Lord, what is man, that Thou hast regard for him?
Or the son of man, that Thou takest account of him?
Man is like a breath, his days are as a fleeting shadow.
In the morning he flourishes and grows up like grass
In the evening he is cut down and withers.
So teach us to number our days,
That we may get us a heart of wisdom.
–Prayer adapted from Psalms 144 and 90.
They’re packing up the boxes now. Soon the house will be empty. Your things … your life, stuffed in cardboard boxes, Barb. Somehow it just doesn’t seem right.
Surely that’s one of the worst things about death — the packing away of things. Hell, my dad’s clothes sat in the closet for three years before I was finally able to convince my mother to give them away.
So, how long has it been, little cousin (funny, though you were nine years my senior, I always thought of you as younger than me). Two months. Two months now that I’ve been living alone in the house where you lived for the past 20 years. Drinking my morning coffee at the kitchen table where you drank yours, writing at your desk, sleeping in your bed.
Do you know that I didn’t change the sheets for the first three weeks I was here, Barb? No, I needed to sleep in those sheets, to feel the places that your skin had touched — to smell you, to absorb you.
So there I lay in your monstrous bed, looking at the stacks of books on the night table, wondering which ones you read before falling asleep. But I couldn’t figure anything out. All I could see was the image of you during those last weeks of your life — tiny and frightened — lying there, laboring for breath. Sucking on that stinking oxygen lung. I know … I know, little cousin. I know you were scared. Scared of falling asleep … scared that you might not wake up.
During those last days, I’d sit at the edge of your bed, aware that there was nothing I could do but fluff your pillow or freshen your water … maybe rub your back a little. And though I did my best not to let you see it, I was furious. Furious that I couldn’t simply will the health that was in my own body into yours. It’s in moments like those that you realize what puny, powerless things we humans truly are.
We didn’t see each other much during those last years, Barb. But whenever we did, it would instantly be right there. That special connection. I loved those long talks we’d have, because they were always “core” stuff. Stuff that mattered. I always marveled at how you’d tune right into where I was at. Highly sensitive, those antennae of yours.
But I know I wasn’t special in that regard. You did that with everybody, didn’t you? It didn’t matter whether it was a friend, a colleague, your kids, or the gardener. You always had a way of making whoever you were talking with feel that they were the absolute center of the universe. That was your gift, Barb. That was why people would instantly find themselves telling you their story.
And now I’ve had a chance to listen to yours. The house — it told me everything. All I had to do was to be quiet and listen.
I remember staying in your old house on Landale, when our family first moved to California in the ’50s. I slept in your room, Barb. Do you remember? Sometimes we’d stay up all night talking. Sometimes, I’d fall asleep, only to wake up later and find you reading. Always reading. …
Listen, Barb … there’s something I’ve got to get off my chest. One night you came home late from a date, and you began to get undressed for bed. I was still up, but I pretended I was asleep so that I could watch you. It was so dark in the room that I couldn’t really see anything … just your silhouette. Still, I’ve always felt guilty about spying on you like that. Well, now you know.
Here in your hallway, I look at the framed photos that line the walls. Everybody’s here — your mom and dad, my parents — grandma and grandpa, assorted uncles, aunts and cousins. Hey! There you are in your ballet tutu at age 13. Pretty cute stuff. And later in high school, your hair in a bob. You look just like “Betty” in “Father Knows Best.”
And look! There’s Grandpa Jake in his grocery store back in Cleveland. Must’ve been around 1948. God, will you look at that place! All that stuff! And this one I especially love: Uncle Norm (your dad), lounging around in the back yard on that old hammock. Exactly as I remember him … a clean, freshly pressed white shirt, a cigar clutched between his teeth.
You know, those old photos always get to me for some reason. I don’t know Barb, but I just can’t believe that we — we who are now flesh and blood — will someday turn into those old photos. We’ll be gone, and people will look at us and remark how funny we looked “back then.”
Which reminds me of something you said in a letter you’d written to your husband, Lee, back when he was stationed in Germany. I found it in a stack of letters out in the garage and read it. I hope you don’t mind. I guess maybe you were depressed or something that day, because at the end of the letter you said this really awful thing. You said, “You know Lee, one of the things I can’t bear is that someday we’ll just be gone. We won’t be here anymore, and the world will go on without us.”
Good God, Barb! You must’ve been only 18 when you wrote that! What the hell were you doing thinking thoughts like that at that age? But the worst part is that I can’t argue with you. Because the truth is that everything really does go on without us. And that just seems wrong. I mean, when I was a kid, I always had this feeling that when somebody died, things should just stop. At least just for a little while. But it doesn’t, does it? Nothing stops. Everything just keeps right on going. It’s horrible.
So tell me Barb, what of death? Tell me, oh great teacher, great mystic — why couldn’t you beat it? Why couldn’t you lick the demon? You, who knew the secrets. You, who were supposed to be the warrior.
You see, I’m not about to let you off the hook. Not yet. Because I don’t believe that you were supposed to go like that. Sorry, nobody’s gong to convince me that it was your time. And please, don’t give me any of that crap about karma and reincarnation, or everlasting peace. Sorry, I don’t want to hear it.
I remember once we were talking about Hoshi — the lovely Oriental wife of our cousin Jerry — who died in that swimming pool accident. As her house guests made party conversation, she slipped beneath the water. She coudn’t swim. No one noticed a thing, so quietly did she drown.
“She died of courtesy,” you told me. “Any Jew would know that.”
As always, you were right, Barb. Because surely any of our people would have shrieked with rage. They would have shouted and screamed and made a terrible din — because Jews don’t believe in silence. No Buddhas they. Rather they use sound — words, chatter, noise — to battle the only real enemy … the hardening of the heart.
So I will not let you go quietly, Barb. No I will make a stink and a scene. I will scream and shout and raise the rafters! I must … don’t you see?
Sorry for the melodrama. I know you would have hated it. But, damnit — it’s no small task living in your old digs. You left so much of yourself here. I can feel your presence most strongly here in this room — the study — where you wrote. And you’re in the doll house too — “the spirit house,” you called it. For you, that miniature house, with all its wonderful detail — was a place you built to house the souls of the many departed loved ones in your life. A place where they could finally rest.
We’ve had a lot of death in our family, haven’t we Barb? More than our share, I sometimes think. Both your parents, my father, Aunt Charlotte, Aunt Adeline, Uncle Norm, Aunt Flo … grandpa and grandma — not to mention the many friends. All gone. And now you. You know what Barb? For the first time in my life, I understand your need for ritual … your insistence that the family get together every year for Passover and Rosh Hashanah. Now, as the clan shrinks, I understand.
But despite your insistence on ritual, Barb, I will not light the yarzheit candle for you. No, I refuse to light one of those hideous “reminders” that Malinow/Silverman insists on sending us each year. I prefer to do my own ritual — here at the typewriter — or perhaps at 3:00 a.m., the hour when I find myself sitting straight up in bed fully awake. The hour when I can feel something … someone … whispering to me. Trying to tell me … tell me what?!
You see, this is my ritual Barb. To listen. To find out.
Soon it begins. Soon the house and everything in it — the walls, the books, the artifacts you collected from your many trips around the globe — almost seem to conspire to make their personal histories known to me. I don’t have to do a thing. Just be quiet.
Like the night I opened the book next to your bed (Jung’s “Memories, Dreams and Reflections” ) to a passage you’d bookmarked. And read this: “I feel very strongly that I am under the influence of things … questions which were left incomplete and unanswered by my parents and my grandparents, or perhaps more distant ancestors. As if I’ve had to complete or perhaps to continue things which previous ages had left unfinished.”
And then, amongst your papers, I found an incredible remembrance of our grandmother, Sophie. It was about a lesson that she taught you as a child back in the old Taylor Road house in Cleveland. It was such a simple lesson. And yet it held the secret … the key.
It was one of those days when you’d stayed home from school pretending to be sick. One of those cold winter days when the windows were opaque with frost. There you were — you and Sophie — in the kitchen. The kitchen was the room you loved best, for there you and grandma would cavort and talk and while away the hours. She’d flip the radio on to “The Polish Hour,” and soon she’d start to dance about … grabbing you and doing a crazy polka — right there in the midst of the blood and the feathers of the chicken she was cutting up for dinner!
Then she did something special. She showed you how to warm a coin and press it to the frost covered window. And afterwards, you’d look through the glass, past the yard, to the big houses up on the hill. And as you peered through the tiny hole that the warm coin had made, Sophie told you that each one of those houses held people … and more — that each one of those people had a story. And so, each day you would enter one of those houses, and grandma Sophie would tell you stories about the people inside them.
And that was the secret, Barb — that every house had a life of its own, a life which could be penetrated. And inside the houses were people — each one with their own story. A world within a world within a world … each different and wondrous; each to be discovered … if only one opened one’s eyes. If one simply took the trouble to look and listen.
And the best thing about the secret Barb, is that once it’s yours, you can never lose it. It’s yours forever! As you wrote in your journal: “Even now, as I walk along a street in my own neighborhood or in Istanbul, and the lights are left on and the shades are drawn, I look into the houses. I look into the faces, greedily, gratefully, and I am in that place, that life. I own what I behold. …”
So that’s the secret, cousin Barb. The miraculous gift passed on by our grandma Sophie. Our uneducated, illiterate, Russian peasant grandmother. The gift of storytelling. And now that I know, I see that I, too, have the gift.
Now the boxes are almost gone. Your things carried out to the waiting cars to be given away — spread amongst those who loved you. I don’t want anything Barb. I have everything I need. Here, inside me.
Yes, you are in me now. Now I understand. I have listened. I have heard the story. And if I have truly understood, if the seed has taken root, then I will — as you did with such grace and skill during your lifetime — make certain that I, too, pass it on.
Dr. Barbara Myerhoff, noted anthropologist, author and filmmaker of the Academy Award winning documentary “Number Our Days,” (a study of a group of elderly Holocaust survivors who resided at the Aliyah Senior Citizens’ Center in Venice, CA) died of cancer in 1985 . Today, (Oct. 9), marks the 13th anniversary of her passing. This column is excerpted from S.L. Goldman’s book, “Requiem For A Valley Guy,” originally published in 1986 by Harrow House Press.