.

Now, get some well-deserved rest!

ctussaud said...

From the King James Bible comes the wonderful phrase "gone to his long home". Thank you for your beautiful writing, never more so than describing your mother's passing, and the wake and service.
Ecclesiastes 12:5
Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:

Elaine said...

Dear Diana - I found my mother's funeral a joyous occasion though I was so distressed at her going. right up to the last moment when she had her stroke she was happy and busy and in her own home for which I am thankful. My ex came and brought daughters and then brand new grandchild safely, a cousin drove miles to be there and we had a lovely tea and chat in the communal sitting room at the sheltered accommodation where my mother had lived. It was a happy day and very fitting. I am glad it all went so well with you as well xx

Diana Birchall said...

Laurel Ann, family resemblances are fascinating, aren't they? And they last for generations, even time out of Joan Austen-Leigh having the identical nose to Cassandra Austen, senior! Yes, I think my young cousin Joanna does have a resemblance to my mother (her great-aunt), and to me. All the women in this family are the same five feet nothing! But no, the photo wasn't staged, it was natural. Vera, thank you for your sympathetic thoughts...and Curzon, there could be no more beautiful and apt words than those from Ecclesiastes. Thank you for bringing them forward. "And the mourners go about the streets..."

Ellen said...

I hope it's all right if I commend Diana strongly for telling us something of what the funeral people tried to do to her upon the death of her mother. She was perpetually fighting hard not to be outrageously fleeced through singular delusions (about the coffin, ideas of immortal memory and so on) and an attempt to embarrass her into shelling out huge amounts.

She courageously resisted by refusing to be ashamed to the point you wrote about it in her blog. She has done a good deed
there, by adding a another real story to Jessica Mitford's book and showing how having read her and kept her in mind helps. it's another voice.

The laws are all on the side of the funeral industry: they have had their lobbyists hard at work.
They know their business too: how to manipulate people

I hope I can do the same when my turn comes. I may not be able to because my aunt, my mother's sister, may take control. But I shall and having had Diana's example in front of us will help.


ctussaud said...

Failing a Viking funeral (body placed on funeral pyre on longship, ignited, and pushed out to sea), I'd settle for a willow coffin. Beautiful.

Diana Birchall said...

Elaine, I well remember your tumultuous year, and how wonderful it was that your mother got to see your new grandchild. Ellen, thanks for the kind words, and I know you'll feel the same and stand up for yourself when confronted with those choices. Curzon, I never saw anything like those wicker coffins, they certainly take the creepiness out, don't they? But I'd rather go a-Viking, too!

Diane said...

Dear Diana,

I am belated but I wanted to express my thanks for sharing so clearly and beautifully your mother's funeral and wake and your experiences during the liminal time a death is. I am glad you felt so at peace. You were strong to be able to bury and honor your mother with dignity and caring, but also with self care. It's good to hear of it. WIshing you all the best.

Unknown said...

Diana, I have been doing the Catholic version of this, only second-hand. My step-father died just after Christmas and we have been going through files and files for three weeks. Add to it that he was a retired Marine and the interesting finds just keep coming. I may get to come home tomorrow if the weather cooperates. I am hopeful.

I'm sorry for your loss.

Jay Fahey said...

So beautifully written, such a real and touching account of one of the worst moments of one's life. And of your Mother, too. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Dear Diana,

Joel joins me in wishing you comfort and a sense of completeness on the passing of your mother.

The passage from Ecclesiastes is so perfectly apt: and in the miracle of your mother's last ten years of lucidity, the almond tree of her relationship with you and her family did indeed flourish.

May your future days be purple and sparkling....

Elissa and Joel

ps: Please tell your friend that the brightest (both in plumage and intelligence) of cardinals abound on the Great Neck peninsula - their song fills my backyard for five months every year. Just saw the possibly largest and most vibrant scarlet one of his species yesterday on a hedge of property where Graucho Marx used to live in the GN sub-village of Kensington, where he appeared, like a Renaissance explorer on a clifftop, to be taking survey of the known world.