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February 27, 2007
While I was writing this story my 83-year-old cousin Ephraim called. We reminisced about how once while he was out for a walk with his mother, my Aunt Ruth, then in her early 90s, they met a friend they hadn't seen for a while. The friend commented on how good my aunt looked and said in Yiddish: "Biz a hundert un tzvantig!" ("You should live until 120!") Aunt Ruth looked him in the eye and responded: "What did I ever do to you?"
Aunt Ruth expressed what we all feel: growing old is not for the faint of heart. At every stage of life we are concerned with different age-appropriate issues. I have come to see them as a string of "D" letter words. By the time we are well launched into our 60s we are usually less preoccupied with Dreaming and Dating; although we still want to keep up the quality of our Dressing and Dancing. Hopefully, by then, we have gracefully survived the Dysfunctional family years and the Decades of Divorce. As we age our attention increasingly turns to the Disposal of Doo-Dads, Disease and Death.
For the most part we entrust health maintenance and care issues to the professionals and focus our concern on the desire to die quietly at home, in bed, without causing problems for anyone. We try to be responsible and make decisions about funerals and memorials and then our attention invariably goes to that amorphous question of how we will be remembered. We are aware that our "legacy" is defined only in part by material things. We want our children and grandchildren to remember who we "really were."
Over the years, in an attempt to have my grandchildren remember me for who I "really am," I have begun increasingly to use Yiddish words and phrases and sing Yiddish songs with my grandchildren. For the Jewish New Year I found an old recipe of my mother's and made a Lokshn Kugel, noodle pudding. Imagine my delight when my 4-year-old granddaughter, whom I am teaching to draw and to sew, said: "I love your art Bubbie, but I love your cooking more!"
My Thai Buddhist co-in-laws speak with the grandchildren in Thai and involve them in Thai folklore and Buddhist ceremonies, even as they participate in the Jewish Sabbath ceremony when visiting. They cook delicious Thai food for family gatherings and beam with joy when the children use a Thai phrase. The older Catholics in our family are increasingly concerned with their souls and eternal life after death and therefore want the children to come to Mass and to believe in Santa Claus. For the most part this multi-ethnicity adds flavor to the family stew. The different tugs and pulls of assorted customs and traditions cause strain and pain only when there are pre-existing issues of communication and control.
When my parents died abruptly and too young at 73, my sister and I were very grateful to them for having preplanned all of their funeral and burial arrangements, which made everything easier for us in the midst of our grief. At that point, my then-Catholic husband and I decided that we would do the same for our survivors. We purchased burial plots in the "mixed faith" section of our local Jewish cemetery.
The only thing my husband and I disagreed about was what kind of coffins we wanted. Originally I wanted a "plain pine box" like my parents had. Christopher, who had gone to many Catholic funerals with elaborate coffins, and who crafts beautiful wooden objects of all sorts, wants to have a coffin handsomely made of oak or walnut with a lining. After some discussion I realized that if I were to pre-decease him, it would add to Christopher's pain to see me in a humble pine box, and if he were to pre-decease me I would want him to have something he would have appreciated as his final resting place. So, we came to agreement to have simple, but well-crafted caskets.
Some friends of ours who are both of the same faith are working towards resolving their different funeral plans. He wants to be incinerated and have his ashes sprinkled in the Mediterranean while she would like to be buried in a venerable New England Protestant cemetery. Yet, they would like to somehow "be together." Not simple. Hopefully they will figure it out and spare their children and grandchildren additional grief.
Recently, my second husband, raised Roman Catholic, decided to convert to Judaism after we had been married for 20 years. My children, grown with kids of their own, were delighted. I was shocked, but very happy.
My husband and I soon exchanged the burial plot we had bought in the "mixed" section of the cemetery for a plot in the Jewish section.
The one aspect of the conversion which is troubling was Chris' decision not to tell his mother. Now when we go to the Midwest to visit my husband's family we both go to Mass with Chris's mother. She is 95 years old, lives alone and is quite healthy and self-sufficient. Her husband and four of her five siblings have died. The last remaining sister has cancer. She is very concerned about her soul and about "eternal life" after death. Having outlived most of her peers, the Church means a great deal to her and provides the hope and belief that she will see everyone again in heaven.
Although there have been recent changes in Church teachings, we feel certain that Chris' mother would fear that she would not see her son again in the world to come if he were Jewish. It feels kinder to keep up the illusion than to have her worry about her son's "eternal soul."
We have discussed this with friends and rabbis and everyone agrees that it is a kindness to try to protect her from these concerns. In order to continue to protect her sensibilities, I am writing this piece under a pseudonym.
For a perspective from outreach professional Dawn C. Kepler on this article, see Sometimes Comfort Trumps Truth.