Jewish Journal


June 27, 2002

A Secular Life Gone Bad


It's the ultimate fantasy: You have a seat at your own funeral. Now imagine that while hovering in limbo between your death and burial, you have the power not only to witness the preparations and critique the eulogies, but also to eavesdrop on critical moments in your past for a reality check.

Such is the premise of Merrill Joan Gerber's latest, "Anna in the Afterlife," which chronicles Anna's four-day journey between her grueling death at 90 and her burial.

When last we left Anna in "Anna in Chains," she was lying helpless in a nursing home, paralyzed in one arm, feeding tube gurgling, begging for death. Not exactly the stuff of comedy. Yet in "Anna in the Afterlife," after seven agonizing years chained to her bed, Anna finally nears that "famous tunnel she'd heard about on Oprah," and what would have turned maudlin from a lesser writer is at once poignant, riveting, even amusing in Gerber's capable hands.

"Anna warned [her daughters] constantly: they mustn't do anything illegal and end up in jail. Neither one was familiar with firearms, neither one had access to heavy barbiturates and no one could figure out how to get her to a bridge railing. Ropes, razors and drinking drain cleaner did not appeal to Anna, nor did a plastic bag over her head."

At last "the great and famous moment" arrives, and Anna relinquishes "the spark every tiny ant and worm wants to keep hold of, the force that makes flies evade the swatter and convulses fish off their baited hooks." In death, she is free to revisit her past, and memorable characters materialize: her mother's bigamist first husband; her jealous 86-year-old sister, Gert, attempting suicide in a red peignoir; and her half-brother, Sam, who she learns had molested her and her sister. ("I thought it was his thumb," claims an unperturbed Gert.)

Loosed in death from the shackles of physical suffering, she is free to unlock her family's many secrets and long forgotten mysteries: Did her brother really drown while fishing on erev Yom Kippur? ("Who needed fish that fresh"?) Did Anna really win her husband by parading in front of her sister's date in a negligee?

For the first time Anna confronts her own racial prejudice, her sexual reluctance, her stinginess. "'Nothing but the best" was not a phrase Anna had thought her children should live by. Now she was feeling the consequences of her philosophy -- she'd have third-rate corned beef at her funeral reception, seedless Christian rye bread and prune Danish made with lard, with not a single salty black olive or a plate of pickled herring in sour cream on the table."

Now this feisty woman, whose raison d'être had been indignation, experiences doubt. "Should she have been kinder? And to whom?"

Gerber knows only too well the degradation and suffering of the elderly, kept alive beyond their time in "a holding pen for dying animals." She had watched helplessly as her own mother begged for death.

"But Anna is not my mother at all," says the prize-winning author. "She didn't have that irony, that speed of retort. She is a combination of what I knew about her life, what I imagined a certain voice in her head would sound like -- which is a combination of me and her -- and my invention."

A fiction-writing instructor at California Institute of Technology, Gerber is a careful observer of those thousands of details that forge family dynamics and skillfully transforms life's ordinary and gut-wrenching moments into compelling prose.

We see Anna as a young mother in "The Kingdom of Brooklyn," even more strident from a child's point of view. Nearly 80 in "Anna in Chains," she shuffles, still independent, through her Fairfax neighborhood, then sinks into ever descending circles of hell: retirement home, nursing home, utter dependence. In the end, Gerber tells us: "Anna accepted her fate."

With Anna gone, Gerber wastes no time with idle retrospection. Look in November for "Botticelli Blue Skies," the saga of her sojourn in Italy, and a book of essays, "Gut Feelings: A Writer's Truths and Minute Inventions," due in Spring 2003.

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