The breeze carried the smell of blossoms over the graves at the First Hebrew Congregation Cemetery off that lazy country road in a lush, sleepy corner of Westchester.
“Yep, the place looks exactly the same as it did fifty years ago when my brother and I used to visit our parents’ graves,” said the skeleton, “except that there are a lot more of us here now, of course.” My father and mother’s grave is almost at the top of the grassy hill, my aunt and uncle’s a few steps below.
“Your mother would be cursing the Jews around now,” observed the skeleton.
Rules in Jewish cemeteries vary, this particular one doesn’t allow the burial of ashes. The Jewish cemetery by the Van Wyck in Queens where her parents are buried has no problem with the burial of an urn, or box of ashes. Since my mother was cremated her gravestone in Cortlandt, saluting in Hebrew her “heart of a poet”, marks merely her life, rather than the final resting place of her mortal remains. We plan to scatter her ashes over the Long Island Sound at Wading River, where she spent some of her happiest summers, but it was six years since she died the other day, and we are still planning. Meanwhile her remains are sitting in a box in a very fancy paper shopping bag that is brown paper on the outside, slate grey on the inside.
“She’d appreciate the fancy bag,” the skeleton said, “and she’s not in any hurry to go anywhere. Though I know she’d spare a couple of harsh words for the arbitrary pricks who didn’t allow her to be interred here next to my bones in the burial plot we bought and paid for fifty times over.”
The breeze continued to waft the smell of blooms and there was a faint buzz of insects beginning their chorus.
“What are you waiting for?” asked the skeleton.
“At last count you have 340 something pages, 120,000 words written in this Book of Irv,” said the skeleton. “What are you waiting for? Do you think you are going to live forever, Elie? You want to get my story into the hands of the public, right? Your friends who read a snippet or two might sometimes give you a bit of nice feedback, but that’s like Bear Bryant’s moral victory, it’s like kissing your sister, you dig. I know you still want feedback, right? It’s long past time you had some success as a writer, recognition. Important for you to get paid for it, too.”
I confess. Yes, feedback is important, so is success and getting paid for this. Picasso had a great quote about success being important to an artist not just for making a living but also to continue to work as an artist. The appreciation one gets fuels further creativity, is confirmation of success, the external reward for working hard to build a bridge from your heart to the heart of another. After a while an artist can’t keep creating good work in a silent vacuum.
“But you don’t believe in ‘artists’ anymore, do you?” said the skeleton.
Well, it’s true I see them more as brands or products than as members of some lofty pantheon I aspire to belong to, the way I used to see them. The only indisputable genius I know works as a waiter, spends a lot of time depressed and, I suspect, continues to duke it out with the bottle. The term ‘artist’ is kind of pretentious, too. The ‘artists’ I like best are not too fucking arty, if you know what I’m saying.
“You are preaching to the choir, my friend. I always found artists annoying as hell. They are people whose egos drive them to advertise themselves and the successful ones, the ones who sell themselves to the wealthy art collectors, a prissy and despicably arbitrary bunch of arbiters of taste in their own right, elevate their supposed ‘sensitivity’ to a level the rest of us mere mortals cannot even aspire to. It’s a myth, and a pernicious one, if you ask me,” said the skeleton.
“Of course, opinions are like assholes, everybody has one, right?” he added.
But, at the same time, there are works that move you, books that make you see something from a perspective you didn’t have, actors who convince you of the emotional truth of their characters. There are people out there, like Meryl Streep, who use their talents to create things that are not pure vanity, right?
“Meryl Streep is brilliant. You go into the cinema ready to be skeptical when she plays someone like Margaret Thatcher and within a minute or two she has you, she’s sucked you in, in spite of your determination not to be sucked in, makes you forget your hesitation to believe her. Yeah, I’d call someone like her a great artist, that’s fair,” said the skeleton.
A big raptor rode a thermal in a long lazy arc, high above the grave stones.
“You’re wasting time, my man,” said the skeleton.
The sound of a car motoring on the winding road came and went.
“I didn’t give you and your sister what you needed when you were little. Kids need someone to listen to them, tell them what they’re talking about is interesting. Being listened to instills a sense of possibility in the child. I couldn’t do that, never had it myself, had no idea how important it was to learn to do that for my kids. I was busy holding off ten demons at any given time. I was overworked, stressed out, living an American Dream that was only really possible during my lifetime. A lucky break, to get out of the army after a uniquely necessary and just war, at a time of unprecedented, never to be repeated, economic growth and opportunity. Moving toward a better world, ending poverty. Then that fucking cheerful marionette Reagan cuts funding to social programs and chirps: ‘we fought a long war against poverty and poverty won.’ In between I took my eye off what was most important, giving love and real emotional support to you guys.”
The light spring breeze seemed to sigh.
“You’ll lose these embarrassing flourishes in the rewrite, of course, along with the meta-narrating skeleton, right?” said the meta-narrating skeleton.
Of course, dad, but please continue.
“Magic words I almost never spoke at home: ‘please continue’. The bitch of it is, I knew exactly how important that phrase was. Those words were so useful in the workshops we did with gang leaders. ‘Go ahead, Jose,’ would let the kid hold the floor to finish whatever point he was trying to make. I never let you or your sister finish making a point, really. I was always too afraid of being challenged about any of the things you had every right to challenge me about.”
“You know, on one level I understand I forced you and her to become your own parents. How do you do that? It takes decades, literally, and insight, which comes, largely, through luck. Do you have someone else to bounce these things off of? Someone in a similar struggle to compare notes with? If not– hoo, you’re fucked. I’m not proud of doing that to my kids, you know that. I guess that’s why you both are so much in need of positive feedback.”
“I told you during that last conversation that I’d told your sister a hundred times what a superb teacher she was. You questioned the number a hundred. I assured you it was at least a hundred. Actually, it was twice. I remember both times, and I remember how the sincere comment just rolled off her. She was, and is, a superb teacher, any idiot who watches her with kids for two minutes can see that. I was a huge jackass, there’s no question about that. It took her twelve years to get the confidence to make the move she easily and successfully made just last week. Makes my donkey ears twitch just thinking about it,” the skeleton said.
Far be it from me to interrupt while you’re giving yourself such a good whipping, but I should interject something here. Not that it’s a complete explanation, or defense, but you and mom never experienced anything like emotional support either. Like the affection you said you were hard-pressed to express because you’d never seen it done, how would you have any clue about being emotionally supportive? To you it was great progress that you weren’t whipping us in the face, instead of merely cursing at us all the time.
“Well, I take that compliment, though, as you say, it doesn’t let me off the hook. You’re supposed to have some fucking insight if you’re going to be a father,” the skeleton said.
Look around, though. How often does that really happen?
“Well, you’re being generous. There are many people who have the sensitivity, who just understand that sometimes you just put your arm around your kid when they’re angry, or dejected. Those things don’t take sophistication or any kind of great insight, just basic humanity. You’re suffering, I let you know you’re not in it alone, I’m present and suffering to see you unhappy, I’ll do what I can to help you. Instead you and your sister always had my shoe on your necks, I was always blaming you for having an angry asshole as a father. I can cop to that now, I only wish I’d had the sense to see it, and stop it, while it still could have made a difference,” he said.
We all do, man, but, as you always said of your parents whenever you mentioned them: may you rest in peace.
“That’s how we roll up here,” said the skeleton, as birds sang their seeming agreement.
“I just want to remind you that nobody could really understand me without knowing a lot more about mom, she was the other half of me for most of my life. You need to describe her in this Book of Irv,” said the skeleton.
“She’d be very proud of you, reading these pages. She always loved your writing, your ability to express yourself in words. Me, I always read your words with mounting paranoia, waiting for a lurking terrible truth. I’d go along cautiously and then, bam! from the undergrowth — a pair of fangs right into my ankle. Your mother was much more appreciative of your actual skill, and that’s probably a factor in your ability to write, your willingness to do it without much feedback from anybody,” said the skeleton.
Fuckin’ A, pops. True dat. I can see her smile to this day when she was handing me back some pages and saying “oh, that was wonderful!”
“I rest my case,” said the skeleton, “goodnight ladies and gentle weasels of the jury.”
A bird cackled, it sounded like a maniac’s laugh.