Before my cousin Myra pulled the plug on her mother, she needed to finish renovating her kitchen. The stainless steel appliances were in but the custom-made cabinets were long overdue. My Aunt Rose had promised to foot the bill. A deal's, said Myra, a deal.
For as long as I could remember, Rose had shared a home with my cousin. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. Myra and her husband worked. My aunt, a young widow, helped with the kids. She cooked and she cleaned. But that was eons ago.
By the time my aunt reached ninety-five, every part of her body had broken down. My cousin was overwhelmed with king-sized diapers and adult bibs, the accoutrements of a life that outlived its usefulness. My weekly phone calls to Woodmere were variations on the same theme.
“How’s your mother?” I’d throw out for openers.
Since my aunt was practically deaf, my cousin Myra was used to yelling.
“My life’s a living hell. I don't eat. I don't sleep.”
I'd press the speaker phone button, wash the dishes, mop the floor then mumble a feeble reply.
“Maybe you should hire an aide,” I’d say. "Maybe you should get some help."
"My knees are killing me." Myra would answer. "My neck's sore and my back's worse. But do I complain?"
Hospice was a speed dial away. Instead Myra reveled in her burden and exulted in her sacrifice.
"You'd think my sister would help but no. Not her. Miss fancy schmancy with her waterfront condo in Boca Raton."
As always, I'd theatrically sigh. “Love you. Call you next week. Bye.”
When they stopped dialysis, it was only a matter of days. I flew to Long Island and met my cousins at the funeral home. Myra and her family commandeered the first pew in the chapel, the high profile seats. The piece of shit sister and her family were relegated to the back rows with the temple sisterhood. The atmosphere was thick with recrimination and guilt. Relatives like me ran interference. I decided to bring up the subject of food, always an icebreaker.
“Can I send dinner over tonight?" I asked Myra. "Do you have the name of a deli I could call?”
She knew Norman's phone number by heart. He owned a restaurant five minutes from her house. While waiting for the other relatives to arrive, I went outside and called him.
“Norman, I need food for the Fishman shiva. Cold cut platters. Turkey. Roast beef. How’s your pastrami, lean?”
There was a slight intake of air on the line. A gasp. I’ve insulted Norman. I decided I’d better move on.
“Norman, my cousin keeps a kosher home. You’re strictly kosher, right?”
This time I got a reply. “For forty-seven years I’m kosher. Today I’m not kosher?”
Anthropologists may tell you that human life originated in Africa but I know for a fact that all Jews descended from the five villages in Long Island. There was only one degree of separation between me and Norman. We soon found our rhythm, finishing each other’s sentences. Yoda with Yiddish inflections. I gave him my MasterCard information to wrap things up.
“This zip code, from where is this zip code?” asked Norman.
“Coconut Grove, Florida. You know Coconut Grove?” I replied.
It was Norman’s turn. “Sure I know Coconut Grove. You know from Biscayne Boulevard?” He countered.
“Of course I know Biscayne Boulevard. Who doesn’t know Biscayne Boulevard.”
“You know from Quayside? I have a condo in Quayside.”
“Do I know Quayside. Everybody knows Quayside.”
We played Jewish geography for several more minutes. As a parting gesture, I asked him one last question. “Norman, do you think I ordered enough food?”
Another intake of air. I’ll never learn.
“When you order for thirty people from me, I give food for fifty.”
Two hours later we were at the graveside service. For the first time I saw where my grandparents were buried. There was no grass, not one inch of unused space in this cemetery. There was barely any room between headstones. Football fields of dead Jews. We walked on tiptoes, gingerly, scanning the graves of long departed uncles and aunts.
Finally we paused at a gaping hole in the ground. It was two o’clock in the afternoon on a warm September day. The men were in wool suits and the women in black dresses, pantyhose, uncomfortable shoes. My cousins were forced to stand elbow-to-elbow while the smell of mothballs hung in the air. We huddled as they lowered Aunt Rose’s casket. Sweat dripped down our faces then clung to our chins. Most of us had breakfasted on Xanax with a coffee chaser. In between the sobbing, our stomachs churned.
Finally the Rabbi wrapped up the prayers and handed the shovel over to Myra. It's a Jewish custom for each of the loved ones to cover the casket with dirt. My cousin took hold of the shovel and attacked the ground as if it were her sister's head. She was crying hysterically, wobbly on her feet.
Each of us was certain that Myra-- the family klutz-- was going to lose her balance and fall into the hole. Her husband Mortie clutched the back of her jacket. I was one foot away, poised to respond if she misstepped. But when it happened, time stood still. We saw a sparkling glint in the air as Myra’s diamond wedding ring flew off her finger, oh so slowly looped towards the sky and landed on my Aunt Rose’s coffin.
There was a collective gasp. We looked down and couldn’t see anything but soil and wood. We turned to the Rabbi who turned to the funeral attendant. There was a black gardener with an iPod and a weedwacker the next section over. He was wearing a dark blue jumpsuit with the name Jesus stitched over the pocket. He turned to us and waved.
Minutes later, Jesus was on top of Aunt Rose. He sifted through the dirt for what seemed an eternity. Thirty people stood and watched. No one made a sound. No one even exhaled. After he found the ring, he cleaned it on his sleeve and handed it to my cousin.
Hungry and tired, we got into our cars and headed back to Woodmere. My aunt was the last of five siblings, the only remaining tie I had to my father. I was emotionally empty. Unmoored. As we programmed the GPS to head to Myra’s house, there was only one thing I was sure of. And I could count on Norman for that.
About the Author: Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, Upstreet Magazine, Poetica, Steam Ticket, The Examined Life, and The American Literary Review. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award as well as a Pushcart and a Best of the Net nominee.