August 4, 2006
We’d All Rather Be in Venice
"What a bunch of shleppers," my father remarks, his head doing a 180-degree pan as he takes in the view. "Not one of them has anything unique to say. Such conformists. Just looking at them makes me nauseous."
I turn to look, so that I, too, can take in the same view. Yes, we're at the cemetery, looking at a hillside dotted with graves marked with headstones. It's a quiet, pastoral setting. No one is saying much, except my father, who as usual can't -- or won't -- stop talking. This particular rant has been a perennial, ongoing drama in my family's life, ever since my mother died.
It's been two years this week since my mother, Betty Switkes, died, and we still haven't had the unveiling. Jewish custom dictates that you unveil the headstone a year after the person dies, but my father has not found the right stone or the right words to inscribe on that stone, so she rests in this unmarked grave. People who pass by this spot might suspect the person buried here is a forgotten soul, but nothing could be further from the truth. She is the focus of his obsession.
He explains to me and anyone else who cares to listen: "The stone should tell the world what a unique person she was. Not just her name and her dates, but it should say something about her."
"How about beloved wife and mother?" I offer.
"No! Every headstone says that. Look around you. Beloved wife and mother. Beloved wife and mother. Dime a dozen. Not at all unique."
"She was uniquely your wife and my mother."
"You don't understand what I'm trying to do," he stresses.
Actually I do. He doesn't want to say goodbye. Once we have the unveiling, then what? As long as he can put this final ritual on hold, he can postpone that final farewell.
"When Betty died, half of me died," he says.
He talks about her: "She did so much with her life. We threw the best parties. She was the greatest hostess. And her charity work. Always volunteering, always helping someone. And her exercise. She was a pioneer. She developed special exercises for the elderly. Seniorcize. I want to put all that on her headstone. So people know who they are dealing with."
Note the present tense.
"Do you really want the headstone to look like a resume?" I ask. "Besides, everyone who knew her knows what she accomplished. And everyone who didn't know her never will."
He doesn't hear me.
My father has decided on a double headstone, and that makes sense. They shared a bed for 56 years, so they should share a grave.
But that further complicates the problem of finding the appropriate inscription. If there's a unique inscription on my mother's side of the stone, then there must be a comparable inscription on my father's side. It has to be balanced. Maybe the inscription should be about their life together.
"Write one inscription that applies to both of you. Perhaps something about your marriage," I offer.
His face lights up. I suggest: "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine." He rejects it: "Absolutely not. That's on every ketubbah ever written. C'mon. Think outside the box."
Here we come to the crux of the problem. Joe Switkes is loud, fun and eccentric. He's brilliant, expressive and totally unreasonable, a man of action, bold action. And death is the state that has no verb. Talk about irreconcilable differences.
He's thinking about their marriage and fondly recalls the days they spent at Venice Beach, playing in the sand with their granddaughter.
How about, "We'd rather be in Venice," I offer.
"That's good. It takes it away from all this depressing stuff you see around here. I want our headstone to be unique and fun," he explains. But then I have second thoughts. When I'm looking at my parents' grave, I don't want fun.
He takes another stab at it. How about, "Betty was beautiful and caring, and Joe was smart and humorous."
I say, "Dad, don't clutter up the headstone with a lot of adjectives, it'll read like a profile on JDate."
He comes back with, "Together they lived a life that was a joy, an adventure and lots of laughs."
I don't think so. "Keep it dignified and sparse. Think poetry, not prose." Valiantly, the whole family pitches in, making suggestions. My husband suggests, "Beauty and the Beast." Mom was like Belle - beautiful, well read and independent. Dad is like the Beast, a true prince with a heart of gold, but one must first deal with his hideous temper.
We all howl with laughter. It seems perfect, but then Dad has second thoughts. Beauty and the Beast strikes him as juvenile, and he's not convinced that all of their friends will "get it."
I turn to Ecclesiastes and read this beautiful passage:
A time for weeping and a time for laughing.
"That's not bad," says Dad. "But who was this Ecclesiastes?"
He interrupts himself: "I think he was one of the crusaders. Forget it! I don't want some anti-Semite writing our epitaph."
He takes a deep breath: "But we're honing in. I can feel it. I'll know it when I see it."
I'm sure you will. Eventually, we'll find the perfect words.
Ellen Switkes is the producer-host of "Cornucopia," a monthly storytelling show for adults at the Actors Workout Studio in North Hollywood. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.