Saturday, April 20, 2013

800 Words: Tante Sophie's Funeral

(Time to bring the big guns out for a rerun. Here it is... Tante Sophie's Funeral. My attempt at a Pikesville novel. It is, in some ways, still the best fragment I've ever written. A shame it's hardly fictional...)


As the Berkowitz family stood next to the family plot where my 123 year old Great-Great-Great Aunt Sophie was about to embark upon her final journey into the earth, it occurred to my uncle Jared that this was the coldest day of the year.
"It's really cold."  Jared said to my mother in a scarcely audible whisper.
To which my mother whispered back, "I'm sure that wherever Tante Sophie is she's really hot right now."
And it was at that very moment that my uncle Jared doubled over into laughter so forceful that he could not help but split his pants.   Scarcely a month passed before legend upon legend grew about the precipitous split of Uncle Jared's trousers.  Some cousins maintain that my uncle had eaten a bit too much spongecake from the Kiddish tray and accidentally tore a hole while performing a dance upon my aunt's grave.  Other relatives swear that my uncle tore a hole in his pants with a pair of scissors so that every mourner present could smell the undulation of the fart he so willingly laid upon my aunt's tomb.  
The legends of Tante Sophie's funeral grew over time.  It all depended upon who was telling the story.  The Rabbi apparently gave a eulogy and praised Aunt Sophie as "An exceptionally righteous woman" who was the "kindest, most gentle soul you'd ever meet."  She was the "personification of generosity", a woman who "believed in Jewish values with all her soul."    As the Rabbi's sing-song voice emitted still greater flights of ecclesiastic generica, my mother either choked back laughter to the point of tears until the end of the Rabbi's eulogy when he came down from the pulpit thinking that she was in dire need of consolation, or she emitted sidesplitting gales of laughter so loud that the Rabbi simply left the podium in the middle of his hespit.
But I was at that funeral, and the truth of what happened was quite different.

Tante Sophie finally finished her thrice-daily trip to the bathroom. It was the first time in a week that there was no blood on the toilet paper. She took the used squares to her bedroom and pinned them to the wall above her bed next to last week's sample. The bloodless toilet paper samplings of the past thirty-five years were laid out in her room wall to wall from the ceiling halfway down to the floor. She told me that it was part of a spell her grandmother taught her to ward off the evil eye that causes menstrual cramps. No one in our house thought it worth reminding Tante Sophie that she could not possibly have any cause for menstrual cramps in three quarters of a century. She eagerly looked forward to pinning a new square of toilet paper to the wall because the smell reminded her of uncle Berryl's barnyard where she claimed to spend so many loving hours in the company of male admirers.
But the times in which there was blood on the toilet paper were a far more involved affair.  Tante Sophie would coercively gather together everyone who had the misfortune of being home at the time she left the bathroom, force every one of us to stare at the toilet paper for sixty seconds, and then mumble to herself what we could only speculate was an Eastern European spell to ward off the evil demons that compelled her to shit blood.

Tante Sophie was the sister of my great-great-grandmother, Blume.  Blume had three sisters, each of them seeming of one face with the others.  All four had the same thick and long white hair, brown when they were younger and seemingly always done up into a bun for every picture.  It would seem from photographs that each of the four had the same porcine nose, jutting jaw and forbidding half-moon glasses with the exact same put upon scowls. The pictures made each of them seem as though they were permanently unimpressed with whomever had the temerity to look upon their photos.

They say it was a myth that my father kept a coffin in his office. But I knew it was true. Nobody would ever believe that a nursing home administrator would secretly keep a coffin in his place of work. But not only had I seen it, I even destroyed it.

When I was eight years old I used to play hide and seek every Tuesday with my friend Jacob at the nursing home while we waited for Jacob's mother to pick us up. One Tuesday, I could hear him in the coatroom closet of Dad's office. But I couldn't see him. It was only a matter of time though before he screamed that he couldn't breath. With all my eight-year-old strength I pried open the already unfastened coffin, and the front-piece crashed to the ground with a clean break in half. To my great surprise Jacob was still alive, and he immediately had the idea that we cut up the broken coffin and make it into a fort. So we went into the nursing home kitchen and while the kitchen worker got us cookies, we went over to the appliances, got the biggest knives we could find and ran with them to Dad's office. We didn't want to get sawdust on the carpet, so we took it out into the lobby and started cutting it up. Within two minutes we were surrounded by patients who were cheering us on. When Dad found us cutting up his coffin, he knocked us both out of the way, fell to his knees and began to cry as he clutched the remains of the coffin in his arms. After his second brain operation he told me the truth that I had figured many years before: The coffin was for Tante Sophie. When I was four, he drove into the woods every weekend for a year to find the perfect pine tree which he would chop down to make into the perfect coffin for the dearly beloved Tante Sophie. Every day, once a day for the next four years, he would open the closet and stare at that coffin for five minutes. It was the highlight of his day.

Mom always thought the reason that Dad went for walks in the woods every week was to have an affair. One week she resolved to follow my father to find out what precisely where and whom he was meeting. Little did she realize that my father was meeting with Joe White, his nursing home handiman who mowed our lawn and trimmed the hedges once every month. He was so good that the rest of my family asked to have Joe do the same work for them. Whereas my father was a squat Jewish man, Joe was a tall muscular Black Muslim. My grandfather used to tell Dad that he planned on making Joe the primary heir in his will because he trusted Joe more than any of his children to never eat pork. It was late July and the hottest weekend of the year. While my father wore a t-shirt, Joe wore nothing from the waist up. My father listened very intently to everything Joe said about each tree and scribbled notes on a yellow legal pad. At one point Joe realized that in order to assess the feasibility of this pinetree, he needed to scrape out some dirt from over the roots. Just as Joe White bent down to clear the soot from the roots with my father standing directly above him, my mother spotted them from 500 feet behind Dad. A brief look was all she could bare. For the next twenty years my mother had assumed that when I was four my father had an affair with Joe White, who still mows my parents lawn to this day.
Like anybody else, my father did not begin his life thinking that he wanted to be in the nursing home business.  He did not even have any ambition to be in the family business.  But war escalated, and rather than go to Hollywood as he wanted to, with a potential stopover in Hanoi, my father ended up in grad school getting a doctorate in history so that he was assured the ability to sit out the war until he was too old to be drafted.  Quickly realizing that there was no future in history and with my mother to provide for, he felt he had no choice but his father's nursing home.
My grandfather was in the enviable position of being older than most of his patients.  The life expectancy being what it was in the city, it was not surprising that my grandfather lived to be 88 with the same routine from beginning to near the end.  He was first and foremost a businessman of the old school.  When my father once came to work without wearing a watch, my grandfather began to cry.  He did not stop crying until my father went back home and returned with a watch on his wrist.
The nursing home was in the worst neighborhood in town.  The northwest of the city had once been the epicenter of Jewish life.  Yet no amount of Jewish money could save this town from dilapidation when the Jews moved out and 'they' moved in.  Oh yes indeed, the blacks moved in, and with them came crack-cocaine, heroin, murder, and my father's habit of riding his bike to work every Sunday.  “He's made it this far,” Mom reasoned, we won't stop him.
Make no mistake of it, we were good liberals.  My parents dutifully voted Carter twice, then Mondale, then Dukakis.  My mother has volunteered every week at a soup kitchen since she was first married.  My father has often thrown himself upon the mercy of judges to give inner-city adults a second chance and would hire them as maintinence workers in the nursing home.  The result was that half the inner city knew our home address, and it was as if there were a network in the the nursing home neighborhood that let everyone know exactly when we were away from home.  Like clockwork, our house was burgled once a year.
Perhaps surprisingly, it was never while we were home.  Aunt Sophie, my brothers and I would be dropped off at my Bubbie's house every Saturday night to be babysat while my parents went out.  A typical Saturday night would involve my grandparents watching over us while my brothers and I stared at my grandmother's wax fruit.  We would interrupt this routine for a half-hour every night so that my grandmother could watch the Golden Girls and we would sit with her and laugh at the idea of sexually active senior citizens.  We would come home at 11:30, just in time for me to watch the opening skit to Saturday Night Live and be put to bed.  But once a year, invariably on a Saturday night, we would return home to find that the house had been burgled.
One year it was our stereo equipment, another it was my mother's jewelry, another year it was my father's collection of ceramic pigs.  But every year we would return to find the lock busted, the house ransacked, and something missing.
My parents were very sensible people.  But appearances mattered in a way they did to everyone else.  It was more important to them that the house looked good 364 days of the year.  So my parents brought help from the nursing home to the house to help my mother clean.  My father never trusted my mother's housekeeping abilities and after a while it was clear that as long as we left the house every Saturday night, no one would be hurt.


And my father had reason not to trust my mother with cleaning.  She was awful at it.  Who could blame her?  She learned from her own mother.  My grandmother had not thrown away a single article of paper in forty-five years.  Forty-five years ago she had bought the house from no less a personage than the governor-elect of the state.  Within a year, the house had gone from the august home that housed a governor-elect to a house with a year's worth of papers accumulating dust.  A year's worth of papers became five years became fifteen became forty five years worth of papers.  When I was three, I remember the stacks of papers being twice my height.  When I was tall enough to see past the counter, I saw that papers were stuffed into the oven, the toaster, the stoves, the refrigerator, the sink, and the udiator.
The living room had a small trail leading to a small space on the sofa the size of my grandmother's wide posterior that lacked papers.  There was just enough room for my grandmother to sit, and my grandmother would sit there obscured by the leviathan's worth of magazines that surrounded her.
Legend always had it that my grandfather's cat, Reb, preternaturally sensed the exact moment his master died.  Within minutes of my grandfather's passing, Reb the beloved cat was gone from the house, never to return.  It was only this year that I found out what really happened to my grandfather's cat.
The first thing my grandmother did after my grandfather's passing was to drown it.  She hated that cat more than anything else in the world.  My grandfather would refuse to get the cat neutered, and every morning the cat would come back into the house bloodied and battered to a pulp.  Clawing its way out of a bath and tearing up the carpet with all its renewed energy from a nap after a night's brawling and screwing, Reb would assert mastery over his owners.  And so the very morning of my grandfather passing, my Bubbie returned to the hospital, waited for Reb, put him into a thick potato sack, tied the knot as tightly as possible, and drove to the city reservoir.  And with a feline screech audible for a couple miles in any direction, my grandmother threw Reb into the river with all her mourner's might.

A few days afterward at the shiva house, she wondered aloud as to where Reb could have been. He’d been missing since the night of my Zaydie’s passing. My three-and-a-half year old self felt the strain of a terrible secret I could contain no longer. During the day my grandfather died, I stood in the door after Bubbie had warned me not to because Reb might escape. And after five minutes of leaning on the open front door, Reb scurried out the front door. Somehow, I knew that I was seeing him for the last time. With my parents watching, I told my grandmother that I was responsible for her missing cat. She looked at me with what my father later told me was something not unlike delight before gathering her lack of composure so she could slap me.

After the fire her neighborhood was naturally abuzz with the claim that crazy Sophie Hills had burned her own store to collect the insurance. But those who knew Sophie better knew that an insurance fire was impossible because her store was uninsurable. But what we did not know is that an insurance fire had been Aunt Sophie's scheme from the day she bought the store. For fifty years, Sophie had worked seven days a week in the city's poorest neighborhood to build a store where no other shopkeeper would in the hope that one day the store would be safe enough to insure. Once the store was insured, she would burn the store to the ground using the gas in her furnace and live for the rest of her life on the money she would collect.

From the time she had opened the store in 1906 until the outbreak of World War II, Aunt Sophie's store had been robbed at knifepoint an average of three times a year and Sophie herself had been stabbed two dozen times. During the first decade Sophie would hide as much money as she could in places hidden enough that she knew it could not be found, only to find that the small sums she kept in the cash register aggravated the thieves and caused them to stab her customers. After the first ten years she herself had been stabbed five times, eight different customers had been shot dead and fifty more wounded. In 1910 she attempted to alleviate the shootings by going to the local mob boss to solicit his protection. For a fee she never specified, the neighborhood gang would send a foot soldier every day to guard her store. But after eighteen months of that arrangement, half a dozen foot soldiers were killed and the boss had to withdraw his protection, telling Aunt Sophie that the store was 'unprotectable.' In 1916 she decided to conduct an experiment dealing with how little money she could leave in the cash register that cost the lives of eight customers, got her shot four times more and left her right arm paralyzed. The experiment lasted over five years and she reached the conclusion that she and her customers were least likely to be shot if she kept at least a quarter's earnings at any given time in the cash register. Over the next eight years violent robberies plummeted in her store. The thieves would draw their weapons, but they did not often shoot. The store itself was robbed nearly as often, but she herself had only been shot twice during these better years. In the fall of 1929 she finally found an insurance company willing to support her store. But the Stock Market Crash occurred three days before she was due to sign the contract and immediately sunk her benefactors' abilities to help her.

Between 1929 and 1941 Aunt Sophie had been shot thirteen times and twenty-seven customers were shot dead along with another ninety-six wounded. Particularly notable in annals of our family lore was the time in 1936 when Mayor McDonald found himself help up at gunpoint after he came into Aunt Sophie's store to use the lavatory. Or the time in 1932 Aunt Sophie was personally held up by the Father Josiah from Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception three blocks down the street. According to my cousin Harry, Father Josiah built an orphanage with the money he stole from Aunt Sophie. Or the time in 1939 that Aunt Sophie herself paid robbers to hold up the store so that she could keep some of her own money.

You may of course wonder why Aunt Sophie did not buy a gun. The answer is that Aunt Sophie did not believe in guns. She believed in what was known in the Old Country as 'Ayin Horah' and to us as the 'evil eye.' She told me many times that whoever robbed her store would receive a seven-fold punishment to hers.

And she wasn't kidding. The only story she told more than the stories of the robbers was the stories of her revenge. Once the hospital released her after a robbery she would hobble straight over to her uncle and my great-great-great uncle, Rabbi Hyman.  The Rabbi would promise that the next morning as he fell on his face to chant the special prayer - the Takhanun - he would plead with God to punish the robbers.   She told us that sometimes she knew the robbers were punished because whenever they came back she could see through the stockings on their heads to their lips and saw that they all had the 'woman's disease.' But while it was obvious to Aunt Sophie that Uncle Hyman had incredible pull with God, it was less obvious to the rest of us that Uncle Hyman had any beneficial effect on her fortunes. One day in 1956 when Uncle Hyman was already in the home, he told her that later the same day one of her regular robbers would die in a fire, another would die from jumping into a window and a third would be stabbed to death. Later that day the robbers returned to her store and in the middle of the robbery one accidentally put out a cigarette on a running gas stove. In order to escape the explosion the second jumped through the store window and the third made it out of the store through the door only to trip and fall on his knife. Aunt Sophie was fortunately upstairs at that moment getting more money for them. The apartment upstairs didn't explode, it merely caught fire which gave her burns on her legs that made her walk with a limp and a cane for the next sixty years. After the fire department arrived they got Aunt Sophie out of the apartment shortly before the entire building collapsed. Three months later Aunt Sophie was released from the hospital and moved in with my mother's family.

My mother hated Tante Sophie no less than my father did. In fact, Tante Sophie had lived under the same roof as my mother for more than forty of my mother's fifty-two years. For the first five years of her life, my mother had been an only child. When my grandparents had my uncle Jared, they insisted that his crib would stay in her room so that Aunt Sophie could have a room of her own in their house. Weeks before the birth of my uncle, Aunt Sophie was homeless because a fire had consumed the corner drugstore she owned and the apartment above it. The arrangement was supposed to last for less than a year until she was put into a nursing home. But one year turned into fifty, and to this day at the age of one-hundred twenty-three, Aunt Sophie has lived under the same roof as my parents in possession of mental facilities as full as they ever were.
My five-year-old mother had to live in the same room as my uncle Jared from the time he was six months old. She generally woke up to the sounds of his screams as many as five times a night and during those nights was solely responsible for feeding and changing him. Because my grandmother was responsible not only for Aunt Sophie but also for Aunt Sophie's sister and brother-in-law, parents of my grandmother.

While Aunt Sophie was built indomitably like a sturdy house, my great-grandmother was built like a sofa. And her 375 pound frame rarely left the sofa which she occupied in the almost seperate apartment of my grandparents' Main Street household. Ten years earlier she had a massive stroke that left her right leg paralyzed. It was 1946 and my newly married grandmother insisted on immediately moving back home to take care of her and that my grandfather decline a lucrative and promising engineering offer in California to move back with her. Instead my grandfather got the closest job a Jewish engineer could find. It was half the pay and meant a forty-mile commute each way. After the first year, he told my grandmother that the commute was impossible and that he needed to get himself a small apartment nearer to his work. And so for five days every week, my grandfather was nowhere to be found. Until my mother was twenty-five years old and engaged, her father lived nearly forty miles away from her for five days of the week.   Aunt Sophie insisted the whole time that my grandfather got the apartment so that he could put up a woman and a second family.  Why else would the money he brought home as an engineer be so meagre?

With my great-grandparents' help, my mother's family was able to buy a house further away from the old neighborhood, which was quickly becoming less Jewish, Italian, Greek and Irish and more 'colored' every week. My grandfather was born dirt poor and grew up around black people, but my grandmother's family hated them.  The thought that my grandfather would even consider moving into the old neighborhood provoked outrage from Aunt Sophie.  "Oy.  You want to move back so that your children can be raped by the schvartzes!  Don't you?"      
When my grandparents eventually found an affordable house in the neighborhood they thought the Jews were moving into, it turned out that within a few years they would be in fact the only white family on the block.  The more innocent other children on the block thought very little of how weird it was to have a large white family with no grown men around on weekdays.  The children  would casually walk by and show their friends my mother's family as if they were a display exhibit at a museum: 'Dey is de Jews, Dey is havin' a cookout.'
But the adults on the block had a much more difficult time coping.  Perhaps my mother could have become friends with these children.  But the problems began when Aunt Sophie moved into the house and began all her talk about how the 'Schvartzes are ruining your neighborhood just like they ruined mine.'  Given the matter of times she had been robbed by Irishmen, Italians, Pollacks, Greeks, and even other Jews it caused my mother and grandmother to muse no end of times out loud to me about what could have happened to make Aunt Sophie hate blacks so much more than she hated everyone else.  But regardless of why, Aunt Sophie made no secret of her opinion that blacks were ruining our neighborhood either to us or to our neighbors.
If boys would come anywhere near their lawn, Aunt Sophie would burst through the door with a running start and chase them away with a swinging broom.  If my mother came to the house with a black girl from the neighborhood, Aunt Sophie would chase her out of the house with her bare fists.  When parents of these children began to complain to my grandparents of Aunt Sophie's treatment of their children, my grandparents decided that it was time to tell Sophie that she can't chase the children away.  The result was that Aunt Sophie threatened repeatedly to throw my grandparents out of their own house.

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