Jerusalem has been blessed by a week of hard, pounding rain. On the downpour’s second day, I was looking around the apartment for my father’s charcoal grey scarf, that I’d found in his closet after his death 20 years ago and which I’ve been using this winter, when I noticed through the living room’s sliding glass door that the flowers out on the porch hadn’t been destroyed yet in the icy deluge.
This morning, as the night’s last clouds were rushing off towards a stormy horizon and a small shining coin of cold white sun glimmered high overhead, flashing intermittently through the blowing mist, I was still looking for that scarf when there were the flowers again out on the wet porch, their serene, open little faces, pink and yellow and white, turned up cheerfully to the momentarily blue skies. It was strange. How could that be, for such apparently delicate blossoms not to be wilted, sodden, and drooping? What are flowers made of?
It then occurred to me that maybe the scarf was in my scarf drawer. I hurriedly began rummaging around in there — I had to catch a bus in a few minutes — when a swatch of purple down at the bottom met my eyes, and my heart rose to my throat.
My mother’s long purple scarf! It must have resurfaced--like some long-lost object thrown up onto shore by the tides--because we’d moved from our old apartment.
The long flannel scarf, that in a flash she’d taken off from around her neck and wrapped around mine as my father was being buried, to keep me warm. I must have been shivering as we all stood around the grave weeping. Though the gesture was totally in character—she was one of those people who never, ever stopped giving--it was precisely its normalness that shocked me. So life would go on? The world had come to an end. We were so scared, my sisters and I, that she’d be so totally shattered that we’d lose her, too. She’d disintegrate. They’d been one person forever.
If Mommy could still think of wrapping her purple scarf around her daughter, to keep her warm...if Mommy was still Mommy, then we could go on. She would go on.
The night after his funeral, my mother and I couldn’t sleep. I wish I had a recording of what we were talking about for hours and hours as we lay on her bed. One day years later, the two of us tried to remember, but we had no idea. We talked and talked nonstop, on and on, all night long.
At some point in the wee hours, suddenly my mother sat up in bed.
“What was that?” she said.
I said nothing.
“Is someone else in the house?”
A shiver ran right through me. This reminded me of something I’d once read. In James Agee’s autobiographical novel about his 1930s childhood, A Death in the Family, the family in mourning for Agee’s young father, who has just died in a car accident, is sitting in their living room the night after the funeral when suddenly, all of them —
including the stone-deaf, somewhat senile grandmother — sense someone’s entrance, a presence that then flitters fast as light through the house, upstairs, downstairs, and in a few seconds…is gone.
“No, Mommy,” I said. “We’re alone.”
“Are you sure?”
I didn’t answer.
She lay back down, we resumed talking, and then again, she sat up and listened. She was looking at the door.
One day years later, I asked her about it.
My practical, down-to-earth mother, not inclined to believe in anything you can’t see with your own two eyes, said: “It was Daddy. He was outside the door, in the hallway. He was worrying about me.”
I dared not make a peep. I held my breath.
“It was him, all right,” she said. “I’ve never felt anything that real in my life.”
At our mother’s burial ten years ago in the same New Jersey cemetery, my sisters and I stood looking down at her freshly dug grave, clinging to one another. She was in the ground. It was incomprehensible.
And our father.
They were finally together again, side by side.
Later that day, we sisters discovered in conversation that during those minutes standing together at our parents’ graves — his with its covering of rain-fed green grass and hers, of gray, packed dirt — all three of us had been crushed and flattened, as if by a Mack truck, by one and the same thought: our history as a family, which for us was the history of the world, ancient and modern, an immense reality in time and space…thousands upon countless thousands of fragments of sights and sounds…an immense empire of emotion — was gone…evaporated into nothingness. We were children, all by ourselves now in the big, empty house. A vanished empire, with only three impoverished orphans to serve as witnesses that it had ever been.
And as close as the three of us were, we knew, also, that even the house we shared was recalled in different versions: there was no way to totally bridge the gap between us as separate individuals.
So, my dears, our flowers taught us…
First, that we die
according to a fixed timetable
and get old
according to a fixed pattern, endlessly repeated
no matter how hard we try.
That generations come and go and
there’s nothing we can do about it
Nothing to do to stop the flow
Of time, and we can’t find out why
from the same root
the same seed
the same dirt
the same sun
some of us thrive
don’t, and no matter how we try
we die. No matter how beautiful
We were, or that we still want to sing
And then, something
else, too: that when
This article originally appeared in Ami Magazine.