The first wail of mourning that I ever heard in my life was at my great-aunt Trudy’s funeral.
For forty-five years, Aunt Trudy had been my great-aunt Charlotte’s – what’s the word here? “Room mate?” “Apartment mate?” That’s what they were, technically – sharing a small, plainly furnished apartment on the Grand Concourse of the Bronx, long after the neighborhood had changed from the being the Jewish Champs D’Elysee to something much different.
It didn’t much matter. We often went out there for Sunday dinner, braving the interminable traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway. Charlotte was my mother’s aunt, the younger sister of my grandmother. And Trudy was her – well, actually no one ever labeled her, or their relationship. They were always simply the tantes. I remember asking, as a small child, why they had never gotten married. I meant, of course, to men – which is precisely how they each responded: “No man ever wanted to marry us.” And that was it. What was the term back then? “Spinster?” “Old maid?”
And then, one day Aunt Trudy became sick with cancer. And as she declined, Charlotte cared for her, full time, until she died. And when the day of her funeral came, I heard the wail of grief which, to this day, pierces my bones, because even though I have been a rabbi for several decades I have never, ever, heard a scream like the one that emerged from the lips of dear Aunt Charlotte. As the funeral began, the funeral director escorted Charlotte out to the chapel – as, in the decades hence, I have seen funeral directors escort grieving spouses out, over and over again.
Yes, grieving spouses. Let’s just hold onto that one for a few moments.
As the pall bearers were carrying Trudy’s coffin out into the hearse, my mother wondered aloud, somewhat off-handedly: “I wonder if Trudy’s family will be here.” To which I replied: “I thought that we were Aunt Trudy’s family.”
Fast forward twenty years. I was already a rabbi. When I visited Aunt Charlotte in the nursing home, I noticed that her siddur was in tatters. I offered to replace it for her. She demurred, saying, “Thanks, Jeff, but this one has Trudy in it.” It had been Trudy’s, and Charlotte could not bear to part with it.
Fast forward fifteen years after that. The waves of social change that were already sweeping across America got me thinking. Were Charlotte and Trudy more than simply “roommates?” By then, there was almost no one left to ask. My mother had died, as had Charlotte, and when I thought to subtly broach the subject to the remaining distant relatives, they shrugged their shoulders. One recalled that there were twin beds in their bedroom. Sure, but Ozzie and Harriet had twin beds as well. It didn’t prove or disprove anything.
And so it was that I constructed a story for myself. To this day, I cannot know if it is true or a myth that I have created. I came to imagine the context of my mother’s stray query: “I wonder if Trudy’s family will be here.” I came to imagine that yes, they had been lovers and partners, k’ilu (as if) they had been married. I came to imagine that back in the 1920s, Trudy’s family could not handle that truth and that they had disowned her or had emotionally abandoned her. (It would not have been the first, nor certainly not the last time). I came to realize that my maternal grandparents had unequivocally opened their home and their hearts to this (k’ilu married) couple, and had made no separation between themselves and Charlotte and Trudy. And neither had anyone else in the family. It wasn’t only a familial version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It was also a familial version of “don’t ask, don’t tell, doesn’t matter.”
I tell this story for all the obvious reasons. As both DOMA and Proposition Eight wind up on the well-deserved kaddish list, I am thinking of all the couples, all the spiritual descendants of Charlotte and Trudy, who are now free to legally bind their lives together. I think of Edith Windsor and the late Thea Spyer, who were together for forty two years until Thea’s death, in whose name the Supreme Court acted last week – Edith Windsor, who can now claim the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses. I looked at Edith Windsor, and I saw the faces of Charlotte and Trudy.
All I know is this. The love and devotion that Charlotte and Trudy showed to each other was a living, breathing part of my childhood. It not only did me no harm. It did me great good.
And all I know is this, as well. I have been thinking about DOMA, and thinking about a Hebrew pun that should be married to it as well. DOMA sounds like duma, the Hebrew word for silence.
So now the multitude of silences can end.
And I would like to believe that Charlotte and Trudy are in the World to Come, applauding the death of Proposition 8 and DOMA.