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Funeral Song

My grandmother was one of four sisters.  Their mother came to Ellis Island twice.  The first time, she apparently landed in New York, thought America was sort of feh, and turned around to go back to Europe.  Yes, that continent that my people were leaving in droves to escape the pogroms.  She returned again a while later and settled outside the city, giving birth to four daughters.  That is the stock I come from–a woman not only sassy enough to turn up her nose at a country that people were dying to get to (literally), but sassy enough to get home, CHANGE HER MIND, and return.  And while my generation cracks up over this fact, I think it speaks volumes that my grandmother didn’t find it the least bit strange.  “What?  She didn’t like it.  So she went back.  She’s entitled.  And then she changed her mind again.  What’s so funny about that?”

For over 80 years, the four sisters all lived within a town or two of each other.  They raised their children together who in turn raised their children–my generation–to form small sibling-like connections between cousins.  I have two sister-like cousins, one who went to graduate school with me and offered to kick the ass of a boy who upset me even though she’s a tiny thing and the other who lives close-by with whom I share a code word that we set back when we were kids just in case either of us were ever kidnapped and needed to communicate a secret message to the other OR if one of us suspected that the other had been replaced by an alien.  It worked either/or.

After I spoke to my actual siblings who were told about my grandmother’s death directly from our mother, I called my sister-cousins.  The first one answered and asked what was up.  I didn’t think it would be so hard to say aloud.  But I got it out the first time in a teary mess of words.  After a few minutes, we got off the phone so she could arrange to be there at the funeral.  I called the other and found myself unable to speak again.  She told me she would drive out to my house to be with me and I told her not to.  She told me she didn’t want me to be alone and I told her I wasn’t alone because Josh was home.  And then we bickered at each other like two old married ladies until I wailed apropos of nothing, “I feel like I’ve become untethered.”

And my sister-cousin, the only one of us who had already lost a grandmother, the first of the four sisters to go, told me simply, “that is exactly what it is like.  Untethered.”

I feel like I’m free-floating, while at the same time, I know they still have me.  I know that I will grow old with these women and our children will call each other to cry one day when we die.  We will pass along all the stories we know so they understand that they are part of something so much larger than their small nuclear families.  That we are descended from a line of women-in-charge, the sort who not only set the course of their own figurative ships, but the kind who take as many trips as they damn well please across the Atlantic.


Instead of differentiating between second cousin once removed and first cousin twice removed and great aunt through marriage, my sister-cousins and I call everyone in the top-most generational tier “grandma.”  We call everyone in my parent’s generation “aunt” and we call everyone in our generation “cousin” (unless it is the next generation referring to us in which my children refer to all the children in their generation as “cousin” and refer to my sister-cousins as their aunts).  Since there were four sisters who started this branch of the family, I called four people grandma and four people grandpa, and this fluidity of family meant that my sister-cousins met us at the graveyard, along with dozens of other aunts, uncles, and cousins, with matching red-rimmed eyes.

The service was the perfect combination of laughing and crying.  My grandmother was a saucy woman, a forward-thinker who wasn’t afraid to curse or sneak cigarettes in her bathroom when she was a teenager.  All the eulogies contained similar stories about her strong-will and tendency to speak her mind.  Words can’t really capture her; she was a force to be reckoned with who both drove me crazy and gave me such enormous love that it feels like a hole has been blown through me.

I really wish all of you could have met her.  She would have been tickled to know that so many people were reading about her and leaving comments this weekend.  And that is the saddest part of all.  I wish I had written about her years ago, printed out the comments and let her read them.  She would have told me, “you are cuckoo to get so emotional.”  She would have loved every second of reading those comments.

After my sister-cousin’s mother had tucked a tissue into my bra by reaching into my sweater, after we had played musical-holders with the twins, after my sister had clutched my hand and my niece had rubbed my hair and my aunt had gotten her hand out of my sweater long enough to hold me while Josh read my eulogy and my brother had made me laugh and sob through his, it was time for the actual burial.  Just as I couldn’t read my eulogy, I couldn’t bring myself to help with the burial either, so Josh flipped over the shovel and put in four sighs of dirt backwards to indicate his reluctance to see her go.  I went to the headstone with the twins and it seemed surreal to look at the box in the ground.  As if she wasn’t there at all.

I didn’t feel her presence as I had earlier in the week when I had made one of her recipes and lied to the twins telling them that their great-grandma had invented onion farfel.  Josh walked through the kitchen at that moment and said, “no, she didn’t.  Everyone knows how to make onion farfel.”  I repeated to the twins that my grandmother had invented onion farfel and I had the recipe written down in my notebook to prove it.  Because that was the sort of things my grandmother would do–lie about the invention of onion farfel and when challenged, call me a rotten egg.  I didn’t feel her presence in the graveyard as I had in the middle of the night when I bolted upright in bed and said goodbye to her.

My father took the twins back to the car, and my sister-cousins linked their arms through mine and said, “let’s go visiting” which is something we always do after a funeral since a large portion of our family is buried close to one another in the same graveyard.  We walked arm-in-arm just like the older generation of aunts and the ones beyond that; like three old ladies picking their way through the mud to place rocks on the tops of gravestones and touch everyone’s name.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about unused names and the one we had been holding in reserve was chosen to honour my sister-cousins’ grandmother even though she already has a child in the family named for her.  In the graveyard, the unused name frizzled and blew away with the wind, only to be replaced by a new name that I said aloud to Josh and he agreed was perfect for a future child.  It came so quickly to us that it felt a bit like a sign.


After the funeral, we returned to my aunt’s house to sit shiva, my aunt of tissue-tucking fame, the one who had told my sister-cousin and I to get a code word just in case we were kidnapped and/or replaced by aliens (what, you thought we came up with that on our own?).

I sat with my siblings and some aunts and looked at pictures from when we were little, my grandmother’s face barely lined.  It felt surreal to look at her, and my mind can’t really get around the idea that she is gone.  Because she lived up in New Jersey and I only saw her every few weeks or months, it is easy to imagine that she is still waiting for one of our visits.  I mentioned to my mother that I had taken pictures of the twins for Halloween and said, “I’ll print some out and I’ll mail one to…”  I almost said grandma.

After I had found out where all my younger cousins were applying to college, after I had hugged my brother’s girlfriend and told her I would see her Wednesday, after my first sister-cousin promised to come visit in January and I told my second sister-cousin that I would see her ass back in Maryland, and pinched her daughter’s side as if she were my own child, and checked my bra for stray tissues, we got back in the car and drove in the dark the four hours home.

It feels like I am both here and not here.  As if I am existing on a strange plane, embodying string theory, straddling two side-by-side dimensions.  I am going to the supermarket and buying chicken for dinner.  I am typing up a blog post and cleaning the graveyard mud from my shoes.  I am trying to find an old photograph that my cousin wants that I know I have in a box upstairs.  And I am also somewhere else; somewhere hollow and brittle and I can’t believe that everyone else is moving around me as if nothing has happened.  This amazing woman is no longer here on earth except in the words “rotten egg,” the ring she gave me for my Bat Mitzvah, the recipe she invented for onion farfel.


1 Nancy { 11.02.09 at 11:21 am }

I am so sorry for your loss. She sounds like she was a privilege to know!

2 N { 11.02.09 at 11:34 am }

She’s still here. Don’t doubt that for a minute. Just not in the same way she was.

Thank you for sharing her with us.

3 KLTTX { 11.02.09 at 11:46 am }

I am sorry for your loss. It sounds like your grandmother was a firecracker. Thanks for sharing the stories.

4 Beautiful Mess { 11.02.09 at 11:49 am }

Word can not express how the loss of a loved one makes us feel, but you did a damn good job! “Untethered” is perfect.

I’ve been thinking about you all weekend. I hope you have felt some vibes coming from Oregon. I’m sending you so many, as well as lots of love.

5 Amber { 11.02.09 at 11:55 am }

What a beautiful tribute to your Grandmother. She sounds like she was a wonderful woman and will continue to be a huge part of your life. You’re lucky a lucky lady to have had her in your life.

My sincere condolences.

6 Flying Monkeys { 11.02.09 at 12:00 pm }

My grandfather passed 13 years ago, the idea of going back for a visit and not stopping at his house is still weird. I had only ever been there a handful of times, because I had only ever been back a handful of times, but it was what I knew. I will smell things that remind me of him, his aftershave or sometimes something will remind me of the industrial plants I could smell from his bathroom window when I showered. I think they are ever present in us and with us.
The closeness of your family is what I had dreamed families were like. I am a tad envious right now.
I am sorry for your loss.

7 mrs spock { 11.02.09 at 12:02 pm }

Losing my grandmother 15 years was hard, and still makes my eyes sting with tears.

So very sorry.

8 Celia { 11.02.09 at 12:03 pm }

I am so sorry. My prayers are with you.

9 Calliope { 11.02.09 at 12:07 pm }

I love reading about your close and special relationship. Every story you share is like learning a new layer of You as I can so see the linear line between her spunk and yours. I am glad you have such a wonderful and loving family to huddle with. I am thinking of you all. xo

10 mybumpyjourney { 11.02.09 at 12:12 pm }

What a tribute to your Grandmother! The way you put her life into words for all of us is beautiful. My Grandmothers died before I knew them- and I love to hear stories from others.
Thank you for sharing with us. I love the fact that she turned her nose up and went back across the Atlantic. What courage!
PS- I love the idea of the code word. You never know when the 4th Kind can happen. 🙂

11 S { 11.02.09 at 12:12 pm }

I’m so sorry for your loss. {{hugs}}

My paternal grandmother lived with us throughout my childhood. She died 21 years ago last month, and I still think of her nearly every day.

12 luna { 11.02.09 at 12:31 pm }

mel, this has got to be one of my most favorite posts of yours. ever.
there is so much beauty and love and grief here, so much connection. the lineage, the ancestry, the kinship. here’s hoping that will keep you tethered and grounded.

my nana has been gone 11 years and I STILL want to pick up the phone and call her when I’m cooking or baking and have a question about a recipe, or need a tip, or just want to share.

she will always be with you, even when you can’t feel her presence.
xo to you.

13 IdleMindOfBeth { 11.02.09 at 12:40 pm }

“Untethered” describes it better than anything else I’ve ever heard.

She’s still here – in you, in your aunts and cousins and that onion farfel recipe. It may take you a bit to learn how to interact with her now, but you will. And – at the right moments – you will clearly hear her voice – as if she’s standing right next to you – call you her Rotten Egg.

Hugs and Love, Mel.

14 Half of a Duo, Raising a Duo { 11.02.09 at 12:44 pm }

Mel there aren’t any words to express my sorrow at your loss.

Remember that post I wrote about teaching Nick the harmonica… that grandpa (my late, beloved grandpa) taught me, and I passed it on to him…

Your grandma’s lessons will instinctively come to you when you are with the kids and they will be passed on…. amazing! Down to the onion farfel recipes.

The pain never subsides but over time becomes bearable.

Hugs, T

15 April { 11.02.09 at 12:48 pm }

I am so sorry for your loss. I remember feeling a similar untethered feeling with the passing of my own grandmother almost 9 years ago. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

16 Eve { 11.02.09 at 1:08 pm }

What beautifully written words. I’m dabbing my eyes as I read this. I’m so sorry for your loss. As someone from
divorced parents with relatives peppered throughout the
country, I must agree with another commenter to feeling
envious at the closeness of your family. It is, indeed, I think
what pulled at my heart so hard with my secondary infertility struggle.

Many comforting hugs to you.

17 Kate { 11.02.09 at 1:16 pm }

I can still remember the way my grandpa smelled – after he passed away, I would catch that scent every now and then. When I started dating my husband and met his family, the first thing I noticed about his dad was that he smelled exactly like my grandpa did (a wonderful combination of roll-your-own cigarettes, pepermint, and aftershave); I instantly knew that I’d fit well in his family.

Your grandma will forever be around you; you’ll find your tether soon in everyday things as well as those odd scent-related moments.

Hugs & condolences to you and your family…

18 serenity { 11.02.09 at 1:31 pm }

I can’t think of a more gorgeous way to write about all of it: your grandmother and sister-cousins and family closeness and grief juxtaposed with the flow of regular life. “Untethered” is a very apt description.

I think, though, once time passes, you’ll realize that there still IS a tether there – it’s just bigger and deeper and mostly hidden, uncovered only in small moments like when you talk about her invention of onion farfel.



19 Anjali { 11.02.09 at 1:53 pm }

Here’s to grandmothers who snub, everywhere.

Thinking of you.

20 Life in Eden { 11.02.09 at 1:56 pm }

So sorry for your loss sweetie.

21 Kim { 11.02.09 at 1:57 pm }

I am so very sorry for your loss. Your grandmother sounds like one hell of a fine woman. I am happy that you were blessed to have her in your life and know that you will be blessed to feel her hands on your heart as you move forward.

Untethered…that’s exactly it. When I lost my grandmother, I remember feeling disconnected but untethered is a much better word for it. Not so much feeling separated but rather let go of, without an anchor.

22 Erin { 11.02.09 at 1:57 pm }

What a wonderful fearless strong woman she was.

23 Alexicographer { 11.02.09 at 1:57 pm }

I’m so sorry about your loss. This post is really a touching tribute both to your grandmother and to the family she was a big part of creating. And surely … she lives on in the many ways she has touched and shaped the lives of that family?

24 IF Crossroads { 11.02.09 at 2:02 pm }

My heart goes out to you Mel. Thinking of you!

25 Kristin { 11.02.09 at 2:10 pm }

I am so sorry for your loss. It sounds like the whole world lost out when this vibrant woman passed on. I am so glad you have a fabulous extended family to comfort you.

26 WanabeMommy { 11.02.09 at 2:11 pm }

So sorry for your loss, but happy that you have such an amazing family support system, and that you knew and loved your grandma for so many wonderful years. Both of my grandmothers died when I was a baby, so I always feel like I missed out on something special when I hear stories of other people’s grandparents.

May she rest in peace …

27 Minta { 11.02.09 at 2:13 pm }

Oh, Mel. It sucks so badly to be “in it” like that. Your Grandma must have been one hell of a woman to leave a whole so deep. I bet she’s wicked proud of you, being sassy and bringing all kinds of women together on the internet.

She sounds a lot like my Gran. Who, also like to sneak cigarettes in her bathroom, just as a grown up (my Paps didn’t like her to smoke). When she passed the whole was deep and I felt like a zombie for month, but as time has passed just doing things her way, or doing things that remind me of her have bring her light back and make life seem normal again.

I love the story of you telling the twins that she invented onion farfel (I believe you, regardless of Josh and his facts).

28 Shelli { 11.02.09 at 2:23 pm }

Sounds like you got the best of your grandmother’s spunk. And the good news is that you can carry that with you for an eternity. That and the onion farfel.

29 HereWeGoAJen { 11.02.09 at 2:24 pm }

Lovely stories, Mel. It made me feel like I knew her myself.

30 Lut C. { 11.02.09 at 2:24 pm }

It sounds like you come from a warm nest, a large warm nest. I’m sorry you lost a key member.

31 Searching for Serenity { 11.02.09 at 2:48 pm }

May your sorrow be brief and may your memories be everlasting.

32 BeyondInfertility { 11.02.09 at 2:58 pm }

I too am sorry for you loss. She sounded magnificent! I love the closeness you share with your family.

33 shlomi { 11.02.09 at 3:07 pm }

Baruch dayan emet. But wow, what a legacy she’s left. Joy and tragedy both weave a family closer, all dearer for those departed. A beautiful essay. Thanks.

34 Kristi { 11.02.09 at 3:11 pm }

What a fantastic woman. Thank you for your sharing a little bit about this amazing woman. Peace to your family.

35 Holly { 11.02.09 at 3:26 pm }

Your grandma sounds like the kinda person I would’ve liked. Reminds me a lot of my great-grandpa. She was quite a unique woman! I’m sorry she’s no longer with you in this life.

36 loribeth { 11.02.09 at 3:35 pm }

Grandmas are the best. : ) I’m so sorry she is gone, but I know she has left you with some wonderful memories. (((hugs)))

37 Geochick { 11.02.09 at 4:12 pm }

I’m sorry for your loss. “Untethered” is exactly how to put it. I felt the same way when my grandmother died.

38 nh { 11.02.09 at 4:18 pm }

She lives on, in all of you who love her, but I’m sorry for your loss. She sounds like an amazing woman, from an amazing family.

39 Jendeis { 11.02.09 at 4:29 pm }

This is beautiful, Mel. Love never dies, it is always with you.

40 deathstar { 11.02.09 at 4:34 pm }

No longer here on earth, but her presence will return to you, when the grief fades a bit, she will come back to you, in your words, in your food, in your tears, in your love for your children.

41 Another Dreamer { 11.02.09 at 5:31 pm }

I am so sorry for your loss- she sounds like she was a strong and wonderful woman.

42 a { 11.02.09 at 6:37 pm }

I guess that means it’s your turn to pick up the tether for the next generation. Will you be tucking tissues or sneaking cigarettes? That’s the beauty of having strong role models – you know that you can be anyone you want. From someone who sails back and forth across the ocean to a girl who gets emotional from the support of strangers – anything is possible! Now it’s your turn to show your daughter (and son) and all those cousins.

I’m sorry for the loss of your grandmother.

43 Rebecca { 11.02.09 at 6:40 pm }

My heart is breaking reading this beautiful tribute to your beloved Grandmother. I am so incredibly sorry for your loss.

44 Hyla { 11.02.09 at 8:16 pm }

Hugs Hugs Hugs

My husband and I went through this earlier this year, some days it still hits me really hard. Reading this made my throat close.
She is still here with all of you and she can hear you.

Talk to her when you need to, she will walk with you through this pain

45 Orodemniades { 11.02.09 at 8:57 pm }

I’m so sorry for your loss…and I really wish I had known her.

46 V { 11.02.09 at 8:58 pm }

So sorry for you loss.

47 S { 11.02.09 at 9:36 pm }

Wow, just wow! I have really enjoyed getting to know your grandmother over the past couple of days. I can tell your heart is broken. What a wonderful gift she has given you and your family. I love a family full of strong women. Hugs.

48 Birds and Squirrels { 11.02.09 at 9:42 pm }

Thank you so much for sharing this with us. Your entire family sounds amazing, especially your grandmother.

49 Heather { 11.02.09 at 9:50 pm }

Mel, I am so sorry for your loss. She sounds like a very wonderful woman. I really enjoyed reading about her.

50 JJ { 11.02.09 at 10:13 pm }

Beautiful words, Mel…and I agree: thank you so much for sharing her with us. Thinking of you….

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