Sunday, March 8, 2009

I Promised

I promised myself that I'd write something today. I knew it was going to be a weird day for me: baby shower in the early afternoon, followed by leading a mixed group of Jews and non-Jews through the traditional mourning service the same day as the funeral.

The baby shower I thought would be easy. My overly-simplified plans of just giving a wad of cash went out the window during a consultation with a close female friend. So close that she could say, no cash, here do this instead. The This being handmade gifts from Etsy -- I got two, a cute print of a bird on a bike and a onesie with Obama stenciled on it -- way classier, for sure. Just the touch the gift needed. (And where was my Work Wife for this task? She would've made me buy something too, certainly. As would've Pig. Frankly, I thought Sparky was channelling Pig when she said it.)

So, I got a card, and with my printed out map and directions I was off on my scooter. I got lost. I was late. Like seriously late. One hour late would've been cool, probably. I was buying the card at CVS then, though. The house was someone's mother's house, out in Virginia, the place where I am most likely to get lost. I did get lost. I found my way and snuck in, awkwardly pulling my blue Doc Martin's off at the bottom of of the stairs. Everyone was upstairs and the Games were underway. I was trying to avoid those. I regarded the collection of shoes. There were a ton of sophisticated, nice casual women's shoes and about four pairs of huge men's shoes, only one of which were sneakers. I considered I might be under-dressed. Oy. Late and underdressed.

At least when my white face emerged from the stairs Felicia and Von both let out a hearty "Shellyyyyyyyyyy!" and came to hug me. Please give a hand to the only cracka in the room. Thank you. Where's the food?

I was also the ONLY person from the office, where Felicia used to work with us. I'm sure there's some sort of weird something because the organization did let her go. And during the "game" where we went around the room to introduce and say how we all knew the couple there was a dull silence when I mentioned my company by name. I said we bonded on a work trip to Arkansas, and Felicia added where she feared she'd be lynched by the white folks.

Hello my name is Shelly. I can vouch for this black persron. Really. Who am I? Just a cross-dressing lesbian jewish convert. Is that a gun?

To their credit, Felicia and Von have awesome friends. Most they know through church or the programs through the church they help run. Good people. Solid. Preggers. I say it's a boy (it's a small belly!) who'll come in the early afternoon.

Still, I didn't know anyone else there besides the center of attention people. And I was not feeling, you know, gregarious. Even for how sweet the people were. I told them I had to cut out and snuck back down stairs after about a total of 40 minutes at the party.

I zoomed home. Still a beautiful day outside, I was seriously enjoying riding around. I got home promptly at 4:20 and opted for a nap. An hour later I needed to get up and move. The Shiva Service was to start at 7 and I wanted to get there early, unlike my two hour lateness at the shower.

Google maps, again. Print, again. Helmet on, again. This time I've got a bag of prayerbooks with a half a dozen shiny black kippot stuffed in there. "I hope the hats don't come flying out down the highway," I said to Milkshake. She was unconcerned.

Zipping down the road, getting on I-270, I tried to remember the name of the woman who I was supposed to contact at the house. I recited the name of the man who died. I got there about fifteen minutes early to find that, since the funeral already happened, the whole crowd is there. They've been noshing on the vast spread for at least a couple of hours now. Actually I have no idea how long they had been back from the grave site.

The house is huge and beautiful. There is food or beverage on every surface. There is one non-white face in the whole crowd, and she was there to do the dishes. Boom.

I met the ex-wife of the deceased, and the sons. It's the daughter though, whose house we're all at, and who is my contact. I met cousins and close family friends. "Hi, I'm Shel West, from Washington Hebrew." Pressing hands, meeting eyes. A blur. Finally I met the daughter. She is feeling this, big time. Her face says to me confused, sad, overwhelmed. "I'm so sorry," I said I explained there's a part during the service where the familly can address the crowd. Even just a sentence or two, I assured her, you don't have to do it at all. People move, more faces, hands. I got introduced to a cousin who is a lay cantor and they'd love to hear her sing. "Sure!" I said, honestly exuberantly. We talked about the flow briefly and her smile was a great welcome to me.

People moved. Some folks got ansty about starting, other folks would stand around and talk forever if you let them. I tried to ride the crowd's emotion, letting it do its thing, perhaps not reining it in enough. A couple of times we started to talk about the prayer books ("there's more in the front") and kippot ("you don't have to wear them if you don't want") and the page number. The page number. Forever Jews will be yelling out the page number. G-d bless 'em.

The cantor-cousin started singing a niggun. She had said "that'll calm 'em down." Herding Jews is like herding cats. This is Moses' true miracle, moving that many Jews all at the same time. God must've known that.

Anyway, the service part was fine. You know me, nose in book, talk to the kippah. Cantor-cousin sounded awesome which reminded me that I am flat, flat, flat. And not a cantor. I do love it though. It was good. It was going a little long with extra singing. I felt some people start to shift and wiggle. Twice we were silent, once for the "optional" daily prayers... yadda yadda redemption, yadda yadda Jerusalem... ah, we'll pick up on page 30. The second silence was for the silent prayer. I've been at services enough to know the silent prayer routine, and gave the idea a go for myself... written words, words of the heart. Yadda. It was good.

When it was time for the "family to say something" I looked up to where I had spotted the daughter sitting the one time I looked up earlier. Her eyes got big as saucers and she started making the "time-out" or "he's safe" motion, I couldn't tell which. "I could not...?" "Of course," I said, trying to not miss a beat. "Let's continue on page...." Thank God for the page call out, the most reliable segue ever.

I read a fair amount from the pre-printed, kosher-for-Reform, temple-distributed prayer book. It's a special one for the Shiva service. It's got some nice words in it, although sometimes I feel like it's a little too God-focused for someone who might be really pissed at God at such a moment. (Ach, God, I know. I want more. I want less. Who could put up with me but You?) I took it nice and slow on the Mourner's Kaddish. I thanked the crowd for coming, and for joining, and reminded them not to say goodbye, but instead l'chaiyim. That's how they told me to end it. And I'm a good little soldier, sometimes.

So folks go back to the talking thing. I thank the cantor-cousin and she thanks me. The cousin who was handing out books came by. Some woman I hadn't seen before at all comes up to me and grips my hand fiercely as she thanks me. "Really," she says. "Really." Death grip. I look her in the eye, really. "Good luck," I say. Then the daughter comes to up to me. Her face! My God. She is crushed. A face of strength, softened by bludgeoning grief. Eyes, just overwhelmed. I might be giving her the death grip. I wish I had said, "I wish you a good night's sleep" but it might be too soon for that for her. What I did say was something about wishing the best for her. I don't remember. She wanted me to eat. There was a LOT of food. I declined, thinking my garbanzo beans would be soft when I got home.

I spoke to the daughter's husband too, once before the service and once after. His face also will haunt me tonight. His face said "Help me" and "I'm exhausted." I wish them peace, soon but not too soon.

May we all get what we need.


  1. You have no idea how much steady joy and comfort you give, wherever you go. Thank God for you, Sweet Shel.

    And, always, baruch etah adonai melenka Etsy amen.

  2. thanks to sparky for stumbling me upon this lovely soul.