This period of time is, for Jews, called the Days of Awe. These are the days between Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During this time our souls are judged, both by God and by ourselves. In past times, many believed that this was the period of time in which God would decree our fate for the coming year. Prayer, repentance and giving charity could sometimes avert an evil decree. Of course, it never hurts to have a little favorable intercession on one’s behalf.
During this period, it is also the custom to go and visit the graves of family members who have died and to say a prayer or place a stone on their gravestones or markers. There is a sort of half-acknowledged concept that reminding God of one’s ancestors and their presumed merits might favorably influence the decree if the matter of one’s past year’s deeds is in question.
When I was a child, my mother would drag us along to the cemetery in Reading where my great grandmother, her sister, various cousins and the like are buried. My brother and I hated it because it often ate up and entire sunny end-of-summer afternoon and we would be wandering around out there forever (it seemed) because no one could ever quite remember where the graves were. My mother went because her mother had brought her there every year and, even though she had hated it, too, she went because she yearned for the sense of connection and of family, no matter how past tense it might be.
We would pull weeds and put little stones on the headstones and my mother would murmur the Kaddish and tell us stories about her “Granny” and her childhood friend, Paula, who died young, and Great-Aunt-Martha-God-Grant-She-Lie-Still who was whispered to be a Communist.
When I was young, I always thought that Great Aunt Martha’s name actually involved all those hyphens because that was all my mother ever called her. I thought it was a pious wish for the repose of her soul. As I got older, I began to suspect that it was really a fervent wish which she recited like a charm to lay the shade and prevent any hauntings. When I suggested to my mother that we were really going to the cemetery to tamp everyone down, she smiled but she never denied it.
Now more of the family is laid there. My own Granny and Cousin George whose daughter was mentally delayed, died young, and for whom I am named and Cousin Annie the ex-Flapper and Great-Aunt Lily who always smelled of mothballs.
My own mother is not. In defiance of Jewish tradition, she and my father both decided to be cremated, despite having purchased burial plots years before. She wanted her ashes sprinkled off of Marblehead Harbor rather than being interred with her ancestors. Just as well, really, because the Reading cemetery is closed to new interments and has been for years although we might have managed an unsanctioned insertion with a trowel some empty morning.
In an attempt to keep the family hauntings to a minimum, my brother and I and our father, friends and loved ones took a boat out on a luminous day in October, 2012 and did just that. The sea was like glass, the sky a perfect shade of blue and we all took turns spooning the gritty gray remains of my mother into the green water. It was strangely moving and uplifting (even though we had to hose some of her off the transom of the boat before we came in). I thought, and still do, that it was a peculiarly fitting and appropriate burial.
The problem is that I have nowhere to go to place a stone. One can’t place a stone and murmur the Kaddish on Buoy #4. (Not to mention the fact that Hurricane Sandy hit the next day. My mother’s corporeal fragments are probably scattered from Iceland to the Galapagos anyway.) Ancient Jewish ritual has yet to catch up with modern Jewish mishegas. So I did my best this afternoon and stood out on the cliffs and threw a stone into the sea looking toward that little green dot of a channel marker and mumbling my prayer.
It wasn’t especially satisfying, but then, neither were all those trips to the graves in Reading. My unsatisfied yearning for something, some place to connect me with my mother may be the real tradition passed down the generations.