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Visiting the Graves of Other People’s Fathers

I cannot visit my father’s grave because he doesn’t have one. 

He died in New York in the first crushing wave of the coronavirus pandemic, when every provider of care – doctors, nurses, ambulances, hospitals, morgues, funeral homes, crematories, cemeteries – was overwhelmed. Contrary to Jewish custom, his body was not watched over with loving vigilance by the hevra kadisha or buried within 24 hours in a plain wooden box. Instead, he lay for a week in the hospital basement before finally being transported to the funeral home. And then for a second awful week in a refrigerated truck before finally being cremated. As in war, these blunt and gruesome truths demand to be told. This is the way it was.

In my daily calls from Portland, Oregon, to the hospital rabbi and funeral director in New York, as I tried to find out where he was and ensure he would be tended to, I served as the long-distance hevra kadisha. Asking, remembering, watching, waiting, spreading a soft veil of attention over his soul during its delayed passage.

Not only did the pandemic prevent me from being with my father at his deathbed, but it also precluded me, after he died, from finding comfort and support in the ancient ways Jews have kept the rituals of mourning. So, from the other side of the country, I have had to invent my own.

One of these was visiting the graves of other people’s fathers. In the months after his death I began to take long walks through the several Jewish cemeteries located near my home. I read the inscriptions. You know right away when a man had children because there it is, in pride of place: Beloved father. Remembered. Missed.

I come by to let these fathers know they are not alone. To pay respect that’s partly intended for someone else. I imagine that word may get back to him. “You know,” these long-gone Oregon fathers might say to mine in New York, “she came by here again today to see us, and she was thinking of you. We’ve come to recognize her, in her orange beret. She yours? We were glad for the visit.”

I don’t know. I just walk.

In this chaotic year I’m drawn to the settled stillness, here in the firm presence of lives completed. My father hated nothing more than talk of death, yet when I pressed him to share his wishes, he did tell me not to bury him in the ground. So maybe it’s fitting that he’s present here only as a ghost.

Many of the headstones bear names, dates and messages in both Cyrillic and Hebrew scripts. These Russian Jews form a close-knit community even in death, their graves aligned in neat, well-maintained rows. I think of the risks my grandfather took, as a teenager, to flee the tzar’s army. Here I can almost smell the wine-rich brisket, the onions frying for kasha varnishkes. I remember visiting the graves of my father’s parents in Queens, New York, as a little girl, awkwardly leaving a stone without knowing why.

Now I know why. Depositing that tiny weight on the crest of a headstone is a gift of gathered attention: You are remembered in this place and, in this moment so am I. I place stones on the graves of other people’s fathers to remember not just them, and not just my own father, but myself.

The cemetery’s ancient trees suffered massive damage during our last winter storm. Some were ripped in half, the bright gold of their heartwood exposed to air for the first time. On my walks I step over piles of limbs on the ground. Other branches, the broken but still-attached widow-makers, dangle dangerously from the trunks that once held them. I feel like that sometimes – broken, still attached, waiting for the next big wind to knock me to the ground. In the weeks after the storm, as cemetery workers clear the evidence of its destructive force, I think about the ways we put pain and memory into some kind of order. Not to dispose of it, but to make space for what comes next.

I have visited so many fathers here. I could be their daughter, or granddaughter, or great-granddaughter. Maybe their own grown girls are far away. I am someone else’s daughter, but today I am here, and he is far away. So I will visit these fathers. I will read their names and dates, and imagine adding his:

My beloved father, I will remember you always.

Bija Gutoff is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She has worked as a freelancer for corporate, non-profit and small business clients, and as senior writer for an international non-government organization. She has published essays, reporting and other writing in Oregon Humanities, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, The Jewish Review, Portland Parent, and Parabola. Her recent work is focused on healing. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature from Cornell University. Learn more and contact Bija here.
Photo credit: Joni Kabana
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