I have an old friend who, on the side, studied to be a rabbi and for years worked a second job as the rabbi for an old congregation in Revere, Massachusetts. A very bright guy, well-read, hilarious, sensitive, it was no surprise to discover what a wonderful funeral speaker he became. He writes out his eulogies, it turns out, and reads them word for word. He’s an excellent reader of his work, writes clearly in his own voice. You would never know he was reading, his delivery is so smooth and natural. He’s one of the best eulogizers I’ve ever heard.
I did a memorial service for my mother, speaking largely off-the-cuff, and I felt I did a pretty good job of conjuring her life, her personality.
My father, as I have mentioned, was on another level entirely.
He worked from notes of a few words. “Prisoners” might be written on the index card, or the back of an envelope or other scrap. We found some of these in his suit pockets after he died, usually written in a sharp pencil in his small, clear print. He would glance at the key word and then launch into the story, fully formed in his head.
“As a 22 year-old in France, during the Battle of the Bulge, Phil and his platoon captured some Germans behind enemy lines. It was one of those things fate places in your path, in the fog of war, as they say, things that happen at random and change the course of your life. Phil’s lieutenant ordered Phil and three other young G.I.s to take the German prisoners to the other side of the hill and shoot them. They had to keeping moving fast through enemy territory, they were cut off from their unit, surrounded, and had to catch up, the lieutenant said the prisoners would jeopardize all their lives, it was us or them, no time to lose. Phil and three other young Americans marched the Germans over the hill, young Germans the same age as they were, frightened, begging the Americans not to shoot them. Phil and another guy executed the prisoners, the other two Americans couldn’t shoot the unarmed men. Every night for the rest of his life Phil saw the faces of the German soldiers as they were begging for their lives, as they were dying. He never had a full night’s sleep for the rest of his long life.”
I wasn’t at that funeral, so I didn’t hear him tell the story. He told it to me at one point. But I am hardly capturing anything but its contours here. When my father told the story at Phil’s funeral it was silent in the chapel, except for the sniffling and sobbing. A moment later he had everybody laughing, the tears still in their eyes, wetting their cheeks. Then a somber story had everyone dry eyed, then another laugh.
“He could do that at any funeral, he didn’t have to like the person, or even particularly know them. He hung out with Phil, mom was friends with Louise, and he liked him, but he could have done the same kind of moving eulogy for someone he hated. He just had that gift, you could wake him from a sound sleep, put him in a suit at a funeral and he would do the same thing,” my sister once said.
I’m not sure about that. I’d only seen him at work eulogizing people he loved, Arlene and Eli. Both times he seemed uncertain when he stood at the podium. It was almost like he was a medium, unsteady at first, the hazy connection wavering and out of focus. Then he would find his note and begin to sing.
Not to make any moral comparison to the most compared man-monster in the world, certainly in my world, but just as an image– I’d read that the early Hitler speeches began very much this way. He spoke to many small crowds at first and whenever he gave a speech he’d start out tentatively, halting, slightly confused, almost disoriented. He felt out the crowd in these first wavering, incoherent moments. Sometimes a crowd did not respond to hatred of the Jews, for example, he would see that and shift ground to another topic. The writer compared him to a geiger counter, a sensitive instrument calibrated to measure invisible forces, taking the reading of the crowd and, once he had the pulse of the room he’d leap into that flow state, transforming instantly into the performer the crowd wanted. He was mesmerizing.
My father’s intent was not to mesmerize, it was to create a personal, living connection to the recently deceased loved one, express the loss that everyone was struggling with. At his best, the person who had just died would be standing in the room, laughing or crying with the rest of the mourners. I saw him do it with Arlene and I saw him do it with Eli.
“Tell them about my eulogy for Eli,” said the skeleton.
The funeral was at some odd hall near Yonkers Raceway, on the service road of the highway, near where the Major Deegan turns into the New York State Thruway. It was a sunny Spring morning in 1995. I’d written a page or two of a eulogy, which I can cut and paste into this account, though I don’t have it here with me. I got up to read it and, seeing Eli’s three adult children looking up from the front row, a generation older than me, I improvised an important disclaimer.
I read to the surprisingly large crowd that Eli and I had become close friends in the last years of his life when I visited him often in his tidy cottage in Mt. Kisco. Knowing how brutal he’d been to his children I added “it would not have been as easy to have been such good friends with him if he had raised me, of course”. I saw the grateful nods, in unison, and the smiles of his children. They were now ready for what I had to say.
I am not a great reader of my words, though I’ve improved recently, reading sections of this ms. to Sekhnet almost every day has been a big help. I read the pages about Eli, as you will read them here (insert pages) and they gave a condensed, colorful, realistic slice of the fierce, loving, hating character. I went down the three steps and back to my seat, receiving a few smiles and pats on my back as I went.
My father got up next, and I will never forget how dazed he appeared when he first took the stage. He fumbled for a moment, gathering his thoughts, his feelings. He glanced at a card, told everyone he’d flown in late last night, made a few notes while thinking about Eli, who was pretty much a father to him and his brother, he shuffled an index card and a torn envelope. Then he began to roll, and Eli was alive in that hall, brutal, funny, honest, deluded, vain, generous. You could hear his rough voice commanding his two urchin cousins, Irv and Paul, to run and wash their goddamn hands before they sat down to eat with him. It was all there in a long improvisation. I’ve never seen anything I can really compare to it.
“Tell them what I said,” the skeleton said. “It’ll help you paint the portrait of this important character in my life.”
I have to say, honestly, I am not a good enough writer to do it justice.
“Please,” said the skeleton, waving his hand in the universal Jewish ‘feh’ motion of dismissal.
I’m not trying to make excuses, even though the funeral was twenty one years ago, even though I could be forgiven for not having any details at this point. There are two things here, memory and writing ability. I am trying to say that in addition to not remembering any specifics, I don’t have the ability to convey what you did, the way you did, at Eli’s funeral. All I can do is describe the effect.
“Well, you’re being modest,” said the skeleton. “Which is not a bad thing, of course, except in our society where modesty is considered a form of inferiority complex that needs to be treated pharmaceutically with something like ‘Abilify’. Look, you can’t afford to be modest, not if you want to sell this ms. to some publisher.”
I get that. At the same time, as I am selecting remembered facts from your life, from Eli’s, from my own, I’m aware of the limited amount of material I have to work with, even though we’re talking about lives of over eighty years each, and sixty now in my case.
“Said the man who has been working steadily with the mere 480 pages worth of limited material he has set out to work with. Look, the problem you’re going to have is not the amount of material, it’s going to be making a coherent story out of it. What did that haughty little bitch, the Ivy League literature graduate granddaughter of Farrar, Strauss or Giroux, write to you way back when she rejected your unsolicited sample of Me Ne Frego? You’ve got to find that letter, Elie. One more reason to cull that vast nest of papers in that mass of collapsing plaster you live in.
“She wrote, after reading a few sample pages, that while it was well-written it did not contain that dramatic arc that every good narrative must contain: the moral transformation of the main character. Your narrator was much the same at the beginning of that ten page sample as at the end, in her dispositive opinion. You remember that?” the skeleton smiled, or yawned, or yelled.
Obviously. Which reminds me of that great remark you made when I asked how your brother was, my uncle.
“‘Let’s just say he remains unchanged’,” quoted the skeleton. “And I note here, about primary sources, the only reason we remember that throwaway line is that you jotted it on a telephone drawing you were doing while we were talking and never threw it away. And so it lives on, capturing that fleeting moment.
“And there, in that captured moment, the basis for your fear of throwing away the hundreds of thousands of jottings that litter your place, I suppose. The hoarding is a stand in for fear of death, like workaholism, like consumerism, like every desperate, compulsive behavior we do instead of enjoying life– we push ourselves and keep slapping a thin veneer of bullshit over everything that reminds us– one moment we will breathe for the last time and then….” the skeleton held his thumb against two fingers, then released them into the air.