Funeral

I went to a funeral today, my third in the past year. In Jewish law, one of the best things you can do for someone is help with the burial, because that person can never pay you back. I knew of the custom of the assembled people lining up to put earth on the grave, for that very reason. I didn't know that you were supposed to stick the shovel back in the pile of dirt and not hand it to the next person. The reason, the rabbi told us, is because we are supposed to be reluctant in this task, reluctant to bury this person who was just among us. I didn't know the person who died. I knew his son and daughter-in-law. I'd met his ex-wife, though I hadn't realized they were ex. When I told the son (my student) that I had cancer, he said something like it feeling like I was family. He'd been in two of my classes and I'd supervised his internship. His family sent me tulips in the hospital. So this seemed to be the thing to do, to continue this circle of participating in important events in each other's lives. What kept echoing in my head is a line from an NPR commentary, one in the "This I Believe" series. I think I heard the commentary twice. The line was: Always go to the funeral. I think that is fairly good advice. Close to it, or even more important is: Always send a card. L is very good at composing bereavement cards. He's very good at finding the right words. I still remember the people who sent cards after my father died. Not that many people did. He died right after I'd come back to town after a year away. H and L made a donation to their synagogue in his memory. Of course tons of people sent my mother cards and letters, but I'm talking about people here, who didn't know my father. My cousin's husband sent a nice note about his impression of my father, whom he'd met once, at his wedding to my cousin.

For many years I did not understand why my parents' friends--people I didn't know--had sent me presents on my bat mitzvah. I figured it out when I read The Gift by Lewis Hyde. He talks about gift theory (maybe dumbing it down), about how gifts define community. Then I was able to see that the bat mitzvah gift was more than one gift, it was a gesture in a 75-year chain of gestures and connections. It wasn't 75 years yet then, as it is now. But 75 is right; my father's family moved to Houston in the early 1930s, and some of the people they met early on were still close. Not to mention the relatives who had been part of my grandparents' lives. I still have a letter that one of my father's friends wrote me on my bat mitzvah. It was about the friendship of the families. That man recently died and my mother went to the funeral and then to the shiva in the daughter's house, which, incidentally, is where my good friend C used to live. It looked very different, my mother said. Here, I have the letter, in my Nonfiction files, under the man's last name. He wrote: "Your father and I went to school together and have remained close friends over the years. Unfortunately we (you and I) have not gotten to know each other as well as I would have liked. It is not unusual in this busy fast moving world of ours for good friends to see little of one another in comparison to the time spent together as children and young adults. As each takes on additional responsibilities, less time is available for `get togethers.' You will discover this when you get older. Then you will realize that a great many of your friends remain close to you even though you do not see them as often as you would like."

The most amazing thing about this letter is that he wrote to me as an equal. He thanked me for including his family in the bat mitzvah and after-party. I had nothing to do with his invitation. My parents invited their friends and our relatives, and I invited my friends. I know someone who told her daughters that a wedding is for the mother. I don't agree. I think it's for the community.

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