[One by one, your parents die. Then there’s no more mother or dad standing between you and whatever it is that lies ahead for us all. You’re next.
Unless you’re a person of great and abiding faith in a hereafter (which I am not), the feeling of loss following the death of the second parent is therefore accompanied by another realization: there’s no more buffer zone.
Of course, that’s irrational. There’s never a buffer zone. Some people die while their own parents are still alive, ripped away forever in the vibrancy of their youth. And in other cases, there remains for a while the possibly false comfort of surviving aunts or uncles, keeping you from immediately confronting the harshness of acknowledging it’s your turn now.
But your parents are where you come from. They’re your first knowledge of and connection with the world. Once they’re both gone, it’s never the same again.
I was an only child. I didn’t have a good relationship with my mother after I reached adolescence. (A euphemism.) But I was necessarily the one they called in Massachusetts when she died in California towards the end of November 1993. She had colon cancer. However, her doctors had thought she might have another three years or so — even without surgery, which she had firmly refused. The call was therefore unexpected. I confirmed by telephone that she was to be cremated, as my father had decided for both of them. Then I took a five day leave of absence to fly three thousand miles, settle her affairs and bring back the ashes.
I could have left them. The state of California would have disposed of them, either over the ocean, as she had decided my father’s ashes should be dispersed, or over a deserted piece of land in the middle of nowhere between Sacramento and Nevada which had been designated for such purposes. But whatever she was thinking when she authorized the scattering of the remains of my father, I wouldn’t do that to her.
As it turned out, it took about eighteen months before I was able to sort out my own affairs, which were then in flux, and also come to terms with the realization that my mother and I would now never make peace with each other, and that it was time to say a final goodbye, even though that meant I’d be next in line.
Perhaps I was lucky never to have had to attend a funeral, other than my mother-in-law’s (which I had had no hand in planning). So here I had to invent my way. However, we all do what we have to do — as I did, in the spring twenty years ago.
Now we’re in the spring again. If I were still living in Massachusetts, I would be visiting the cemetery instead of sending commemorative flowers. However, I can also re-run the piece about burying her that I posted on November 20, 2013, very early in the life of this blog. Truth to tell, it’s starting to feel rather like ancient history to me. But I suppose that happens to us all: eventually we do get used to being nobody’s child. Sort of.]
BURYING MY MOTHER
My mother died, after seven years of widowhood, of colon cancer. I’m not sure she knew what she had. She was 89 and living in an assisted living community in Palm Springs, California to which I had moved her. She refused to be moved to a similar facility in Boston, where she would be near me and I could see her more often. “What would I do there?” she said.
I was her only child.
My phone rang at 2 a.m. on the Friday after Thanksgiving, 1993. I had been to Palm Springs for three days only a few weeks before, and had made arrangements to visit with her again for Christmas. But she couldn’t wait. She refused to eat. I think she wanted to die.
The large corporate firm where I was then practicing law permitted five days of leave “for the death of a parent, spouse or child.” I flew out the next day to settle accounts, dispose of her furniture, and collect the ashes. Many years before, my father had directed that they both be cremated. The crematorium gave me her wedding ring and a small, clear plastic bag of ashes in a plastic box — all that remained of her. I brought the box home and put it in a bureau drawer for the time being, while I sorted out my life (then somewhat in flux) and tried to sort out my feelings.
When I was a child, she was the center of the universe.
Then I grew up. She didn’t like my posture, my glasses, my clothes. I chose bad earners for husbands, lived in “ugly” houses, had disappointing children. I didn’t call often enough. I didn’t write often enough. And what did I want to be a lawyer for? Although she never actually said it, she didn’t like me.
She was the great failed love affair of my life. What was I going to do with her now she was gone? Keep her forever in my drawer so she would always, at last, be mine?
A year later I had moved across the river to Cambridge. As a resident, I could have bought a plot in the crowded Cambridge municipal cemetery for $50. Except I couldn’t. Not with Mount Auburn Cemetery (much more expensive) across the street from my bedroom window — historic, beautiful, landscaped: a place to walk, reflect, and bury your dead in style.
My friend Gayle drove in from Worcester to help me choose. It was January 1995, and bitter cold. We clomped up and down the icy paths, looking at the available spaces for ashes marked on a map from the Director of Sales. Several of them were near Azalea Pond, lovely even in winter — bordered by weeping willows and encircled by a low stone wall.
I could hear my mother’s voice in my head. “You’re putting me here, where cars can park on me?”
We walked closer to the pond, inside the stone enclosure. “Next to a woman with a husband? When I have no husband?”
We were freezing. Enough with the looking. I bought a place for her inscription on a pedestal facing the pond, with its own willow nearby. No cars. Higher than all the other inscriptions facing the pond. And a double (at double the price), with room for my father’s name above hers. No one would ever pity my mother as a woman without a husband!
The carpenter who was altering the closets in my new apartment made two small mitered pine boxes, without nails. He refused to take money. It was an honor, he said. My father’s ashes had been scattered over the Pacific, so I had nothing of him to put in his box. Instead, four photographs: as a boy, a young groom, the father of my girlhood, a retiree under the California sun.
I ordered flowers. I flew both sons to Boston for the ceremony. They were young, and without plane fare. Without strong ties to my mother, either. But they were all the extended family she had. And I wanted them to see how it was done. So they would be ready for the next time.
Gayle insisted on coming too. There would be four of us.
One problem, though. What should I say? What good things could I say?
It took until the night before. And then I had it. At midnight, I wrote it out to read at the grave site, so I should get it right.
The day was clear and sunny. One son carried the box with my father’s pictures. The other son carried the other one, my mother’s box. Before we closed it, I wet a finger and smoothed the ashes inside. I couldn’t help it. One last caress. Then I licked my finger clean.
Each son placed a box in the opening in the earth which had been dug for us. The grounds-keeper threw fresh earth into the hole.
This is what I said at the grave of my mother on May 20, 1995. Maybe it made her happy at last.
We have come here today, to this beautiful place, to honor Michael Raginsky, who was my father, and Myra Raginsky, who was my mother. “Honor” was not a word in their vocabulary. “Respect for parents” would have been more like it. But meaning no disrespect, “honor” is the right word.
Remembering my parents as they were in their later years, and certainly as my two children may remember them, they seemed to live timid, critical, constricted lives — without even the modicum of daily happiness to which everyone is entitled. And yet, once — before any of us knew them — these two people whom we recall as so modest and somewhat fearful, did something so absolutely extraordinary that it still amazes me every time I think of it.
At the ages of seventeen and nineteen — when they were still by our standards barely out of adolescence, Mirra Weinstein and Mendel Raginsky, as they were then known — not yet married to each other, or even thinking of it — said goodbye forever to parents, her brother, his sisters, friends, the world as they knew it, and voyaged to a place literally halfway around the globe where they did not know anyone at all, did not know the way things worked, did not even know how to speak — to anyone except each other and other Russians.
I don’t know if they ever realized afterwards what a remarkable feat of courage that was. I don’t know if they ever were sorry, wished they could go back. They didn’t talk about things like that. I do know they Americanized their names, learned English, married, became citizens, made a life, and raised a child. Their ways were not always the ways I might have wished they had. But I would not be here if it were not for that remarkable voyage into the unknown on which they embarked in 1922, and neither would my children. And that is why “honor” is the right word.
If there is a somewhere after here, Mother and Dad, I hope you are pleased that your journey has ended at this tranquil and lovely place of trees and pond. Despite all my carryings on, I always loved you, and I always will.”
Then we arranged our flowers on the fresh raw earth, placed four small stones on top of the pedestal, and went away to the Charles Hotel to have a champagne lunch.