My grandmother’s funeral was outside Chicago, the city where I was born, but which I grew unfond of the last time I visited. When I mentioned to a Chicagoan that I hated their city, they said it was outrageous. It was like hating the Beatles. But to me Chicago had all the negatives of a big city without the relevance of New York, the nightlife or beaches of Miami or the nearby natural wonders of LA or San Francisco. I’m sure Chicago has its positives but to me it’s tall buildings, cold weather, pale skin, and lots of mustaches.
The airfare on such a short notice to Chicago was prohibitive. Fortunately my Cousin Becky mentioned she and her parents lived closer to the Milwaukee airport anyway. So I got a direct flight to Wisconsin. On the plane as I waited for the bathroom another passenger asked if Milwaukee was home for me. I told him LA was. He went into the bathroom right after that and I wondered if his next question would have been if I was traveling for business or pleasure. What would be the correct answer if you’re traveling for a funeral? Neither. Business. Displeasure.
I landed and was picked up by Becky and her sister Stefanie. I was hoping to check out the Pabst Blue Ribbon brewery or see where Laverne and Shirley worked, but the airport was far South of Milwaukee so we drove straight to their town of Lake Villa. I was surprised by how green the grass and trees were of the meadows we passed. The scenery seemed exotic after my years in California’s arid environs.
We had dinner with Stefanie’s husband and my aunt and uncle. They talked about how one of the grandkids should speak at the funeral. I was the oldest, so I agreed to speak. The next morning at the funeral home, I realized the ceremony was in the same room as my grandfather’s funeral twenty two years earlier. I remembered the room being packed and the eulogy given by the rabbi of their middle age. Twenty-two years later and Grandma was one of the last of her generation, so there were about thirty people in the room and the service was ordained by a stranger named Rabbi Shlomo.
As he spoke I looked at the wood coffin and thought of that old Seinfeld routine where public speaking is people’s number one fear, so that most people would rather have a funeral than speak at one. It was nerve wracking as I waited my turn. My aunt spoke before me and gave a very heartfelt speech that described my Grandmother’s entire life. How she was the youngest of nine kids whose mother died when she was twelve and got married herself at nineteen. And then it was my turn. I gave a less egocentric variation of this posting.
And then we had to carry the coffin to the hearse. That was where things got less abstract. Months would pass without me speaking to my Grandmother, so her eternal absence hasn’t been processed. But carrying her coffin certainly made it seem real and then to see that ten foot deep grave…
The rabbi said some words and all of the family was to each shovel three scoops of dirt on the coffin. Most of the people went to their cars, but I, my brother and sister, cousin, and sister’s boyfriend watched as a dump truck plopped the rest of the dirt over the grave. Rabbi Shlomo said watching the dirt over the grave should serve as a reminder of the fleetingness of life and to relish the moments we have. I appreciated his attempt at finding meaning. He then began asking us our Hebrew names. As we answered my sister pointed out a spider was crawling on his hand. He brushed the arachnid away. I asked if his Hebrew name was Rabbi Spiderman. We all laughed.
We said goodbye and went our separate ways. The rabbi to his car, the family to lunch, and Grandma to wherever we go. I hope it is a place nicer than Chicago.