My father died of a heart attack at 81. I was relieved. Our relationship had been difficult; knowing that it was over at last was good news.
When I was young, my father spent a lot of time teaching me—reading, mathematics, fixing cars. He approved of me; maybe he even loved me. But when I entered puberty, everything changed. Embarrassed by my blossoming body, he made sure I was embarrassed, too. He found a variety of clever ways to do this. He read my diary, with its junior-high-school crushes, out loud at the family dinner table. (“Oh Rodney, such blue eyes you have!”) When I went out with friends he hollered out the front door, “Amy! Did you remember to wear a bra?” He called me “Crisco” (“Fat-in-the-can, get it?”). I loved and admired my father, and having him treat me this way was astonishingly painful.
I worked hard to get back into his good graces, becoming a straight-A student, joining Honor Society, even studying science to please him. Nothing worked. But by the time I finished high school, he had tired of the shame game. I was no longer an object of ridicule; I was just invisible.
In turning away from me, my father turned toward my brother, Eddie, and all the family dynamics changed. My mother had long ago selected my brother, Eddie, as her child-of-choice; now he was both parents’ favorite child. The three of them were a family; I was a guest.
When I was 25, Eddie fell in love with a girl who agreed to marry him if, and only if, he converted to Mormonism. I guess if we’d been “real” Jews, this would have been out of the question. We were all born in New York, but the family moved to Arizona when I was five and Eddie was three. There was a thriving Jewish community here, but my parents made no effort to connect with it. We thought of ourselves as Jews, and our blue-and-white holiday gifts sat under a Hanukkah bush.
But blue-and-white wrapping paper was no match for true love. Eddie converted without a heartbeat of hesitation. Soon after, my mother’s many Mormon friends persuaded her to dip into the baptismal pool herself. At her insistence, my father grudgingly agreed to convert with her.
My mother was happy, surrounded by new friends and busy with church activities. My father, however, raised in a Jewish orphanage in New York, thought of himself as a Jew, and the baptism worried him. Then a rabbi told him that as far as Judaism was concerned, the conversion had been meaningless. “You can’t give away your Judaism,” the rabbi said. Reassured, my father allowed himself to be lured to Mormon functions by homemade brownies and ice cream.
I was deeply confused by what felt like religious musical chairs. Did people change religions as easily as that? I had never heard of such a thing. And I was angry with my parents for what felt like another abandonment, not to mention blindly following Eddie. When we met for occasional family dinners, we were tense and barely polite.
About a year after her conversion, my mother’s bishop sent her a letter saying that getting her daughter to convert was now her life’s work. Yes, really—I saw this letter myself. Immediately, my mother bent her considerable energies upon me. She gave me a Book of Mormon, which I was supposed to read. She’d check on it when she came to my house, so I thumbed the pages to make it look handled. At her insistence, we attended church functions together. I learned a lot of useful stuff: canning and drying food, baking bread, making jams and jellies.
The cooking classes were fun, and I was enjoying my mother’s company. Honestly, I did think about converting. I mean, why not? My mother would love me forever. My brother and his wife would be delighted. My father would continue to ignore me. What was the downside?
The downside was that I just could not do it. I was a Jew. My mother couldn’t accept that. The pressure intensified. Other people from her church, including my new sister-in-law, joined my mother in explaining that Jesus was indeed Our Lord and Savior. An entire throng, singing a hallelujah chorus, cornered me whenever I accompanied my mother to her church.
I guess it was this pressure that got me up early one Saturday morning to go to services at a synagogue. I didn’t understand a word, but I liked it. I went again. I took classes and learned to read Hebrew. Eventually, I married a nice Jewish dentist and kept kosher. I joined the women’s chevra kadisha, the “holy society” that helped prepare dead Jewish women for burial.
Again, the family dynamics shifted. My father, it turned out, liked having Judaism in the family. He came to my home for celebrations, wearing a blue kippah that I’d gotten for him. I hoped our Judaism would mend the rift. It didn’t, though he clearly enjoyed being part of a religious Jewish family. My mother, furious, told me her church sisters were her real family, and buried herself in her church.
When my mother was 66 years old, she was diagnosed with cancer, and given six months to live. Hatchets suddenly vanished. I was 42, raising two kids and managing my husband’s dental practice, but I cooked and cleaned for my mother, took her to doctor’s appointments, visited her twice a day in hospice, and sat with her through the night she died. We never discussed what had happened between us, never talked about what had driven her to Mormonism and me to Judaism, never expressed regret at the way our paths had separated us.
My mother was buried as a Mormon. Sisters sang hymns, Brothers carried the casket, and there was ham and sweet potatoes at the church afterwards. She lies in the Mormon cemetery, in an unspoiled patch of desert on the outskirts of town, under a large mesquite tree. I hated every bit of it—the hymns, the ham, the service.
After my mother’s death, I was certain my father would finally need me in his life. I hurried to be helpful: I stocked his freezer with matzoh ball soup, helped him with his bills, cleaned his house. None of it mattered. Our few conversations were about his medical conditions. I was sad, then angry, and finally resigned. He lived for another eight years, eight years of tense silence between us.
After he died, I realized Eddie and I had never discussed Dad’s funeral. I didn’t know if Eddie thought of Dad as a Mormon, which was technically correct from the Mormon standpoint, or as a Jew, which was technically correct from the Jewish standpoint. My father had left no instructions. When asked, he’d shrugged and said, “Like I care?”
We called the funeral home that had buried our mother eight years earlier, and made an appointment. When Eddie and I arrived at the funeral home, Bob, who helped us with Mom’s funeral, was there. He remembered us, he said, and was sorry for this new loss. He spread out some papers, folded his hands on the table and looked up.
It’s a small town. Bob knew my family and knew the score. Eddie and my parents had converted from Judaism, I had not; my mother was an avid Mormon, my father was not. It was a complicated mess, and the three of us looked at each other, not sure where to begin.
I broke the silence. “Look, Dad wasn’t much of a Jew, but he wasn’t much of a Mormon, either.”
“No, Dad was definitely not a Mormon,” Eddie agreed, leaning back in his chair. “But we are burying him next to Mom, right? We’re not putting him in a different cemetery?”
“Right,” I said. My father had a pre-paid plot in the Mormon cemetery, right next to my mother.
Eddie paused. “You’d like Dad to have a Jewish service, wouldn’t you?” Now it was out in the open; good.
I answered matter-of-factly. “Yes, but no rabbi will conduct a Jewish service followed by a Mormon burial. No, we’ll have to do something secular, but we can say kaddish at the graveside.”
“Uh—a prayer for the dead.” I’ve always been astounded by my brother’s total ignorance of all things Jewish.
“Will it be in Hebrew?”
“No. It’s in Aramaic.”
“Can it be in English?”
“It can be in English after it is in Aramaic.”
“OK.” He paused. “You read it in Aramaic and I’ll read it in English.”
With that, a truce seemed to have been declared. I wasn’t asking for anything too Jewish, Eddie wasn’t asking for anything too Mormon, so we were both comfortable. We reached rapid agreement—Dad would not be embalmed, there would be no motorcycle escort. The plain pine box turned out to be surprisingly pricey, so we went for the cheaper box, made out of recycled pantyhose or something.
Bob was taking notes. He looked up and said, “Your Dad wasn’t wearing any clothes when he was brought in. Can you bring something?”
The right answer would have been, “Sure, pants and a nice shirt, first thing in the morning.” Instead, I said, “No, he’ll be buried in a shroud, and he’ll have a tahara, a ritual washing. Which I will do.” I will?
Eddie had been leaning back in his chair and it thumped on the carpet.
“YOU are going to do it?”
“I am.” I am?
“Because I, well, I need to.” I had been a member of the chevra kadisha for years, and had certainly buried people I knew. But I had never buried a man. I had never buried my father.
“Amy, wouldn’t it be very hard for you?”
“Lori can help me.” Eddie was now married to Lori—Janice (the Mormon girl who started it all) having divorced my brother years ago for a foot-stomping Baptist. Lori, a fundamentalist Christian raised to believe that the earth is flat, was fascinated by anything relating to sickness and death. If she weren’t such a nice, wholesome person, you’d wonder what was wrong with her.
Eddie put his elbows on the table, leaned his forehead against his hands and sighed. “Okay. If you want to do this, fine. I’m sure Lori will be thrilled.”
I turned to Bob, the funeral director. “Can you get us a shroud?”
He scribbled industriously on his forms. The meeting was over. Eddie and I walked, together, down the carpeted hallway. I said, “Thanks for not forcing another Mormon service down my throat.”
We walked through the wide glass door into the sunlight. It was August. The heat settled over our faces, an airless blanket, and we were silent for several seconds—there’s always a brief adjustment in Tucson when you go from 72 degrees to 110.
“I don’t think Dad would have liked it,” Eddie said.
I spent the evening searching the internet, looking for religious precedent: can a daughter perform a tahara for her father? The pages I got were unequivocal and uncompromising: No. It’s immodest.
At 3:00 a.m., I’m sleepless and scared. Can this possibly be the right thing to do? Why am I putting myself through this? It’s not like we had any sort of real relationship. By dawn, all I could answer was this: I think I need this last contact with my father. I need to bind us together as Jews. My father was a Jew and should be buried as one.
I pulled up to the mortuary in my little red Rav.
Lori was waiting. She helped me unload one small yellow bucket and two blue mop buckets from my car, and we walked in together. Bob escorted us through a back door into the working area of the mortuary. The solemn, carpeted world vanished behind the door, replaced by linoleum tile, industrial-size sinks, stainless steel counters and giant refrigerators. The stench of antiseptic was everywhere.
Bob led us to a large room with two stainless steel sinks on one side and a long stainless steel counter on the other. In the center of the room there was a large white table. Somebody was lying on it, covered with a white sheet. I stopped abruptly and Lori bumped into me.
I walked forward slowly and lifted the sheet. My father’s face was frozen, tufts of gray hair in mad disarray, mouth wide, eyes open, staring straight up at me. My arm dropped, the sheet slid down his chest. Whatever made me think I could do this? What insane audacity, what perversity of character possessed me to volunteer for this? I actually felt faint.
I took a deep breath and pulled the sheet back over my father’s face. “Bob,” I said. “I need surgical scrubs, towels, sheets and the shroud.”
Bob was efficient. He handed me two sets of scrubs and a rectangular brown paper package, then opened a cabinet under the counter, revealing neat stacks of white linens. I took out sheets, towels and washcloths. Bob hoisted himself onto one of the Formica counters.
“Bob, you can go, we’re fine.”
“No, I’m required by law to stay here.”
I scowled. “I’ve done a hundred taharas, and no one from the funeral home has ever watched.”
“Well, I want to see this,” he admitted.
Great. Could this get any harder? I showed Lori how to wear surgical scrubs, tucking hair up, putting scratchy paper masks over mouths and noses. I peered at the box of gloves, size medium.
“Don’t you have smaller ones?” I complained to Bob.
“No, that’s it.”
I yanked the too-big latex gloves over my hands and reached for another pair. “Double glove,” I told Lori, “in case one rips, you’re still protected.” We filled my small yellow bucket with warm water from the sink. My hands were shaking.
“Okay, I’m going to take the sheet all the way off; then we need to get a clean sheet under him, and then look for sores or bleeding.”
“Right,” Lori said, her voice high and strained. This was Lori’s first dead body. It was also her father-in-law.
I pulled away the sheet, dropped it onto the cement floor, and kicked it under the table. Dirty linens were Bob’s problem.
Made self-conscious by last night’s Internet search, I averted my face and quickly put a towel over my father’s genitals. I grabbed a sheet from my stack of linens, and handed it to Lori.“Open the sheet and stuff it under him when I tell you,” I said.
I crossed his legs at the ankles so he’d roll more easily, put my arms around his shoulders, cradled his head to my chest, and rolled him to one side. He was ice-cold, stiff, just out of the fridge.
“Okay, bring the sheet.”
I stood up, looked at my father’s body and was shocked. He looked like a skeleton covered in yellow leather. My God. How could I not have known?
I did not know the prayers for the men’s tahara, so I was making up my own, praying in my mind, steadily, without punctuation. “Lord God have mercy on my father he wasn’t much of a Jew but then again he didn’t have much chance what with my mother and her goyish friends but he did the best he could”—and so on and so on.
Lori and I dipped washcloths into the yellow bucket and gently patted my father’s body. His skin was delicate; the washing was more symbolic than cleansing.
“First the face, then the right hand, right arm, then the left hand and arm, then chest and downward.” We worked as I talked. I rolled my father toward me again so Lori could wash part of his back, then she rolled him the other way, cradling his head and shoulders, and I washed the rest of his back. We dropped our washcloths onto the floor and kicked them under the table.
I filled my two mop buckets with water from the giant sink. “This is the important part,” I told Lori. “This is the tahara itself. I’ll stand on his right side, you on his left. I will start pouring the water at shoulder level, and when I tell you to start, you do the same. Pour the water continuously as you walk toward his feet. Don’t stop. Whatever water is left gets poured over the feet.”
I lifted my bucket, straining, and carried it to his right shoulder. Tilting the bucket, I poured carefully, wrapping my father in a translucent sheet of water. I walked slowly; when I got to his waist, I said, “Okay, start.” I watched Lori out of the corner of my eye, gauging her progress. She was pouring sparingly with enormous concentration and ended up with lots of water, which she poured, as directed, over his feet.
I looked at Bob and almost laughed aloud at his dismay over the condition of his workroom.
“OK, now we dry him. Pat, don’t rub.” This involved many more towels and sheets, checks for blood—which is sacred and not to be lost during tahara—and rolling. We slid wet sheets out and kicked them under the table. Now Dad was clean and dry, lying on a dry sheet on his back.
I took a deep breath. I realized I’d been emotionally iced up for almost three-quarters of an hour. That was the good news. The bad news was that I was starting to melt. The fact of my father’s death, that I was here with him now for the last time, was starting to sink in.
I needed to finish quickly. I ripped open the brown paper wrapping of the shroud. The burial garments, called tachrichim, were made of coarse white linen, plain and unhemmed. I’d never seen a man’s shroud before, and was concerned there might be something unfamiliar here. I found leggings, undertunic and over-tunic, ankle and waist straps, kippah, sheet, and packet of earth from Israel. There was no equivalent to the woman’s “apron,” a small square of linen tied around the waistband. Gee, surprise.
We pulled on the leggings and maneuvered him into a sitting position so we could slip the two tunics over his head. I showed Lori the ceremonial knots used to tie the ankle straps and waist strap. Rolling him first to one side and then the other, we tucked the linen sheet under him, put the kippah on his head, and sprinkled the earth over his eyes, heart and genitals. Finally, we wrapped the linen sheet around him. Normally, in a tahara, we’d then put him in his coffin, but the funeral wasn’t until the next day, so he’d go back into the refrigerator until then.
It was done. My father was ready for burial, as a Jew. He was going to a Mormon cemetery, but he was going as a Jew.
The final act of a tahara is to ask the dead person’s forgiveness for poor handling, misspoken prayers, whatever. “Dad, we’re sorry for anything that wasn’t quite right,” I began in a whisper. Lori turned her head and started to sob, quietly.
“We did our best for you, Lori and I, and we hope you’ll forgive us for anything we did wrong. Rest in peace.” I choked on the last sentence. There was a moment of silence. No one spoke. Then I lifted my head and said, “We’re done. Let’s go.”
Bob escorted us to the front door, talking about how interesting this had been. We walked out into the August inferno. Lori helped me put the buckets into my Rav, hugged me and climbed into her minivan. As I backed out, I saw her hunched over her steering wheel, crying.
My Rav slid into four o’clock traffic, and I started home. Without warning, the last of the ice melted, and I began to sob, painfully. I pulled into a strip mall parking lot, and wrapped my arms around myself. Tears poured down my cheeks.
Why did my mother and I let our religious differences keep us away from each other? Why did I let my father’s coldness go unchallenged and unexplained? Was it cowardice? Pride? Stubbornness? Mine? Theirs? Had the difference in our gods really been so important? It wasn’t what church you went to, not which cemetery in the desert you were buried in, not whether ham or corned beef was served on tables afterward. None of that mattered. None of it ever should have mattered.
I gathered myself together in the driver’s seat, blew my nose, and wiped my glasses with my shirt. I took a deep breath and steered the Rav towards the street. My mother and my father were dead. All the things that kept us apart, all the things that prevented us from loving each other, seemed insignificant and petty. The light turned green, and the street opened up before me.
Amy Wall lives in Tucson, AZ. She’s been a chemist for a manufacturing facility, a design engineer at a circuit breaker factory, a project manager at a defense plant and a remodeler of old homes. She is back in school working towards a degree in Transpersonal Psychology.