Kind of chokes you up, doesn't it?


…the frequency and tone of the emails altered steadily towards a maximum. It appeared that tensions were rising to a cold-war pitch.

Family relationships are notoriously neurotic, but often funny.  The smallest things get blown into crises of improbable dimension, including mine, where the most recent detonation after years of relative calm involved a tombstone in Reading, Pennsylvania.

My mother passed on many, many years ago, and since her will decreed that her ashes be mixed with wildflower seeds and scattered on the slope of a mountain outside Las Vegas — see?  You thought this was going to be morbid, but the comedy just can’t be contained.

Okay, now Mom is literally pushing up daisies a half hour’s drive from the Center of Sin For The Known Universe, but there remained the issue of the missing epitaph.  And now, almost twenty years later, this nagging, nettlesome lacuna has been resolved, but not without considerable difficulty.

You see, my father, having no truck with modern ideas about burial, stipulated in his will that he be given a traditional resting place — that is, a parcel of real estate in a respectable cemetery, replete with an impressive slab of granite proclaiming in English and Hebrew to all who happened by that this was the last resting place for a serious man.  No frills or mawkish motto defaced this monument — the inscription provided only his name and the dates of his birth and demise.

Simple, dignified and solemn, but — with a reckless disregard for his surviving spouse’s distaste for interment, his tombstone left room for her curriculum mortis, on the assumption that she would wish to be laid to rest at his side.  She, however, prior to her own demise, opined aloud that she had spent enough time in that position already, and opted for the windswept slopes of Sunrise Mountain instead, leaving an enigmatic blank on the stone for posterity to contemplate.

This became an issue.

From time to time, the eldest of my two brothers would suggest that we should make some effort to repair this deficiency, because he is a lawyer — and more properly, an M&A (mergers and acquisitions) lawyer, and to M&A lawyers, tombstones are serious things. (In joke: “tombstone” is the name for the all-print newpaper advertisement announcing, among other things, the completion of a deal.) But there were complications:

First, nothing could be done in the cemetery without the approval of the synagogue.  Most of you have not had any dealings with a synagogue, and my own experience has been limited, but I can tell you that there is no such thing as a small matter where synagogues are concerned.  Once engaged, a synagogue weighs in with a thoroughness admirable in a legislature, and often with similar disregard for the passage of time.

But, through the good offices of a cousin in Reading (the three of us lived in California, Florida and New York City respectively), the synagogue was alerted to our intent, and in remarkably short order, the permission to proceed was granted.

Second, however, there was the problem of my mother’s name.  Her name was “Fern.”  The synagogue was responsible for drafting the proper Hebrew inscription, and we were advised that there seemed to be no reasonable Hebrew equivalent for “Fern.”  Leah?  Ruth?  Naomi?  No problem.  Jane?  Marjorie?  Jill?  Still easily done; there were ample historical solutions.

But “Fern” seemed to be a poser; none of the sages could find any prior records of any “Ferns,” and this is where things started to get a little dicey.

An email arrived advising us that the solution to this dilemma most likely lay in using the closest literal alternative:  the Hebrew word for “bush.”  We demurred.  Under no circumstances would we entertain the notion that this remarkable woman, who was renowned for her kinetic qualities, should spend the centuries still to unwind towing such a ridiculous sobriquet — even if her ashes were by now scattered halfway across the American Southwest, or floating somewhere over Taipei, this was her eternal flame, and no one was going to persuade us that she should be represented by an image of something that spent its entire life rooted in one place.

Another solution was offered:  it appears that people who had converted to Judaism, as my mother had (and that’s another story) often adopted a suitably Semitic name for liturgical purposes — and perhaps we could just call her Miriam or something like that.

No.  Fern she was, and shall be.  Finally, an awkward but satisfactory solution was arrived at, in which the best possible attempt was made to spell “Fern” phonetically in Hebrew. But even this is stubbornly problematic; apparently there is no “F” (or “ph”) in Hebrew.  How this can be I cannot say — because the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is “aleph.”  You see the dilemma, I think.

But eventually some sort of acceptable compromise was produced, the details of which escape me now, and chisel met stone, resulting in an inscription, which should have been the end of the matter. But — remember what I said about families?

Our cousin, trusting in the probity of his widely-distributed relatives, had advanced the sums required to fund this effort, which inluded $100 for the “translator.” Frankly, I think he was underpaid. My eldest brother then took on himself the duty of assessing his kin, and sent an email specifying the amount payable and the address to which a check should be speedily dispatched.

Well, in my family, and in my older (as opposed to “oldest”) brother’s house, the privy purse is administered by the distaff side of the couple. In his case, I think he just doesn’t want to be bothered. In mine, it is more a matter of survival; letting me anywhere near a checkbook is roughly comparable to handing a crackhead the keys to the pharmacy. In any event, both Exchequers were notified, but their response was not as immediate as eldest bro deemed suitable.

There followed a series of increasing strident dunning email notices (“Spoke to D—-. Where is your check?”). Since Madame Treasurer sits down to this duty with a monthly frequency, and since I had no intention of stirring up that hornet’s nest, I watched helplessly with increasing entertainment as each day passed with no utterance of funds, and the frequency and tone of the emails altered steadily towards a maximum. It appeared that tensions were rising to a cold-war pitch.

Finally, today, I mailed off my (our) check, and with this simple act, was able to close the drawer on a two-decade old file, but not without noting in passing what had actually transpired:

After all this, the shrine of our ancients now bears an inscription, which contains a name hitherto unknown to the Children of Israel, spelled in some manner understood only by the Pharisees, marking the grave of a woman who isn’t, and never was, there.

My mom would be so proud.