Monday, October 3, 2011

At the Cemetery

We’re at the cemetery, a couple weeks before Rosh HaShanah, when it’s customary to visit your deceased loved ones. Ours are all in the same place. Most of them are buried within a few feet of each other.

My grandmother, who I call Baba, died the first day of Sukkot, 2007; her husband, my zaidy (grandfather), died the day after Yom Kippur, 1988. Within six days of each other, twenty years apart.

Stones are the theme of the day. First, we put small stones on their gravestones, as custom dictates. (I’m not quite sure why we do it. My mom always said that it’s to show people were there, but I feel like there has to be more of a spiritual explanation there.) Second, we look down at Baba and Zaidy’s graves, at the bed of stones covering their bodies. (Baba always wanted to have the bed of stones on Zaidy’s grave, but she never did it. When she died, my mom and aunt finally got them both the bed. I’m not crazy about the look, but Baba wanted it.) Third, I look at Baba’s matzevah (gravestone), whose unveiling wasn’t even a year ago. (It still ticks me off that my cousin, who put together the gravestone, spelled her name wrong. But whatever. The look of the gravestones is still nice, they match and everything.)

Jacob slept with stones around his head one night while traveling, and they morphed into one when he woke up in the morning. He also moved the stone off the well for Rachel. Striking the rock instead of talking to it was why Moses died before entering Israel. He also commanded that the Torah be written on stones, so that way the Jews couldn’t forget them. Both men were associated with a lot of strong women. Jacob has his mother Rebecca, his wives Bilhah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Leah, and his daughter Dina; Moses had his biological mother Jochebed, adoptive mother Batya, sister Miriam, and wife Zipporah. I guess stones are a women's thing.

As I put my little rock on Baba’s matzevah, my heart twists when I remember the unveiling. Perakim (chapters) of tehillim (psalms), said in her memory. Only one said by a blood relative. Only three said by relatives at all. The rest said by complete strangers to me, and probably to her too. Just because they were all men. I wasn’t allowed to say a perek (chapter). Neither was my mom or my aunt. Women who were complete strangers weren’t allowed either. Only men who are complete strangers are allowed to say a perek of tehillim to elevate her nishama (soul).

We visit the other few relatives and friends right by Baba and Zaidy, then get in the car to go see my mother’s grandmother, who I call Bobbe. I never knew her, but she was very close with my mother, so I feel a connection to her. She was the first known woman in what I call the Line, the Line of strong women in our family. I wear the earrings she bought for my mom, gold balls with little notches as a design.

This area of the cemetery is older; the death dates on the gravestones are from the 40s and 50s. Bobbe died in 1976, though. She’s next to a few other family members who died more recently, too.

I get a little upset in the car on the way to Bobbe, but I manage to control myself. I put the rock on her matzevah, and I’m still okay. But I break down when Ma and I walk behind Bobbe and see Beyla Giti. Bobbe’s granddaughter, my mother’s first cousin, who was six when she died. She left this earth several years before her grandmother did.

The grave is for a small body, a child’s. It rips my heart out to see it, and I start to cry. I don’t even know how she died; I never wanted to ask. It says “yaldah yekara,” precious girl, on the matzevah. She was a girl. A little one. It makes me hurt even more.

It also hurts to know that none of these women had proper sendoffs. Their bodies were guarded by men, prepared by men, buried by men, eulogized by men, memorialized every year by men.

Why couldn’t my mom say Kaddish, the mourners' prayer, for my bobbe? Yes, it’s a burden to have to be in synagogue three times a day every day to say it, but it’s a burden every child takes on for his or her parent. But that burden went to son-in-law and cousin by marriage rather than daughters.

No. Not for my mom. I won’t let it be. When God takes her, she’ll get a year’s worth of Kaddish from me. Not her brother-in-law, not a cousin, not her nephew. Me.

Dear readers, the deadline for the Star of Davida essay contest is fast approaching! Read here for all the details.

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