Yesterday I attended the most beautiful funeral. My cousin Minda died Saturday, and the rest of this week has been a blur.
Did I mention that we’re celebrating her niece’s bat mitzvah this weekend, and that there will be 70 people at my house Saturday night in her honor? The occasion was moved to a synagogue here in Detroit from Southern California a few months ago because Marcia, the bat mitzvah’s mom, knew her sister would likely be too ill to travel, and might even die.
Okay. That part makes sense. But why a gathering at my house?
Because Marcia asked. And when family asks, we say yes. And when family doesn’t ask, we figure out what they need and provide that too.
You may not know my family, and you are likely not that interested in all the details. I’ll just say this, because you will care about this: My connection to these people is strong as steel. I would do anything for them, and not in a quid pro quo type of way. I would do anything because my father taught me that you show up for the celebrations, since you know that nothing will keep you away from the funerals. My mother, for her part, taught me how to exit a burning building with my hands tied behind my back, in the dark. I’m ready for anything.
Minda’s funeral was heart-breakingly sad, with eulogies from three siblings, a cousin and two adult children. Her sister sang “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and we all sang along. I read a poem I had written about Minda and my youngest son baking a pie together. But the poem isn’t just about the two of them. It’s also about the family she gathered, some of whom I’m not even related to.
Minda’s daughter was our best and most beloved babysitter, and when, at age four my oldest child realized Bethany wouldn’t be around soon, that she was headed off to college, I could see the wheels turning in that little head: “When she’s done with college she’ll come back and babysit me, right?” Miriam asked. Not exactly, I explained. That’s what college is for. She’s going away so she can be a grown-up too.
My father was Minda’s babysitter. He tells the story of driving her, the flower girl, home from his sister’s wedding. He was 14, not a licensed driver, but his uncle handed him the car keys and asked him to take his little cousin home. So he did.
That’s how it works around here. This week we are gathering at Minda’s home for shiva. Lots of people in and out, lots of religious services and tears. She was not a perfect human being – though death does tend to smooth out the rough edges in our minds. We all do the best we can. What she gave me was confirmation that we can affect each other deeply, just by virtue of being family. That we can support one another when we are lonely or in pain, or even dying. That sometimes we have to ask, but often, if we keep those we love close enough, they’ll know what we need – whether an afternoon baking with a 12 year-old or a ride to a chemo appointment.
We have so little time together. The days become an endless stream of piano lessons and trips to the grocery store for tiny shell pasta for a school project, replacing outgrown gym shoes and walking the dog.
What can we offer those we love, but ourselves?
I want to say mixed berry pie
and kitchen full of cousins – yours,
not mine, but what difference
would it make? None of this
will hold off your death. I want to say
that wide smile and the way
you tilt your head to signal yes,
I have an idea. I want to say
kitchen. And kitchen again. And
chopped herring in a glass bowl
and dining room table crowded
with folding chairs. And you
on the couch between my children
at their grandfather’s shiva,
giggling about the man
texting God during services.
I want to say berries again. And
Josh in sunglasses and safari hat
in your yard picking berries
before the pie. I would sing it
if that could possibly
matter. I would fill the bowl
and empty it. Then fill it