In My Mind's I

I’ve just returned from my home town and my family’s “home” cemetery, where we gathered for the unveiling of yet another stone. Here my Aunt Rickie has joined all but one of her sisters and all but one of her brothers, the two who remain from their youthful family of 13 children (and where spaces nearby already await them).
In preparing our homegrown graveside service, we consulted the writings of Barbara and Bruce Kadden, well-known teachers of mitzvot. They advise some recitation from Psalms and a short eulogy “encapsulating the most salient characteristics of the deceased” before removing the cloth that covers the marker. After that, it’s “El Maleh Rachamim” and “Mourner’s Kaddish” (if there’s a minyan present, which we definitely had; Rickie was beloved by many).
I chose to read a paragraph sent by a California cousin whose health made coming east to be with us impossible, but near whom Rickie lived for many years before returning to the old home town. She made that move voluntarily almost six years ago, just in time for a massive party to celebrate her 85th birthday, after a couple of minor accidents convinced her that she could no longer drive safely on the Los Angeles freeways — and everyone knows there’s not much use living in L.A. if you can’t drive…
Rickie settled in easily, happy to be back near her last remaining siblings and close to other family, but she sorely missed her many old friends left behind on the west coast. Letters and phone calls kept them in touch, but she found the overwhelming physical distance depressing. She was never able to cultivate comparable new friendships, and most of the people she’d known when she left for California more than 50 years before were already long gone.
So Cousin Celia’s message was just perfect in its honesty: “I’m sorry Rickie was melancholy at the end of her life. The transition from one place to another is so difficult, especially as we get older; you do miss your old friends, and sometimes it’s hard to break into a new set. But I’ll always remember her as perky, cheerful, and open in conversation. She was a lovely lady. I enjoyed being with her when she lived nearby in L.A., and will remember her as you stand at her grave.”
Oh yes: she added, “And I’ll never forget her driving.” This “sentiment” was echoed by Ohio cousins who were at the unveiling. Rickie loved her adopted city and loved showing it off to relatives who came to visit her; these two still cringe when they remember being her captive passengers, closing their eyes, shaking, and — after their first outing — fighting over which one could sit in relative safety in the back seat. So we shared a few fond chuckles, too, especially at the family lunch we also shared after we left Rickie’s gravesite.
But before we exited the cemetery, we walked through it together, stopping by many other markers, emptying our pockets that had started out so heavy with stones. And we talked about what we’d learned from our advance reading of the Kaddens:
“The Jewish teaching that all are equal in death often serves as a guide to choosing an appropriate headstone,” they say, and for our family, this has been true — simple markers incised with appropriate information and little embellishment. And from the Kaddens, we also found out much about why it’s become customary to show that someone has visited a grave by leaving a small stone on top of the large one:
“This tradition may reflect the Biblical practice of marking a grave with a pile of stones. Or it may be the end result of another old practice: Writing notes to the deceased, and pushing them into crevices in the headstone, just as notes are pushed into Jerusalem’s Western Wall. When no crevice could be found, the note was put on top, and weighted down with a stone. In time, the paper disintegrated and blew away, leaving only the stone. So some people began to think that the leaving of a stone was itself the custom, and thus it did become the custom…”
Rickie died just shy of 90, and we’d walked this same place many times with her in the past. This time, we remembered, and rejoiced, that now she’s together — both below and above — with so many she most loved. And that she, and we still here, all survived her driving to reach this place of peace!

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