Sunday, June 12, 2005

"Hey, zis Honoria? [pronounced like gonorrhea] Yeah, it’s Sal. Who ya think is callin’? Whattaya think I’m doin? Tryin’ to get da fuck outta New Yawk. Get back home an’ go in my fuckin’ pool. So dja heahh? Some muthafuckas broke inta my house the otha night. Nahh, that’s okay, they caught da pieces o shit. Cops’ll take care o’ dehhr asses."

And what Sal doesn’t know is that the guy sitting next to him at JFK airport is transcribing his loudmouth cellphone conversation.

New Yorkers… You can’t make this shit up. You should see my family.

Well, I suppose they’re my family. But after spending the first hour with them on Long Island, I thought: There’s no way I’m related to these people. I don’t look like ‘em, don’t act like ‘em, don’t talk like ‘em… and I’m positive I don’t think like ‘em. Then again, I’m not the only one of us to ask: How did a bunch of east-coast Jews get such a large contingent of white trash?

One of my cousins shared with me the same question, and then she added, "but after a while they grow on ya." That’s true, too. I have dozens of first cousins and first-once-removed… I lose track. Some disappear for decades… and when these weirdos come out of the woodwork at family gatherings, well, let’s just say they make for interesting character studies. I may elaborate later. But I like the cousins we’ve stayed in touch with. Equally bizarre, but they’ve been "oh my gawd, awesome, hy-fuhhkin’-sterical".

This is my dad’s side of the family, the ones dealing with my uncle’s funeral. The story regarding my grandmother, my mother’s mother… well, there is none right now. My uncles (Mom’s brothers) said Grandma wanted to be cremated, but that was news to me, my sister and Mom. I could’ve sworn Grandma had a plot next to her husband (who died before I was born) in New Jersey. Turns out his relatives owned the land and since they didn’t like her -- which I find extremely baffling, considering she was the sweetest, most non-offensive woman I’ve ever known -- they gave the plot away… or something… I dunno. Confused yet? Wait, there’s more…

My uncle also explained that since Grandma outlived most of her friends and contemporaries, and the few other family members are spread out all over the country, and that we’re not religious or sentimental people ("we celebrate life, not death"), and since everyone already had "closure" with Grandma… having a traditional service or gathering in her memory wasn’t immediately necessary and could wait ‘til we all got together again in a couple of weeks.

Sound like bullshit to you? Yeah, me too. But my uncle’s a great guy, even when he’s schpieling schpurious schpecious schmaltz. So for a variety of reasons, my sister and I decided not to create a family fight about this unceremonious brush-off. We’d go out east and think good thoughts about Grandma while we mourned my father’s brother. After all, his funeral arrangements weren’t half as complicated.

Or so I thought. Here was the very first conversation I heard when I joined the crazy cousins:

"Daddy wanted to be buried in the Jewish cemetery."

"He was in the Navy, served in Korea. He could have a free burial in the military graveyard."

"First of all, that’s all the way out on exit sixty-eight, okay?"

"So? You don’t wanna do it ‘cause it’s an lousy half-hour drive on the L.I.E.?"

"No. That’s not the main thing…"

"Hell, take Nawthin State, it’s even fastah."


"You want, I’ll drive the fuckin’ hearse to the VA cemetery."

"Will you let me finish?"

"Fine, what?"

"Daddy hated the Navy!"

"Oh yeah."

"Now gimme the numbah for Beth Shalom."

The funeral for my uncle was a well-done, dignified affair. The eulogy talked about his quirks -- many of which were like my dad. They mentioned his catchphrase, which they applied to his attitude about life: "This is delicious."

Some of the talk was heartfelt, some was euphemistic, a positive take on underlying tension within his clan. Made me thankful that my nuclear family was comparatively much less (sorry to use this meaningless word) dysfunctional. I just tried to think about Grandma.

But you know what was really running through my head?

The whole time I was walking through the graveyard, looking at the tombstones: Schwartz, Finkelstein, Grossman, Goldblatt… I began to imagine a new take on the old horror movie formula: Jewish Cemetery Zombies! "Oy, get back here, ya schmendrick! Lemme nosh on your brain! I don’t care if it’s not Kosher. Vhat?! It’s not enough of a shanda I’m walking the earth again with my bad hip? Where you goin’ bubbalah? Oh, Mr. Not-so-Undead is too good to visit his decaying flesh-eating great aunt Sylvia?!"


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