Chevra kadisha (Hevra kadishah) (Aramaic קדישא חברא, Ḥebh’ra Qaddisha
Jewish “holy society” for the preparation of the dead for burial
I want to write about my mother’s life as if she is alive again, as if she never died. But I have not seen her in over twenty years. I have forgotten the way she used to hold her lips, the way she bent to retrieve small items from the floor, the way she looked at me when I had done something wrong. She’s been dead a long time.
She was very tall, more than six feet. By the end of her life, she weighed no more than eighty pounds, but even in the good years, she was thin. She could run faster than anyone I knew. She smoked cigarettes. She had long fingernails and wore stilettos and she made all her own clothing, including the bras.
When I wrote to the man with whom she had a long-term affair, several years after she died, he denied ever knowing her. When I confronted him with photographs, with his nickname, Fishface, he admitted knowing her just a little. She led a “very alternative” lifestyle, he said. He said he liked the mini dress she wore that had large lime green spots on it.
My mother made that dress for my grandfather’s funeral. Everyone else came dressed in black. My father would have loved this dress, she said. She was barefoot. Her black hair touched her bum.
She was angry that her father died so young. I am angry that my mother died so young too. At least she got to go to the funeral.
I have put in my order, with God, to live until I am ninety-seven.
I work for the Chicago Chevra Kaddisha, washing elderly Jewish women who have died without relatives, getting them ready for their burial. I think of this as my pact with God. I’ve got your back. Make sure You’ve got mine.
The time in the rooms with the dead is quiet time, without minutes. The clock never moves. In those rooms, the presence of the dead hangs like a swollen purple mid-summer cloud, ready to burst at any moment. I look up as I work, expecting to see raindrops coming down in huge wet splats on my face but instead there are those appalling industrial tiles, the kind with thousands of dusty holes that are said to absorb unwanted sounds.
The dead make sounds. They don’t mean to. But the processes of the body do not need a brain to tell them what to do.
Sometimes, when I work, I do not need a brain to tell me what to do either.
For a long time after my mother died, my brain lay down and went to sleep, even though I continued, on the outside, to look like an ordinary teacher or a librarian or an artist or a mother or whatever it was that I was being (not knowing) at that moment.
The phone rang in the middle of the night. Never answer a phone that rings in the middle of the night. That sorrowful screaming on the other end of the line is not meant for human ears.
My brother was a teenager. He lived in a drug house at the edge of the city. His property had been repeatedly stolen from him. He forgot to pay whoever needed paying. The house was demolished soon afterwards, to make way for a highway, but at that time, at the time when he called me in the middle of the night to tell me that my mother was dead, the house wore a condemned notice, and the boys who lived there lifted a corner of the iron sheet that had been stapled over the back door and slipped inside.
I said NO. I said No and no and no no no, but it didn’t change anything, this disagreement of mine, because my mother didn’t stop being dead.
The Chevra Kaddisha does not get paid for their work. The phone call comes in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning or just as you are about to give birth and an anonymous voice on the other end of the line asks you if you are available to help and if you are, if you aren’t pregnant or menstruating or divorced or generally otherwise occupied, the voice tells you where to go and what time to get there and then it hangs up and now you have a dead person to take care of, someone you have probably never known and definitely, now, will never know.
Two other women meet you outside, and you all look sheepish, because you are about to do this thing without words, and knowing that, it’s hard to say anything at all, even before.
You put on plastic coats and gloves and booties. You fill buckets with water. You find combs and orange sticks and make-up remover and rubbish bins. You glance at her paperwork:
No known relatives
You glance at her arm:
I don’t go to Australia when my mother dies. I sit on the floor and cry every day. I miss the funeral. My brain is asleep so I don’t care that no one writes to tell me what the funeral was like. It’s less than three weeks since I returned from Australia, I was told that my mother had at least six months to live, I have her ethical will in my pocket and it says that I should choose kindness over beauty, pain over deceit. Seven months after she dies, my brother will send me her diary and there will only be one entry in it, on July 16th. The year isn’t indicated.
In Katanning, the locals thought I had an affair. I was boarding in a home in the town while I did my student teaching. They thought I was screwing the husband. It wasn’t true, but you can’t convince small towns of anything.
Twenty years after my mother dies, my brother will casually tell me, as if I have always known, that the love of my mother’s life was a woman who had a home at the edge of the glittering Swan River. I will be sitting outside, in my car, on a moonless spring night and I will have just told my brother that I am seeing a woman who I think might end up being my wife. In the tender velvet darkness, I will remember going to the river with my mother, every Tuesday evening, and feeding the swans with stale bread while she went inside to talk with her friend.
I would like my mother’s love back. There has only ever been one person who knew all of me and loved me anyway.
On May 5th, 2000, I give birth to my daughter, Chana. It is the tenth anniversary of my mother’s death.
It was hot in my bedroom as I was labouring. My husband was away in Spain. The midwife sat in the second rocking chair, saying nothing. Time didn’t pass. At one point, I said I was exhausted. I said I don’t want to do this anymore, and Kay, the midwife, said Excellent. Looks like we are having us a baby.
The phone rang and it wasn’t my husband. It was the Chevra Kaddisha, looking for a third woman, to help at a Tahara. I was engaged in my own struggle with death/life/breaking/opening. I said no, because I say no to almost anything that comes over the phone.
I wanted my mother to be there with me. I wanted her to meet her eight grandchildren and love them. I thought about her story of how I was born, on a Saturday afternoon near a football field, and how she had thought the cheering was for her efforts to push me out. I had not been home in ten years. I had never visited her grave. I was afraid of it.
Once, it was not an old Jewish woman lying on the wooden boards, but a young girl, a child, with black and blue marks around her neck. The Chevra do not speak. We cannot. If we need something, we indicate it with our hands or our eyes. But that time, with that child, we spoke, because our eyes were full.
Sometimes people die holding things in their hands and their fingers close over whatever it is. We do not bury people with anything except their naked skin and simple linen shrouds. If they die with something in their hands, we warm up the flesh with a towel soaked in hot water, and then gently uncurl the fingers and remove the item.
My mother died with a photograph of me under her nightgown, clutched against her heart. They took her down to the morgue, not knowing the photograph was there, but somehow, the photograph fell out of her hands and cracked on the floor. I wouldn’t have known this except my cousin, who was a medical salesman, went into the morgue at that hospital and saw my photograph, with a crack running across my face, on the wall. That’s Goldie, he said. What’s she doing here?
My daughter Chana was born with the cord around her neck twice and a true knot that threatened to strangle her. Her neck was black and purple before it faded to green and then to yellow. Pant, said the midwife, while I get the cord off her neck. No bloody way, I said. You’re not getting this train to stop.
My Auntie Roz called me from Australia to wish me mazal tov on Chana’s birth. Oh and by the way, she said at the end of the conversation, you are going to have to come and pick up your mum. She’s been out in my shed with Rob, but I’m planning on moving. Don’t blame your brother, Roz said. Pete wasn’t up to burying her. I haven’t found a place for Rob yet either.
Uncle Rob died a few months after my mother, also of cancer.
Roz lived up on the Darling Range, outside Perth, in a house Rob built with his own two hands. Once, the bath he’d installed fell through the floor with Roz inside it. It fell down about twelve feet, landed on the rocky mountainside and skidded down to the waterfall at the bottom of their block. Roz was forty-eight when that happened. She was forty-nine when my mum and Rob both died. Her best friend, who was also my mum’s best friend, Bev, died the same year, a horrible year, also of cancer.
“What do you mean, my mum’s not buried?” I asked. I worked for the Chevra Kaddisha and one of the principals of Jewish burial is that we get people into the ground within about twenty-four hours of the death. At the time, my mum had not been buried for over ten years.
Your brother is a procrastinator, Roz said.
I went to Australia then. The place my brother lives is considered to be the furthest place in the world from Chicago. It’s famous as the most isolated city in the world, and after I arrived, I was planning on driving out into the bush for another three hours, to bury my mum.
I put your mum under some roses, my Auntie said and though I pictured a beautiful garden with wisteria overhead, and the scent of lemons on the wind, mum was actually out in an old shed in a box underneath dozens of shattered roses that must have been there the entire ten years. Uncle Rob was in the box on the trestle next to her. He’d have had a slightly more advantageous view of the loquat tree if he still had eyes.
I tried not to think that in that box was my mum, because, of course, my mother wasn’t really in that box.
We start at the head. The woman is covered, always, with a clean sheet, and the Chevra lift only enough of the sheet to gently wash the body. The water is warm. The cloths are soft. The movements are slow and quiet. I wash the woman’s hair and comb it out. Each hair that becomes tangled in the comb is removed and put into a cloth bag. If there is blood on her body, we will remove it with a small piece of damp cotton fabric and this too will be placed into the bag and the bag will be put into the aron, the plain pine box that stands in one corner of the room, waiting.
A Tahara begins, though, with a wish. I wish that everything I do will be done with kindness and respect. When this thought leaves my mind, I stop whatever I am doing and refocus my intentions.
Her right side is washed first and then the left. Head, arm, hand, torso, leg, foot. Each small section of her body is dried with squares of cloth before being covered again. When I come to her hands, I hold them within my own, for a moment longer than necessary. This is the last time someone will hold these hands. When I lift the body for the purification, I become the last to hug this woman, the last person who will know the exact shape of her in this world. The dead are as light as birds. They almost lift themselves and fly up to the ceiling.
The last time I held my mother’s hands was in Perth airport, on Sunday, April 16th at 10:20 in the morning. I had been told it was safe to fly back to the United States, that my mother would live for another six months. She had pushed me to go spend the Passover holiday with my new husband and yet, even then, I knew. I was completely certain that I would never see my mother again.
Her hands were large. Her skin was soft, as soft as a warm summer night. The bones within her body felt like old roses and they were as fragile. I held her hands for many moments longer than necessary. I could not make myself let go. The flight attendant called my name again and again. My brother touched me on the shoulder and said You can come back.
My mother put a letter into my pocket. She told me it was her ethical will. She told me not to read it until the plane had passed Adelaide. Goodbye, she said. I love you, she said. I will always love you, she said.
The midwife told me that if I ask my children what they remember from before they are born, sometimes, if asked young enough, they say extraordinary things. I asked my son. He said he remembered a warm beach and a beating red sun. He was three. I asked my daughter and she said she remembered her twin kicking her. She was two and a half. I asked Chana, when she was three years old, and she said I was your mother and you were my little girl and I used to take you down to see the boats.
Until that moment, I had forgotten that my mother used to take me to watch the ocean liners leaving Fremantle Harbour. They come back, she said, but I only ever saw them leave.
My brother, Pete, met me at Auntie Roz’s house, to load Mum into the back of the car. You are angry at me, he said. No, I’m not, I said. I am sad. So very very sad that Mum has been here all this time and I didn’t know.
My brother picked loquats for us to eat while we waited for my uncle to bring the small piece of marble he’d carved for Mum’s grave. He held the fruits out to me in his big scarred hands. Nespole, I said to my brother, because I could think of nothing else to say. In Italy, these are called nespole and you can buy them in the open-air markets in the south. The juice, sour and flesh-coloured, ran down my chin and small droplets fell onto my shirt, saturating the fabric. I wiped my chin with my hand and then I wiped my hand on the back of my thigh. I did not have gloves. I did not have small squares of clean soft cloth for this process. I did not have my book of prayers. All I had was my intention to remember, the wish to do everything with kindness and with respect.
Mama. In Italy, the small children cry mama mama in the streets and women come out of their houses and kiss these children and lift them up and hold them. In Italy, when a death is announced, the newspapers have a thick black border, and in the rural cemeteries, fresh candles are placed on the graves and lit, every evening, and they burn through the night, illuminating the graveyards with the most mysterious and shifting of lights.
When my mother died, I stopped calling her mum and began to call her mama.
Mama mama mama
We fill three buckets with warm water. We pour the water in a single, continuous stream, from the head to the foot, first on the right, then on the left and then in the center. The woman on the wooden boards, briefly, looks as if she has just been born, fresh and wet and new, and then we dry her again and she returns to being a dead person. We dry from her head to her feet, from the right to the left. When she is fully covered, we lay out the tachrichim, the shrouds in which she will be dressed.
The dead wear the same garments as the High Priest. They wear the same fine linen pants and the same fine linen shirt and the same apron and the same hood. The best linen, when you touch it, is cold.
Pete and I drive in silence on the way to the Wongan Hill Cemetery. My brother’s car cannot be put into reverse or it blows a fuse that controls the air conditioning, the power windows, the radio, the lights and all of the engine gauges. When we stop for petrol in New Norcia, Pete forgets and reverses away from the pump. Fuck, he says, and he hits the steering wheel. I am so fucking sick of this bloody car. He pulls out the ruined fuse and tosses it onto the floor where there are at least a hundred other blown fuses, but then he can’t find a replacement. Well, that’s the air-con, he says. Carked it. Shame we can’t even roll the windows down, he says, though the bloody temperature has got to be in the nineties.
In the heat, the box in the back begins to emit an odour, and now we are both sure that we can hear something that sounds like chopsticks, the faint tap of bones, one against the other. Jes-us, Pete says and then he looks at me. Sorry, he says. It’s your fault, I say. Why didn’t you bury her?
In response, he stops the car, yanks open my door and breaks out my window with mum’s marble headstone. There you go, he says. Fresh air.
He’s not a violent man. He does all this quietly. Calmly. Respectfully. I really am sorry, he says. Mum hated getting hot, he says. I know, I say. In the back, the bones continue to click together and now, more than anything, it sounds as if someone is knitting back there. Neither of us wants to turn around.
My mother said that human lives are divided into three sections. The first twenty years are the years of learning. The second twenty years are the years of family. And the third twenty years are the years of exploration.
She said that when she retired, she would get a ticket to China and she would walk, barefoot, from one end of the country to the other. For a woman who prepared for everything, it is strange that she did not have a Chinese phrase book in the bathroom, a map of the Great Wall above her bed.
Right before she was diagnosed with lung cancer, she sold her business and went to live in the far north of Western Australia with a man who had one eye. He mined for gold. She planted tropical palms and wrote letters to me, with drawings of parrots around the edges. When I called home, I had to first radio the Royal Flying Doctor in Port Hedland and ask for Nine Whiskey Echo Victor.
She didn’t get twenty years for exploration. She didn’t get twenty years to walk across China. She got less than a year of drawing parrots and planting palms. And then she got ten years in a shed at the bottom of a garden with my very shy uncle.
When the tahara is finished, the chevra stand next to the coffin and they silently ask the dead woman for forgiveness.
I didn’t mean to forget you, we say. I didn’t mean to hurt you or shame you or be unkind.
Please forgive me.
We take turns digging a hole in the hard red dirt for my mother’s box. We can’t dig deeper than three feet because below the red dirt there is hard red rock. There are no trees to shade us. Blood-coloured ants scuttle across the disturbed earth. A magpie sits on the top rail of the cemetery gate and says something that sounds like quardleoodlardloo. My uncle’s marble stone has been engraved with the wrong date, or maybe it’s the wrong name. Something is wrong about it, and we stand there and stare at the stone for a very long time before Pete jams it into the dirt. What a fuck up this has been, my brother says.
Typical bloody mum, he says. Terrorizing us in the car. She’d get a kick out of that, I say. Knitting the whole way up here, she was, he says. Another blanket, I say. For when the weather drops into the eighties. You reckon this grave thing will be orright, Pete asks. We’re screwed if she doesn’t like it, I say. Remember when she said she’d prove to us there was a world to come, remember? That’s all we need, an angry spirit chasing us down the track. Flinging bloody knitting needles after us.
Before she died, my mother said that if she could, she would prove to us that there is a world after this one. She said she was smarter than average, and she’d leave us a sign and Pete and I had both laughed. Yeah, we said. As if.
But then there was one morning soon after she died when it was raining, and I, in the United States, was walking next to the river, feeding the swans some bread, and talking about how my mother loved to walk next to the river and fish, and there was a bush covered in honeysuckle and that was my mother’s favourite flower, and then a cloud of hummingbirds flew out of the flowers. Oh, I said! Oh! My mother would be so happy to be here this morning. When I got home from the walk, Pete was calling me from Australia. I just had the most beautiful walk, he said. Next to the river, feeding the swans. It was raining, he said, and I talked about how mum loved to fish. And there was a bush, he said, covered in honeysuckle, and a cloud of hummingbirds flew out of the bush, and oh! Wouldn’t Mum have loved that?
We told that story standing at the edge of a fresh pile of dirt with a bit of marble stuck into the top. One edge of the box stuck up out of the ground and Pete mashed it down with his boot. He bent and patted the crushed box. Sorry Mum, he said. I’m so bloody sorry. Ten years, I said. Can you believe she’s been gone for ten years? She was a good mum, Pete said and we both started crying. And of course the wind picked up and pelted us with tiny sticks and bits of bark and tattered leaves from the years before, and then the wind dried our tears to salt tracks on our dusty faces. Yeah, I said. She really was.
I remain haunted by the rich, absorbing description of the Australian countryside and of the sacred rituals of washing the dead. This is a tender story filled with awe and mystery and told with absolute precision, every sentence carefully shaped and set in place.
—Dinty W. Moore, 2013 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize Judge