When Deana returned from a brisk 8-mile run Saturday morning, she found a FedEx envelope on her doorstep, and inside that envelope, a smaller envelope, from the Star of David Cemetery in Connecticut, and inside that, like nesting Russian dolls, a letter informing her that her mother, who died ten years ago, was never buried. The casket was recently discovered pressed against the back wall of a secondary vault, a cold storage locker where cadavers are stowed in the depth of winter until the earth is malleable for digging – a few days, perhaps a few weeks – when the dearly departed can be descended into their eternal graves.
She stood, shocked and shivering, in the vestibule of her townhouse, despite leggings and a fleece jacket, and a tight fitting knit cap that captured most of her curly hair, wrapped well against the weather, not memory.
An image immediately came to mind: the last sight of her mother, the morning of the funeral, before the coffin was closed for the service. Deana had requested one last moment alone with her dead mother, but she was sorry she had. Ruth was sheathed in the obligatory white. Her face without make-up, her hair slicked back, made her expression unusually severe, not serene, as Deana had imagined, and the static pose, the absence of breath, unfathomable. She tucked a family photo under one hand and her mother’s wedding ring on the ring finger, and then quickly pulled away, shocked by the cold, the rigidity, her mother known for steadfastness and decorum, not stillness.
Deana read the letter again, scanning the words as if she might have missed something, or misunderstood, and while she read, behind her eyes, her mother’s face morphed into a sadly familiar expression of dissatisfaction, displeased with Deana and, to a lesser extent, her brother, Leonid, for this outrageous situation.
She trudged into the house on wobbly legs, weary from the weight of the message more than the running. She removed her jacket and cap and hung them on a hook for that purpose, tossed her keys into a blue pottery bowl on the bench, and made her way down the hall to the kitchen, where she placed letter and phone on the round breakfast table where crusts of toast and bits of scrambled eggs clotted on the plate. She poured the last of the tepid coffee from her thermal mug into the sink and added the last of the warm from the pot. She noticed the mug trembling in her hand, and her legs too shook perceptively, rattled by the unexpected, unfathomable letter as if Ruth had only today passed away and her daughter had failed to fulfill her final wishes. Absurd, Deana chided herself as she glanced at the wall clock, calculating the best time to call her brother.
The winter Deana’s mother died had arrived early and lasted long. Frigid air pierced the damp earth, forcing a deep freeze from early December until the warming April rains. The funeral service had been held at the synagogue where Ruth was active all her adult life, one of many similar temples in a stretch of suburbs north of New York City along the eastern edge of the Hudson River. Deana had just turned thirty-five and Leo, thirty-two. They hoped the humbleness of the plain pine casket might make up in some way for the indignities Ruth had suffered the eighteen months she battled cancer. She was only sixty-seven years old, although she seemed older, she had always seemed older, like a classically stoic Chekhovian elder, the result of dark deep-set eyes, wispy dark hair always tucked behind her ears, and a chiseled face fixed in an enigmatic gaze.
Deana barely attended the Rabbi’s speech at the service, she hardly made sense of the eulogies given by her uncle and her mother’s closest friend, and she found it difficult to concentrate on Leo’s tribute, although the audience chortled repeatedly as he evoked his mother’s endearing eccentricities.
Most of you know she delivered warm cookies to the rabbis every Friday morning, he said. A generous gesture, of course, although in private, she confessed the sweets were an effort to secure influence. The crowd chuckled knowingly. She insisted she hated committees, but she managed to take over every committee she joined, and made sure all meetings were at our house, volunteers packed into our tiny living room, and at the close, herded into the kitchen for the ritualistic pouring of red wine, toasting mission accomplished as she issued commands for next steps before the next meeting. Committee members in the audience laughed loudly. And, let us not forget, the early winter mornings, every single year, she piled the gently used blankets she extracted from many of you to present to the homeless in town, even as she urged them to get help and get off the streets. The entire congregation laughed at this and Deana nodded in affirmation. No point to self-pity was one of her mother’s many familiar reprimands. Also, no good deed goes unpunished.
Today, in the face of this madness, Deana thought, she should take consolation in her mother’s mantras. Certainly Ruth would feel more anger than despair at this crazy turn of events. She was far more accepting than the prototypical Jewish mother and a bit of humor glistened perpetually in her eyes.
The Rabbi, in his remarks at the funeral, expressed his respect for Ruth’s constancy. He described her as resolute. Formidable. Indomitable. And, the ultimate acclaim: devoted. Devotion, to Ruth, a quality to admire and to aspire to, as she often advised her daughter, what Deana’s generation, the new wave feminists, denounce as subjugation.
Deana recalls now an exhortation the Rabbi made to mourners at the close of his comments, the one thing a Rabbi has ever said that provoked serious contemplation. What we all must consider, what you must learn to make meaning of your life, and which Ruth understood, is this: what is the question to which your life is the answer? Deana has yet to figure that one out.
Soon after the funeral, Leo moved away and Deana moved on. One year later, they returned to the cemetery plot, where the Rabbi recited the ritual prayer to mark the end of mourning and the unveiling of the headstone. That was that, so they thought. Death acknowledged, burial complete, respects paid. No reason to question otherwise.
Deana was struck the day of the unveiling, as she was at her father’s unveiling three years earlier, by the irony of this Jewish tradition. Just as grief subsides, family members are obligated to stand at the site of the dead; thus, rather than alleviate sorrow, the ceremony dredges up the loss. One of many religious customs she fails to comprehend.
Ruth’s unique question most surely was, how can we make people’s lives a little easier? A woman who delighted in good news and good people, she subjugated herself to no one. She had graduated from the City College of New York with a major in European literature and a lifelong affection for Tolstoy and Pushkin. Russian through and through, Deana’s father used to remark, both scold and satisfaction. However Ruth had no illusions about writing, nor any intention of spending her life as a secretary or librarian. She wanted to be an editor, but she quickly discovered, to her everlasting chagrin, that the affluent graduates of women’s colleges claimed the coveted editorial positions at publishing houses and magazines. Needing to earn an income, she took a position in the customer service department at Macy’s, where she remained, ultimately as manager, nearly fifty years, until the cancer treatment weakened her so severely she was unable to do her job to her own exacting standards.
Talk about customer service! Deana thought, as she read the letter a second time. How would my mother handle this situation? Where was her almighty God when she was shoved to the back of cold storage to languish a decade?
At last, Deana called Leo. She was still sitting at the breakfast table, still in workout clothes, still stunned. Talking to her brother would help, it always helped. Leo lived in Paris with his husband Eric, whom he met when he moved there, shortly after Ruth’s death, and after a few years in a civil union, seemed, to Deana, one of the few happily married couples she knew.
You cannot be serious, Leo replied after a moment of shocked silence. He called out to Eric to share the news.
Holy shit! Eric shouted loudly. That’s insane.
How could that even happen? Leo asked. And, wait, when we were at the unveiling, she wasn’t there?
And nothing seemed strange last time you were there?
I never go there. What would seem strange anyway?
You have never gone out there to visit?
Why would I drive over a hundred miles to stand in front of a cold engraved slab and a layer of grass?
People do, you know. I mean that’s why they’re there and not in an urn.
They’re not in an urn because Jews do not cremate, not by choice, you know that. And while I’m sure it gives some people comfort to visit a gravesite, not me.
Leo paused, never certain he understood his sister, although he would battle to the death to defend her right to do and think whatever she chose to do and think, because he practiced the golden rule, their mother’s other recurrent mantra: to each their own. What great irony it was, more than twenty years ago, a slap in the face, Leo said at the time, when Ruth found it so hard to accept her son’s own.
You don’t think I dropped the ball somehow D, do you? Leo pleaded. I took care of the headstone. It was all done right.
No, no. I just cannot believe they never dug the grave and a year later put up the stone over nothing.
What if they buried someone else in mom’s place?
Deana gasped, and when Eric made ghostly sounds in the background, Leo laughed.
Oh, this is SO not funny, Deana cried out with irritation, as if they were adolescents, Leo taunting her when she slipped on an icy sidewalk on the walk to school or when she applied lipstick for her first date.
The thought of a stranger in her mother’s place made Deana’s heart even heavier and Leo must have felt the same, as he abruptly stopped laughing. I’ll talk to them. You think we need a lawyer?
Deana knew she would have to be the one to take care of this. Leo was a successful architect with a revered European firm, about to embark on a high profile project. And he had a husband who deserved his attention. Deana’s marriage ended five years ago and she has few obligations beyond her work as a business development consultant. In truth, despite several active projects and a staff of twenty, she often has too much time on her hands and no one to tend to.
I hope we don’t need a lawyer, she sighed. Let me talk to them and sort this out.
We’re on our way to Zurich first thing in the morning, but I’ll have all my screens. As you know, and Eric will attest, I always have my eyes on my screens. And D, we also need to arrange a service.
The cemetery was supposed to arrange for a rabbi to say Kaddish. Ours or one of their contingent. A minyan too, I think, at graveside. Mom would die if that did not happen. They both took a moment of silence to acknowledge the absurdity of that comment. So, maybe the Rabbi never got the call, unless Eric is right, unless someone else is buried there.
Jesus, this gets more bizarre by the moment.
Jesus has nothing to do with this.
You know, there is one silver lining. Jews believe the dead should have a companion until burial so, surrounded by ten years worth of stiffs, Mom has had plenty of company.
Deana cringed at the word stiff and she felt again the loss of her mother’s steady hand and also a mounting uneasiness that all the most important decisions she has made since her mother’s death are deeply flawed. Is it possible Ruth has been trapped in a state of limbo all these years, watching her daughter butcher family values and make a mess of her life? She shuddered at the possibility, the specter of her mother’s expression of displeasure rising again before her eyes.
She sighed. I’ll get to the bottom of this and figure out what needs to be done.
What a mess, D. Sorry I’m not there, not like you haven’t had enough on your plate. Settled back in now?
Yes, finally. So glad to have the renovation done.
Happy with it?
Yes, looks great, thanks again, your advice was perfect.
Send pics. We’re hoping to get back some time soon, although this project will take a few years.
I might get over there sooner than you’ll get here.
Stay longer next time.
Dare I ask, anyone new?
No one of interest.
Not like you to be single so long.
Maybe my time is up.
Don’t be ridiculous. Won’t be long now.
I appreciate your faith.
I just know you, D.
Deana laughed and it felt good to laugh. Yes, you do.
By the way, Jason published something groundbreaking recently. Did you see that?
How do you know?
I’m still on his mailing list. Ever hear from him?
After all this time? He barely spoke to me in the end, you know that.
He’s a jerk.
He’s not. He’s a good guy who married the wrong girl.
He told you to fuck off, as I recall, on the way out the door, so he’s a jerk.
He had good cause.
Honey, it takes two to tango and you’re my sister, so he’s a jerk.
Deana fought back tears, uncertain whether she was overwhelmed by the memory of how badly she had wronged her husband or her brother’s unwavering compassion, and she was certain Leo would know what she was feeling as more sensitive brothers know the tone of a sister’s voice or the meaning of telltale conversational pauses. To avoid any further discussion of a subject she had hoped to bury by now, she bid a hasty goodbye.
She stared at the letter again, which was dated a month ago and had been forwarded from her last address, the home she shared for six years with Jason, a genetics research scientist with a winsome smile and an innate desire to please. They met just when Deana had come to terms with permanently solo status. Most of her life she gravitated from one relationship to the next, chronically coupled but chronically fickle, preferring romance over sustenance.
Ruth had been even fonder of Jason than Deana. She was taken with the nobility of his calling, and his genteel demeanor. Deana too admired his high-mindedness. His steadfastness. She knew he loved her, of this there was no doubt, although she often felt he admired her more than adored her, and to her surprise, Jason apparently shared her apprehension. The night before the wedding he offered her the opportunity to back out.
A one time get out of jail card, he said, because we both know you will tire of me.
Deana felt in that moment as if glass had been shattered – a window in a locked attic on a steamy summer day smashed in order to seize a breath of air. She had only to crawl through that window and climb down from the roof to freedom.
Nevertheless, determined to be better than she was, she replied, isn’t it the bride who’s supposed to have the wedding eve jitters? She understood this might be her last chance to settle down and it was time, if not for herself, for her parents, who longed for grandchildren. In the end, she never ceased taking birth control, believing she was unworthy, and, in the end, without children, their separation was simpler.
Deana had never asked her mother for advice before her marriage and had only once asked her opinion, after she became, as Jason predicted, bored by their life together. They were seated one day in the oncologist’s anteroom waiting to discuss proposed treatment for the late-stage cancer. Classical music played in the background – violins and a cello, no wind instruments or tympani – underscoring the somber scenario. A cloying artificial lavender scent emanated from a diffuser, meant to sweeten the surrounds but clogging Deana’s breath. She already expected the worst and Jason, in a particularly gloomy mood that morning, bemoaned the absence of magic medicine to save his beloved mother-in-law.
I wish I could have done something sooner, he said.
It’s not about you, Deana snapped.
As she sat with her mother, annoyed with Jason and annoyed with herself for not appreciating his intent, she asked Ruth what she believed was the secret to a happy marriage. She might have asked sooner, but she always thought of herself as so inherently different from her mother that Ruth could not possibly provide relevant guidance. She’s not sure they had ever agreed on anything, although they rarely argued, as if they had settled into an easy peace from the first. Jason described them as a Venn diagram, operating in tandem, intersecting only in common space.
Ruth briefly contemplated the question. She typically gathered her thoughts before responding, making her reactions all the more penetrating. Reduce your expectations some, she pronounced. Works all sorts of miracles.
Deana was shocked by her response, but had to table the conversation to convene with the doctor. When she filled Leo in later that day on the prognosis and treatment plan, she also repeated their conversation. Why is it better to reduce expectations? Isn’t there something fundamentally wrong with lowering the bar simply to avoid failure? We were raised to always do better, right? What’s the point of winning a slower race?
She imagined this might be particularly meaningful to Leo who lent his voice, and considerable financial support, to the movement to legalize gay marriage. No one gives up when so much is at stake, he told Deana at the time. Perhaps people give up only what is easily won, she thought, and she often fears she let her brother down most of all by allowing her own marriage, so easily come by, to fail.
Six years ago, when Leo and Eric flew to New York to marry, Deana hosted their celebration. When the festivities had come to an end, guests gone, spouses asleep, Deana, under the influence of an excess of champagne and wine, confided that her marriage was in the dumper and rather than face the music, she had been unfaithful.
For years, she whimpered shamefully. And now, when I can sleep at all, I wake up gasping for air, as if I’ve been buried alive.
Anyone I know? Leo asked with a drunken giggle.
Deana, so relieved to confess without derision, described her first affair with the handsome realtor who sold them their house, their liaisons in homes staged for sale where the dread of discovery proved seductive. When that novelty wore off, she fell into bed with a linguistics expert she consulted with on a project. He followed Ayn Rand’s philosophy and claimed the height of personal altruism was to ensure her sexual satisfaction. Despite the constant pleasure, she tired of his single-mindedness. Soon after, there was a lengthy affair with a philosophy professor who preached in class the obligation to the classicists’ moral imperative, while bedding a married woman, and she soon detested his lack of integrity only slightly more than her own.
You know, D, you have a fanatical fear of the banal, Leo commented that night. Maybe marriage just isn’t for you. On the other hand, promiscuity is a slippery slope. The new gets old soon enough.
No open marriage for you guys?
We’ve given too much and waited too long to risk this.
What a concept, Deana muttered.
My dear beautiful sister… What is it you need you cannot seem to find?
Deana exploded in laughter, an intoxicated manic hilarity that inevitably ends up in tears, and Leo also descended into hysterics.
Mom would be furious with me, Deana blathered.
No honey, I’m the loser in this family, Leo said.
I guess we’ve both made a mess of it. Mom must be rolling in the grave.
This Saturday morning, the letter still in hand, Deana has the deeply disturbing sensation her mother is angrier with her for vacating her vows than with Leo for his marriage. She shook herself off and took a long scalding hot shower, changed to clean comfy clothes, and slumped on the couch to call the cemetery, but she was reminded by an automated response that a Jewish graveyard is closed on the Sabbath and administrative offices would reopen Monday.
To avoid full-on misery, she pulled out her notes on a project. She enjoyed her work. She liked the many moving parts. The constant challenge. What she despises are clients who insist there is a higher calling than the profit motive. CEOs are not known for reduced expectations.
Perhaps, Deana thought, she has, without realizing, set lesser expectations for herself by living a life untethered to a sense of purpose, to marriage or a family; residing, in effect, between the lines, within the white space of ambiguity.
The Rabbi’s exhortation haunts her still. What is the question to which your life in the answer?
She wonders now if she will ultimately die without answering that terribly important question, and without learning to temper her expectations.
She recalled a conversation with her mother when she was a young child, when a neighborhood cat was found dead.
What does it mean to die? she asked.
Ruth said, everyone and everything dies. We don’t see them, but they’re not completely gone. They are with you, in your heart. You might feel them near. You may hear their voices.
After a lethargic unproductive weekend, Deana drove to work Monday morning, listening for her mother’s voice, but heard only the rush of traffic. She arrived early and after a quick meeting, closed her office door with instructions to her assistant not to be disturbed, and called Simon Berman, the director of administration at the cemetery who had scribbled his signature at the bottom of the letter.
This is Shimon, he announced when he came on the line, with an unmistakable Israeli accent. Israeli’s are often thought to be the exalted ones, the keepers of the flame, so to speak, Deana believes, although she knows that many are secular. Nevertheless, their way of speaking, their embodiment of destiny, seem a crystallization of Jewish identity, thus, to Deana, an admonishment.
Although Deana grew up in a predominantly Jewish community, and completed the childhood studies required to become a Bat Mitzvah, Judaism has always been baffling. The more devout followers question and debate the meaning of just about everything on a seemingly endless quest for absolute truths, even as they profess such truths may not exist. Jason often said, even as he searched for empirical truths, that the perpetual inquiry integral to Jewish life made certainty of anything except an omniscient God all but impossible, and this seems to Deana the heart of Judaism: to paradoxically challenge and simultaneously humble oneself to the all-mighty. A profound ambiguity.
This is quite a turn of events, isn’t it, Mrs. Rosner? the administrator responded when she introduced herself.
Ms, Deana corrected.
Ms. Yes, Ms. Rosner. Star of David Cemetery deeply regrets this situation.
Please explain to me the specifics of this situation. Seriously, how could this happen?
Yes, well, many caskets required storage that year. The ground was frozen unusually long, I’m told. I wasn’t here then…
I know all that, Deana interrupted. What I want to know is why my mother’s casket was left there and not buried all this time!
Your mother’s casket was secured in the back-up vault and the label must have been lost, so it must have been assumed to be in rotation.
For ten years?
Yes, it is most unusual…
But how can you be sure it’s my mother?
There is a casket code, like an SKU in a store. Technology does make some things easier.
He paused, as if they might engage in a casual conversation about technology. Deana’s silence was her response and he went on. Our new interment manager realized this casket may not have been moved for some time.
Some time? That’s an understatement. And can you say for certain no one else was buried in my parents’ plot?
Our database does not indicate this.
You will open the gravesite to be sure, yes?
An exhumation, yes, which is different from a dig, and this requires authorization, from… Deana heard him shuffling papers. Leo Rosner. The official conservator.
Seriously? Deana roared. Mr. Berman, this oversight, as you call it, may have extended to setting a stone over an empty plot, which is bad enough, or over another person, far worse, so don’t you think you should take action right now? This is your responsibility. For God’s sake, my mother was supposed to be buried ten years ago!
The cemetery cannot proceed without authorization. In writing.
My brother lives in Europe.
We can email or fax the form. If he will sign, scan and return, we’ll waive the requirement for a notary.
How good of you, Deana snarled. Email the form to Leo and send a second form granting authority to me in his place. I’ll be the primary contact from now on.
Yes, well, rather unusual, but given the circumstances…
Mr. Berman. My brother and I want this travesty to be corrected immediately, so my mother may finally rest in peace.
Mrs., Ms. Rosner. Again, our condolences, he answered.
Again, Deana felt as if her mother had only just died. Worse than she felt ten years ago, because then it was a relief Ruth was no longer suffering.
After a long day of meetings, Deana took the half-hour drive home on autopilot, as she often does. Usually she listens to the radio news or a podcast. Today, in silence, staring listlessly ahead at the lane lines and the mass of break lights ahead of her, she was struck by a different, even more startling image of her mother: alive but curled into the casket and scraping her nails against the sides, frantic to be free. Deana had to pull over to the shoulder to still her pounding heart.
Once at home, she lurched to a stop in the driveway and charged into the townhouse as if being chased by a goblin. She dropped her things in the hall and in the kitchen opened a bottle of red wine and left it on the counter to breathe. She dumped whatever she found in the salad bin into a large wood bowl – a handful of arugula, shredded carrots, cherry tomatoes – and added olives from a jar in the refrigerator and a handful of candied walnuts. She drizzled in olive oil, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar and sea salt and tossed, but in the end, she had no appetite. She put the salad bowl aside and sipped at the wine. Her head hurt. All she wanted to do was dismiss this mess from her mind. She wanted to remember the best memories of her mother, of her parents together so happily married for so many years, and not think about them having been separated so long while Ruth was stuck in transition like Dickens’ Marley. Nevertheless, she had one more call to make, to the Rabbi, a favorite of her mother’s who, she discovered earlier today when she called the synagogue, had recently retired. She had been advised that he continued to be available to former congregants. Deana never knew him well. She was in college when he took over at the temple and her marriage had been officiated by Jason’s recently ordained cousin.
Oh, uh, Rabbi, Deana stuttered when he answered the phone, the sound of his voice rattling her as if he too emerged from the grave. You probably won’t remember me; I’m Ruth Rosner’s daughter, Deana. My mother…
Of course I remember you, Deana, he answered. I was a great fan of your mom, may she rest in peace. How are you?
Thank you, Rabbi. I’m fine, thanks, well, mostly fine. I’m calling because, and this will sound quite strange, but my mother cannot rest in peace because she is not exactly at rest.
How do you mean, dear?
Once she explained, the Rabbi dismissed his practiced composure. A travesty! Madness! How could this happen?
She explained the situation and said, Rabbi, I mean no disrespect, please, but I have to ask, you were meant to go to the cemetery after the thaw, when the casket was interred. Do you remember that? I ask because we haven’t yet ascertained if the plot is vacant or if another person was mistakenly buried there.
Oy! I remember the service at the temple, but I perform the Kaddish often at the cemetery, on my own, that time of year, once the gravesites are prepared. Often several in a day. Although sometimes the cemetery takes care of that.
That was ten years ago, of course, I understand, and they cannot confirm one way or another. Would you have a record?
I’ll check with the office in the morning. But my dear, it’s of no consequence. I would like to do that for you. For Ruth.
Deana sighed, relieved, by virtue of the Rabbi’s attention, that her mother’s life, and death, might be redeemed. Oh thank you so much, Rabbi. That would mean so much to her. To all of us.
This must be terribly troubling for you, he said, with a kindness that shredded the last of her defenses. She felt the phone shaking in her hand and took another sip of wine for fortification.
I remember how devoted you were to your mother when she was ill. How gratifying it was for her to have you near. Your brother as well. How are you? And your husband? I do hope you are finding your life to be meaningful. And, should you ever wish to talk, I would be happy to see you. Once a Rebbe, always a Rebbe. My wife will attest to that. He chuckled.
Deana was struck dumb. She had to hold herself back from blathering her misdeeds. Declaring her ambivalence toward just about everything and confessing she has yet to articulate the question to which her existence is the answer. She knew the Rabbi would surely be sympathetic. Such a man is forgiving and she sorely needed to confess her sins, so to speak, to make sense of both past and future. Nonetheless, she held her tongue. No need to unload on someone who is, in effect, a stranger. What would she say, anyway? That she’s a competent accomplished woman, appreciated by friends and colleagues, but torn between reason and passion, without any sense of purpose, and a colossal failure in matters of the heart. A woman who has spent her life trying not to be like her mother, who so wishes now she were.
She thanked the rabbi and turned in early, sleeping so deeply she was surprised by the early morning alarm.
The cemetery called at the end of the day to report the gravesite was open, empty and properly prepared, and arrangements were made for the Rabbi to preside over her mother’s burial the following afternoon. Deana glanced at the calendar. Her mother would be buried in daylight and the first Hanukah candle lit at sunset.
Hanukkah, like most Jewish holidays, commemorates liberation: the rededication of the temple at Jerusalem. The rededication of freedom, Ruth used to recite as she lit the Shamash, the candle designated to light all the others, adding another candle each night for eight nights. The word Hanukkah derives from the Hebrew verb meaning to dedicate.
Dedicate. Dedication, Deana muttered. Dedication to ideals. To the golden rule. To the people you love.
The last time they celebrated the holiday together was when Ruth resided at Hospice. She was heavily medicated and had slipped in and out of sleep for days. Nevertheless, as if she intuited the date, that night she stayed awake. Deana presided over the ceremonial candle lighting, they recited the prayer and Leo led them in song. When Deana invited her mother to reach into a paper bag for a gift, Ruth, even in a weakened state, scolded her daughter.
Hanukkah is for the children, she grumbled.
Leo replied, Mom, we’re all someone’s child.
At these words, tears slipped from Ruth’s eyes, likely recalling her own parents, whom, she had told Deana that morning, she looked forward to seeing again soon. A thought Deana had never believed central to the Jewish tenets of death. Ruth, with obvious effort, reached into the bag to withdraw a bar of her favorite chocolate, which elicited a grateful smile. Her last smile. She slipped into a coma later that night and died the next day. After the mortuary claimed the body, as Deana gathered the last of her mother’s belongings, she discovered the unopened chocolate bar on the bedside table and was overcome with grief. She never imagined she could feel as sad as she felt that day, even more than the day her father died, until the day Jason moved out, and then, all these years later, the day she received the letter from the cemetery.
The next evening, after sunset, as a thick cloud cover settled over the moon, Deana lit the first Hanukkah candles and watched them flicker, mesmerized by the tiny flames. What is significant in the end? she wondered. The little things, her mother might have said, and she was right. After the candles burned, she dined on crispy potato latkes smothered in applesauce, with a tall glass of wine, before she sent a confirmation email to Leo that the crisis was over. He called the next morning.
There’s certain symmetry here, don’t you think?
Hanukkah you mean?
Yes. Seems like yesterday.
Deana nodded as if Leo could see. I realize this mess was just an insane and inexplicable error, but I feel I failed her.
We didn’t fail her, we saved her. YOU saved her. And D, you should go to the cemetery. Once the stone is reset.
Because, if you’re there, she’ll know she’s in the right place.
And you think only if I stand there she will know?
I think, if you stand there, you will know. And then you both might rest in peace.
Randy Kraft is a freelance journalist, book reviewer and fiction writer. She has published two novels Colors of the Wheel (2014) and Signs of Life (2016), and is working on a collection of stories. Born and raised in New York City, she resides now in Southern California. randykraftwriter.com