Plot and Counterplot

When I toss a story out into the world, I never know if it will take wing, or where it will fly.   I’m still amazed and grateful that Johan Lebichot found me via a post I’d written about my father.

 

 Last year my sister and I traveled to Belgium to visit the Lebichot family to honor a friendship that reached across the ocean and seventy years back through time.

Lightning struck twice when I was emailed by a stranger who works at Machpelah Cemetery, where my father is buried.  Kim wrote:

“While doing research on unused burial spaces here at Machpelah Cemetery in Ferndale, Michigan I googled your family name and found you!   When I found “A Box in the Attic,” I realized I’d found the family who owns the space.  I must tell you I couldn’t stop reading, to be able to put a face and story with these people was a gift…”

The plot thickens. My father died fifty years ago!  The burial plot Kim wrote about was intended to be Mom’s final resting place. But when she died twenty-five years later, she wasn’t allowed to be buried beside my father because she wasn’t Jewish.

My dying mother said, “It doesn’t matter.  He’s not there.”

What followed reads like the plot of an Afterlife Soap Opera.  My mother Eleanor’s mother, Rhea, was buried next to her first husband, William, the true love of her life, and my grandmother’s second husband, Gus, was buried in another cemetery beside his first wife, Laura, but Mom’s stepdad, my Grandpa Gus, ended up with an extra burial plot, probably because his son Karl wanted to be buried beside the love of his life, Barbara, but Grandpa had always loved my mom, his stepdaughter, and so he offered it to her, since she couldn’t be be buried by her one and only, which is why my mother was buried next to her stepdad and not her husband, Harry, who was the true love of her life, but that’s okay, because Mom loved Grandpa too.

Last year, when visiting Mom’s grave, we spent nearly an hour kicking around the weeds before we found it and cleared away the grass. Mom would say, “It doesn’t matter. I’m not there.” In a way she’d be right. All her kids left Detroit long ago. After Aunt Loena is gone, I doubt I’ll return. But I decided to replace her headstone with one easier to find, just in case someone, maybe even from the next generation, wants to leave a pebble on her grave.  Kim’s email was an eerily timely message, or at least a poke with a sharp stick.

Kim said we could plant a tree in the empty plot or even engrave Mom’s name on the glaringly empty space on Daddy’s headstone. “We could do that?” I asked. “If you write ‘In Memory…’ so people will know she’s not actually buried there,” said Kim. “I’ll consult my siblings and get back to you.  It could take awhile–there are seven of us. In the meantime, please don’t bury a stranger beside my dad!”

I admit there were undercurrents of resentment because Mom was denied her place by Daddy all those years before. But times change, rules relax, Kim probably wasn’t even born when this drama occurred, and the people at Machpelah were eager to make amends.  Our parents’ lives were hard, their story bittersweet, but no one could deny their love was true.  Why not be grateful for the opportunity to give them as close to a happy ending as can be expected?

Most of us were onboard, and the others simply abstained as we discussed ideas for the inscription. It being my mom, “Wish I’d Brought a Book” would’ve been fitting.  And at the start of each road trip, she’d say, “If there’s something we forgot to pack, we’ll buy a new one or do without.”  This was a monumental journey for our mom, but we finally settled for the simple truth. “In loving memory.”

No bones about it, after fifty years or even just twenty-five, all that remains is ashes and dust.  And their story.  In West Africa they say, “One is not dead until one is forgotten.”  Dear Mom and Dad, that which was surely connected in spirit has been commemorated–and written in stone.  And now I’m lovingly sending your story out to the world.  May it take wing, land where it will, and never be forgotten.

All words and images copyright 2014 Naomi Baltuck

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Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Sixty, maybe seventy years ago my father gave a turquoise blown-glass dinnerware set to his mother, my Grandma Rose.  She called it her “mowt-blown china.”   At antique stores I’ve seen similar glassware, said to be from Mexico.

Grandma gave it to my brother Lew, who gave it to me.  Every time I used those dishes, I felt a connection to Daddy and Grandma too.

More fragile than china, they came out mostly for birthdays, Valentine’s Day, or sci-fi dinner parties.


Thom and I were newlyweds when I gave him a mug bearing an excerpt from Rilke that we’d borrowed for our marriage vows.
“For one human being to love another is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.


Thom had already learned that lesson the hard way.  Before we met I’d had a fear of commitment.  I was so afraid of getting stuck or worse, abandoned, that I rarely went on more than a couple dates with anyone.  I carried my own walking papers in my back pocket and I wasn’t afraid to use them.

Then came Thom. Poor Thom. Dear Thom. Courageous Thom.

He could take it on the chin, and grin.

He was wise enough to perceive the pattern and understand what I was doing even before I did.  He was gentle and patient.  He taught me how to fight fairly and work things out instead of just dumping guys in general, and him in particular.  He taught me that it was okay to ask for what I want, how to negotiate, and not to expect others to be able to read my mind.  He taught me that I could be myself and still be loved.  He taught me that there were men out there who can be counted on, and that I could count on him.  Thom deserves combat pay for sticking it out long enough for me to realize I didn’t want to make him go away after all.   And so I stopped trying.  Best decision I ever made.

So what do these vessels have to do with Thom and me, or anything at all?

 

Almost thirty years ago a dear friend, who may or may not have been related, was visiting and washed the dishes.

Putting them away, she stacked the elegant glass cup inside the Love Mug.  Try as we might, we could not pry them apart.  We tugged and twisted, but were so afraid of breaking either piece that we gave up.  I couldn’t bear to throw them out, so they lived here for the next twenty-five plus years.

It is both appropriate and a little poetic that the same person, without whom there would be no story, was also present for its unexpected conclusion.

A year or two ago, I rediscovered the inextricable pair in the back of the cupboard.  I decided, once and for all, to mend it or end it.  It was like asking a husband to choose between the life of the mother or the child, which is why I’d put it off for so long.  I finally opted to save the heirloom glass, if possible, which was stuck inside the mug.  I told that dear person, who shall remain unnamed, that I’d take a hammer to the mug, if necessary; if the glass were to break as well, so be it.

But I’ve learned a little grease applied judiciously can go a long way.  We drizzled oil in between and pulled, hoping the glass would slide out.  It did not.

We went back to simple lessons learned in high school science.  Heat expands and cold contracts.  While soaking the outside of the mug in boiling water, we filled the glass with ice water.  Still the glass stuck tight.  So it came down to the last resort.  Holding the mug by the handle, I whacked it on the countertop, hoping it would shatter.  Pop! Out came the glass, in perfect shape, and I had my morning coffee in the Love Mug.

There are several morals to this story.

First of all, no one can tease me any more for hanging on to the glass and the mug all those years.  Pay attention to your instincts!

Secondly, you might actually learn something in science class that you can apply to real life (and don’t forget that bit about the grease.)

Thirdly, breaking up is hard to do, but sometimes you just reach a breaking point, where you need to mend it or end it.

Fourthly, once you try everything you can think of, try everything you can’t think of.  Sometimes you have to try everything all at once.  But if it’s something worth saving, it’s worth the effort.

Love is like that.  Thank goodness.

All images and words c2014 Naomi Baltuck

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